People who hate Los Angeles do so in part because of our many, many awards shows. They're a rolling feature of life here in L.A., clumped in the winter months but sprinkled throughout all seasons. If you live in the "red carpet corridor" - which starts at the Beverly Hilton in the west, arcs north through Hollywood and ends downtown at the Nokia Theatre complex - they're a recurring source of street closures and helicopter noise. To culture scolds elsewhere, they're IQ-siphoning spectacles that seem to exist merely to permit various subsections of the entertainment racket to congratulate themselves on jobs poorly done and as full employment acts for the local gift-bag industry. And they give that impression because that's in fact why they exist. But whatever. Awards shows are part of the city, they're fundamentally harmless and if anyone really doesn't like them, San Francisco is just up the road. Enjoy freezing your ass off in early June while dreaming of a delicious, nutritious Happy Meal.
Tonight sees the return to L.A. of an awards show whose silliness tests even the boundaries of this disreputable genre. That's right, it's the ESPYs. As I'm sure you're aware, the ESPYs awkwardly marry the structure of a show-biz awards extravaganza to the field of athletic performance.
Before the ESPYs existed, no one was asking for them, for the obvious reason that sports leagues have long had pretty clear mechanisms for identifying their highest achievers. There are statistics, won-loss records, standings, playoffs, championships, all-star games and postseason awards. To the extent debates persist about who's better than whom after game results have been processed and sorted through these various filters, it's vanishingly improbable that an awards show will settle them. And what would it even mean if, for instance, Dirk Nowitzki beat out Rafael Nadal for Best Male Athlete? That's not even comparing apples to oranges. It's comparing apples to something that's barely even a food.
It makes sense, in a way, that the most interesting ESPY's category is the one that most closely mimics the Oscars: Best Sports Movie. The Fighter, Secretariat, Soul Surfer and Win Win are the nominees. The Fighter will presumably win because it was the one movie of the four that was formally blessed by the Academy this year and because everyone loves cartoony Boston accents. Win Win was truly excellent, but in the context of an awards show its title probably seems a bit too desperate and on the nose.
As for the other categories, there are a few SoCal figures in the mix. Blake Griffin is up for Best Breakthrough Athlete, Corey Perry for Best NHL Player and Kobe Bryant for Best NBA Player. Edson Buddle and Landon Donovan are two of the four nominees for Best MLS Player. If any of them win, you probably won't care. Same if they lose. Either way, you'll forget about it by morning, if not sooner.
It's inhumanly difficult not to be cynical about the ESPY's. They're a disposable event that barely glances off one's consciousness. But there is one award they'll be giving out that very much deserves our non-snarky appreciation.
The Capital One Cup is awarded to two college sports programs, one each for men and women. The winning programs are determined by a yearlong tally of results in 13 sports, including many that don't often get publicly recognized. Best of all, Capital One donates $200,000 to each winning school, with the funds earmarked for grad-school scholarships for student-athletes. It's an excellent cause, Capital One should be applauded for putting up real cash, and ESPN should be applauded for allowing the Cup to share the ESPY's spotlight.
On Tuesday I had the pleasure of speaking with Rece Davis, Clark Kellogg and Lisa Leslie, all members of the Capital One Cup advisory board. Much of the conversation centered around issues of amateurism. The economics of college sports are an uncomfortable topic for most people, not least the athletes themselves. They comprise a labor force whose compensation (a scholarship) in many cases falls short of the value they provide to universities and in all cases falls short of the full costs of attending college. Depending on your viewing angle, it's either mildly unjust or grossly exploitative.
Whether college athletes should be paid is a fraught issue to which no one pretended to have an easy answer. But Clark and Lisa, having been student-athletes themselves, spoke with sincere passion about supporting a program that supplies meaningful economic assistance to student-athletes after they've graduated from college. Without putting words in their mouth, my sense is they view it as a partial but important corrective to a system that's more than a little out of whack.
So feel free to have a chuckle at the ESPYs' expense, perhaps when the Best Bowler category rolls around. (Jason Belmonte or GTFO!) But the Capital One Cup is useful and worthy. For once, you won't have to feel guilty about watching an awards show.
Follow Dex on Twitter @dexterfishmore.