Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"Unguarded": great sports doc, terrible sponsor. Shame on ESPN

Last night I caught “Unguarded” on ESPN—a documentary that I thoroughly enjoyed about Chris Herren, a Massachusetts prep basketball star who had a brief stint in the NBA while addicted to Oxycontin.  Director Jonathan Hock did a great job using Herren's own narrative as he speaks to audiences at high schools, prisons, and treatment centers about the crippling addiction that (amazingly) he hid from his teammates and family during his whole career.

But there was one major problem with the airing of the documentary: “This portion of Ungaurded brought to you by Jameson's whiskey.”

*Record scratch, falls off the needle*  WHAT, WHAT, WHAT?!?

Yes, that's right.  As viewers see a visibly emotional Herren painfully recount, for example, how he left treatment to attend the birth of his son—this, after a near death heroin-fueled automotive bender and consequent estrangement from his expectant wife, family, and community had him on the brink of suicide—we, the audience are reminded that Jameson’s Irish whiskey is the proud sponsor of ESPN films.

Now I've never been in recovery myself, I regularly watch and am a fan of ESPN films[1], and every now and then I enjoy the smooth burn of snort of Jameson’s.  But holy hell, even I can plainly see the horrendously insensitive juxtaposition of a whiskey maker advertising during a documentary about drug and alcohol addiction.

Jameson’s whiskey should be appalled.  Director Jonathan Hock and the family of Chris Herren should be outraged.  ESPN should be ashamed.  This is almost as bad as an MTV show about teenage drug addiction hosted by DJ AM[2].

In between commercial cuts, for example, we see a present day, sober, and clearly emotional Herren speaking to an invested crowd about how celebrated his new-fatherhood trip to the liquor store to relapse on vodka and then more drugs, en route to rock bottom.  Brought to you by Jameson’s!

I’m also unfamiliar with the politics of television advertising.  Sure, maybe this was an unfortunate coincidence, or maybe the higher-ups and ESPN saw the conflict and were impotent to circumvent it.  In the latter case, did those folks even see the documentary?

I watch PTI daily, which is sponsored by a booze carousel of Jeremiah Weed, Jose Cuervo, Red Stripe, or some new formulation of Guinness—all of which I occasionally enjoy[3].  Sponsorship from alcoholic beverage corporations is entrenched with sports programming and in the culture of sports in general.  So on some level, the contrast between “Unguarded” and Jameson’s could be expected.

But this doesn’t mean it should be excused.  Knowing very little about broadcast sponsorship, ESPN still could’ve picked any other sponsor to advertise during “Unguarded.”  Even if that meant showing more commercials, I’d prefer that the advertising limitations of TV broadcasts do anything to not diametrically conflict and dilute the otherwise powerful message that Hock’s documentary intended to convey.

“Unguarded” re-airs this Saturday on ESPN 2.  I will set my DVR to see if anything changes.

[1] The best in the 30 for 30 series, hands down, has to have been “The Two Escobars”.  If ever one needed proof of the interrelationship between sports and drugs, there it is.  Runner up to surprise Director Vlade Divac for “Once Brothers” (I literally cried).  And the worst one (easily) was about the Raiders directed by Ice Cube, who basically decided to make a documentary declaring how much he likes and (with NWA) takes credit for the Raiders—not a successful football franchise, they (arguably) weren’t—but as a fashion/culture fad.  Please Cube, stick to Coors Light commercials and TBS family comedies.
[2] What?  This was actually a show called “Gone Too Far”?  Talk about the wrong messenger.
[3] Except for Jeremiah Weed, which nobody enjoys, especially the meatheaded arm-wrestling contestants, gluttons, and other proudly portrayed “manly men” who the majority of cable-subscribing PTI viewers in no way aspire to become.

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