Sports, music, film, video games — they all fall under the same umbrella of “entertainment.” I get it. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t a little confused when I saw Drake promoting FIFA 14 earlier this week. FIFA came out this week, and so did Drake’s new album, so I see the business synergies. And, I see you, EA Sports, reinforcing stereotypes by using the softest rapper in the game to promote the softest game in sports. Soccer stars drop to the pitch with phantom injuries and whine about the weather, while Drake name-drops Yale and Harvard and whines about women and his lack of respect. Way to know your audience. (In the interest of full disclosure, I enjoy both soccer and Drake, and I probably am, in fact, “soft.”)
But it still doesn’t mean it wasn’t awkward when Drake seemed to take over ESPN for a few hours on Tuesday, making appearances on SportsCenter and First Take and competing in a soccer shootout challenge. He appeared for over nine minutes in one SportsCenter segment where he discussed his friendship with Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and his predictions for the upcoming NBA season. Aubrey was well spoken and clearly knowledgeable, but you had to wonder what the informational value was of knowing whether the Toronto native thinks Cristiano Ronaldo or LeBron James is a better athlete. Sure, the Johnny Manziel relationship is interesting — though Manziel should probably stick to the X’s and O’s more than the OVO — but everything else felt out of place. Great, Drake can mediocrely kick a soccer ball. Back to the highlights!
And it’s not like this is something new — it’s not true that nothing was the same. Just a couple weeks ago, Eminem made a bizarre appearance on ESPN’s Saturday Night Football during half-time to promote his upcoming album. The rapper stared blankly through the camera and made no acknowledgement of broadcasters Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit. It could have been an act, and he eventually livened up, even displaying an impressive reverence for Musburger and other long-time announcers, but the whole thing was a mess. Why do we care what inarticulate opinion Eminem has about his Detroit Lions?
For some reason, we demand something more out of our sports programming. Celebrities and other public figures make appearances on network morning shows and late-night talk shows, and they promote their products and discuss similarly inconsequential topics. Yet we find those discussions entertaining or at the least inoffensive.
Drake appearing on SportsCenter is frustrating because we expect to see experts discussing the topics of the day, not celebrities who we believe have similar or worse levels of sports knowledge than the regular viewer. We find these cross-promotions so awkward because we don’t believe Drake and Eminem are qualified to talk about sports, as if Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith on First Take are somehow better suited to have the Ronaldo/LeBron conversation than Drake. In fact, Drake may have a better relationship with some of these athletes than the ESPN personalities.
We’re equating sports with news — the two categories are our two dominant forms of live programming on radio, television, or otherwise, and I agree that it would be even more awkward to have Drake tour the evening news shows and give his opinion on Syria. But I’d argue that the assumption of equality means we’re taking sports too seriously. We consider sports to be more real than other forms of other entertainment, while music and film are perceived as more manufactured, and seeing the two come together results in a certain form of cognitive dissonance because we’re reminded that the dichotomy isn’t as strong as we think. Sports is not news in its purest form — simplified, sports programming reports on the minute activities of multi-billion companies whose goals are to profit and only secondarily to entertain.
There is nothing wrong with this — it just means that sports don’t deserve a higher spot in the cultural hierarchy than other forms of art and entertainment. To paraphrase Justin Timberlake and Jay-Z, another figure at the intersection of music and sports, they’re all just entertainers. We’re fine — even interested — if LeBron makes an appearance on Jimmy Fallon and talks about his favorite music. Why shouldn’t the reverse apply when Drake visits SportsCenter and praises LeBron? It’s worth keeping that in mind whenever we start to place sports on a higher pedestal than it deserves — a high pedestal nonetheless, but not one shielded and exclusive from the other cultural elements that enrich our lives.