Sports Night is still relevant to sports, and life, 20 years later

Sports Night premiered 20 years ago today, but Aaron Sorkin’s first TV series is still very relevant to the sports world, and the rest of the world, too.

When Sports Night first aired on ABC in 1998, the promotional tagline was, “It’s about sports, the same way Charlie’s Angels was about law enforcement.”

The network was trying to say that you didn’t have to be a sports fan to watch the show, but the truth was, Aaron Sorkin’s cult classic wound up being incredibly relevant to the sports world, and incredibly undervalued for what it taught us about life.

In fact, the series is just as relevant today as it was back then.

Sure, some of the sports references feel a little dated (would that Michael Jordan interview be with LeBron James?), and all of the actors went on to much more high-profile roles on shows like Scandal, American Crime, The Good Wife and Parenthood, while Sorkin won five Emmys and an Oscar.

But they were on to something, back when the guy who wrote A Few Good Men was doing this TV show about a TV show with a group of mostly unknowns, and it’s amazing how much it still hits it out of the park in 2018.

Look at the pilot episode, in which Casey McCall (Peter Krause, now on 9-1-1) wants to quit the show-within-a-show because sports stars aren’t the role models he wants for his son. Calling himself “a PR man for punks and thugs,” Casey is disillusioned.

He’s also not wrong. He wasn’t wrong then, and he isn’t wrong now. The sports world continues to struggle with whether or not athletes are role models; just three months after striking a plea deal for his UFC 223 bus attack, Conor McGregor is promoting a fight at UFC 229 that will make him millions.

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In the week that this column goes to print, Addison Russell has been placed on leave by the Cubs after domestic violence allegations, and Mark Cuban has just been grilled about what was really going on in the Dallas Mavericks organization.

The dilemma that Casey raises still exists, maybe now more than ever, as sports fans take a closer look at what’s going on behind the curtain. But so, too, does what makes him stay: that there are good people, and amazing stories, out there that mean just as much as the ones where things go wrong.

For every Jayson Grissom, there’s still an Ntozake Nelson.

Sports Night was brilliant in that sense. It keenly understood the relationship between sports and life, the way they can be a prism through which we see ourselves. The show captured the love of the game, and also why the game was so damn important in the first place. And it had some very honest truths about the sports world, the media world and the world in general.

In “The Six Southern Gentlemen of Tennessee,” an African-American football player refuses to play while his fictional school is still flying the Confederate flag. Six of his teammates join him in protest. And managing editor Isaac Jaffee (the late, legendary Robert Guillaume) is expected to get involved in the story, simply because of his race.

“You’ve gotta stop thinking of me as the champion of all things black,” Isaac says, which are words TV could listen to today. As we talk about increased diversity in television, and stronger characters for women and people of color, that sentence takes on even more resonance.

Isaac does ultimately get involved, delivering one of the best monologues ever written for TV, but it’s not because he’s African-American. It’s because he knows it’s the right thing to do, because he can put pressure on one of the university’s wealthiest donors, and he knows that his staff have his back.

His race is important to him, but it’s not the only that defines him, and in that episode and in the way he’s written throughout the entire series, Jaffee challenges the perception that simply because a character — or a person — comes from a certain background, that doesn’t mean they are the go-to for that group’s issues. They deserve to be seen for much more than that.

There are other episodes that strike chords, too, whether it’s “The Quality of Mercy at 29K” as it talks about charity and what giving back actually means, or “Ordnance Tactics,” where the office gets a bomb threat because a radio host did an offensive impression.

Or, could you imagine in the wake of the #MeToo movement, an episode like “Mary Pat Shelby” which deals with sexual assault and producer Natalie Hurley (the undervalued Sabrina Lloyd) being attacked in a locker room? That episode is even more powerful now because of how the world has changed since it aired 20 years ago.

Sports Night was about sports, and had some important things to say about sports, and life, and just being the best human beings we could be, both in and out of the game. There were moving stories, thought-provoking stories and stories that were just a whole lot of fun.

Add in a number of now well-known faces (like Black Lightning‘s Cress Williams going through the world’s worst breakup, future Shameless star William H. Macy getting a great arc with his real-life wife Felicity Huffman, and Agent Coulson himself Clark Gregg saving the network before he saved the world).

Then sprinkle in some witty one-liners and great laughs (did the mighty Bengals of Cincinnati ever find a kicker who can kick?), and this show was far ahead of its time. It was a half-hour sitcom that really wasn’t, a sports show that didn’t technically focus on sports but actually did, that series that taught TV fans the unimportance of the laugh track.

There will never be another show like Sports Night, and there doesn’t need to be. The original is still just as good.

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