I’m not going to pretend that I don’t love the way he plays. Unlike seemingly half the guys on the Phillies, Bryce Harper plays like he gives at least a shit and a half, perhaps a shit and two-thirds. He cares. Does everything hard and he’s, you know, good. But I think he’s a douche. I think he grew up being told that he was the greatest (then again, aren’t we all these days?) and experienced way too much fame and notoriety at a young age to be even remotely grounded. Blame him, blame the system, blame Sports Illustrated– whatever. Still, while the Phillies were getting crushed by the Indians, 104-2, I flipped over to ESPN at 9 p.m. to see their special, Bryce Begins. I figured it would be outstanding, 360 look at the young phenom, not unlike like most long-form ESPN stuff– Outside The Lines, 30 for 30, etc. But no. BB was produced by Jess Atkinson’s 3 Penny Films in conjunction with Major League Baseball Productions, which meant that if you thought you were getting an objective view of Bryce Harper from ESPN or any sort of outlet with a journalistic eye, like I did, you were sorely mistaken.
Actually, you were watching a promo for Harper and an ad for Under Armour, Harper’s biggest sponsor.
I don’t blame ESPN for putting this on their air, because it undountedly drove ratings and, yes, it was sometimes entertaining, providing a rare glimpse inside the life of a young superstar. As a baseball fan, I enjoyed it. But the average person likely had no idea that what they were watching was a whitewashed version of Harper without a shred of integrity. 60 Minutes Sports this was not.
Within a few minutes, it was apparent from the sheer amout of blatant Under Armour UA logos shown (and iso-ed) that you were about to be treated to an hour-long promo for the Baltimore-based brand. And once you realized that, it was easy to understand how and why this film was made: Atkinson is a former Maryland kicker who had a few cups of coffee in the NFL. His 3 Penny Films produces shows for, of course, Maryland, Towson, and a few other universities. You can find a list of these works under the “Brands” page on the company’s website… which is where you will also notice that Under Armour is listed as one of their properties, or sponsors. No, really:
And 3 Penny’s co-founder, Bill Kraus, is a former executive of, you guessed it, Under Armour.
At this point, ESPN should have labeled the show “paid programming.” But the coincidences didn’t stop there.
Here is the press release for the film put out by Major League Baseball:
Through it all, camera crews were with him behind the scenes to capture his journey in an unprecedented way. “Bryce Begins,” a one-hour special documenting Harper’s journey from a teenager through the present day, will debut Tuesday, April 30 at 9:00pm ET on ESPN. A collaboration between Major League Baseball Productions and 3 Penny Films, “Bryce Begins” features extensive behind the scenes access with Harper and his family and rare footage from the years leading up to his Major League debut. The film also features new interviews with Harper, his father Ron Harper, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo and Director of Player Development Doug Harris, Nationals teammate Ryan Zimmerman, Baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., Harper’s agent Scott Boras, reporters Will Leitch and Tom Verducci, Harper’s high school baseball coach Sam Thomas and 2012 AL Rookie of the Year Mike Trout, among many others.
So, in summary, that list includes: Nats brass, Harper’s father, his high school coach, his teammate and his agent. Others interviewed to lend some (undoubtedly objective) commentary: Tom Verducci (who wrote the SI profile on Harper when he was 16), Mike Trout (AL Rookie of the Year and Harper’s buddy), Will Leitch (founder of Deadspin) and Cal Ripken (Iron Man).
You knew that Verducci and Trout would speak glowingly about Harper– fine. And so did Ripken, WHO IS SPONSORED BY UNDER ARMOUR(!!!). The company sponsors Ripken’s UNDER ARMOUR RIPKEN SOFTBALL CLASSIC (albeit for charity). Ripken, too, is on team Bryce. Only Leitch is legitimate in this documentary.
And it’s no surprise that original footage began – with a shot of Harper’s pink UA cleats – in June, 2011… just two months after he signed an endorsement deal with Under Armour.
I’m not nearly naive enough to think that just about everything we watch and read has some corporate interest, and ESPN never claimed that this was some objective journalistic work about Harper, but BB was gratuitous. A shot of Harper’s dad laying rebar wearing an Under Amour hard hat sealed it: Continue reading