The Long Overdue Inclusion of Sports Entertainment at the ESPYs

The union of World Wrestling Entertainment and the sports world at large is long overdue. Thanks in large part to ESPN’s partnership with the WWE in the past year, casual sports fans get to see WWE Superstars on SportsCenter each week, becoming exposed to characters they wouldn’t normally see on their weekly channel surfing.

One of those Superstars, John Cena, the 15-time WWE World Champion and burgeoning actor, became just the third athlete in the history of ESPN’s ESPY Awards to host the show, along with LeBron James and Lance Armstrong.

If you’re going to bypass the comedian/actor/multi-dimensional musician route for an awards show host, going with a WWE Superstar is not a bad way to go. For one, WWE Superstars are inherently charismatic. One needs to be when speaking to 15,000-plus fans on a weekly basis in packed arenas around the world. Good sports entertainment doesn’t exist without good storytelling. If you can’t cut a good promo and get people invested in your upcoming match and your character, then your ability in the ring is instantly overshadowed. Just ask former champion Roman Reigns.

The great ones have a way of connecting with the audience. We live in a world where Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is the highest-paid actor in Hollywood. His movies gross billions of dollars all around the world. Twenty years ago, long before he transitioned full time to Hollywood and became a megastar, he was cutting his teeth in the WWE as Rocky Maivia, third-generation wrestler and future heir to the throne. Then came the eyebrow and the catchphrases, and the rest, well, is history.

Cena himself has appeared alongside both Amy Schumer and Bill Hader in “Trainwreck” and Amy Poehler and Tina Fey in “Sisters,” both with surprisingly hilarious results. He’s easily the most visible face among active WWE Superstars around the world, and if we’re going to have a night that honors the best in sports at an awards show in Los Angeles, why not pick someone who represents the best of both worlds, sports and entertainment?

The world of sports has always kept the WWE at bay. Despite its enormous popularity and high-flying athletes, WWE has never really had a seat at the big boy table in the sports world, and Chairman Vince McMahon has probably wanted it that way.

McMahon and his “superstars” have openly embraced the entertainment portion of their “sports entertainment” moniker. We get it, it’s scripted. Cena admitted what we all have already known for decades in his opening monologue. “Monday Night Raw,” its flagship show, is the longest-running episodic show in television history. “Raw” is essentially an athletic soap opera.

But it certainly isn’t “fake” and anyone that screams wrestling is fake from a mountain top with a megaphone is missing the point. This isn’t the 1980’s where a remark like that to a wrestler might get you a beer bottle cracked over your skull. It wasn’t fake when Cena himself was out for months rehabbing a shoulder injury, or when former champion Seth Rollins had reconstructive knee surgery last winter. Injuries arise just as much inside the ring as they do on the court, out on the field or in the octagon. There is no offseason and the travel schedule makes NBA players who rest at the end of back-to-backs hide in fear.

The two worlds have always been linked in one way or another. Muhammad Ali made an appearance at Wrestlemania I in Madison Square Garden, helping propel the event to the record-breaking spectacle it is today. NFL Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor HEADLINED Wrestlemania XI. Dennis Rodman, Karl Malone and dozens of others have made appearances over the years.

Nowadays you can’t go far online without seeing the latest big hit spliced together with some Jim Ross (Bah gawd!) audio clips from an old WWE brawl. We couldn’t wait to see video clips of LeBron James, and more recently Kevin Durant, with their heads photoshopped on the bodies of the nWo and The Shield, during their respective “heel turns” in free agency.

The two worlds are inextricably linked by athletics and entertainment value, of course, but even more so because of the stories that they each tell. It’s about time these athletes, ones that have had such a unique influence on sports and pop culture, had a presence at sports’ version of the Academy Awards.

The ESPYs, more so than any other award show, honor athletes and inspirational men and women outside the world of sports on the merits of their courage, passion and civic duty. For years, the WWE has been at the forefront of many charitable causes.

Cena himself holds the record for most wishes granted at the Make-a-Wish foundation. The company has also partnered with the Special Olympics, Susan G. Komen, the Boys and Girls Clubs, as well as The V Foundation, to donate millions of dollars to these respective causes over the years and drum up support at their live events and in television spots. Not to mention the tremendous support they provide our military through special live events, overseas trips and charitable donations.

Most importantly though, the ESPYs honors the narratives that have taken the sports world by storm during the past year. The ESPYs give out an award for “Best Moment”, which rightfully went to the Cleveland Cavaliers for winning the NBA Championship this past season.

The city of Cleveland’s championship drought, the town’s prodigal son makes good on his promise, backs against the wall against the team who just had the best regular season of all time? Vince McMahon could not have written a better script himself.

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