It’s hard to imagine combining a traditional Hollywood red carpet with a tailgate party—but that’s pretty much how it felt at Wed night’s annual ESPYS awards event in L.A. And the sight of stars mingling with famous athletes and trying to conduct red carpet interviews, all while various activity tents carnival-barked their way into everyone’s eardrums just a few yards away—well, only ESPN could pull this off. And that was just the fiesta outside the event itself, which eventually funneled everyone into the Nokia Theater downtown. Once inside, the careful balance of TV and movie star celebrities with iconic sports figures like Lebron James and Michael Phelps created an interesting dynamic. One common thread: It doesn’t matter if you’re a rich Hollywood dude or a rich athlete dude—the girlfriends and wives all seem to come out of the same 20-something, Victoria’s Secret model mold. But I digress…
The event itself was somewhat long but never tedious, thanks to a biting opening monologue by Jon Hamm, who skewered various sports figures and teams to the delight of most of the audience (I’m not sure how much got picked up on air, but there were lots of groans in the audience during a few of the jokes). The sports satire continued throughout the night, and Hamm wasn’t the only cable TV star featured during the program. Comedy Central’s “Key and Peele” showed up with a pre-taped video bit involving two sports marketing trainers getting children ready for a professional sports career. Key points included avoiding Twitter, knowing the difference between your wife and your girlfriend and, of course, knowing what to do if you find a dead body in your house (something they insisted one out of six pro athletes will experience during their careers). Again, the audience cringed at a few of the jokes, but these guys seldom miss the mark.
Perhaps the funniest bit came from “Saturday Night Live’s” Bill Hader, who (and here’s the cable connection) will co-star in Larry David’s upcoming HBO movie “Clear History” (premieres in Aug). Anyway, Hader literally had the place rolling with his impression of Russian President Vladimir Putin mocking the recent controversy over the real-life Putin’s alleged theft of Robert Kraft’s Super Bowl Ring. Hader’s Putin called Americans “weak” and then proceeded to show the ESPYS audience all the valuables his hired hands had stolen from their houses while they were distracted by the show, including Phelps’ Olympics medals and other various trophies. Hamm feigned anger when Hader held up one of Hamm’s many awards for playing Don Draper on “Mad Men,” but no worries: Hader told Entertainment Weekly today that he still got an invite to an apparently off-the-hook after party at Hamm’s house after the event (Where was CableFAX’s invite, Jon? We discovered you, remember?).
Of course, there were more poignant moments than comedic ones, which is appropriate considering the hurdles that people must often overcome to reach big goals—whether sports or personal battles. For example, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Dick and Rick Hoyt accepted the Jimmy V Perseverance Award (If you haven’t heard about this story of a father who has run hundreds of races pushing or pulling his disabled son, check out the video here and have Kleenex ready). And Robin Roberts’ acceptance of the Arthur Ashe award was equally emotional as she recounted her painful ordeal receiving a bone-marrow transplant to fix complications from her earlier cancer. In both cases, it makes you think about all of life’s struggles and the fact that whether it’s life-and-death or just finding the will to put in the extra effort to bring your team to victory—the strength all stems from the same mysterious and unexplainable force of will. As Lebron James put it to all the athletes in the room when introducing Roberts, “When it’s a time when we feel like we have adversity that hits us, and we start to think about ‘I can’t’ or ‘It’s too hard’ or ‘I can’t do it,’ let’s just think about this moment.” In the end, that’s what the ESPYS (and really, all professional sports is about): Admiring those who push themselves to greatness. And it comes in all forms.