"Paying to play in a news environment is both dangerous and wrong"
ESPN pays the NFL roughly $1.1B/yr for broadcast rights and other large numbers for the NBA and NHL. Do you think ESPN reporters would get the same sort of access without these deals?
I watch SportsCenter daily but am under no delusions that it is "journalism". If it were truly sports journalism, there would be coverage of other popular sports which do not have television deals with ESPN. Another notable example is how much hockey coverage dropped after ESPN's deal with the NHL ended in 2005.
Other popular sports are neglected. Formula 1, the most popular racing in the world (but broadcast on Fox networks only), is almost never mentioned on SportsCenter. Soccer only started gaining some coverage when ESPN gained broadcast rights to the World Cup. The lives of other "minor" sports are made or broken by ESPN.
ESPN is not some neutral, independent news organization. ESPN feeds its own news pipeline and the "journalists" are simply its bullhorn. TMZ, The National Enquirer, and so on are more journalists than ESPN; at least they do not face the massive conflict of generating their own news.
Yet I still watch ESPN. That's because it's not news; it's entertainment.