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Nigel Burton Wants Listeners To Stop Spinning Their Wheels

“It’s kind of all the good stuff. It’s the fun stuff. But the stuff that’s rewarding is the hard stuff and that’s the stuff that you miss.”

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The sports radio medium isn’t crawling with hosts that have 15 years of college football coaching experience under their belt. Nigel Burton is one of the few who does. It’s part of a noteworthy background that Nigel brings to the airwaves in Portland, Oregon.

Coaches obviously have to be knowledgeable, but they also need to possess the ability to explain what they know in ways that other people can easily understand. It sounds like the foundation of a good sports radio host, doesn’t it?

Nigel hosts morning drive with Dan Sheldon on 620 Rip City Radio. Making the transition from the sideline to the studio is a topic of conversation below. Nigel also hits on many other interesting subjects like football being played during a pandemic, the most rewarding aspect of coaching, and how Colin Kaepernick surprised him following their days together at Nevada. Nigel is a compelling dude. He’s got an assortment of life experiences that help shape his wise perspective. His words and examples can help open eyes and minds. Enjoy.

Brian Noe: What does your coaching resume look like?

Nigel Burton: I coached for about 15 years, all Division I, FBS or FCS. I did a grad assistant at South Florida. I coached the secondary at Portland State. Then I coached the secondary at Oregon State. I was the defensive coordinator at Nevada and then I was the head coach at Portland State.

BN: What did you learn most from coaching?

NB: I think the one thing I learned was if you keep your standards high, like 99 percent of people will try to rise to whatever standard you keep. The other 1 percent will probably just go to jail. [Laughs] So don’t worry about it.

In terms of X’s and O’s, man, that’s a never-ending deal. You may think you have it down but that’s why all these coaches that have been doing it for 50 years are still doing clinics. You can always learn something new or a different way to do it. There are guys who can win championships running triple option or the Air Raid. There are guys who have won championships doing spread and guys will do it doing Two-Back Pro West Coast. It’s a never-ending process.

BN: What does your sports radio resume look like?  

NB: That’s a little shorter. Sports radio has just been Rip City Radio since 2016. Obviously I had done interviews and things like that before. Pac-12 Network and NBC Sports Northwest — actually it started with NBC Sports Northwest, that’s how I kind of even got in. After I got fired from Portland State is when the Ducks made their run in the CFP and beat Florida State in Mariota’s last year there. That’s how I got into doing TV. Then I got Pac-12 Network that fall and then Rip City Radio the following fall.

BN: What did you learn early on about sports radio that you hadn’t known before you did it?

NB: Well I had to learn other sports as well as I knew football. The amount of study and prep, I guess I didn’t know getting into it. I’ve got a great co-host that I get along with even though sometimes it seems like we don’t. But I trust him. He just does a good job of bringing the best out of me in terms of knowing when to tell personal stories, when to get on the soapbox, and when to crack jokes. We just have good timing and good rapport.

BN: Is there anything you learned from Dan [Sheldon] just by doing a show alongside him for so long?

NB: A ton. I’ve learned a lot about basketball because that’s his forte. I learned a lot of just how to analyze it. I’ve learned a lot in terms of how things are seen from a media perspective. A lot of things I still see as a student-athlete or as a coach and he sees them from a media perspective. It’s just interesting how we can see the same thing, and yet from different angles.

BN: What’s something about football that media members who never coached tend to get wrong?

NB: I think a lot of media and people in general are just really jaded about the motivating factors of coaches. They see the Pete Carroll’s, the Nick Saban’s, and Jim Harbaugh making 9 million dollars. What they don’t realize is the amount of work and $10,000 jobs that are out there. The reason that these guys are coaching for the most part is because they love kids and they love the game.

There are clearly business aspects to it, but I’ve yet to meet somebody who got into it thinking “I’m doing this so I can make money.” Anybody who’s gotten into it for that doesn’t last very long.

I think they see a coach do something, a certain type of behavior, or make a decision and they automatically go to, oh it was because he made a business decision. A lot of times you have to make tough decisions that are actually in the best interest of either the team or the kids. I think people just think that it’s cut and dry, like “what’s best for me?” and things like that. I haven’t met a whole lot of guys who got into coaching and that’s the way they think.

BN: What’s the toughest decision you ever had to make as a coach?  

NB: When to dismiss a kid or suspend him. Those are hard deals. I had to fire a guy that I was really close to on my staff. That might have actually been the worst because we were damn near best friends. Those are the hardest because — at least I did — I felt like I wanted to save everybody. When you finally get to the point where you’re like this is not salvageable, it’s just hard to come to that realization and then have to pull the trigger.

I suspended a kid one time who had just — it was like a thousand small cuts and after a while it had gotten to the other players and it had gotten to other guys on the staff. I suspended him for his last game as a senior. Looking back on it I actually regret it. I listened to some other people and as opposed to saying you know what, it’s the last game, he’s going to be gone, and maybe he grows up. I feel like now that’s something that will never be repairable. That’s unfortunate because my favorite part about coaching is seeing who they become after they leave and having that great relationship. That one will be soiled forever.

BN: Many players who retire try to fill that void with something else. How does it break down for you as a former coach? Does sports radio fill some of that void?

NB: It will never fill what coaching did because it’s like raising a kid versus babysitting. You raise a child, you can see all the hard work and all the crap you went through and all the good times. They’re your responsibility, and then you put them out in the world and you see them succeed, or even when they fail and they have to come back and they need help. It’s not the same as doing it from afar or stepping in every now and again. But I still get a fix. I still get to watch sports for a living and talk about it and have fun. It’s kind of all the good stuff. It’s the fun stuff. But the stuff that’s rewarding is the hard stuff and that’s the stuff that you miss.

BN: What’s your opinion about college football and the NFL playing during the pandemic?

NB: I totally understand the NFL because it’s a business. I think the NFL was going to play no matter what. As long as they can keep their players relatively safe; they’re getting paid for a risky job anyway.

College is a different animal because you have a responsibility to those kids’ parents and they’re still quasi kids. You have a different level of responsibility there. I feel like for the most part the way that the Pac-12 and the Big Ten handled things was the right way to do it.

I think there was a level of irresponsibility by just saying well we’re just going to play through it. All the quotes we heard about “we’ve got to run money through the state of Oklahoma” and “more concerned with guys playing than their long-term health.” There were too many questions to just forge ahead the way that a lot of conferences did.

You’ve got teams that now have a hundred kids who had COVID. That’s insane. Especially when you don’t know. You don’t really know what the long-term consequences are going to be. I think with what the Pac-12 and the Big Ten are doing now with daily tests and all these other built-in protocols to help with some of the long-term issues that we at least know about at this point. I think it was a much more responsible way to approach it.

BN: Are you good with college football moving ahead now that technology has changed?

NB: If everybody could have done what the NFL did and tested every single day back in July, then we would have been good. You could have isolated somebody quickly enough where that you didn’t get these issues that we’re seeing at – name the school – Kansas State, Syracuse, Florida State, Colorado State, LSU, Oklahoma, Missouri, Houston. It’s crazy.

When you’re only testing a portion of the student-athletes, not all of them, and you’re only doing it every couple of days or whatever; there was just too much time where someone could be put in harm’s way.

With that changing, I feel better about it. I don’t feel good with, “oh we’ll just all get in and it’ll be fine.” I think that’s asinine. That’s why to me I’ve always been against high school playing until this gets under control because high schools can’t test at all. The only reason that you haven’t seen bad results is because they’re not testing those kids at all. You just don’t even know. Unfortunately there are a lot of kids that I recruited who live with their grandparents, live with all kinds of people who are susceptible to this virus or dying. I scratch my head at that one, man. For what? Just play five months later. Who cares?

BN: What are you thoughts on player protests in the NFL and NBA, and the reaction to it? 

NB: As long as they’re in America, they can do whatever the hell they want to do. This idea that you’re here to entertain me and I don’t want anything else – I don’t care about your family, I don’t care about what you go through, I just think it’s rooted in this idea that some people are only here for other people’s entertainment and I don’t care about your humanity. I think that’s rooted in — I’m sorry, I’m going to go ahead and say it — I think it’s rooted in white supremacy, that I don’t identify with you. I see you as different and you’re only here for this reason. So I don’t want to know anything else about you.

They don’t mind when they hear about these feel good parts of their story. What they don’t want to hear about are the things that a lot of these student-athletes and professional athletes have to go through when the lights turn off. That then changes their narrative of what a lot of people have been told their whole lives about America. “I would rather stay deaf, dumb, and blind to it” is what I think a lot of people’s rationale is, because it makes me sleep better at night or it makes me feel good about what my grandparents achieved or whatever.

I don’t know what their deal is. I could really give a crap about the reaction. If someone wants to talk about the things that are affecting their life and it’s rooted in truth, even if it’s their personal truth, then I’m all for it.

BN: Have you noticed a change in tone with how the sports media talks about social issues following George Floyd’s death?

NB: Yeah, night and day, because the bosses are listening. When Kap took a knee, I was coaching at Nevada when Kap played there. We’ve got all kinds of Kap stories.

There were like two offensive players that would come to my house all the time, Kap and this kid Marko Mitchell. Everybody else was all defensive guys. When Kap took a knee, it was personal for me because I know him. I heard all of these discouraging things — I had little white kids in Lake Oswego telling me how they hated Colin Kaepernick. I was like “What? You don’t even know who he is! Man, sit down, little boy; let me tell you who this kid is.”

There was this adamant, heels dug in, I don’t care what I’ve seen, and I think what changed with George Floyd and what changed with America was we didn’t have any distractions. We’re all in our homes and we had to deal with it. I couldn’t turn the channel and just watch sports because there were no sports to watch. I couldn’t turn the TV off and go to the movie theater and just watch a movie or watch a play because all of that was gone. We had to deal with it and that was different. Once the bosses couldn’t turn it off either, people started halfway paying attention and halfway listening. Now sports media was allowed to talk about it more because where else could people go?

BN: What would be the ideal reaction from white America to the things that have gone on in this country and player protests — what would you want it to be in a perfect world?

NB: I think everything that’s wrong with our country begins with a lack of acknowledgement. There are certain people in this country who want minorities, or people who deal with racial issues, or the Me Too movement or whatever, to just move on. It’s whataboutisms and all these other things. It’s like asking a sexual assault victim to just move on with their life without acknowledging what happened to them. That would never work.

The part that’s crazy is you use that analogy and people understand that. But somehow when it comes to race because we’re in such denial in this country about race and racism and our history that somehow it applies to sexual assault, it applies to domestic violence because those are issues that white people also deal with, but racism? No no no! That’s got to be something different. It’s like “No dude, not only is it the same, it might be worse.”

If you just ask me what would the perfect world be, it starts with acknowledgement. If America would ever acknowledge that and if white people would ever acknowledge it, then once you acknowledge it and you accept it, now we can start to talk about real remedies. But if you continue to lie to yourself that that’s not really what it is, you’re kind of spinning your wheels. You’ll never get to the real crux of the issue or how to fix things.

BN: When you go back to Colin Kaepernick and knowing him, was it the least bit surprising seeing what he did in 2016 by kneeling for the anthem?

NB: I was surprised actually. It’s different because I was a coach so I didn’t hang out with him. It’s like our kids. You know your kids, but do you know who they are when you’re not around? I don’t know ‘em. He wasn’t like a super boisterous guy. He was kind of a quiet, thoughtful dude. So that part wasn’t surprising, but I don’t recall hearing about a whole lot of conversations involving race. I don’t remember him being a political thought leader or anything like that. But when you look at his background, being biracial, being adopted by a white family, and if you know anything about [his hometown] Turlock [California], you can definitely see how his experiences will start to mold this person who would recognize that there are a lot of wrongs in the world.

He was always highly intelligent, one of the smartest dudes on our team. Everybody respected him. It was just surprising to see him put himself out there like that because that just wasn’t who he was. He wasn’t a guy who would try to stick out at an event. That wasn’t him. But then there are all of these other things that make you go “okay I get why he came to this conclusion.” A lot of us have. But that fortitude to put himself out there like that was wild.

BN: Looking forward in your career, is there anything that you would specifically like to do in sports media or beyond?

NB: I think I’d like to call games eventually. I’ve done it a few times, like the spring games and things. Mainly because I get tired of hearing guys who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. [Laughs] It’s funny because I’ve sat in so many different production meetings and when you get players who do analysis, they know their position. They might know something else, but they definitely don’t know all of it. It’s clear.

The beauty of being a coach is I’ve coached linebackers. I’ve coached secondary. I’ve had to school myself up on d-line play. I’ve had to study o-line play so I knew how to attack it. I had to understand how quarterbacks go through different progressions in different systems. I coached wide receivers for a short period of time. I coached every special team that there was.

You have this intricate knowledge of everything and so when I’ll listen to a d-lineman talk about how to catch a football, I’m like “Oh my God dude! What are you talking about?” That’s why I love quarterbacks because for the most part a quarterback has to have some understanding of what everybody is doing, getting guys lined up and how to read defenses, but even half the time they screw up. That’s why coaches to me are always really fun to listen to in the box because if you’ve got somebody who can communicate well, they can really tell you what’s happening. So I’d like to call games.

BN: What’s the percentage chance that you’d ever be a coach again?

NB: I don’t know, man. I’m still helping. I coach my kid’s youth teams. I’m going to coach at my kid’s high school and help to coach my daughter in basketball. I still get some of those little fixes. I don’t need to go back to working 100-hour weeks.

I coached a 6th grade football team and there was this one kid who drove everybody insane. I just kept talking to him. He would drive me nuts but I just kept talking to him. At the end of the year he ended up being a pretty good little player and he wrote me a card. I swear to God, I damn near started crying when I read this card. I still have that card. It was four years ago. The reason you do it is to affect young people’s lives and to get that fix of competitiveness. But it’s mainly about helping other kids achieve more than they could have on their own and being a positive influence on their lives. I can still get that. I don’t need to be making six figures or out recruiting to get that. So I don’t know, man. If I can still get it this way, then maybe not ever. We’ll see.

BSM Writers

Grant Cohn’s Trolling of Players is Unacceptable

After an altercation between Javon Kinlaw of the San Francisco 49ers and Grant Cohn, it became clear that Kinlaw was being trolled by a member of the media.

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Grant Cohn is a media member who writes for the FanNation 49ers blog on SI.com. He also talks about the team on his YouTube channel, which has over 48,000 subscribers as of noon Thursday. His father, Lowell, was a longtime columnist in the Bay Area.

Javon Kinlaw is a defensive lineman, whom the San Francisco 49ers drafted in the first round despite concerns about the durability of his knee. He played four games last season, his second in the league.

The two were involved in two confrontations this week. The first one occurred off to the side of the 49ers’ practice field. Kinlaw apparently cursed at Cohn and knocked his hat from atop his head. Later in the day, Kinlaw again swore at Cohn, this time after joining a live stream on Cohn’s YouTube channel. (Side note: I have never felt so freaking old as I did while typing that previous sentence.)

OK. That’s my attempt at an absolutely straightforward and objective summary of a situation that scares the hell out of me. Not because a player was mad at a member of the media. I’ve had it happen to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s my opinion that this has been happening for as long as human beings have scrutinized the athletic efforts of other human beings.

What scared me was that I was seeing some version of the future of sports media. A future in which media members behaved like YouTube trolls, acting purposely ridiculous or antagonistic to initiate conflicts that could be turned into more conflicts that would could be gleefully recounted as content for the audience. I thought that because that’s pretty much what Cohn did:https://youtu.be/4Hf9sjBttFY

Cohn essentially bragged about the number of different things he said that may have prompted Kinlaw’s reaction, and you know what? It worked. Kinlaw got mad. He confronted Cohn. Twice. TMZ published a story about it. So did SFGate.com.

This is troll behavior. You know, the online pests who say or do something intended to provoke a reaction, and once they get that reaction, they recount and scrutinize that reaction with an eye toward triggering another reaction. Lather, rinse repeat. Increasingly, entire online media ecosystems consist of nothing more than people who don’t like each other talking about how much they don’t like one another.

I’m not going to pretend this is entirely new in sports media. Sports columnists have been known to make reputations with their willingness to be critical of the home team. A huge part of Skip Bayless’ brand is his unwavering insistence on highlighting Lebron James’ perceived flaws. Stephen A. Smith has engaged in public feuds with players, namely Kevin Durant.

I do see a difference between this and what Cohn did, though. The reaction Bayless and Smith are primarily concerned with is from their audience, not their subjects. The subjects may get mad, but that’s not the primary goal. At least I hope it’s not.

What happens if that is the primary goal? What if someone is offering opinions not because it’s what they really think, but because they want to provoke a response from the subject? Media careers have been built on less.

I don’t know if that’s the case with Cohn. I’ve never talked to him in my life, and even if I had, it’s impossible to know someone’s true intent. But in listening to everything he said AFTER the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, I’m not willing to assume that Cohn was operating in good faith. Here’s how Cohn described the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, which occurred as practice was beginning.

“In the training room, I saw Javon Kinlaw, who is the king of the training room,” Cohn said. “He’s usually in the training room.”

Cohn said the two locked eyes, but were separated by about 70 yards at the time. Kinlaw then walked across the field to where the reporters were gathered. He stood directly behind Cohn.

“So I turn, and I say, ‘Wassup, Mook Dawg?’ “ Cohn said, referencing the nickname on Kinlaw’s Instagram account. “And he doesn’t say anything. And I say, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Javon?’ “

“And then he said, ‘What are you going to do about it you bitch-ass,’ and then he said one more word that I can’t say,” Cohn said. “And then I turned to face him, and I said, ‘Oh, it’s like that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s like that.’ And then he knocked the hat off my head.”

OK. Pause. In my experience, when your job is to publicly describe and critique the performance and attitudes of professional athletes, there will be times in which the athletes do not care for your description or your critique. Some of those who are displeased will make their objections known to you.

However, there are two things that are unusual here: First, the fact Kinlaw knocked the hat off Cohn’s head, which is unacceptable. Second, Cohn then posted a video on  YouTube to not only talk about what had happened, but state he had been so critical of Kinlaw for so long he wasn’t sure what specifically sparked Kinlaw’s anger.

“Javon, what are you upset about?” Cohn asked toward the end of  his video. “Is it the fact that I said you have an 80-year-old knee? Is it the fact that I said that you’re a terrible pass rusher and you’re just a two-down player? Is it the fact that I said the Niners shouldn’t have drafted you and should have taken Tristan Wirfs instead. Is it the fact that I said that you’re unprofessional and immature.

“It escapes me, which of the hundred negative things I’ve said about Javon Kinlaw the last couple of years, moved him to approach me in such a way, but you know what, I applaud Javon Kinlaw for coming to speak to me directly, and I ask you, what do you think Javon Kinlaw is mad about.”

Cohn was trolling Kinlaw. No other word for it.

That night, Cohn was conducting a live stream on YouTube, which Kinlaw joined, while apparently eating dinner, to make declarative statements about the size of Cohn’s genitalia — among other things.

Neither one looked particularly impressive. Not Kinlaw, who was profane and combative with a member of the media, at one point making a not-so-subtle threat. Not Cohn, who asked Kinlaw, “Do you think I’m scared of you, Javon?” He also said, “I don’t even know why you’re mad, Javon.”

I think Kinlaw would have been better off ignoring Cohn. If I was Kinlaw’s employer, I would probably prefer he not log into video livestreams to make testicular comparisons. But honestly, I don’t care about what Kinlaw did. At all. He’s not on a team I root for. He didn’t physically harm anyone. He used some bad words in public.

I am bothered not just by Cohn’s actions, but by some of the reactions to them because of what I think this type of behavior will do to an industry I have worked in for 25 years. Credentialed media members who behave like Cohn did this week make it harder for other media members who are acting in good faith. Preserving access for people like him diminishes what that access will provide for those who aren’t trying to use criticism to create conflict that will become content.

I think Cohn knew what he was doing. In his livestream, before Kinlaw joined, Cohn stated he was not scared because he knew — by virtue of his father’s history in the business — that if Kinlaw had touched him he would potentially be entitled monetary compensation.

By now, it should be pretty apparent how problematic this whole thing is and yet on Thursday, a number of 49ers fans online were sticking up for Cohn as just doing his job. Dieter Kurtenbach, a Bay Area columnist, Tweeted: “Javon Kinlaw does not know that @GrantCohn was built for this.” Built for what? Winning Internet fights? Kurtenbach also deleted a Tweet in which he called Kinlaw “soft.”

Cohn’s father, Lowell, is a former columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. He promoted the first video his son made on Tuesday:

Sorry, I don’t find it funny because it’s another step down a path in which media members seek reactions at the expense of information. Where they look to make fun of players instead of learning about them. They’ll stop acting like journalists and start acting like the trolls who make their money by instigating a conflict, which they then film: “Jake Paul, reporting live from 49ers practice …”

If that’s the case, thank God I’m about to age out of this business, entirely. I’m 47 years old and I can’t believe there’s anyone in our industry who thinks what Cohn did this week is acceptable.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 75

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A new episode of Media Noise is all about reaction. Demetri reacts to the ManningCast’s big win at the Sports Emmys. Danny O’Neil reacts to people reacting to Colin Kaepernick’s workout in Las Vegas and Andy Masur reacts to John Skipper’s comments about Charles Barkley.

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BSM Writers

Bron Heussenstamm Blends Bleav Advertising with SiriusXM

Bron Heussenstamm, the CEO of the Bleav Podcast Network says blending podcasting advertising with satellite radio’s reach is a victory for both sides.

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Last week, the Bleav (pronounced believe) Podcast Network announced a deal with SiriusXM to make all 32 NFL team-specific Bleav pods available on the SXM app. SXM can also air Bleav content on any of its sports channels. Each NFL Bleav show pairs a former player with a host to discuss team issues. Eric Davis, Lorenzo Neal, and Pac-Man Jones are amongst the former players Bleav has signed as talent.

I have hosted a Bleav podcast about Boise State football -the Kingdom of POD. I am usually provided 1-3 advertisers per episode by the network and get paid by the download. My subject matter is regional, so my take-home pay is usually under four figures. I have enjoyed the technical assistance and cross-promotion I receive and I enjoyed meeting Bleav CEO Bron Heussenstamm. Bron is Los Angeles-based, a USC graduate, and founded Bleav in 2018. We discussed the SXM deal, podcast advertising, and the future. 

Will the podcast advertisers be carried on the SXM distribution platform?

Yes, Bleav baked-in advertisements and hosts read ads are distributed across all platforms. This enables the host to do their show once through, making it as easy as possible for the hosts and consistent for the advertisers.

Bron Heussenstamm, CEO Bleav Podcast Network

How is advertising on Bleav different? 

We want to be more than a ‘host read ad’ or a ‘digital insert’ with our advertising partners. When companies work with Bleav shows and talent, those companies can receive our omnichannel of distribution points—podcast platforms, YouTube, socials, streamers, TV, radio, and more. This allows for consistent branding across all platforms: great talent presenting great companies to fans and consumers no matter where they consume content. 

What is the growth pattern for podcasts that you see? 

The industry trades have presented 400%-800% percent growth over the next ten years. Once the COVID fog lifted, we really saw these gains. Sports are always going to be at the forefront of culture. The increases in all sports sectors have certainly carried into the digital space. 

SXM has started with NFL shows but can also air more Bleav content – what does that look like? 

We’ve started with our NFL network of 32 team shows hosted by a former player. We’ve kept the door open for our NCAAB, NCAAF, MLB, NHL, Basketball, and Soccer networks. We’re happy for our hosts to be part of such a tremendous company and platform. SiriusXM can continue to amplify its voice and give fans the access and insight only a player can provide. 

The Interactive Advertising Bureau-IAB- says podcast revenue grew 72% last year to $1.4B and is expected to grow to $2B this year and double to $4B by 2024. Have you seen similar growth? What is driving the industry now, and what will be the primary cause of growth by 2024?  

There is a myriad of reasons for the growth. I‘ll lean into a couple. 

At Bleav, we launch and maximize the digital arm of industry leaders. The technology upgrades to allow hosts to have a world-class show — simulcast in both audio and video – from their home has led to an explosion of content. With this, the level of content creators has risen. Having a YouTube, RSS feed, podcast, and more is now part of the brand, right alongside Twitter and Instagram. 

If a company wants to advertise on Bleav in Chargers, we know exactly how many people heard Lorenzo Neal endorse their product. We can also safely assume they like the Chargers. The tracking of demo specifics for companies is huge. It’s a fantastic medium to present products to the right fans and consumers.

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