Fri. Feb 26th, 2021

Five Who Get It, Five Who Don’t

A weekly analysis of the best and worst in sports media from a multimedia content prince — thousands of columns, TV debates, radio programs and podcasts — who is neither a cardboard cutout nor a virtual fan.

THEY GET IT

James Brown, CBS — Given the choice of losing a broadcast feed or airing heavy social commentary on Super Bowl Sunday, networks usually would opt for fuzzy screens. They sure don’t want to irritate the almighty NFL, especially amid rights-fee negotiations in the megabillions. In a refreshing and necessary exception, Brown lit into the league for racist hiring practices involving head coaches and team executives. The Rooney Rule again was exposed as a sham, with only one of seven coaching vacancies going to a Black candidate. Said Brown, normally a cheerful point guard tossing football discussions to former players and coaches on pregame shows: “When it comes to the hiring of Black head coaches, team and league executives and Black ownership, frankly, the track record is pitiful. Just two of the last 20 coaches hired have been Black. There is currently one Black team president, and he is the first. And of course, there are no Black owners. Nearly half of the inducted players in the Hall of Fame are Black, yet only two of the 26 enshrined coaches and none of the six honored general managers are Black. Since the league’s formation in 1920, less than five percent of the nearly 500 head coaches, including interim roles, have been Black, in 100 years. I’d certainly like to believe today that there’s not even a hint of that calculated exclusion we saw in the 1930s, but can we really attribute this to an issue of unconscious bias when the numbers tell an unambiguous story?’’ Brown also asked pointed questions of commissioner Roger Goodell during a pregame interview, then repeated his broader point later in the broadcast. Years ago, Bob Costas saw his brilliant career wane when his NBC superiors disapproved of his anti-football commentaries about concussions. The double standard shouldn’t exist — let the biggest names at all networks sound off when required. With the NFL expected to demand $100 billion over 10 years from its broadcast and streaming partners, the least a network can do is reserve the right to an occasional verbal upbraiding of a league that often deserves it.

Kevin Harlan, Westwood One — I used to refer to Harlan as The Grunter, as his game calls sometimes sounded constipated and forced. Now? He has toned down the guttural noises to become a master in his craft — and he’s becoming best known for mocking various humans and animals who sneak onto fields and create havoc. His latest entry in the fun vault came Sunday night, when a male fan in a neon pink onesie — an attention-grab prank masterminded by a porn website — eluded security for a fourth-quarter romp in Tampa. Barked Harlan: “Someone has run on the field, a guy with a bra! And now, he’s not being chased, he’s running down the middle! The 40! Arms in the air and a victory salute! He’s pulling down his pants! PUT UP YOUR PANTS, MY MAN!! PULL UP THOSE PANTS!! He’s being chased to the 30. He breaks a tackle from a security guard, at the 20, down the middle, the 10, the five, he slides at the one — and they converge on him at the goal line! PULL UP YOUR PANTS, TAKE OFF THE BRA AND BE A MAN!! And the players, with hands on hips at the other side of the field, are looking on at him and saying `Why, oh why, is this taking place in a Super Bowl?’ ‘’ Somewhere in the mad frivolity, Harlan was delivering a spot-on rebuke of the NFL. After administering one million coronavirus tests, the league couldn’t maintain security measures in the Big Game? Fortunately, the streaker wasn’t packing a weapon, so to speak, and we had a good laugh in the final minutes of a 31-9 rout.

Michael McCarthy, Front Office Sports — While the sports industry seeks self-serving excuses for plummeting ratings, McCarthy keeps laying out harsh truths about “the puzzling drop in sports TV viewership.’’ In particular, the journalist explains that Millennials and Gen Zers — a demographic extending from the teens to the 40s — simply don’t care about watching sports as much as previous generations. Sports has been operating in an oblivious cocoon during the pandemic, not realizing that Americans are trying to survive, remain employed and keep their kids schooled. Many don’t have the disposable money, time and energy to put on a GRONKOWSKI jersey and act like a fool for 3 1/2 hours, among the reasons another Tom Brady coronation posted the lowest Super Bowl ratings in 15 years. It’s important that media writers such as Mike McCarthy get it, unlike the NFL head coach of the same name.

Lisa Guerrero, investigative reporter — How touching to see Guerrero tweet, “Happy #SuperBowlSunday! I’m so glad I can enjoy the NFL again.’’ After a brief career as a ridiculed “Monday Night Football’’ sideline reporter, she considered suicide as she drove on the Pacific Coast Highway, listening to sports-talk hosts laugh about her firing and describe her as the bimbo who ruined the broadcast. Sixteen years later, she has rebounded as a journalistic crusader on “Inside Edition,’’ as profiled by Andrew Marchand in the New York Post. “Part of what I do now is to physically go out and confront people,” she said. “A lot of them are bad people, criminal and dangerous.’’ By comparison, network sideline work is silly. Guerrero was critical of the “MNF’’ executive producer at the time — highly regarded Fred Gaudelli — who “terrified’’ her. “I wasn’t afraid of the job. I was afraid of him. I was afraid of him screaming at me after every game. It was awful,’’ she said. Gaudelli, who recruited her to the telecast after seeing her on Fox Sports’ irreverent “Best Damn Sports Show,’’ told Marchand, “I like Lisa. I did my best to support and encourage her. I’m disappointed to be hearing about this for the first time 17 years after we worked together.’’ Sometimes, broadcast producers swing and miss badly on talent. At least Guerrero found a place to prosper, worlds away from a possible tragedy on the PCH.

Zach Lowe and Tim McMahon, ESPN — Having been subjected to Mark Cuban’s wrath, I applaud these basketball reporters for speaking the truth while knowing what awaits them. Noticing what I see every time I watch the Dallas Mavericks — Luka Doncic complaining about a call — Lowe said on his podcast that the Europhenom “has become one of the biggest whiners in the league.’’ Said McMahon, a guest on the podcast: “Luka’s body language during games, during timeouts, it’s an issue. Luka spends a lot of energy bitching at referees. … A lot of times he has a case and a lot of times it’s wasted energy and I think sucks the life out the team.’’ Cuban, the Mavericks owner, teed up Lowe in a Vice TV interview, saying, “I’ll tell you exactly what I think: F—k you, Zach Lowe, you don’t know s—t. I know Luka. He’s not a big whiner. He cares, he wants to win. He’s passionate. He’s got some s—t to him where, yeah, he’s one of those European players where you’ll see him doing this (gesturing) all the time and talking in one of five different languages. But no, he’s not a whiner. He’s a baller.” By responding angrily, of course, Cuban only confirmed that Doncic’s critics are onto something.

THEY DON’T GET IT

God — Is there a God when so many good people are dying in this world, including familiar names in sports media? Pedro Gomez, Terez Paylor and Sekou Smith passed in recent days, all drawing worthy tributes from the industry. I knew Pedro, an earnest professional who cemented his reputation with a necessary and brave task — tailing the tempestuous Barry Bonds and peppering him with tough questions during the Steroids Era — while always keeping larger perspective with a smile. His outlook allowed him to maintain relations with players and managers in clubhouses, not an easy task, yet he wasn’t afraid to call out a rat. He railed on Curt Schilling — long before his days as a social-media kook — in an Arizona Republic column that appeared the day he started Game 7 of the World Series. “The past few days also have offered the country insight into Schilling’s little secret, the one baseball insiders have known for years, but one that has rarely surfaced publicly,’’ Gomez wrote. “Schilling is something of a con man, someone more intent on polishing his image through whatever means available, which usually has meant attaching himself to certain members of the media and leaking insights he wants in the open.” He and his reporting peers died much too young. Press boxes, or what will be left of them in the future, need more Pedro Gomezes. What I admired about him is that he didn’t allow the sports business to define him. “Pedro was far more than a media personality,’’ his family said in a statement to ESPN, his employer since 2003. “He was a dad, loving husband, loyal friend, coach and mentor. He was out everything and his kids’ biggest believer.’’ As I write this, the talk-show world is staggered by news that Colin Cowherd, while having dinner with his wife, was rushed to the hospital last weekend with a small blood clot in his right lung. “It was the most pain I’ve ever been in,’’ said Cowherd, 57, on a video from his home. “It was limiting my breathing. It was scary.’’ He was fortunate to survive, as I was when I had a heart issue while covering an insignificant Sugar Bowl game years ago. Hope this reminds folks that covering sports is superficial in the mammoth, fleeting scope of life.

CBS — Some media critics/network sycophants are giving CBS a pass for its Super Bowl broadcast, made arduous by a repetitive storyline — Tom Brady as King/God/G.O.A.T./Devil — in a blowout. But the best crews make the most of difficult circumstances — and CBS did not. After an eventful first half when the Chiefs self-destructed, Brady got in the grill of Tyrann Mathieu, and a troubled Andy Reid clearly didn’t have his team prepared to play, we were greeted not by hard commentary from the studio panelists … but more Nickelodeon slime on the screen, as narrated too enthusiastically by Nate Burleson. With The Weeknd waiting to deliver a forgettable halftime show — somewhere, Prince was wincing and asking what happened to the `e’ in the dude’s stage name — there was time for only a few rushed observations in what was developing as another historic sports moment: Brady beating back phenom Patrick Mahomes. CBS also whiffed with minimal coverage and no panel commentary concerning Reid’s son, Britt, the since-banished Kansas City assistant coach, who said he downed at least two drinks and possibly Adderall before plowing his vehicle into a car that hospitalized 5-year-old Ariel Young with life-threatening injuries. The network, shamefully, was protecting Reid and the NFL’s image by giving short-shrift to a powerful story that impacted the game. “I haven’t said this in a while,’’ Jim Nantz said at the start, “but this one could be one for the ages.’’ Generally, this telecast was one for the delete button.

Phil Simms and Boomer Esiason, CBS — Every sports studio show admires the natural sparring that defines TNT’s “Inside The NBA,’’ with Charles Barkley as the lightning rod and Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith getting licks in. But let’s not force tension to the point of silliness. For some reason, the producers of “The NFL Today’’ think a viewer would care when Simms and Esiason fire potshots at each other. Such as: chippy arguments about who had the better quarterbacking career. With Brady facing Mahomes in an all-time showdown, I don’t want to drop down a level or two and examine Phil vs. Boomer from the last century. The Nickelodeon crowd doesn’t even know they played football. If Esiason doesn’t like the phony back-and-forth — and I’ll assume he doesn’t — he should refuse to participate.

Jay Gruden, media critic — If Tony Romo’s reputation as a booth clairvoyant isn’t exactly flawless, the out-of-work coach blundered when he suggested Romo is wrong most of the time. Evidently seeking a broadcasting gig, Jon’s younger brother said, “I could do it every time. He’s only right, like, 30 percent of the time. Those are usually pretty obvious. I mean, nobody talks about the times when he’s wrong, but when he’s right, `Holy cow, he’s a genius.’ Oh, come on, man. Sure, it’s a run. Nope, it’s a pass. Sorry, I was wrong.’’ Romo backlash is inevitable when he’s making $18 million a year at CBS and when media writers such as Richard Deitsch of The Athletic, which published Jay Gruden’s comments, think they discovered Romo and remain hands-off protectors. But let’s be fair. Romo is looking smart today after declaring last week, “This is the biggest game Patrick Mahomes will ever play in for the rest of his career. He has to win this game. If he loses this game, he cannot catch Tom Brady, in my opinion.” And Romo pointed out early in Super Bowl LV that the Chiefs like to hold opposing players, which became their undoing with numerous penalties.

Zach Maskavich, Orlando TV reporter — Here’s a disturbing example of how the sports industry’s expanding gambling culture can be scandalized by a bro-dude with a phone camera. Egged on by buddies who knew he was covering Super Bowl LV and wanted any kind of inside information, Maskavich decided to disrupt a popular prop bet and time the rehearsal of the national anthem outside Raymond James Stadium: two minutes and 16 seconds. As soon as he posted the video, all hell broke loose at sportsbooks, and he was pelted by angry claims that Vegas paid him to poison the pot. I’d like to think Maskavich was trying to serve a journalistic purpose, but when he told ESPN that the reaction “was pretty funny,’’ he lost me. This was a prank, not a story, and again, I remind every betting-happy sports league and network that there are at least 10 million Americans who struggle with gambling habits, a number surely growing as legalized wagering booms scummily across the land.

Ken Rodgers, NFL documentarian — Duty requires me to add a sixth entry to They Don’t Get It. I just watched “Al Davis vs. The NFL,’’ with all the precious material and courtroom warfare to make it a can’t-miss gem in ESPN’s “30 for 30’’ series, and it was memorable, all right — I’m still numb in horror. Rodgers ruined the narrative by using a technological innovation, called “deepfake,’’ to bring back Al Davis and Pete Rozelle from the dead to tell their stories and relive the animosity. If that wasn’t grotesque enough, the stand-in “spirits’’ looked like talking wax-museum figures. “It’s magic,’’ Rodgers said. No, it’s creepy. Would the dearly missed Connor Schell, the Bristol creator largely behind the Michael Jordan and O.J. Simpson colossuses, have allowed this monstrosity anywhere near human eyeballs?

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