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Time For Rachel Nichols To Sue The Pants Off Mickey Mouse

“When the truth is painful, Bristol never looks inward. Rather, it takes the sinister, corporate way out and blames the in-house messenger. Nichols is not the problem, and if she were to flee a cutthroat industry and focus on raising her twin daughters with her husband, she can’t leave without first pointing out that ESPN IS THE PROBLEM.”

Jay Mariotti

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The N in ESPN now should belong to Nichols. If she so desires, Rachel Nichols can take on the dreaded Disney Company attorneys — the ones battling Scarlett Johansson in another courtroom — and sue her soon-to-be-former employer for, among other sins, invasion of privacy. She probably won’t because NBA commissioner Adam Silver respects her and could direct her parachute toward TNT, where she’ll continue what has been lost in this farcical drama: her highly credible work as a host and sideline reporter.     

But it’s time someone challenges the Worldwide Leader in Dysfunction. No matter who is running the company, there’s a Kremlin-like stench in the halls of Bristol that turns power into perversion and talented sports media people into poisoned pawns. ESPN thinks it can conveniently cancel Nichols because she wasn’t an obedient puppet, because she dared to criticize the company for past flaws in diversity hiring while painting herself as a prime-time victim in shameless catch-up efforts.     

When the truth is painful, Bristol never looks inward. Rather, it takes the sinister, corporate way out and blames the in-house messenger. Nichols is not the problem, and if she were to flee a cutthroat industry and focus on raising her twin daughters with her husband, she can’t leave without first pointing out that ESPN IS THE PROBLEM.

To recap, Nichols learned last year that she was being replaced on the network’s game-day/night showcase, “NBA Countdown,’’ by Maria Taylor. Nichols is White. Taylor is Black. Amid the tense, fraught cultural churn of 2020, Nichols wondered what she had done to deserve the demotion — she and her self-created weekday NBA show, “The Jump,’’ have been nominated for Sports Emmy awards — and said so in a phone conversation with Adam Mendelsohn, a heavy public-relations hitter who advises LeBron James on subjects including political activism.     

‘‘I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world — she covers football, she covers basketball,” Nichols told Mendelsohn. ‘‘If you need to give her more things to do because you are feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity — which, by the way, I know personally from the female side of it — like, go for it. Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or taking my thing away.”     

Should she have kept those flammable thoughts to herself, expressing them only to her closest family members? Yes. But here’s why Nichols has a robust legal case: She was speaking in what she believed was the privacy of her room inside a Disney-owned hotel, at Walt Disney World, where a Disney-owned media company assigned her to the Bubble-ized pandemic season of Disney’s business partner, the NBA, and expected her to remain isolated with players, coaches and league personnel. She was in ESPN lockdown, away from her family for months, and if Paul George and other NBA players spoke of the emotional upheaval in a hellish experience, imagine learning in the early weeks of that Bubble that you’re losing your high-profile gig.     

Furthermore, imagine venting to a confidante in such a freaky, surreal and unprecedented space — and not realizing Big Brother was listening. George Orwell would be fascinated to know that someone in ESPN’s vast production empire hadn’t turned off the network’s video camera installed in Nichols’ room, a device required of reporters appearing on air during the pandemic. Her comments were being recorded on a server, which is crack cocaine to the sort of divisive creeps who scheme to backstab people inside media companies. Next thing you knew, the Rachel Tape was strategically distributed like cancer throughout the company. Taylor was made aware, as were her colleagues in ESPN’s basketball division, many of whom are Black. By the time the audio reached the in-box of company president Jimmy Pitaro, Bristol had yet another internal scandal. Only this one was boiling in the summer of Black Lives Matter.     

What happened next should be chilling to young aspirants who think advancement in media is about outworking, outsmarting and outproducing the competition. You can be out-sleazed and out-politicked without having the slightest idea. Behind the scenes, some of the very people who worked with Nichols on her shows were conspiring against her, demanding that she be reprimanded. For months, the Disney bosses — Pitaro, NBA programming chief Stephanie Druley, longtime Disney czar Bob Iger, incoming Disney boss Bob Chapek — did not address a dangerous situation and fueled the raging fires. While Nichols kept working, Taylor and her supporters felt ignored by management. Never has a strong leadership strategy been more critical and urgent at ESPN. And never has leadership been more miserably inept and missing, as underlined by Silver before Game 1 of an NBA Finals interrupted by the Nichols-Taylor fireworks, which followed a New York Times report detailing Nichols’ comments in the tape.     

“This is an incident that happened I guess when Rachel was in the bubble a year ago, and I would have thought that in the past year, maybe through some incredibly difficult conversations that ESPN would have found a way to be able to work through it. Obviously not,’’ said Silver, adding that it was “particularly unfortunate that two women in the industry are pitted against each other’’ and that Nichols and Taylor are “terrific at what they do.’’     

Unconscionably, ESPN pointed the entirety of blame at … Nichols. With millions fixed on the Finals and the surrounding dissension, the company removed her from sideline duties, effectively appeasing Taylor (and her supporters) and hoping she would sign a contract extension to remain as host of major NBA shows. Yet she flipped her own bird at Bristol after the Finals, leaving immediately for NBC, which flew her to Tokyo for Summer Olympics duties. Her departure was bemoaned publicly by Pitaro, whose failures looked even worse. He could have apologized publicly for the snafu, but an embrace of self-accountability is not the ESPN corporate way, even when Silver is critical.     

The bosses waited until this week, with sports at its low ebb on the 2021 calendar and America on a pre-Labor Day pause, to fire one last bullet at Nichols. They removed her from all NBA programming, canceled “The Jump’’ and weren’t shy in saying privately that she’ll never appear again on an ESPN platform. Pitaro didn’t attach himself to a statement, leaving those duties to Dave Roberts, now in charge of what will be significantly revamped NBA programming. “We mutually agreed that this approach regarding our NBA coverage was best for all concerned,” said Roberts, who is Black and replaces Druley, who is White. “Rachel is an excellent reporter, host and journalist, and we thank her for her many contributions to our NBA content.”     

In the end, no one wins. Taylor left. Nichols is gone. And after years upon years of botched decisions in its NBA division, ESPN continues to humiliate itself while TBS — catapulted by the universally acclaimed “Inside The NBA’’ studio program — shows how professional broadcasting is executed.     

A cynic would say this is how business is conducted in the 21st century. I’d say it’s a horrific way to treat a long-valued employee who needlessly has been dumped due to a company’s cowardly, naked fear of racial backlash. I always hesitate drawing from my own experiences at ESPN, knowing some people think I hold a grudge for a long-ago parting of ways. In truth, unlike industry climbers who view Bristol as a destination, I have no interest in working there again — and have the advantage of teaching people how the place operates.     

In the first and only legal matter of my life, which later was completely expunged while I was prevailing in a civil case, ESPN immediately yanked me from ‘’Around The Horn,’’ where I had appeared almost daily for eight years. If it was the company’s right to sit me while waiting out the legal process, the show was irresponsible in letting panelists condemn me on the very next program when no charges had been filed — with one participating panelist later confiding they’d been asked to comment by the producers. Did ESPN consider how those comments might influence the case?     

Nah. There was a hidden agenda, you see. As president John Skipper told me during a Malibu dinner chat in 2013, the network needed “diversity’’ on “Around The Horn,’’ a goal that came to fruition with numerous new faces in coming years. As a champion of diversity, I always thought the five-white-guy look on the show was awful. My problem was that Skipper and company executives were mounting their initiative at my personal and professional expense. 

The same could be said about Nichols, of course. Correcting a “crappy longtime record on diversity,’’ to quote her, comes with the careless price of collateral career damage. For now, she is staying above the fray, tweeting, “Got to create a whole show and spend five years hanging out with some of my favorite people talking about one my favorite things … An eternal thank you to our amazing producers & crew — The Jump was never built to last forever but it sure was fun. More to come …”     

But considering Disney Company also might be involved in a crime — in Florida and Connecticut, both parties on a phone call must consent to being recorded or eavesdrop-monitored — then, yeah, Rachel Nichols could own the S in ESPN, too.     

As in, Scapegoat.

BSM Writers

NBC Must Develop a Real No. 2 NFL Crew for Playoffs

Is the network’s only other option Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett?

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Several years ago, the NFL objected to NBC wanting to employ Mike Tirico as the lead play-by-play voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts. The league preferred Al Michaels because he was NBC’s No. 1 NFL play-by-play announcer and wanted the TNF telecasts to carry the same prestige as Sunday Night Football.

Following the network’s heavily-criticized broadcast of Saturday’s Wild Card playoff game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFL may want to impose its authority again and insist that a top-tier broadcast team call the action of an important postseason game.

The consensus among fans and media watching Saturday’s broadcast was that Michaels and analyst Tony Dungy were surprisingly low-energy for an NFL playoff game, let alone one that became so exciting with Jacksonville rallying from a 27-0 deficit for a 31-30 victory on a last-second field goal.

Such a lackluster broadcast led to questions of whether or not Michaels was now past his prime after a season of calling subpar TNF games for Amazon and what initially appeared to be another snoozer when the Jaguars fell behind by 27 points. Pairing him with Dungy, who was a studio analyst all season, certainly didn’t help.

Dungy was as basic as a game analyst could be, typically narrating replays viewers could see for themselves while adding little insight. Worst of all, he demonstrated no enthusiasm for the action, leaving Michaels to fill most of the airtime. The veteran broadcaster showed that he can no longer carry a broadcast by himself. He needs the energy and back-and-forth that Cris Collinsworth or Kirk Herbstreit provide.

So how did NBC get here?

Most football fans know that the network’s top broadcast team is Tirico on play-by-play alongside analyst Cris Collinsworth. But they had their own assignment during Super Wild Card Weekend, calling Sunday night’s Ravens-Bengals match-up. With the postseason field expanding from 12 to 14 teams, resulting in six games being played on Wild Card weekend, NBC was awarded one of the additional playoff broadcasts.

Thus, another broadcast team was needed for that second Wild Card game. Fortunately, NBC had a renowned play-by-play man already in place. Michaels finished out his final season as SNF‘s lead voice by calling Super Bowl LVI, part of a powerful one-two combination for NBC Sports coming toward the end of its 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics coverage.

Ending his legendary career with a Super Bowl broadcast would’ve been a wonderful final note for Michaels. That appeared to be a natural path when Tirico moved from ESPN to NBC in 2016. Network executives admitted that a succession plan was in mind for Tirico to take over SNF eventually. At the time, Michaels also likely thought he would retire by then.

But when confronted with the possibility of retirement, Michaels realized he wasn’t interested. He was still enjoying broadcasting the NFL. His skills were still sharp. And perhaps most importantly, he was in demand. Amazon wanted Michaels as the lead voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts, bringing instant credibility to a streaming venture that drew some skepticism. ESPN considered him as its Monday Night Football play-by-play man.

As it turned out, ESPN made a bold move for MNF, swiping Fox’s No. 1 NFL crew of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. That left Amazon for Michaels, and the streaming giant paid him a commensurate salary with the top broadcasters in the industry as part of his three-year contract.

Yet Michaels wasn’t done with NBC either. After his agreement with Amazon became official, NBC announced that its relationship with Michaels would continue in an “emeritus” role allowing him to broadcast the network’s Olympics coverage and that additional Wild Card playoff telecast.

NBC can’t have been happy that most of the social media chatter afterward focused on the broadcast, rather than the game result. Especially when the discussion centered on how poorly Michaels and Dungy performed in what turned out to be a thrilling playoff game. That’s a pairing that the NFL probably doesn’t want to see again.

Michaels will likely call at least one more Wild Card playoff game for NBC since he intends to work on the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. He’s also under contract with Amazon for another two seasons unless he decides to retire before that deal expires. So perhaps the simple solution is keeping Dungy out of the broadcast booth and giving Michaels a better partner.

But can NBC drop in another analyst who hasn’t worked with Michaels all season? Anyone would arguably be an improvement over Dungy. Is it at all possible for Herbstreit to be hired on for a one-off playoff broadcast, thus ensuring that the broadcast team will have some on-air familiarity and chemistry?

Otherwise, NBC’s only other option may be its Notre Dame broadcast team of Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett. (The network tried that last season with Tirico and Drew Brees, only for Brees to wilt under the harsher NFL playoff spotlight.)

The pair also called USFL broadcasts for the network, so at least there would be familiarity rather than trying to figure each other out during a telecast. Yet Collinsworth and Garrett aren’t terribly popular with viewers. And as with Brees, that crew will face intense scrutiny with a larger playoff audience.

Unfortunately, NBC appears to be stuck here. Unless the new Big Ten broadcast team of Noah Eagle and Todd Blackledge gets a shot. That might be the best option! Other than Notre Dame or USFL games, where are the other opportunities for NBC to develop a No. 2 NFL broadcast team? No one wants to put Al Michaels through Chris Simms in the broadcast booth, right?

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BSM Writers

Al Michaels Has Options But He Has To Make a Choice

“It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.”

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I don’t ask much out of game announcers; get excited when appropriate, get the simple information correct, don’t get so caught up in your shtick you put yourself above the game. Al Michaels has been doing all those things well for the better part of half a century and few would argue that he’s not one of the best to ever do it. That doesn’t mean he can’t lose his fastball.

Before you read any longer, I am not here to say Al Michaels has lost his fastball. What I am here to say is Michaels has all too often this season seemed upset with and disinterested in the game he is calling. That isn’t entirely surprising when you consider some of the Thursday night action he called on Amazon Prime where the average margin of victory was almost nine points per game.

On top of that, the Amazon schedule had a dreadful two week stretch with Colts 12-9 win over the Broncos in Week Five and the Commanders 12-7 win over the Bears the next Thursday. It was in that Broncos-Colts game Michaels asked Herbstreit if a game “can be so bad it is good?” Herbstreit’s answer was “No”, by the way. It was the full 15 game schedule that Michaels told The Athletic’s media critic Richard Deitsch was like trying to sell a used car.

All of that is fine, the inaugural Amazon Prime season was not a smashing success. The streaming giant missed audience projections and will lose advertising revenue because of it. The lackluster schedule did not help that. But Michaels was given a second life; he was the NBC play-by-play announcer for the Saturday Night Wildcard Playoff game between the Chargers and Jaguars. It initially looked like Michaels might be the problem as five first half Jags turnovers had them in a 27-0 hole. But the home team staged a nearly unprecedented comeback for the win.

It was the performance by Michaels and, to a lesser degree, his analyst Tony Dungy that has led to criticism. Criticism might be too soft of a word, Michaels was roundly dragged for his lack of enthusiasm during the comeback and specifically on his call of the Jacksonville game winning field goal. The enthusiasm of the call of the game winner had a mid-3rd quarter of week four feel to it.

Me telling Al Michaels how to do play-by-play of an NFL game would be the equivalent of me telling a physicist how to split an atom. So, this isn’t just a Michaels criticism, few things bother me more than hearing a game announcer complain about the length or quality of a game as if he’d rather be anywhere else. It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.

How many NFL viewers would sit in the seat Michaels, or any NFL announcer occupies, for free? They’d feel like they won the lottery if they also were getting the money those announcers are getting paid to be there. The guy that works a 12-hour Thursday construction shift just to get home and crack a beer for the NFL game probably doesn’t want to hear how tough that game is to announce.

On top of all of that, Michaels was given the gift of one of the wildest NFL Playoff comebacks you’ll ever see and, at times, sounded as if he was completely disinterested in being there. Pro tip: the best NFL announcer in those moments is Kevin Harlan (see: Miami at Baltimore from earlier this season. That has nothing to do with my lifelong Dolphins fandom). Michaels’ lack of enthusiasm was compounded by the exact opposite from Mike Tirico on the very same network for the Bengals-Ravens Wildcard game Sunday night. 

Tirico, like Michaels, has a sterling resume of play-by-play accomplishments. The difference is Tirico sounded like he was having the time of his life on Sunday night. 

To be fair, their two styles are different. Michaels has a very old school, Pat Summerall approach. Summerall, Vin Scully and Dick Enberg came along at a time when announcers were far more likely to let the pictures tell the story. More new school guys like Harlan and Tirico approach it differently.

Look, Al Michaels helped us believe in miracles. His place in the Sports Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame has long since been cemented. Being a hall of fame inductee doesn’t mean your style will forever be accepted by the masses. That leaves you with a few options; you can continue your style and accept or ignore the criticism or you can ride off into the sunset and enjoy the fruits of your decades of labor.

Al Michaels has what we all want; great options. He can choose any of them and be a winner in the game of life. It doesn’t matter if he enthusiastically embraces them, or not. 

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BSM Writers

Bernie Kosar Was the Victim of a Policy That Doesn’t Work Anymore

“The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.”

Demetri Ravanos

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One week ago, Bernie Kosar lost his job on the Browns Radio Network for placing the first legal sports bet in the state of Ohio. Kosar, just like Jets coach Miles Austin weeks earlier and Calvin Ridley last year, violated a league policy that forbids team employees from placing a bet on any NFL game.

The integrity of the games still matters. The belief that what we are all seeing is being fairly contested is what gives those of us that like to have a little vested interest in the outcome the desire to lay our money down in the first place. I get the league’s discomfort with a coach on the staff of a team in the middle of the playoff hunt making bets. I get its fear of the message it sends to have players making bets.

Roger Goodell and the 32 team owners are well within their rights to object to men that can potentially control the outcome of a game or postseason seeding doing anything that even appears to jeopardize its fairness. Even perceived impropriety can compromise the league’s tremendous value.

But Bernie Kosar doesn’t have that kind of influence on the outcome of a game. He is just a broadcaster and not even a game analyst. He is part of studio coverage.

I am far from the first to point this out, but in 2023, the NFL has three official sports betting partners. Just last week, it approved the first ever in-stadium sportsbook, which Fanatics is set to open inside of FedEx Field. If the NFL is comfortable enough with the reality that its fans like to bet to make those things a reality, then Kosar losing his gig is absurd. It is the result of nothing other than “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking.

Maybe Kosar was terrible on the radio and the team was looking for a reason to move on. I don’t live in Cleveland and I am not a Browns fan, so I have no idea.

How many times have we heard that NFL owners hired Goodell to “protect the shield”? I’m not even really sure what it means or when it applies anymore. If I had a vested interest in the public perception of the league, I know that I would want someone to do the PR math on this situation.

Bernie Kosar isn’t an addict that can’t watch a game without the high of winning or the emotional distress of losing everything at stake, at least not as far as we know. This was a bet made through an advertising partner, to benefit charity. He even said on his podcast this week that the purpose of making the bet was to generate some money for former players in need of help.

This is like Disney threatening daycare centers with lawsuits for painting Mickey Mouse on a classroom wall. The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.

Surely you have seen Garrett Bush’s impassioned rant on the Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show about the obstacles facing Damar Hamlin because of how many hoops the NFL makes former players jump through in order to get some kind of pension.

On January 2, we were all united in our concern for a guy that hadn’t even completed his second full NFL season. We didn’t know if he was going to live, but if he did, we all knew that the NFL had done everything it needed to in order to protect itself from ever having to pay a dime for his medical care. Less than a week later, Bernie Kosar was fired for what amounted to a charity stunt that was meant to raise money and attention to very similar issues.

At both the league level and the team level, there was incompetence that lead to a man unnecessarily losing a gig and to the Browns and the NFL looking horribly out of touch with reality.

Are we acknowledging that people gamble or not? Are we acknowledging there are responsible ways to bet on football and are interested in generating revenue off of it or not? Because it doesn’t seem to me that the same league that just gave the thumbs up to open a sportsbook inside of a stadium is really that concerned with people that cannot affect the outcome of games betting on those games.

Has the NFL come out and said that it is going to cover every medical bill for everyone that has ever played the game? We know that this is a brutal game that leaves a physical and physiological impact on the men that played it. Why would we make it harder for someone that knows that pain to help others do something about it?

I feel awful for Bernie Kosar. Whether he needs the money or not, it is embarassing to be at the center of a controversy like this, particularly because in the NFL in 2023, there is no reason for a controversy like this to exist.

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