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Samantha Steele talks Ponder; NFL pregame shows talk tragedy, again

Samantha Steele is talking about her fiancé, something she has not done publicly at great depth. His name is Christian Ponder and if you are an NFL fan, you have no doubt heard of him. This is the new normal for Steele, a 26-year-old reporter for ESPN who in the past 16 months has replaced Erin Andrews on her network's most popular studio show (College GameDay), served as a sideline reporter on the network's Thursday-night college football package and announced her engagement to Ponder, the quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings.

"I definitely did not desire to be in a relationship that people would talk about and ask about outside of my family," Steele said. "But I don't know how it has changed anything for me with my work. It sure does not seem like it as far as the way my colleagues have treated me and how things have gone at GameDay and Thursday night. I think it's more in the social media sense and more people paying attention. Look, the term high-profile relationship for us is laughable because we are probably the biggest scrubs when it comes to the way we live our lives."

Such self-deprecation is appreciated but the truth is Steele is navigating terrain that we have never seen (at least publicly) in sports broadcasting in the United States. You want an example? On Fox NFL Sunday, analyst Jimmy Johnson suggested that Steele could "maybe teach Ponder how to throw" when referencing the Vikings' quarterback, whom he called "the worst in the league." Colleague Terry Bradshaw suggested that perhaps "the love bug" would help Ponder "step it up." You think Fox NFL Sunday will be talking about Scott Van Pelt's significant other next week? In the words of Ali G, ich don't think so.

Steele said she told her bosses and colleagues about the relationship early on, and inquired of her agent how she should approach things regarding any journalistic landmines. She said she would reconsider her assignment if she believed her relationship with Ponder posed a conflict editorially.

"I don't do anything in the same circles professionally as him," Steele said. "When it comes to doing my job and covering the sports that I cover and doing my best to do that with journalistic integrity, there has not been a single time where that has ever come up and been a problem. I understand what you are saying in the sense that there has never been something as clear-cut as this, but I did not invent this wheel. This has definitely gone on before. The main thing for us is we were going to be honest about this situation once we realized this was the real deal. Obviously, I had zero interest in people knowing about it, but once people started asking I certainly was not going to lie."

ESPN expressed its take early this year, saying via a spokesperson: "Regarding any policies, we expect any commentator to raise any relationship that could be a conflict with the sport they cover. This does not fit that scenario as she covers college football."

Professionally, Steele made great strides this year on both the sidelines and as the host of ESPNU's coverage of College GameDay. She said colleague Rece Davis often gave her performance feedback, as did her feature producers. She cited this feature on Oregon coach Chip Kelly and his offseason work in Africa as something she was particularly proud of this season.

"The great thing was in the midst of all the constructive criticism they [ESPN colleagues] gave me -- even as simple as getting in and out of breaks, things I was not used to doing with sideline stuff -- there was also a constant theme of, Have fun and be yourself," Steele said.

Obviously, Steele knew she would draw comparisons to Andrews, who previously hosted the ESPNU hour on Saturday morning and got the network's biggest college football sideline assignments.

"For the most part, I tried to stay away from that," Steele said. "I learned really quickly in this industry -- and I don't know if I am more insecure than others -- but I just don't like seeing that [comparison] stuff, whether it is positive or negative.

"That being said, it's not like I don't hear people chanting Erin's name or making a reference to her when I am walking on a sideline or at GameDay. I hear all of it. I know they don't mean it as a negative. She did such a great job, had so many people that loved her and she obviously has a huge following, I mean, I would be stupid not to think that I wasn't going to hear comparisons there. Obviously, she just left and I am new around here. That was to be expected. It was the reality of the job."

Steele's job, as I've noted before, is an odd mix of sports knowledge and sex appeal, journalism and entertainment. She has a growing social media presence -- more than 100,000 Twitter followers -- and hears from college football fans daily during the season. She says the benefit of Twitter fame (she likes playing football with people who tweet at her on GameDay sites) outweighs the negative (people name-dropping "Jessica Simpson" when Ponder is not playing well, a reference to when Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo dated the singer in 2008).

Next up for Steele is the Capital One Bowl (Georgia-Nebraska) on Jan. 1 as well College GameDay's coverage of the BCS title game on Jan. 7. She then moves on to coverage of college basketball.

"If somebody would have told me as a kid that when I was 30, I'd get to cover the Phoenix Suns for my local station, I would have thought I had made it," Steele said. "That would have been as good as it gets. I did not have plans for any of this. The biggest struggle for me this season was trying to find balance between work and the rest of my life. I hate to say it was tough because it's a relative term. I have nothing to complain about, but it was new for me to figure out how to balance being the best at my job, and also as a woman, to be a good friend, girlfriend, daughter, and all of the things away from my job that are important to me."

(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the weekend.)

1. Last week, I expressed my disgust about how CBS' The NFL Today handled the murder-suicide of Kasandra Perkins and Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher. It was as tone-deaf a sports program as I've ever seen given the severity of the news, and was properly excoriated by fans and critics equally.

The show thankfully rebounded this week with the appropriate editorial sensibilities regarding the death of Cowboys practice squad linebacker Jerry Brown Jr. and arrest of teammate Josh Brent on a charge of intoxication manslaughter after he flipped his car in an accident on Saturday evening.

There will be no over-the-top attaboys or plaudits here for The NFL Today. This is what adults should expect from a pregame show when an NFL player is involved in the death of another NFL player. Bypassing its usual opening, host James Brown came on screen with the proper sobriety and set the tone immediately: "For the second time in eight days, tragedy has struck in the NFL, this time in Dallas." Brown then voiced-over a taped feature that provided the relevant news, including an interview with the college coach of both players at Illinois, CBS Sports Television college football analyst Ron Zook.

CBS then went live to Cincinnati, where longtime Dallas sportscaster and former Cowboys quarterback Babe Laufenberg reported on the state of the team. (There was also a memorable visual of Cowboys safety Gerald Sensabaugh crying on the field.) CBS then provided viewers a four-minute recap of the murder-suicide in Kansas City that did not offer new reporting but did show important video from the funeral of Perkins as well as the thoughtful reflections of Bill Macatee, the game caller for Chiefs-Browns.

2. The NFL Today was at its most impactful during a roundtable discussion with its analysts. Shannon Sharpe, who rarely provides anything other than volume, was forceful and thoughtful on the negligence of Brent. "Often we sit up at this desk and talk about NFL players and DUIs," Sharpe said. "Josh Brent upped the ante. Because through his careless and reckless behavior -- this was not an accident -- this was careless and reckless behavior, he cost a teammate and a friend his life."

The show then shifted to a quick discussion on guns in the NFL, citing this USA Today story that surmised that three-fourths of the league's players own firearms. Finally, James Brown ended the 12-minute segment (with no commercials) by reading a prepared essay on domestic violence.

"Right now, three women per day on average are being killed by their husbands or boyfriends," Brown said. "This means since Kasandra Perkins' death last Saturday, at least 21 more women have met the same fate. Respecting and valuing women would seem to be a no-brainer, but profane language in music, the locker room or anywhere else that degrades and devalues women can contribute to attitudes and beliefs that are destructive and potentially violent."

For 12 minutes, CBS Sports (which declined comment) bypassed the chuckle-hut nonsense, product placements and over-the-top graphics and let the news dictate where it went. It was compelling and thoughtful television and what the show should aim to be weekly.

3.Fox NFL Sunday hit the right tone for the second straight week with its open as it started with a live shot from Paul Brown Stadium and host Curt Menefee speaking in a sober tone: "Like a recurring nightmare, the NFL is once again in a state of shock and sadness after another tragedy leaves one Dallas player dead and another behind bars." The show then headed to Cincinnati, where reporter Laura Okmin interviewed Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on the state of the team.

Menefee then gave the audience some background on Brent's previous DUI before bringing in reporter Jay Glazer, who provided details of how Cowboys coach Jason Garrett informed his team of the accident and information on the programs that are available to NFL players for car transportation. The only analyst who weighed in on the manslaughter was Michael Strahan, who offered thoughts and prayers from Fox but nothing discussion-worthy compared to CBS. (Strahan said Brent made a "bad decision.") The opening segment lasted five minutes and included a thoughtful graphic honoring the birth and death of Jerry Brown. Fox returned to its normal NFL coverage after the first break.

Where Fox massively abdicated its editorial responsibility on Sunday was with its coverage (or lack of it) on the Kansas City story. There was zero follow-up on the murder-suicide of an NFL player, not even a cursory recap of the news that broke the following week from the release of police footage to player reaction to the state of Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli after watching a man kill himself in front of them. (Thankfully, Fox did make time for a four-minute segment featuring comedian Rob Riggle in Hawaii and some beautiful-looking women in bikinis.)

Said a Fox spokesperson on Sunday night: "Fox NFL Sunday covered this unfortunate, tragic story in the most respectful and thorough way possible. Our thoughts and prayers remain with all of the family members affected by this situation."

3a. ESPN's Cris Carter offered a strong take on the manslaughter in Dallas. "In the National Football League, they go to the max as far as the amount of money that they spend on the substance abuse program," Carter said. "I know this personally. I was involved in the program for my whole career, all right. I know the type of information. There are no excuses, all right. It comes down to decisions... Roger Goodell, there's only one answer for all of this. The only thing the players know, the modern-day athlete understands, is take him off the field."

3b. Worth noting is ESPN canceled its comic piece with Frank Caliendo for the second straight week. "Our producers felt it would not be appropriate to air," an ESPN spokesperson said.

3c. The NFL Network's First on the Field show went with its traditional opening -- featuring Sterling Sharpe screaming at viewers -- but co-host Melissa Stark provided a solid nuts-and-bolt recap of the Cowboys story, including video of where Brent's vehicle jumped a curve and flipped. NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport followed with live reporting from Cincinnati that included information about Brent's previous arrest and jail time and some insight into his driving habits. NFLN showed the statement from Brent in an on-screen graphic and informed viewers it would continue updating the story throughout the day. Good work.

3d. NBC hit on both the Cowboys and Chiefs stories in its Football Night in America pregame show, including some serious candor from analysts Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison. The transcripts:

Dungy: "As an NFL coach, you're coaching very, very young men. So I would always talk at the first team meeting of the year. I would talk about decision making, about drugs and alcohol and parties, and late hours. You just constantly preach to them all year -- make good decisions. Every Friday I used to tell our team after practice, Be smart, get home early, don't drink and drive. But you come in Saturday morning, and every coach says this, not just me, but you come in Saturday morning and you just hope everyone gets there."

Harrison: "You coaches do a great job relaying that message each and every Friday. But at 25 years old, I'll have to admit, I was a guy who went out. I partied on Friday. I had three or four drinks, and I got behind the wheel and drove home. Why? Because I thought I felt invincible. 'Oh, nothing would happen to me.' But the older I got, I started gaining perspective. I started realizing what was important. Suddenly, I became that guy who would preach to the younger players about family, about career and about the dangers of DUI."

Dungy: "I couldn't tell them not to go out, because I knew they were going out. But be smart. Come home at 12 o'clock. If you're going to drink, use the vehicles, the car service, and be smart about it. But you just don't know if they're listening."

4. Fox Soccer Channel's analysts showed honest outrage during halftime of Saturday's Arsenal-West Brom game after a disgraceful dive by Arsenal's Santi Cazorla. The acting job drew a penalty kick. "He is never going to live that down," analyst Eric Wynalda said. "This happened a long time ago in Germany with Andreas Möller. He was suspended for eight weeks. Eight weeks without pay, and I think that should be the similar case here if you want it to stop. It's embarrassing. I'm embarrassed."

Fellow analyst Warren Barton followed up with "worse even still is that he holds his leg afterward. Awful." Host Rob Stone also weighed in: "Go Big Brother on these guys. Hit them." There's a tendency -- especially among NFL-type shows -- to come off like tough guys for the sake of tough guy-dom, but this crew took the right tenor, even if Wynalda's call for eight games was way over the top. Props.

4a. Disgraceful work by some of those same Fox Soccer commentators the previous Sunday when they made fun of an overweight Sunderland fan. Nothing worse than when ex-jocks and the handsome crowd start mocking those in the stands. Appropriately, Stone apologized on his Twitter feed for this nonsense after being called out on it.

5. CBS aired three of the top four most-watched regular-season college football telecasts of the 2012 season, including the most-watched tilt: Alabama's defeat of Georgia in the SEC Championship on Dec. 1. That game drew 16.2 million viewers, just topping ESPN's broadcast of Notre Dame-USC on Nov. 24 (16.1 million). CBS' coverage of Alabama-LSU on Nov. 3 came in third (11.4 million viewers), followed by Texas A&M-Alabama on CBS on Nov. 10 (9.6 million).

5a. As the home of all things Notre Dame football and without any NHL games, the NBC Sports Network will feature 10 hours of Irish football programming on Jan. 1, including re-airs of Notre Dame's wins over Michigan, Stanford, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest.

5b. ESPN released its bowl schedule last week and the network will show 34 games, including at least one a day for 16 out of the 19 days from Dec. 20 to Jan. 7. The most prominent, obviously, comes Jan 7 when Notre Dame and Alabama play for the BCS national championship. Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit will work their sixth consecutive BCS title game. The sideline reporters will be Heather Cox and Tom Rinaldi. Mike Tirico and Todd Blackledge will call the game on ESPN Radio, with reporters Holly Rowe and Joe Schad working the sideline.

5c. The Fang's Bites blog has released its annual college football broadcasting awards.

6. Plenty of you were curious whether NBC Sports management vetted Bob Costas' essay last week about gun access. There's no way Costas could go on the air at halftime of the network's Sunday-night NFL game with such a politicized message without clearing it with his bosses. Confirmed an NBC Sports spokesperson: "The commentary is vetted editorially by our production leadership team but the opinions expressed are Bob's."

6a. Turner Sports NBA analyst Charles Barkley revealed on NBC Sports Network's Costas Tonight last week that he always carried a gun as an athlete. "I carried a gun in my car, every year of my life since I was 20," Barkley said. "I never had to use it. I just feel safer with it because we have jocks who get robbed all the time, road rage and things like that. I feel a sense of peace when I have it with me, but it would take extreme circumstances for me to even touch it."

7. You know what's rare? An NFL analyst who cops to being wrong. Here's ESPN's Ron Jaworski on Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson: "I take a lot of pride in my prep of the college players coming in, and I thought Russell Wilson would be a good, solid backup quarterback for a decade in the NFL. He's come in and shown incredible poise, a pocket awareness, the strong arm and the ability to make plays.

"We all have a tendency to look at stats because that's kind of a primary thing to value players, but what's been impressive with Russell Wilson is he has made plays when the game has been tied or they're behind. The majority of his touchdown passes come in critical situations, and I'm a big believer in quarterbacks that manage critical situations.

"I'm very impressed with the way he's playing, and quite honestly, I'm surprised. I did not see this coming."

7a. ESPN and the NFL Network have owned the conversation on television in the run-up week to the Super Bowl, but into this space comes CBS with a week-long programming block on the CBS Sports Network and other platforms in January. The network says it will broadcast 15 different shows from New Orleans before Super Bowl XLVII across multiple CBS platforms (television, radio, digital). I don't get excited over the prospect of more ex-jocks yapping endlessly, but I like the idea of competition across the networks and the possibility of Phil Simms challenging someone else to a rumble, as he did two years ago in Dallas with Desmond Howard. The Multichannel News has a breakdown of CBS Sports' plans here.

7b. James Brown conducted an excellent interview on The NFL Today with former New Orleans lineman Anthony Hargrove and his agent, Phil Williams, on the Saints' bounty program. It's worth the watch.

7c. The NFL says its games have topped the ratings in local markets a record 92 percent of the time this season -- up from 88 percent through Week 13 last season.

7d. Former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar's rambling, near-incoherent interview with Cleveland's WKNR-AM was a tough listen and highlighted a debate sports-talk hosts and producers often have: When do you cut off a radio guest when he or she starts going off the rails? When the line goes from compelling to disturbing, that's when you pull the guest. Kosar eventually spoke to the Cleveland Plain Dealer and said he was surprised by the reaction.

7e. Jimmy Johnson went all-in on Ponder during Fox NFL Sunday: "Christian Ponder the last couple of months has been horrible, the worst quarterback in the league. He is really struggling. Right now, he is playing scared. He is throwing check downs. Check downs might get you field goals but not touchdowns."

8. Among the memorable sports pieces this week:

• ESPN's Elizabeth Merrill offered a sensational look at Kansas City in mourning after the murder of Perkins and suicide of Belcher.

• Here's a fascinating piece from N + 1 on playing basketball in Afghanistan.

• Notre Dame alum and Washington Post reporter Melinda Henneberger crushed the university's administration for what she perceived as abdicating responsibility over its handling of the suicide of 19-year-old St. Mary's student Lizzy Seeberg.

•The headline over this thought-provoking piece by The Nation's Jessica Valenti? "Kasandra Perkins Did Not Have To Die."

8a. Two non-sports links you should check out include: This Washington Post gallery of newspaper front pages after the Pearl Harbor attacks, and an oral history of the Tunnel nightclub from Complex Magazine.

8b. SiriusXM sports-talk host Chris Russo has a long history of saying implausible things. He dropped another one last week about a sport he is as well-versed in as I am on the economy of Burma. Said Russo on college football: "If the SEC is so great, why are there so many coaching changes?" We'll let that sit there for the college football fans here.

9. The intersection of Deadspin and ESPN has often produced fireworks -- as well as the occasional pink gorilla sighting -- but last week's story featuring an ESPN vice president allegedly asserting to a group of Maryland journalism students that a love triangle was the reason for Deadspin's aggressive coverage of alleged plagiarism at ESPN.com offered a new level of surreal. It also provoked the interest of media watchers, from Jim Romenesko to Reuters.

Amid this circus was one of the more remarkable statements ever uttered by a communications department and one that made me a feel bad for the PR practitioner who put forth the statement on behalf of management and not on behalf of good journalism.

"We stand by our original comments, which suggested that even though multiple legitimate news sources were used to gather background information, we should always recite even the most basic facts in an original voice," said the spokesperson, sounding about as direct as Lombard Street in San Francisco. "Given that the level of attention to these posts has now significantly exceeded the relative importance of those items to our site's archives, we will be removing or amending them in the near future and moving on."

I'll link the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics here in case anyone is interested.

10. Miscellaneous File: Sports Business Journal ratings editor Austin Karp reports that NBA TV averaged 157,000 prime-time viewers in November, up 504 percent from the same period last year when the network was without live games due to the lockout. It's also up 35 percent from 2010. Karp also reports that the NBC Sports Network is down 45 percent in its November prime-time audience from a year ago. Obviously, the network is getting crushed without NHL programming.

10a. Word broke late Sunday night on a content and promotional partnership between Yahoo! Sports and NBC Sports. Each site will maintain editorial control of its own newsroom and digital properties but will collaborate on news and event coverage. Given the scale of the two entities, it's a marriage that bears close watching.

10b. ESPN2's SportsNation is moving to Los Angeles at the end of December and gets a new co-host (Marcellus Wiley) for ESPN Radio host Colin Cowherd, who can now focus more of his time on socioeconomic overgeneralizations and picking NFL winners. The show's buzz is significantly down since the departure of Michelle Beadle, and you don't need a weatherman to know the way the wind is blowing for the long term. That being said, SportsNation co-host Charissa Thompson is wicked funny on Twitter and is recommended on that social media service.

10c. HBO's Jim Lampley, sports media knucklehead of the week.