John Madden discusses the current state of football broadcasting
Here’s a John Madden story you probably don’t know.
After NBC gained the rights to broadcast the Thanksgiving primetime game starting with the 2012 NFL season, Sunday Night Football producer Fred Gaudelli, director Drew Esocoff and broadcasters Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth invited Madden to dinner at an Italian restaurant in the North Beach section of San Francisco. They carried with them a secret plan: Convince the former broadcaster to come out of retirement to call one final NFL game. It was a tasty idea – the man who made the turducken famous calling one last game on Thanksgiving night – and they even pitched Madden on doing a West Coast regular season game near Madden’s northern California home. But Madden would have none of it. “We were shot down in five seconds,” Gaudelli said.
There will be no television comebacks for the most famous NFL broadcaster alive. Sure, he misses the camaraderie of his former sports broadcasting colleagues. Same with traveling the country in his eponymous Madden Cruiser like a pigskin-loving pied piper. But there is no going back to his previous life, not even for a one-time assignment with former employers CBS, Fox or NBC.
“Because I don’t do that anymore,” Madden said this week in an interview with SI.com. “I really have too much respect for the craft. I know what goes into it and I know what you have to do to do it. To assume I could not do it for six years and then come back and do it one time would be a stupid assumption on my part. The game changes. And the game not only changes from year-to-year but week-to-week. It is a complicated and complex thing. To think you could come back and broadcast at any level that would be accepted, I don’t have that kind of ego.”
At 78, wealthy beyond imagination and enjoying his post-broadcasting life in Pleasanton, Ca., Madden’s voice is a step slower but he is an upbeat interview. He is also not dour about aging.
“The best thing about getting older is knowing history,” Madden said. “The longer you live, the longer you have been in a sport, the more you know, and the more you know where things started. I heard some guy the other day talking about Kurt Warner when he was playing with the Rams. He talked about him throwing short and the receiver coming back to catch the pass. Said that was the first back shoulder fade route. I remember Johnny Unitas used to throw a back shoulder fade to Raymond Berry. I collect coaches’ playbooks [Madden has playbooks from Vince Lombardi, Weeb Ewbank and Sid Gillman among others] to figure out where things came from and no matter what is being done in football, it has usually been done before by someone. Younger people who don’t study history might think the league started with Joe Montana. Or even Peyton Manning. So when you ask me about the best thing about aging, the answer is knowing history and I’m proud of that. And that’s what I love about the Hall of Fame too.”
Canton is ever-present in Madden’s mind given he will be a presenter (he will introduce his former Raiders punter Ray Guy) at the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies on Aug. 2. The Hall of Fame weekend is one Madden really enjoys and he gets excited talking about the picture he has on his cell phone of 92-year-old Charley Trippi, the top overall pick in the 1945 NFL draft and the oldest player in the NFL Hall of Fame. “He scored six touchdowns in one game – six different ways!” Madden said.
Hall of Fame officials always distribute a list of the members who will be in Canton for the ceremony and each year Madden said he attempts to meet up with everyone on the list, crossing off names as if taking attendance in middle school. Guy is the third member of the Raiders (Al Davis and Dave Casper are the others) who Madden has presented at the Hall.
“When Bum Phillips was coaching the Oilers he said, 'We keep kicking the door and one of these days we are going to kick it down,'” Madden said. “I think that is where Ray Guy was. You are there, you are at the door, and one of these days you will kick it open and that was kind how I felt about him. I knew he belonged and deserved to be at the Hall of Fame.”
Madden has been out of broadcasting since 2009, but he is not out of the NFL. He and Ronnie Lott are the co-chairmen of the NFL Player Safety Advisory Panel and Madden is the unpaid chairman of the coaches subcommittee of the competition committee. He remains as interested in the game as ever. Three miles from his home Madden has a 7,000-square foot sound stage where he and about 100 friends and family spend Sundays watching the NFL when Madden is not attending Raiders’ home games. The sound stage has nine 63-inch HD television screens and in the middle is a 16-foot-by-9-foot theater screen (this terrific Sports on Earth piece by Dan Pompei gives you a glimpse into the football Shangri-La) that features the biggest game of the day.
“You miss the people you spent time on the road with,” Madden said. “I miss talking to players and coaches and traveling I miss too. I really loved that. To not have that is the biggest thing. Having said that, I do not want to go back and do it again. You end up picking up grandkids. I have five grandkids and it seems like they play a game every day -- baseball, soccer, whatever. You lose the travel and camaraderie and the games and teams, but the trade off is pretty damn good.”
Is there a broadcaster working today Madden wishes he could have worked with during his career? The answer is no. “I have a lot of respect for Pat Summerall and Al Michaels and I don’t think there are any of those right now,” Madden said. “But I respect the game and what broadcasters do. It’s tougher than when I did it with all the reviews and up-tempo play and less time for replays. It’s a different thing. I would never be one to critique the announcers when I watched games. I try to watch the play and listen to the broadcasters and what they are pointing out. I was never one to say this one was good or bad.”
Gaudelli said broadcasters today could learn a lot from how Madden worked. “I could fill a book on it including the ability to communicate the intricacies of football without a having to use technical jargon that less than one percent of the audience understands and putting the audience ahead of your preparation,” Gaudelli said. “That means having the ability to instantly change gears to report what is actually happening versus what you came in prepared to speak about. Also, constantly being aware, observant and curious.”
Last week news came down that CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus would allow his broadcasters, if they so chose, not to use the word Redskins. How would Madden have approached using the team’s nickname on-air?
“I probably would not get caught up in that stuff and try to do the right thing or whatever you are supposed to do,” Madden says. “You go back to the pronunciation of guys’ names: I always studied and worked on that because I always thought it was very embarrassing to not know someone’s name or be able to pronounce it properly. I think that’s bad. It’s also bad to mispronounce a name. I think it’s bad to laugh at a name too. I can’t pronounce that so I’m just going to call him ‘Whoops’? That’s not what his name is. So I always tried to do what you were supposed to do and what is right. Whatever adjustment had to be made I would have made.”
I asked Madden if Al Davis would have drafted Michael Sam if he was convinced he could play for the Raiders. “Yes, he would have,” Madden said. “He would have brought anyone to the Raiders who would have helped the team…But I think that’s a coach's job. You have players from all over and then you have to take them and mold them into a 53-man unit plus an eight-man practice squad. You have to be able to use them and get them to work together. If they do those things, it will be fine. Sometimes we jump to social or other issues and we forget the first one which is fitting in, learning the defense, and adding to the defense. All those things come first.”
Though he never had interest in extending his broadcasting career beyond the NFL, Madden did once host a travelogue show for CBS in 1985 where he interviewed athletes around the country including Larry Bird and Jack Nicklaus. Madden said if he was doing the same show today the athlete he’d most want to interview would be Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter because “he embodies everything in pro sports to me.”
“That show was my fantasy and I did get to live it,” Madden said. “I’m a huge sports fan and there I could be a peripheral part of other sports but not embarrass myself by not having a lot of knowledge of those sports. I was an old tackle riding around talking to people about sports. Like I’ve said to a lot of people over the years: I only go where old tackles go and if an old tackle does not belong there, I’m not going.”
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the past week:
1. Readers of this column know how I feel about ESPN2’s First Take program. In my opinion, it is the singular worst program in ESPN’s 35-year history, a manufactured debate show that uses outrage as currency and revolves around 62-year-old Skip Bayless debating and defending sports opinions “against” co-panelist Stephen A. Smith (or straw men). The show seeks social media currency the way a whale seeks a mouthful of plankton -- and such bloodlust can expose you when you are not careful.
Last Friday, in the midst of discussing the NFL’s adjudication of Ray Rice, Smith suggested that women should examine their role in provoking domestic violence incidents. As Deadspin pointed out, this is not unfamiliar terrain for Smith, who has become the darling of ESPN management if airtime across multiple platforms were a competition.
While most colleagues stayed silent (Despite ESPN management saying that they encourage civil discourse among colleagues, ESPN staffers including Bill Simmons have previously been censored for talking about First Take), Sports Nation host Michelle Beadle opted to send a series of tweets decrying Smith’s take. Wrote Beadle: “So I was just forced to watch this morning's First Take. A) I'll never feel clean again B) I'm now aware that I can provoke my own beating…Violence isn't the victim's issue. It's the abuser's. To insinuate otherwise is irresponsible and disgusting.”
Beadle’s response to Smith game-changed what likely would have been just another horrible day at First Take. It set up a narrative (correct or not) of an ESPN employee publicly condemning another ESPN employee, and outlets around the country (including ESPN competitors such as Fox Sports) posted stories on it, from The Washington Post to New York Daily News to the The Atlantic Wire.
Sadly, outside of ESPN2’s Jemele Hill and espnW’s Jane McManus, women talking about the issue on ESPN’s airwaves were non-existent. (That same hit can be given to SI as well.) If the management of First Take was smart -- and they have generally been proven the opposite when it comes to these issues -- host Cari Champion will be given the freedom to weigh in on Monday's show about Smith's comments as well as the Rice decision. Why the producers (or are the show's hosts running the show behind the scenes?) don't let a bright woman weigh in on these topics continues to be a mystery of the highest order.
It was truly an awful day in sports media unless you were a fan of schadenfreude. I heard from a number of ex-Bristol staffers including one former on-air ESPN personality who expressed a shared sentiment that First Take (and the management that has enabled the show) have long had the run of the place. Texted the former ESPN-er: “Is it wrong of me to be enjoying the hell out of the Stephen A s---storm and corresponding executive meltdown in Bristol? Nah.”
ESPN PR sent out a statement on Sunday night about Smith: “There has been a lot of discussion and reflection on the topic since Friday and it will continue. Stephen A. Smith plans to address the situation on Monday's First Take and we will have more to say on Monday as well."
As far as Beadle, ESPN PR had no comment on whether she would be censured for speaking out publicly.
2. Over the past couple of weeks Michelle Beisner has been in a fortunate place for an NFL broadcaster: She had options. And those options were offers from Fox, ESPN and NFL Network.
“My contract was up at NFL Network after eight years and it was great, one hell of a ride,” Beisner said. “I’m super-indebted to them for the valuable lessons I learned. But what was intriguing about the ESPN opportunity was telling stories and doing more full-length sit-down feature interviews. That is where I get the most satisfaction and gratification in my work.”
Beisner is off to ESPN to work as an NFL features reporter after working at NFL Network since 2006 as a studio host and field reporter. She will be reporting and fronting player profiles and other features for Sunday NFL Countdown. In addition to her new job, Beisner is also newly wedded to Joe Buck, the Fox Sports lead play-by-play announcer for baseball and the NFL. There is a possibility the couple – married last April in Mexico – will see each other on the road. Last year they were assigned to the same game a couple of times during the NFL season. “What’s so great about relationship is we really respect the other person’s desire, need and want, to work,” Beisner said. “We cheer each other and build each other up. I know it sounds very flowery and hokey but it’s true. We are not competitive with each other.”
2a. Before working in sports television, Beisner was a member of the Denver Broncos cheerleading squad from 1997 to 2003. I asked if she was ever negatively stereotyped by viewers or management given her background as a cheerleader.
“I majored in mass communications with an emphasis in journalism and also in theater,” she said. “I always knew from a young age that I wanted to work in the sports entertainment arena either as an actress or host or sports reporter. My uncle was a local sports personality (Dick Jonckowski, the public address voice for Minnesota basketball for nearly 30 years at Williams Arena) in Minneapolis and I latched on to him at a young age and kind of fell in love with what he did.
“I think there is a general misconception and stereotype about NFL cheerleaders that I have always had to battle. Maybe not battle, but it is there. There is presence to that. Over the years I have thoroughly enjoyed silencing those people that may have those misconceptions about what NFL cheerleaders are about, what they bring to the table and who they are. As far as if I have dealt with that from a management standpoint? No. I think women in sports in general have to work harder, give more and have thicker skin and have to understand there will be a level of -- especially with social media platforms -- unflattering remarks and opinions. But you are who are and your dedication and process to the craft will keep you in it.”
2b. Beisner said NFL Network host Rich Eisen played the role of matchmaker for her and Buck after Buck reached out to Eisen for an introduction. “He gave a brilliant toast at our wedding reception and he would like to take all the credit for us being together,” Beisner said. “We do give him a bit of the credit.” Beisner reported that Eisen did not promote The Rich Eisen Podcast during the wedding toast. “There was also no post-wedding podcast from Rich,” Beisner said.
3. Madden said he likes the idea of a rules analyst in the broadcasting booth: “There are so many rules now and the rulebook and the casebook and the interpretation and so on has gotten so big that it’s really hard for everyone to know them,” he said. “Now you would assume that every coach, player and broadcaster should know all the rules but they don’t and I don’t say that as a negative thing. They don’t because they can’t. You need a little help on it, or a reminder. How do you take a rule that applies to the situation and provide the info for the viewer? I think [Fox] Mike Pereira does a good job and I think [CBS] Mike Carey will do a real good job.”
4. Fox Sports (and its entertainment division) announced on Friday that it will no longer be advertising on Entercom's radio stations. The company is one of the largest radio broadcasting companies in the U.S., with 100 stations in 23 markets including sports-talk station WEEI in Boston, which featured a host who called Fox Sports personality Erin Andrews “a gutless bitch” and wished she would “drop dead.” Fox Sports said its talent would also no longer appear on any WEEI show.
5. Both ESPN and Fox Sports have had conversations with television reps for former Oregon State basketball coach Craig Robinson to work as an analyst this fall. Robinson is the brother-in-law of Barack Obama and brother of Michelle Obama.
6. Last week I received an email from a 30-something, West Coast-based female sports reporter who has worked in print and television for the past decade. When I asked her if I could publish her letter, she asked for anonymity because she is currently trying to get a job. I granted it. Her words offer insight into the sports television hiring landscape today:
After being laid off seven months ago during a company downsizing, I talked to a number of network executives and agents in my quest to gauge the needs of the industry. The thing I heard a lot was that they wanted the "low-hanging fruit." One actually said those words. I understand that's probably not anything new, but as a female who always thought good work eventually wins out, it was tough to hear. I spent my career trying to put out great content and was ultimately told I wasn't as thin as other girls (and I'm by no means overweight, just not tiny). I pointed out being able to nab interviews with so-and-so or break news with so-and-so ... They didn't care. I pointed out creating such-and-such segments or my ideas for this-and-that, and ... They didn't care. I realized, slowly and painfully, that quality or ingenuity didn't really matter.
Mostly, what I garnered from execs (in so many words) is that they want someone homogeneous. They can't seem to think outside of the box. They look at your resume and reel, and if it seems like you've done all the stuff the girls in front of you did, then okay. If you can be cookie-cutter, you're in. If you're in your 20s and inexperienced, that's fine. If you're in your 30s and more experienced, it's not fine. It's the weirdest thing to me. Coming from a tense newspaper environment where layoffs were always looming, I had watched how middle managers stopped taking risks. Everyone just played it safe because they wanted to keep their jobs. But this seemed different. It seemed like male execs and agents just don't want to be bothered with women. If they fit the homogeneous role, great. If not, they don't want to invest the time or energy in creating something new or really trying to push the bar or even understanding what you bring to the table.
I also think sometimes that we women are to blame. We are told to sit, so we sit. We are told to look pretty, so we look pretty. Many women get away with not knowing the game or depending on producers in their ear, and the stereotype gets perpetuated. We're not necessarily trying to be smart or creative.
I wonder in general about the double standard with women. We're supposed to be professional but are sometimes rewarded when we're not. Bikini pictures and pageant titles win out over experience and proven work. So it's tough to even know anymore.
I am not saying I'm the best reporter out there and I should have a job. Hell, I might suck. And I realize it's a saturated market and there's a lot of talented people who aren't working, just like there are a lot of talented free agents on their couches during football season. I definitely think it's my fault for being naive and not totally understanding the reality of this image-based industry for a long time. I'm mostly just in awe of the way the industry works. It's fascinating to me. I see girls with little-to-no experience getting jobs, time and time again. I would argue their talent, especially when they don't know the game. And I see executives creating and filling the same cookie-cutter jobs for women, as if to simply "plug and play" our presence.
I'm sending this to say thank you for paying attention to the issue and for giving it credence. I think it deserves credence. I don't know that anything will change anytime soon, but I do hope that writers like you continue to shine a light on the issue, if only to just make executives squirm a little and perhaps think about the way they handle women.
7. Sports pieces of note:
Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci on 93-year-old New Yorker writer Roger Angell – one of the best pieces of writing you’ll read this year.
•Sports On Earth’s Pat Jordan profiles Johnny Damon.
•ESPN’s Myron Medcalf and Dana O’Neil on the decline of playground hoops.
•Nate Silver offers a statistical appreciation of the Washington Generals and Harlem Globetrotters.
•David Simon, creator of The Wire on the Orioles.
•Steve Fainaru and Tom Farrey on a K Street lawyer who might be the most powerful person in sports.
•Strong, hard work by Slate’s Ben Rothenberg on the widespread plagiarism from a Times of London tennis writer.
•Grantland's The Masked Man on Paul Heyman.
Non-sports pieces of note:
•Via Washington Post: “My son has been suspended five times. He’s 3.”
•How the White House monitors the interviews of journalists.
•The Wall Street Journal says seven hours of sleep could be the perfect number.
•The Columbia Journalism Review on Forbes.com’s “sharecropper journalism.”
•A powerful Boston Globe story on providing graves (and identification) for unknown immigrants who have died crossing the U.S. southern border.
8. It does not happen often but Fox Sports 1 beat ESPN during primetime (8-11:00 PM ET) on July 23 thanks to its airing of the NASCAR truck race at Eldora Speedway. Fox Sports 1 also had a big soccer rating that night with an 11:00 p.m. ET start of Manchester United’s 7-0 win over the LA Galaxy (308,000 viewers). That outdrew an earlier game on ESPN 2 between Manchester City and Sporting KC (297,000 viewers).
9. The NFL Network this week unveils a five-part, multi-city series on the Heads Up Football program with anchor Melissa Stark, producer Hilary Guy and associate producers Melanie Pimentel and Christine Detz reporting from different Heads Up events and locations across the country. Stark will also host a host a State Of The Game discussion in Canton on Friday with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, John Madden, Michael Irvin, and Chris Golic (wife of former player and ESPN radio host Mike Golic and mother of New Orleans Saints guard Mike Golic, Jr.). The taped discussion will be filmed from 2:30p – 3:30p local time and will air that evening on NFL Network.
“It's an interesting position to be in -- covering the most hot button topics for the NFL while working for the very company I report on,” Guy said. “In the year and a half I've served as the main producer for NFL Network's health and safety unit, I've covered stories ranging from ACL injuries to new concussion treatments and protocol to Heads Up Football. Like most journalists, my main goal is always to seek out and tell strong, solid stories. Yes, Heads Up Football is a league initiative, but my vision for our Heads Up Across America series is to weave new and different stories throughout the course of the week, leading up to our last day when Melissa hosts the conversation at the Hall of Fame. Topics will range from the risks and responsibilities surrounding youth football to the outlook for retired players to football's evolving culture. There will be a major focus on personal experiences. There will be tough questions. To me, those are elements for a strong, solid story.”
10b. Via writer Viv Bernstein: A sportswriter's love story.