Phil Simms vowed not to say Washington’s team nickname during broadcasts, though a few mentions have already slipped in. How he handles Thursday’s primetime game has more implications than you might expect
Phil Simms knows the question is coming: Will he say the nickname?
The CBS NFL analyst told an Associated Press reporter two months ago that he planned to avoid using the word “Redskins” when calling this week’s Thursday Night Football game between the Giants and Washington at FedEx Field. As most people reading this column know, the issue has become a talking point for NFL fans and even more so for the media. The editor-in-chief of The MMQB has chosen not the use the nickname in his stories while plenty of other media outlets and individual reporters are no longer using it in their work.
Simms would be the highest-profile NFL broadcaster to opt out, and his words will clearly be monitored on Thursday night: The Washington Post on Tuesday chronicled the reaction to Simms’ comments, including some fans starting a petition to keep him off Redskins broadcasts.
Simms has a lot of power as his CBS’s longtime top NFL analyst, but opting out of saying ‘Redskins’ on the broadcast is a bold decision for a number of reasons.
In an interview this week, Simms reaffirmed he will attempt not to use the nickname on the broadcast. “That’s still my thought process,” he said. “I made that decision and I’m not going into what really drove me to it, but it offends a certain group of people and I have sympathy for them. So I can have sympathy for them and I am not denigrating the other side.
“Will I refer to their nickname? Look, I have already done it (Simms used the word “Redskins” a number of times during the Falcons-Bucs game, though said he did not realize it until someone informed him after the game). It is a habit. I played for 15 years [for the Giants] and they were a bitter rival. There is a chance I could slip.”
Simms said he will not have any notes in front of him in the booth as a reminder not to use the nickname. That’s an intentional decision, he said, because he does not want anything that will make him think slower.
“I don’t want to be overwhelmed by it,” Simms said. “I had bad habits as a player. Bill Parcells used to tell me, ‘You throw a few too many picks, Simms.’ I’d say, ‘Well, Bill, I am going to try to fix that but I will not be fixing that overnight.’ Unfortunately this issue and the nickname, it has been out there for so long and on my radar and I know what I said, but it’s not the easiest habit to break. So if I refer to them by their nickname, I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ It could happen. In fact, it did slip this year and I did not know it. I had no idea. Now I could refer to the nickname I had for them as a player, but I don’t think that is appropriate for television. I am just going to let it go. Once the game starts, there are a lot of things on my mind I want to talk about it.”
Simms has a lot of in-house power as his network’s longtime top NFL analyst, but opting out of saying “Redskins” on the broadcast is a bold decision for a number of reasons. First, Thursday Night Football isn’t just another broadcast production. CBS has dedicated playoff-level resources for these games in an attempt to convince the NFL that the primetime package (the agreement is for the 2014 season with an additional year at the league’s option) should stay with its network. There will also be a lot of eyeballs on the game. The opening week of Thursday Night Football drew a combined 20.77 million viewers between CBS (17.34 million) and NFL Network (3.43 million). Last week’s blowout win by Atlanta over Tampa Bay still averaged 11.8 million viewers, which beat the combined viewership of the other broadcast networks by 15% (11.8 million vs. 10.3 million). Any statement by Simms’ will draw national attention.
In addition, what Simms does on Thursday night could set the template for other broadcasters, especially at his own network. CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus told Sports Illustrated in August that the company policy is to use the names of all 32 teams. “Having said that, we are not in the business of telling our announcers what to say and what not to say,” McManus said. “If they feel strongly about an element about this, we will not tell them what to say. But we use the teams' logos and marks, that is our philosophy and that has not changed.”
One interesting note on Thursday’s broadcast: Play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz said he will use the nickname when calling game action. “I have read a lot and I respect everyone’s viewpoint out there,” Nantz told Sports Illustrated in August. “Some people are extremely passionate it. I thought what Adam Schefter said in your column was something I agree with. It’s not my job to take a stand on this. If they keep using the name, then I will keep using the name. If they decide to change it, then I will go with the new name. But I can respect different viewpoints here.”
As a former star for a hated rival—and especially because NFL television analysts always have a section of viewers who think they’re biased against their team—Simms should expect heat from Redskins fans. Interestingly, he said he always loved traveling to Washington as a player.
“I remember Bill Parcells and I were walking out of the dugout once at RFK Stadium,” Simms said. “It was a huge game for us, the winner was likely going to win the Super Bowl that year. So we are getting ready to go out of the dugout and it’s just him and I for early warmups. He looks at me and says, ‘You ready, Simms?’ I said, ‘Yep, I’m ready.’ He looked out and the fans were soon going to be on us, and they are going to kill us. It was awesome how much they yelled at us. He said, ‘You know, Simms, they hate us so much down here they love us.’ For some reason I started laughing. Playing at RFK was one of the great thrills of my career. It just was a unique place. It was not a corporate crowd. Grass field. Oh, man, it was really something. It’s the romantic part of football, what you dream it to be growing up. It was literally like taking a step back in time.”