As Game of Thrones teaches us, succession plans do not always go smoothly. For instance, ESPN is in the middle of a major talent shift for its signature NFL studio programs—NFL Countdown and Monday Night Countdown—and the network finds itself stuck between two worlds. In an effort to get younger on-air and to add a word that sports television producers always strive for—currency—ESPN hired recently-retired NFL players Charles Woodson and Matt Hasselbeck and imported Randy Moss from Fox Sports while opting not to retain Cris Carter, Keyshawn Johnson and Ray Lewis. Mike Ditka will also no longer be appearing on Sunday or Monday NFL Countdown. (ESPN also plans to give Trent Dilfer added exposure on their Sunday show after nearly letting him go.)
Which brings us to Tom Jackson, an immensely popular figure inside ESPN who was the network’s first NFL studio analyst when he was hired in 1987 for the launch of ESPN’s NFL game coverage. Jackson would have celebrated his 30th year on ESPN’s airwaves in 2016–17, but he has decided not to return to the network. Multiple sources said it was Jackson’s decision and that ESPN did not force him out. ESPN executives, in fact, very much wanted Jackson to work this fall, which is scheduled to be the final year for Chris Berman as an ESPN NFL host.
SI requested Jackson through both his agent and ESPN. He declined an interview through both. The New York Daily News first reported on Monday Jackson was “likely” leaving ESPN. Late Monday night, Pro Football Talk was firmer, reporting that “multiple industry sources tell PFT that the decision has been made.” Sources tell SI that Jackson made his decision not to return to ESPN a couple of weeks ago.
Jackson will be missed. The word that always came to mind about his work is thoughtful. As a viewer, I respected him even when I disagreed with him. I think most viewers did too. In recent years Jackson was particularly compelling speaking out on Kasandra Perkins, who was murdered by former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher before he took his own life. He most famously offered a measured take after Rush Limbaugh resigned from NFL Countdown in 2003 following comments he made that Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was overrated because of the media’s and NFL’s interest in seeing a black passer do well. (Given how often McNabb was crushed by the media during his career, such comments have proven silly over time.)
Said Jackson on the show following Limbaugh resignation: “Much has been made about the fact that we did not speak out this week. I want you to know that no one prevented us from speaking. We chose this forum, our show. Let me just say, it was not our decision to have Rush Limbaugh on this show. I’ve seen replay after replay of Limbaugh’s comments with my face attached, as well as that of my colleagues. Comments that made us very uncomfortable at the time, although the depth and the insensitive nature of which weren’t fully felt until it seemed too late to reply. Rush Limbaugh is known for the divisive nature of his rhetoric. He creates controversy, and what he said Sunday is the same type of thing that he said on radio for years. A player in this league, who has a young son, called me this week, and his son now wants to know if it’s all right for blacks to play quarterback. Rush Limbaugh’s comments could not have been more hurtful. He was brought in to talk football, and he broke that trust. Rush told us that the social commentary for which he is so well known would not cross over to our show, and instead he would represent the viewpoint of the intelligent, passionate fan. We know of few fans, passionate or otherwise, who see Donovan McNabb ... somehow artificially hyped because of the color of his skin. The fact that Donovan McNabb’s skin color was brought up at all was wrong, especially in the context of the brotherhood that we feel we have on this show.”
(That many ESPNers now speak frequently on social issues—and do so on Twitter daily—is also interesting given the perspective from 13 years ago in relation to Limbaugh.)
Jackson teamed with Berman (they share the same agent) for 29 years including every Sunday night in the fall from 1987 to 2005 as part of the critically-acclaimed NFL PrimeTime. When that show was at its height, it felt revolutionary with its combination of highlights and Berman’s frenetic delivery. Unlike Berman, Jackson never took the full descent to being an outright p.r. operative for Roger Goodell and the NFL. If he has interest continuing to work in sports media, someone should hire him. Selfishly, I believe he’d be an excellent addition to SI.com’s the MMQB.
This will be a very strange year for ESPN’s Sunday and Monday night NFL studio shows. They obviously want to push that they are now something fresher and different (which they are), yet that is impossible to do with Berman having one final year and management understandably wanting to pay homage to Berman for being one of the faces of the network. (I would never deny Berman’s importance in growing ESPN.)
Seth Markman, who runs ESPN’s NFL studio show, has a very tricky assignment this year. He has to figure out ways to help forge the chemistry of his new group (and manage egos), knowing they will have a new host next year while simultaneously making sure not to alienate the current host (Berman), whose agent has already said he’s not retiring. Whatever ESPN’s NFL Sunday and Monday studio shows ultimately become for viewers, they will not become it this year.
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. You have seen the foreboding news out of Rio, be it political upheaval, pollution, the Zika virus, street crime, infrastructure issues or the state-sponsored doping of the Russian Olympic team. The months leading up to the Olympics are always fraught with negative news, but this has been different: The run-up to the Rio Games is easily the worst of the last 30 years.
The contrast, of course, is that this year’s Summer Olympics, which begin Aug. 5, offers the best collection of returning Olympic stars in decades, from Michael Phelps to Usain Bolt to Kerri Walsh to the U.S women’s basketball team and many more.
Last week, in an attempt to get some insight into covering one of the most extraordinary (for good and bad reasons) sporting events in years, I hosted a panel of veteran Olympic journalists who will be covering the Rio Games.
1a. Megan Kalmoe, an Olympic bronze medalist rower competing in Rio, has issues with the media’s reporting on Rio.
2. NBC Sports Network’s Sunday coverage of the NASCAR Sprint Cup race from Indianapolis Motor Speedway averaged 5.2 million viewers, NBCSN’s most-watched and highest-rated telecast on record.
3. Episode 67 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features Washington Post sports columnist Sally Jenkins.
In this episode, Jenkins talks about how she finds stories and what inspires her; what made Pat Summitt such an interesting person; what it was like spending time with Summitt before she passed; writing for an audience in D.C. that includes generals, spies and Congresspeople; why she opted not to work on television; her relationship with Lance Armstrong and how she feels about Armstrong’s lies; interviewing with Joe Paterno and the legacy of the former Penn State coach; whether she is optimistic women will find jobs as sports columnists heading forward; advice from her father, the legendary writer Dan Jenkins; and much more.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me.
4. A couple pieces of note beyond what was listed in Monday’s column
• Via Tristian Harris on Medium: How technology hijacksp minds.
• Via Franklin Foer: The DNC hack is Watergate, but worse.
5. Starting today and continuing through Aug. 10, NFL Network will provides 206 live hours of training camp coverage including nine hours of live coverage each day starting at 10 a.m. ET.
5a. CBS Sports will broadcast the final two rounds of the 98th PGA Championship (Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J.) on Saturday and Sunday (2:00-7:00 PM, ET; both days). The network said for the first time “Smartcart” will be used at a PGA Championship. Smartcart is a 72-inch mobile screen attached to a custom-fitted golf cart for broadcast applications, used to analyze and telestrate golf swings and shots, difficulty of holes, and scorecards.
5b. Brewers announcer Brian Anderson will call his first PGA Championship as part of Turner’s coverage on Thursday and Friday. Mike Weir (analyst) Amanda Balionis (course reporter) are also new to the Turner coverage.