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Media Circus: Kevin Harlan on his viral MNF call, ESPN executives defend Trent Dilfer

What was the reaction from Kevin Harlan’s bosses and colleagues after his viral radio call last week? What’s ESPN’s take on many Bay Area media members calling out Trent Dilfer for the motive behind his comments on Colin Kaepernick. Find out in this week’s Media Circus.

The broadcaster who owns the most famous call of the 2016 NFL season isn’t overly comfortable with it. Kevin Harlan is on the phone from his home in Wisconsin a couple of days after going viral across America. In case you missed it, Harlan, working for Westwood One as the radio voice of Monday Night Football, described in epic fashion a man running onto the field during the fourth quarter of a dreadful Niners-Rams game at San Francisco’s Levi’s Stadium. Here’s how Harlan’s call began:

“Third and Four, looks into the nickel of San Francisco and the secondary. Hey, somebody has run out onto the field! Some goofball in a hat! And a red shirt! Now he takes off the shirt! He’s running down the middle by the 50! He’s at the 30! He’s barechested and banging his chest!”

Given all the press coverage of the audio clip, from the Los Angeles Times to Esquire Magazine to seemingly every sports-talk station in America, Harlan’s call was heard by millions. But as he reflected on it with Sports Illustrated a couple of days afterward, he was not comfortable with the acclaim. He described it as getting somewhat of a pass given there is an unwritten rule among NFL broadcasters not to glorify when someone runs on the field. 

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“This is my 32nd consecutive year doing the NFL,” said Harlan, whose father, Bob, was a longtime Green Bay Packers executive. “My Dad was in the league for three decades. I have grown up in the league literally, and I would never want to do anything that would cause them the least bit embarrassment or concern. I hold the NFL as close to my heart as I do my family. But I guess now in the aftermath and seeing and hearing and absorbing some of the reaction, I feel like it’s been done and the worst thing would be to do it again. I would not want people thinking I am looking for attention or trying to one-up calls.”

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Harlan estimated he was seven stories up from the field at Levi's Stadium and made the call without binoculars. “I didn’t know what he looked like or anything beyond he was running on the field, he had a red shirt on, and the hat that he was wearing had fallen off when he first took the field,” Harlan said. “I was in the middle of describing the play, he ran through it, and I just kind of continued with him running through the play as if it was the play. I have described fires in the press box at the old Patriots Stadium and on ESPN, I once described a rabbit running down the middle of the field in a Michigan-Purdue football game. I know how sensitive the NFL is to this on television so it did cross my mind even as I got back to my hotel room that night. I thought, ‘I hope I have not put us in a bad position. If I put our company in a bad position or made the NFL uncomfortable in any way, I am going regret it.’”

Harlan’s Westwood One boss and the radio broadcast’s executive producer, Howard Deneroff, was shoulder to shoulder with him in the booth watching the call unfold. Harlan said Deneroff and everyone else in the booth, including his broadcast partner Kurt Warner, were laughing as he made the call but quickly moved on after the man was corralled. “I could see nothing nefarious was going on with the guy and he was not out there to do any harm,” Harlan said. “He was just a guy running out on the field. To be honest, once I said it, we moved on to the next play. There was no discussion in the booth. There was no talking about it during the next break. It was just a blip.” 

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One of the reasons Harlan did what he did was because the game was incredibly dull. If the game had been close, the call would have never happened. “The game is always paramount and this is national radio,” Harlan said. “The environment that it was done in—the game being pretty dull and slogging around—I think because it was the intersection of those two moments, the levity was a fun thing for the broadcast. Close games, it would have been all football. We were in the fourth quarter and trying to keep our energy up and this kind of provided a jolt and a moment of laughter in a mundane game. If I were on TV with CBS (Harlan calls games with Rich Gannon for that network), I never would have done this because the cameras would not have been on the guy. I would have said a fan has come onto the field and then just engaged my partner.”

After the game, Harlan arrived at his San Francisco hotel room after midnight. He woke up early for a 5:00 a.m. flight to Chicago. He checked his phone. No messages. No texts. Given Harlan is not very active on social media, he had no idea how many people had shared his call overnight. When the broadcaster landed in Chicago a little before 11:00 a.m CT, he had 101 text messages waiting for him. Said Harlan: “My first thought: ‘Something is wrong. I have screwed up. The league is ticked off.’”

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The initial text messages were all praise from friends. Then a producer from The Dan Patrick Show called to tell him how great the moment was and asked him to do a short interview. Harlan never heard from the NFL. He did hear from two of his bosses at CBS Sports, who said they liked the call. That was important to him given he broadcasts the NFL for CBS every Sunday. He also saw a story about the call on so he figured NFL execs might be okay with it. “In hindsight, knowing how I feel now, I don’t know if I would have done it on radio given a second chance, and I would never do it on TV. Not that I hold one in higher regard, but I just know my bosses and how they approach things and I would never want to put them in a bad position. The bottom line is I am stunned, shocked, I can’t believe there has been this reaction.”

As for social media, Harlan was alerted to one particular tweet: LeBron James, who was famously immortalized by a Harlan call (“LeBron James with no regard for human life!”) in a game against the Celtics, tweeted out, “I thought when u said "He has no regard for human life!!" was the best ever but this take the cake.”

Harlan’s bosses from Westwood One also got a call from producers at The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon, who wanted to fly Harlan to New York City to do calls of pedestrians walking down the street. But Harlan let his bosses know that he didn’t want push the notoriety any further. Not only would the travel from his Wisconsin home off Lake Michigan be tough, as a CBS employee, it might be odd going on Fallon. He also did not want to glorify the moment. “Going down that wrong seemed awfully fragile,” Harlan said. “So I passed.”

On Sunday Harlan was back in California again calling the Falcons-Raiders game for CBS. The likelihood is nothing else he does this season will top his spontaneous moment last week in San Francisco. Having spoken with him, I understand his hesitation in his making too big a deal about the call, but it was great theater and a reminder of the fun and absurdity of sports, even in the often button-downed NFL. 

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( examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. One of the many tentacles of Colin Kaepernick’s anthem protest (and the reaction to it) has been a number of Bay Area sports columnists writing pieces (as well as actively referencing this on social media) stating they believe ESPN NFL analyst Trent Dilfer is acting as a broadcasting proxy on behalf of Niners general manager Trent Baalke. San Jose Mercury News sports columnist Tim Kawakami and San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ann Killion have been among the most prominent voices questioning Dilfer’s motives when it comes to comments about Kaepernick. Dilfer himself responded to the criticism last week on San Francisco’s KNBR-AM radio and SB Nation’s Niners Nation blog was good enough to compile some of Dilfer’s thoughts here.

Kawakami and Killion are respected journalists and work for respected outlets. Their words carry weight, and I was interested to see how ESPN’s NFL management felt about what they have written, particularly on one factual point Dilfer made, when Dilfer stated that Kaepernick’s actions had “caused friction” and “torn at the fabric of the team.” So far, not one member of the Niners has echoed such comments publicly. 

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On Thursday I spoke with Seth Markman, who is the point person for ESPN’s NFL studio shows and the executive who both assigned Dilfer to Sunday NFL Countdown as well as extended his current ESPN deal.

“First of all I think it is absolutely insulting,” Markman said of Bay Area writers positing that Dilfer is a mouthpiece for Baalke. “It is insulting to Trent. I think it is insulting to all of us here. This man has been an analyst for nine years now—one of the top analysts in the business. When he speaks, it is from his heart. His opinions are his own. The guy knows his credibility is always going to be on the line. He would never jeopardize that in any kind of a situation. I have always thought he was one of our most direct analysts. He speaks with conviction. I have seen people over the years say things that they don’t necessarily believe themselves, but it’s just for good TV. Trent would never, ever do that. To ever think that he would be a mouthpiece or carry the water for a front office guy on any team is ridiculous.”

On the issue of Dilfer’s relationship with Baalke, Markman said he had no idea what kind of relationship Dilfer has with the executive. “I honestly could not tell you what kind of relationship they have versus his relationship with others in the league but I will tell you criticizing or going after Trent’s integrity is ridiculous,” Markman said. “Even if he had a friendship with someone, it would not stop him from saying what he believed.”

Asked about the specific point Dilfer made that Kaepernick’s actions had divided some on the team Markman said, “I am comfortable with it. I know who he has talked to and writers there may have been speaking to whomever while Trent is speaking to other people.”

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1b. Dilfer said in the KNBR interview that his comments about Kaepernick cutting at the fabric of the team were correct. He did not back down, though he did change his language to the past tense (had). “It doesn’t mean there was not division at one time over what was happening,” said Markman, defending his analyst. “I am comfortable with it. We don’t let guys throw out things like that without talking it through it with them, and knowing they have good information. No one is going to talk to 53 guys. For a writer in San Francisco to say that it is absolutely not true—they can’t know that.”

1c. On Dilfer’s comment that Kaepernick "is a backup QB whose job is be quiet and sit in the shadows,” Kaepernick responded by excoriating the ESPN analyst, calling it “one of the most ridiculous comments I’ve heard.” On that point, Markman said, “Look, we don’t like to become part of the story. Generally, that is not something we are looking to be. As long as the comments are made by our analysts are fair and based on fact or experience, we are not going to be able to control how people react to it.” 

Regarding the above paragraph, I’m going to have to disagree with Markman on this point: ESPN institutionally has shown—especially in the last two years—that they absolutely want their analysts to be part of news stories. It’s why is littered with analyst opinions alongside news stories. It’s why Stephen A. Smith gets a place on its NFL studio shows. The evidence exists across the board. 

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1d. The Twitter broadcast Thursday night of the Jets-Bills drew an average audience of 243,000 viewers per minute. The NFL said a total of 2.1 million viewers (meaning anyone who tuned in for three seconds) watched on Twitter. Here were my thoughts on Twitter’s NFL broadcast debut on Thursday night. 

1e. The CBS/NFL Network broadcast drew 15.4 million viewers. The game was down from the Broncos/Chiefs TNF opener last year (21.1 million) and Steelers/Ravens in 2014 (20.8 million). Those two games the most-watched games in TNF history.

1f. Here’s the 2016 Broadcasting Guide I did for The MMQB.

1g. The Monday Night Football season opener late doubleheader TV viewership:

2016: 10.3 million [LA-SF]

2015: 14.3 million [SF-MIN]

1h. I appreciate media friendly touchdown celebrations and this is right up there.

2. Something rarely done on a football broadcast: A play by play announcer (ESPN’s Adam Amin) discussing rape culture as it relates to college athletics.

2a. Nice work by Fox Sports staffers Mike Hill and Bruce Feldman (and producer Scott Riddell and coordinating producer Bardia Shah-Rais) who had to fill around 90 minutes when the Ohio State-Oklahoma game was delayed on Saturday night.

2b. ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit took Fox’s Ohio State-Oklahoma broadcast to task for not recognizing (at least for a couple of minutes) that Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon had dropped the football prior to crossing the goal line on a kickoff return. 

2c. The Big Ten Network’s pregame show, BTN Tailgate, will originate from a different Big Ten campus each week during conference play. The debut roadshowcomes next Saturday in East Lansing, when Michigan State hosts Wisconsin. BTN says over the first two to three years of the show, BTN Tailgate plans to visit each Big Ten campus. (BTN Tailgate is a live, 90-minute show beginning at 10:30 a.m. ET. Dave Revsine is the host, with analysts Gerry DiNardo and Anthony Adams.)

2d. The Undefeated senior writer Mike Wise wrote a powerful and courageous first-person piece Sunday on being a survivor of child sexual abuse. Wise, a former Washington Post columnist, revealed what happened to him as a 12-year-old as part of a larger column critical of Penn State’s decision to fete Joe Paterno on Saturday. 

His story is here and it’s one of the most poignant pieces of sports writing in 2016.

Wise told Sunday that he had been thinking of writing about being sexually abused as a child for 12 years. He said it took him a long time to come to grips with being a childhood sexual abuse survivor, and cited the organization as well as his family and friends for helping him. “I thought about putting it out there publicly with the idea that if I could show people that I overcame stuff, was somewhat successful, and had achieved a normal family life, it could help people,” Wise said. 

Four years ago Wise was working for The Washington Post covering a Maryland football game when he read about the Jerry Sandusky indictment. He was about to write about his own story then but ultimately backed away. “The atmosphere at Penn State and the people rallying around Joe Paterno and the administration, it reminded me of my own situation and so many other people's situations,” Wise said.  “But it’s one thing to tell a group of men that shared similar experiences, another thing to tell the world.”

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When Penn State announced it would commemorate the 50th anniversary of Joe Paterno's coaching debut on Saturday, the news triggered something for Wise. He decided he would finally reveal his story. He had no idea how his bosses would respond but had come to appreciate the care his editors had for stories. Last Tuesday Wise approached his site’s deputy editor, Steve Reiss, and told him he wanted to write about Penn State honoring Paterno. Reiss told him to make it “an Undefeated story.” 

“I had originally thought about doing something on many of these charities connected to programs often operating as feeder programs for colleges, and how many of the underprivileged and at-risk kids happened to be minorities—and, further, how it's one thing to profit off a kid's muscle and athleticism when they get older and quite another when they're also taken advantage of by a serial sexual predator,” Wise said. “But as I thought more and more about it—and re-read some of the victims' testimony—I realized that any racial component was going to trivialize the fact that Jerry Sandusky, like a lot of pedophiles, didn't discriminate. 

“So I'm sitting there Thursday night reading some of the ugly Twitter back-and-forth (usually a bad idea) between  Penn State alumni devoted to exonerating Paterno's name and outraged people wondering why he was being honored, thinking I really want to say something before the game begins. I start writing. And I realize, I gotta do this. While I wanted to do it four years ago, I was still gun shy. By Thursday night, I had this epiphany: these 20-something men who were victims, most of whom I believe still live in Happy Valley or the surrounding areas, gotta deal with these warped college fans who can't bring themselves to admit their beloved university did anything wrong. And these men have to be victimized all over again. So I felt like I knew how they felt and I wanted to say it. When people ask me, "Why did you write that column?" I'll probably say, as hard and difficult and emotional as it was to hit the keys on my laptop, it would have been so much harder not to write it.”

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Wise said he stayed up until 2:00 a.m. on Thursday writing his piece and finished it the next morning. He talked it through with his good friend Mark Kreigel, who works for the NFL Network. He then filed his piece to Reiss before noon on Friday. Reiss called him shortly thereafter. “He didn’t ask me about length or content,” Wise said. “The first thing he asked was, “Are you okay?” and I got choked up.”

Reiss then proceeded to work with Wise on the piece, including reminding him about potential backlash his family might deal with from the piece. The site’s top editors were brought in, as were ESPN PR and high-ranking ESPN officials. Wise said ESPN President John Skipper called him at his home on Saturday at 11:00 a.m. and let the writer know he had the company’s support. “He was beyond compassionate,” Wise said. “Everyone talks about ESPN as a corporate monster but at that moment I didn’t feel like I was working for a multi-national conglomerate. It just felt like I was working with good people.”

Reiss and Wise made some tweaks on Saturday night with Reiss going over a final draft. Karin Berry copy edited it in house, and Ashley Melfi did the page design. The piece posted Sunday at 8 a.m. It’s truly remarkable work.

2e. The college football schedule was filled with fantastic matchups on Saturday, making the viewership for each game an interesting story. The overnight ratings:

Alabama-Ole Miss, CBS (5.4)

Louisville-Florida State, ABC (4.5)

Ohio State-Oklahoma, Fox (3.8)

Michigan State-Notre Dame, NBC (3.22)

USC-Stanford, ABC (2.1)

Notes: The Alabama-Ole Miss game was the second highest-rated overall of the 2016 college football season.

NBC said the Michigan State-Notre Dame overnight was the highest rating for a ND football game on NBC since Michigan State-Notre Dame on 9/21/13 (3.23). The Louisville-Florida State overnight is the second-best September noon kickoff game on ESPN’s networks on record and the best in 11 years. Fox’s Ohio State-OU primetime broadcast topped USC-Stanford (also primetime) by 81%.

3. Episode 76 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features ESPN NBA and college basketball analyst Doris Burke, who recently was given a larger package of NBA games by the company. Burke also serves as an analyst on women’s college basketball and does sideline reporting for select NBA games including the NBA Finals.

In this episode, Burke discusses her career arc from an assistant coach at Providence College to calling the NBA for ESPN; how she prepares for work as an analyst versus sideline reporting; how much of a stigma still exists for women analyzing men’s sports; how often she looks at her social media mentions; whether Gregg Popovich’s treatment of sideline reporters is unprofessional; how she forms her questions; the impact of looks on sports broadcasting; the best coach to interview on the sidelines; what play she would run in an end game situation; whether UConn will repeat as women’s champions, and much more. 

A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunesGoogle 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 Deitsch.​

3a. Episode 77 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features journalist Jessica Luther, the author of “Unsportsmanlike Conduct: College Football and the Politics of Rape.”

In this episode, Luther discusses the difficulties of covering accusations of sexual violence and rape involving college football players; how she and fellow writer Dan Solomon exposed the underbelly of what was happening within the Baylor University football program; the Jameis Winston sexual assault case at Florida State; the lack of transparency from coaches and athletic departments on sexual violence cases involving athletes; how much of the coverage we read and hear is impacted by mostly men writing about it; the role and responsibility of the sports media when it comes to covering the intersection of college football and sexual violence; how a reporter avoids burnout on this beat; and much more.

The podcast will be available on iTunes and Soundcloud on Monday afternoon.

4. Sports pieces of note

• Drug users, has-beens and never-weres. SI’s Tom Verducci on the 1986 San Jose Bees.

• From Richmond Times-Dispatch writer Eric Kolenich: A high school soccer player's story of addiction, desperation and recovery.

• Brandon Sneed profiled Urban Meyer for Bleacher Report.

• The Ringer’s Shea Serrano had a fantastic piece on Antonio Brown's twerking celebration.

Non sports pieces of note:

• What life is like behind bars for O.J. Simpson Prisoner 1027820.

• Via The New York Times: The Insomnia machine.

• From Longreads: A mother’s quest to find treatment for multiple sclerosis.

• Did North Korea abduct an American in 2004—to teach English to Kim Jong Un? 

• Via Jeffrey Toobin: Colin Kaepernick and a Landmark Supreme Court Case.

• The PTA mom and the power couple from hell: An interview with L.A. Times reporter Chris Goffard, who wrote arguably the best newspaper story of 2016.

• Joelle Renstrom, for, on whether students who are constantly on their devices can actually learn

• From Eli Saslow of The Washington Post: For Diamond Reynolds, Trying to Move Past 10 Tragic Minutes of Video.

Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce on The Great American Surrender.

• Via The Guardian: Typecast as a terrorist, by Riz Ahmed.

• Via NYT: What $100 will get you in every state? 

• Via The Atlantic’s Molly Ball:  How political consulting works—or doesn’t.

• From Hadley Meares of The Brilliant MI6 Spy Who Perfected the Art of the 'Honey Trap.'

The New Yorker’s Ian Parker profiled one of the most power people in the food space—Pete Wells, the restaurant critic of the New York Times.

5. As part of the “The Student Section” show on SiriusXM College Sports Nation (hosts are Jac Collinsworth and Chris Spatola), the program regularly features guests from college newspapers and radio stations to report on what’s happening from campus. That’s a very cool thing for SiriusXM to do.

5a. Mark Lazarus, the chairman of NBC Sports, has been promoted. His new responsibilities include leading the NBC Sports Group while adding oversight of the NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations, NBC Affiliate Relations, NBC Affiliate Marketing, NBC Network Operations and Broadcast Standards.

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5b. ESPN announced its 2017 Major League Baseball opening day games (April 2) will be Yankees-Rays and Giants-Diamondbacks.

5c. The sports-themed comedy Now We’re Talking debuted last week exclusively on the mobile platform go90. The short-form digital show follows the careers of former quarterbacks Tug Tanner (Coker) and Tommy Arondall (Dewey) as they transition to broadcasting.

New episodes will be released every Wednesday for the entirety of the seven-episode season. 

5d. The Yahoo Sports-NBC Sports Network entity, behind the Rio Olympics, set a new comScore sports category record in August, posting a total of more than 110.4 million unique visitors. Sports Business Daily’s Eric Fisher reported the total surpassed the 94.4 million ESPN posted in September 2015, and makes it the first entrant to surpass 100 million uniques in a month. The last time ESPN did not lead in monthly uniques was in February ’14, with the Sochi Games helping Yahoo Sports-NBC Sports to the top spot.

5e. U.S. Open women's finals TV viewership:

2016: 1.464 million (Kerber-Pliskova)

2015: 1.601M (Pennetta-Vinci)

2014: 4.5M (Serena-Wozniacki)

5f. A sports media situation to watch in Cleveland: A number of Indians playersexpressed their anger on Twitter over a piece written by the Cleveland Plain Dealer writer and longtime beat writer Paul Hoynes.