With Week 1 of the NFL preseason upon us, I thought it would be a good time to impanel some respected NFL beat reporters for a roundtable discussion on a number of NFL-related topics, including the biggest league-wide story heading into the season, the biggest story on their beat, and how much discussion exists in locker rooms on the issues of CTE. They were terrific.
• Eric Branch, Niners reporter, San Francisco Chronicle
• Mary Kay Cabot, Browns beat writer, Cleveland.com.
• Clarence Hill Jr., Cowboys reporter, Fort-Worth Star Telegram
• Stephen Holder, Colts reporter, Indianapolis Star
• Nicki Jhabvala, Broncos/NFL reporter, The Denver Post
• Mike Reiss, Patriots reporter, ESPN
The panel was asked to go as long or as short as they wanted with their answers. They were free to skip any questions. Some of the answers have been edited for clarity. Here is Part I.
Part 2 is specific to Colin Kaepernick. I was curious how the panel perceived Kaepernick signing in their city. Plus, with Eric Branch part of this panel, it was a chance to get insight from someone who actually covered Kaepernick daily. Here’s how they responded.
In your opinion, how would your market react to the team signing Colin Kaepernick?
Branch: Last year, Kaepernick might have created the most outrage in the Bay Area when he threw an interception. That’s not to say a segment of the fan base wasn’t deeply bothered by his national-anthem stance (I have their e-mails), but this is a progressive, liberal area with a rich history of social activism. Fans didn’t picket or boo, rather many mobbed Kaepernick for autographs before games. Sponsors didn’t abandon the team. And the 49ers, from the owner, to the coaches, to the players, publicly supported Kaepernick’s right to protest and express his views on police brutality and racial inequality. After the season, Kaepernick won the team’s prestigious Len Eshmont Award—an honor voted on by teammates and given to the player who best exemplifies courageous and inspirational play. The 49ers have made plenty of missteps in recent years, but they deserve credit for helping set the tone locally after Kaepernick’s protest became public. Given Kaepernick deeply fractured relationship with the front office—and declining play—I thought the 49ers might use his protest as a reason to cut him. Instead, it helped thaw their icy relationship. Owner Jed York publicly supported him and matched his $1 million donation to social causes. Head coach Chip Kelly hailed Kaepernick for shedding light on a “heinous” situation during the season when police brutality prompted unrest in Tulsa and Charlotte.
Other NFL teams, the Ravens, in particular, would do well to follow the 49ers’ example. Even in a far different market, I think the fears of Kaepernick being a distraction or a lightning rod for outrage are overblown. Last year, even as he continued to kneel during the anthem, something he won’t do in 2017, his story receded to the background for long stretches of the season. I think Kaepernick wants to play in the NFL again, but part of him is probably pleased the league hasn’t found a spot for him. Among other points, it’s proving owners are uncomfortable with employees who speak their mind. I’m fairly confident Kaepernick won’t follow the advice of Michael Vick (cut his hair) or Ray Lewis (keep his mouth shut) to land a job.
Cabot: I think there would be the initial uproar, but I think Cleveland could handle the signing of Colin Kaepernick. This is a town that, for the most part, forgave running back Isaiah Crowell for posting a depiction of a police officer getting his throat slit after the initial backlash from fans and police. Crowell apologized, donated money to the Dallas Fallen Officers foundation and has done community service. The police union has made peace with Crowell and so have most of the fans. Kaepernick has said he wouldn’t continue his national anthem protest into next season, and if that’s the case, I think the furor would die down. Even if he knelt again, I don’t think it would cause the same outcry as it did initially.
Hill: The same way the market reacted to the signing of Greg Hardy. Some would love it. Some would hate it. Nobody is going to stop watching the Cowboys because of it. Besides, this is market that is used to dealing with controversial players, issues and distractions when it comes to the Cowboys. Jerry Jones is still printing money.
Holder: I think the reaction here would be very mixed, at best. Let’s be honest: Indiana is a very conservative state and I do not believe Kaepernick’s statements and protests would be viewed with an open mind by many local fans. Antonio Cromartie, who played for the Colts for part of last season, was among the players who took a knee during anthems last season. The reaction I got when I published stories about his motivations was largely negative. It was frustrating to write stories explaining Cromartie’s position—which he articulated very well—yet have people not even make an attempt to listen to the substance of his statements. I do think fans here are like fans everywhere, which is to say they are willing to forgive anything if a guy throws enough touchdown passes. But I would not place Indianapolis on a list of ideal destinations for Kaepernick. And it disappoints me greatly to have to admit that.
Jhabvala: I think there would be some who support it, but many more who wouldn’t and the latter group would be much more vocal about their opinion. When Brandon Marshall joined Kaepernick in kneeling during the national anthem last season the backlash was disturbing, and almost instant. He lost two endorsement deals, received death threats and was sent derogatory and hate-filled messages online. There was even a fan who pulled up to the Broncos’ training facility and burned an orange shirt with Marshall’s name on it. There are many folks out here who saw the protests as disrespectful to service members, and remember the Broncos are headquartered near Ft. Carson Army Base, the Air Force Academy and Peterson Air Force Base. Sadly, I think Marshall still receives negative comments, despite ending his protests and despite all the work he’s done in the community and prompting the Denver Police Department to change its use-of-force policy. When the Broncos were chasing Kaepernick in 2016—before his protests—feelings were mixed. I’d say half the emails in my inbox were in favor of it—they believed Kaepernick would be great with Gary Kubiak and perfect in Denver. The other half came up thought he wouldn’t be a good fit, be it because of the system, his playing style, money, whatever. There are lots of opinions in Broncos Country.
Reiss: Given the cache that Bill Belichick has, if he endorsed the move as one that was in the best interest of the Patriots franchise (highly unlikely he would actually do so), I could envision a scenario where the reaction wasn’t as extreme as one might expect among fans. But the media coverage in the market, of course, would take on a life of its own.
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. Episode 130 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features Tim Kawakami, the editor-in-chief of The Athletic’s Bay Area edition, and Matt Yaloff, a host and reporter for MLB Network. In this podcast Kawakami discusses why he joined The Athletic, a startup focused subscription-based quality sports journalism; the expectations of the site; why he believes this model can succeed; how to convince readers who have never paid for sports content to pay for sports content; how he is dealing with the business side of journalism; why Marcus Thompson is a different-maker as a hire; what the initial days have been like for the site; how The Athletic will adapt when its paywall hardens; his philosophy when it comes to blocking people on Twitter and whether that runs counter to building a subscription based business; the line between talking politics and sports on social media; how he perceives the national reporting to be on Colin Kaepernick; a cameo from Peter King, and much more.
Yaloff discusses how he prepares for MLB Network Strike Zone, a baseball equivalent of NFL RedZone; what he thinks the toughest job in baseball broadcasting is; the stroke he suffered on July 29, 2016 and how it changed his life; the difficulty of rehab; how MLB Network allowed him to work back slowly; how he is a different person post-stroke; working in the baseball media in baseball-crazy Philadelphia and New York City; whether the Astros are built for the postseason; why he loves Jim Thome, and much more.
You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.
2. Season 12 of HBO’s Hard Knocks debuts on Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT, with this year’s program embedded with the Bucs. The series arc will change from previous years given NFL owners voting to eliminate the first cut-down period, forcing teams to trim their roster to 75 before the final preseason game. There will now be just one cutdown following the preseason, from a 90-man roster to a 53-man roster.
HBO said they have a staff of 32 in Tampa (featuring 20 cameras overall including six manned cameras) and have been filming since July 21. The director is Matt Dissinger, who was the first robotics camera operator for the series. The production now uses 14 robotic cameras to shoot 350 hours of film for each episode.
3. On Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN will air Morningside 5, a 25-year journey into the lives of the starters from the 1992-93 defending state champion Morningside High (Inglewood, Ca.) basketball team. The piece is narrated and directed by Mike Tollin, who directed a documentary in 1993 on the team entitled “Hardwood Dreams.” Here’s an L.A. Times review of the film and a trailer for the film.