Media Circus: Dr. Jack is done; is TV ready for an openly gay analyst?
His brio for basketball and enthusiasm to entertain never wavered into his octogenarian years. Jack Ramsay continued to educate ESPN Radio listeners deep into his 80s, and even more importantly, he never stopped educating himself.
"He doesn't think he knows everything -- and he frankly does know everything," said ESPN/ABC NBA play-by-play announcer Mike Breen. "He's always asking questions and was always curious. He'd ask me what I thought of a certain team or player, and I was almost embarrassed to give him an answer. I should not be telling Dr. Jack Ramsay what I think, but he wants to know other people's information because he still thinks he can learn from others. Even though he is from a different generation, his appreciation of today's players is as strong as ever. Sometimes you'll talk to a player or a coach who coached years ago and they'll say that today's players are not the same. Jack doesn't think that way. He changed as the game changed. He grew with the game."
Last week, the
If this is the end of the broadcasting road -- and I speak for many when I say I hope it isn't -- Ramsay's mark on listeners won't soon be forgotten. He partnered with Jim Durham on ESPN Radio to create one of the NBA's legendary soundtracks, and I'm sure I'm not alone in having searched the duo out even with the television in front of me. Last November, Durham passed away at his home in Tomball, Texas. He was 65. "They were such a pair, on and off the air," Breen said. "I think this was a really hard year for Jack. I mean, everybody misses Jimmy, but Jack lost a piece of a heart with Jimmy. Those two men truly really loved each other."
Ramsay's broadcasting career was a second act after a notable first one: He coached 20 full seasons in the NBA, earning a postseason berth 16 times and famously leading the Portland Trail Blazers to a championship in 1977. He worked locally as a television color commentator for the Heat from 1992 to 2000 and became a beloved Miami broadcasting figure. Few things were cooler in the land of Sonny Crockett than when Ramsay pronounced Voshon Lenard's last name after the guard drilled a three-pointer or dunked.
"To hear that he had actually had to give up the games, I knew something was wrong," Breen said. "For any of us who know him, it is upsetting. I know how much he loves the game. At 88 years old, he still gets fired up before games. He also has the strongest f---ing handshake of anyone I have ever met."
Beth Faber, the lead remote producer for ESPN Radio, has worked with Ramsay for the past 17 NBA seasons. In an interview Sunday night, Faber echoed Breen on Ramsay's endless search for knowledge and his interest in people. "I never got into a cab with Jack where he didn't ask the cab driver, 'Where are you from?,'" Farber said. She said the death of Durham has been tough on Ramsay?the two were terrific friends, even though Durham was a staunch Republican and Ramsay a liberal Democrat,
Prior to the season, Ramsay told Faber that the 2012-13 NBA season would be his last in broadcasting. Last week, when news broke that Ramsay was stepping away, Faber told Ramsay that he still owed her 16 games, and she expected to collect from him one day. "This is a guy who swims in the Gulf of Mexico when he's at his home in Naples," Farber said. The word I think of with Jack is indestructible."
The Noise Report
"I don't know why it hasn't happened yet," Buckley said. "I'm a writer, but I do a lot of stuff on television for Comcast SportsNet in Boston, and to my knowledge, it's not like the station is getting inundated with requests to get me off the air because I am gay. If you can talk, you can talk. If I am a network executive and I don't think my viewers are ready for an openly gay play-by-play announcer, then I am not really too bright. Look at the overwhelming support Jason Collins received. Not just from the media, not just from talk shows, but also the President of the United States and former Presidents. With apologies to [ESPN NBA analyst] Mr. [Chris] Broussard and others, the people who are screaming about this sound like they are from the lunatic fringe."
Last year, I interviewed a number of sports television executives on this topic and went back to them again this week to update the quotes. (CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus was interviewed for the first time on Friday.) Every executive I spoke with said a person's sexuality would not be a factor in hiring or the network giving them assignments. (I would not expect otherwise in public comments.) It's naive to think that gay sports broadcasters are not working on-air today, so why haven't we seen an openly gay anchor calling or analyzing the NFL or hosting SportsCenter? "I don't think I can speak for the whole industry," said Fox Sports co-president Eric Shanks. "I can speak for Fox Sports, and at least while I have been here, I don't think the opportunity has presented itself. I don't think it is an issue today. If there were a person qualified, it would not be an issue. Once the opportunity presents itself and there is someone completely qualified, it will absolutely be a reality."
"It is one of those things that I don't even think crosses people's minds anymore when it comes to on-air broadcasters or lawyers or bankers or school administrators," McManus said. "When I look at tapes or have someone in my office who wants to work for me at CBS Sports in play by play or as a studio analyst, it just never really occurs to me or find out what his sexual preference is. I think the Jason Collins story was a big story for a lot of reasons, but if a broadcaster chose to make that kind of statement, I don't think it would be all that big a story. I think most people would say, "Okay, so what? I couldn't care less what your preferences are. What I care about his how good a play-by-play man or analyst you are. If the general public liked that man or woman as an on-air broadcaster, they would have very strong opinions about that person whether that person is gay or straight."
"A gay anchor on SportsCenter is an absolute non-issue," said an ESPN-er who has hosted SportsCenter. "If you are asking how they would be received in-house, my only concern as it related to anchoring a show is with the level of investment and competence the anchor has. Any ancillary issue is honestly not a concern. How would they be received by the viewer? I honestly can't imagine that would be an issue either among most. But I am admittedly hoping that's the case. There was quite a bit of religion thrown about after Collins, wasn't there?"
Not everyone shares that opinion. One ESPN broadcaster I spoke to said sexuality would be a significant factor in how the audience reacts to a broadcaster. "I do think some viewers would be biased and not look at the gay broadcaster the same -- or give them any slack," said the broadcaster. "If this particular broadcaster were to make an innocent mistake on the air --or have a comment or view that some might not agree with -- I think all bets would be off. Sad, but true, in my opinion."
"My sense with play by play is that there is the same level of closeting that goes on for the same reasons athletes aren't more open -- concern over appearance," said another ESPN staffer who has done play by play. "I suppose they wonder if a network and/or the fans would somehow "hear" them differently. It's quite easy for me to say they wouldn't but until someone is courageous enough to say the hell with it, I guess it's a barrier to be crossed."
My take is that an openly gay sports broadcaster calling or analyzing one of the major sports would receive far more support than venom, though they'd have to expect some hate and homophobic speech in some corners. (One broadcast executive suggested that 20 percent of the feedback to his network through phone calls, emails, etc., would be negative, and less about the person being openly gay than for the perception that he or she was using the network as a platform to advance an agenda.) Something Buckley said during our conversation gave me hope -- and a laugh. "The emails and letters I enjoy most today are the ones who tell me they thought I was a sh---y columnist before and a sh---y one now," Buckley said. "Those are the best."
Shanks: "When you sit with your friends, the most frustrating thing viewers talk about is: Is that guy watching the same game I am watching? Those are the things that people watch and listen for. I think there would be pockets of people that would say things, but I don't think the majority of people would have an issue as long as the person is qualified to call the game."
McManus: "I think sports fans have very strong opinions about their likes and dislikes on announcers and I really don't think that the vast majority of people are going to factor in his or her preferences any more than whether they factor if the person is black, white, Indian, tall or short. What the person is saying, how they are saying it, what their personality is -- those are the important factors."
Norby Williamson, ESPN executive Vice President, Programming & Acquisitions: "Absolutely, they would accept it. For sports fans, it's about credibility, it's about doing your homework, it's about working hard and having passion for sports or news. That's where I would like to think we are with the culture. I have been here a long time so I go way back to when the discussion was about women -- Gayle Gardner, Shelley Smith, Robin Roberts, Hannah Storm, there was that discourse about women hosting sporting events. Now on play by play we have Beth Mowins doing college football. Throughout the years, these questions have been there, about what is the next hurdle or next thing. I would like to think we have gone past those hurdles as a society and as a culture. If it's another barrier, if that is a barrier, it should be broken. Sports fans, in my opinion, are ready to accept that." (Note: Williamson was interviewed last year when his title was ESPN's executive vice president, production).
"There were a few moments when I nearly told one of my close friends. But I just couldn't do it. Then, I read Collins' story. I was taken aback by his openness and honesty. I loved hearing it from him, in his own words. Then, one particular line in his story hit me -- where he said, 'This is my news to tell, not TMZ.' Granted, TMZ doesn't care about me, but I'm from such a small town and I was worried about the rumors. If just one person found out, I knew my whole town would know by the end of the week. All my friends and family would have found out through someone else. I wanted them to hear it in my own words."
In separate interviews with SI.com this week, both Onrait and O'Toole said Fox Sports executives have given them a rough outline of what they envision for Fox Sports Live, the new network's challenger to ESPN's SportsCenter, The show will air daily from Los Angeles from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. ET and Onrait and O'Toole will work Monday through Thursday with the following setup: Charissa Thompson and a still-to-be-determined panel will appear on one side of the studio, and Onrait and O'Toole will be on the other side doing highlights. The day's sports schedule will determine how much airtime each grouping gets during a show. Onrait and O'Toole will also co-host a 90-minute Fox Sports Live show on Sunday night, as well as continue their popular podcast.
"Charissa will be the star of the show, let's be honest," Onrait said. "We'll be sliding in and hanging out in the corner like Chris Elliott did [on "Late Night with David Letterman"] all those years ago."
Fox first approached the duo last August at the London Olympics (Onrait and O'Toole hosted a two-hour show for TSN from Trafalgar Square), and the duo flew to Los Angeles two months later for further discussions. As negotiations heated up, the anchors talked daily (along with their producer, who is joining them at Fox) and made a joint decision to take the new job. "When they [TSN] saw the offer, they said they did not think they could match it," O'Toole said. "But talking with all of our bosses, they were almost of the mindset they did not want to keep us from this opportunity. It was like, 'Guys, you have to try this.' It is a whole new audience that we can hopefully entertain. As opposed to a country of just over 30 million, we will be in 90 million homes. It's just staggering the amount of eyeballs we can potentially reach."
Both Onrait and O'Toole said they were overwhelmed by the amount of messages they have received from Canadians, including a tweet of support from Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. "When you are in a studio in Scarborough, Ontario at 1 a.m. doing a show, you don't lose track of who you are broadcasting to, but you forget that show is repeating for 12 hours across the entire country, and countless families wake up with it," OToole said.
O'Toole is married with two daughters, one five years old, the other two. He said he and his wife went back and forth about uprooting a comfortable life in Ontario (O'Toole was born and raised on a pig farm in Peterborough, Ontario; Onrait is from Athabasca, Alberta, a town of 3,000 in the Canadian prairie). "My wife likes California wine, so I kept stressing that," O'Toole said. "That was one of my sales tactics. It will honestly be a new adventure every day."
I asked each of the new Fox Sports 1 anchors to provide a one-sentence description of the other:
Said Onrait of O'Toole: "Unable to concentrate on one thing for more than five seconds."
Said O'Toole of Onrait: "Extremely talented and extremely strange."
Katz said he will continue to do games on ESPN and ESPNU, but he's added one very high-profile assignment: He'll be part of a rotation (including T.J. Quinn and Steve Weissman) that will host Outside the Lines when Bob Ley is unavailable. "This is the best show we have on ESPN and I have always wanted to be more involved in OTL for everything the program stands for in journalism and the kind of discussion that can be generated," Katz said. "I'm proud of everything that comes out of OTL and wanted to increase my role on the program."
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