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ESPN's Cris Carter's on-air growth showing in NFL coverage

For much of Cris Carter’s six-year tenure as an NFL analyst for ESPN, I found myself appreciating the energy and passion he brought to shows and respected the bona fides he carried as a Hall of Fame-caliber NFL player. But I always felt I was getting performance art with Carter. He was loud, preachy and far too often for me, he came off like an evangelist selling only one product: Cris Carter.

But over the past few years I found myself gravitating to Carter and (as always) Tom Jackson when I watched Sunday NFL Countdown. I dropped some of my viewer cynicism toward him and started hearing his content more than I had previously. Last week, as many noted, Carter’s emotional commentary on Adrian Peterson resonated through the clutter. He connected with the audience through the prism of his own experiences with corporal punishment. Carter said his mother “whooped” him as a kid and it was powerful, honest television. The segment is here.

“I thought last week was Cris' finest hour,” said Seth Markman, the ESPN executive in charge of the NFL studio shows. “The passion he spoke with and the overall message will be something I remember for a very long time. We ask our analysts to be honest but there are times as producers where you know guys are holding back. With Cris, that's never the case.”

“I called my mother before the show and told her she should be on alert,” Carter said in a phone interview with Sports Illustrated on Friday. “I also called my sister who had been raped and told her I might use her story on TV. I can’t say my Mom was really pleased with the overall comments but I had to do what I thought was right and it was the truth.

“This is the thing: I didn’t grow up with a father and I grew up somewhat like Adrian Peterson with six or seven siblings. I didn’t have no healthy relationships around me. I didn’t know how to be married or date or wear a suit or treat a lady. I didn’t know all these things and I see Adrian Peterson following in the same cycle his father went through. It breaks my heart and I’m upset, and I was upset at the Vikings because that used to be a team that cared about the players. And they used to be a team that provided recovery.”

Carter said he was ready to cut ties with the Vikings if they kept Peterson on the active roster. Said Carter: “If they did not do anything, I was prepared to call the Vikings and tell them: “You all can take my jersey down.”

The team ended up reversing course -- the Vikings dropped Peterson from the active roster -- which Carter said he felt was the best thing for Peterson and his career. Prior to Sunday NFL Countdown this week, Carter once again offered thoughtfulness and honesty, this time on the NFL’s history of lenience on domestic violence cases involving its employees.

“The only real positive [from Roger Goodell’s press conference] that I saw is now we are having discussions openly about domestic violence and how to treat it,” Carter said. “That’s all I saw. The National Hotline For Domestic Violence last week, calls were up 84 percent. If we have blundered this -- which we have -- even in the blunder, the amount of awareness and how we can be a leader moving forward is astronomical because we haven’t done well. People are starting to reach out and get more help. Imagine if we do get it right. That is the only thing I can really concentrate on because it is a trail of mess up after mess up after mess up.”

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If you think you are seeing more of Carter on ESPN’s airwaves lately, it is intentional. He signed a four-year deal with ESPN in January after being courted by CBS to be a part of Showtime's Inside The NFL and possibly The NFL Today. Along with Sunday NFL Countdown and Monday Night Countdown, Carter is now a regular on ESPN Radio throughout the NFL season. He appears most weeks on the Mike & Mike show on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Carter said he believes he has been a different broadcaster since being inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013. He said the Canton honor offered him the chance to take stock of where he was in his life and where he wanted to be professionally.

“As a broadcaster I want to be the best there is,” Carter said. “I want to be recognized as I was on the field. Every day I approach it as if I was playing. I like research, I love following the sport, I love telling stories about the game. The Hall of Fame experience changed something fundamentally inside of me and it changed what I thought my purpose should be for the rest of my days.”

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“Cris has always been an outstanding broadcaster but we've seen growth in several areas,” Markman said. “First, Cris has become much more comfortable in his own skin -- he knows he is not a perfect man and he has used his own life experiences to try to shed light on what today's NFL players go through on and off the field. After Cris' comments about his mother, you can sense that everyone in the studio knew that was a seminal moment in the history of the show.”

Carter spoke to this column 24 years to the day he took his final drink. It is a story Carter has  told before. On Sept. 19, 1990, Betty Triliegi, a substance-abuse counselor who provided her services to Vikings players, looked him squarely in the eye and asked a question that felt more like a final chance.

“Cris, can you just not have a drink for one week?” Trilegi implored.

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He was 24 years old and dangerously close to the end of his football career. His talent was unquestionable but Carter was a cocaine and alcohol abuser who forced the Eagles, the team that drafted him, to release him after three seasons and 89 catches.

“It is a really different feeling when you are an alcoholic and you know it,” Carter said. “Sometimes it’s not easy to accept but I have accepted it and that is where my life is every day. It’s not that I celebrate the date because I am still trying to get through today like I did the first week. I do know the days – it is over 8,760 -- and the minutes, even the seconds. It does mean something but what is more important than today is tomorrow. It means something if I can add to it and try to learn something that might help me get another day or another minute.”

After more than a decade in broadcasting -- he started at HBO Sports in 2002 -- I was curious how Carter hoped viewers perceived his work.

“I hope you realize I am a real person,” he said. “I hope you realize I don’t have a hidden agenda. I hope you realize this game of football means the world to me and I hope ultimately you take from it that I don’t have all my stuff together and I am not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. Nor do I expect anyone else to be.”

THE NOISE REPORT examines the most notable sports media stories of the week

1. The NBC Sports Network believes it has found the right men to take on the Monday Night Football ratings juggernaut: A pair of 40-something Britons who talk about soccer.

Michael Davies and Roger Bennett, the duo who form the engaging “Men in Blazers” podcast, debut their new 30-minute television program on NBCSN this Monday at 10 p.m. ET. The show will run during the Premier League season, with airings at 10 p.m. ET and an encore airing at midnight ET. The program will also stream live on and the NBC Sports Live Extra app. Bennett and Davies will also produce a digital-only weekly podcast on each Tuesday.

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In other words, watch out Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden.

During an interview at NBC’s 30 Rock offices last week inside a sprawling 33-seat conference room, Bennett and Davies described their unique journey from cult podcasters to fulltime colleagues of Matt Lauer and Al Roker.

“We are getting to make without any doubt, the least technically ambitious television program that has been launched on a major network,” Davies said, proudly.

“Our techniques are sub-optimal,” boasted Bennett. “I don’t think anyone else in American coverage would want to be associated with the word sub-optimal.”

Bennett and Davies said the NBCSN show would match the ethos of their podcast, with the opening two segments featuring a series of soccer clips (controlled by Davies) and commentary on the biggest international soccer matches of the weekend. There will also be a guest each week inside the small studio that the Blazers refer to as their “panic room.”

The show should speak to what Men In Blazers do very well: Walk the juxtaposition of formality and informality. And the duo has grown in popularity. The New York Times gave them the Lena Dunham treatment last June.

The Blazers have developed a cadre of well-known fans including Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (who appears often on the podcast to suggest books), Clippers center Spencer Hawes, young adult author John Green and Yankees pitcher Brandon McCarthy. Actors Liam Neeson and Patrick Stewart have appeared at the duo’s live shows (the hosts go drinking with the crowd afterward) along with ESPN talent Bob Ley and Alexi Lalas. Bennett and Davies hope to do a live show this year for the South by Southwest conference next year.

“Where we have gotten to is way closer to what Rog hoped it would be than what I thought,” said Davies. “In four years, a TV show on NBC Sports Network, sold-out live shows and the relationship we have with our GFOPs (Great Friends Of The Pod). It sounds so trite but it really means the world to us. We will take this as far as our community wants us to go.”

After a successful run with ESPN -- the duo licensed its podcast to Grantland and parlayed a five-week deal to work on the network’s World Cup coverage in Rio into tremendous reviews and new followers -- Davies and Bennett had multiple options across different networks. Why NBC? They said the network was the first company to engage them heavily and owned the rights to the content that dictates their work most of all -- the Premier League. Bennett and Davis are also close with NBC Sports soccer talent Robbie Earle, Rebecca Lowe, Kyle Martino, Robbie Mustoe and Arlo White.

“The fact they get us and we think the world of them was a huge draw,” said Davies, who went out of his way to praise ESPN’s Bill Simmons for game-changing awareness of the duo through Grantland and ESPN’s 30 for 30. “They also understand our brand enough to allow us the things we do that we want to do.”

What both men want to do is continue building the brand through podcasting, their website and live shows. All Men in Blazers content is produced at Embassy Row, a division of Sony Pictures Entertainment, where Davies serves as president. The duo is interested long-term in expanding the brand to some other sports, including golf.

So how did these two Brits become the darling of the American socceratii? Bennett grew up in Liverpool in the 1980s and first came to the United States in 1990 after studying law at Leeds University. As a teenager, Davies studied at the Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania on an English-Speaking Union scholarship, the same one Lowe received years later. He schooled at the University of Edinburgh before heading to the States in the late 1980s. Both fell in love with U.S. sports immediately and a conversation with the Blazers usually leads to obscure sports references, whether Joey Cora’s base-running ability, Peter Bondra’s scoring prowess or the pressed slacks George Michael wore on The George Michael Sports Machine. Davies called the 1989 Orlando Magic team featuring Terry Catledge and Reggie Theus his first sports love and “glamorous.”

I asked the Men In Blazers how they could continue to relate to the common man and woman now that they were working for The Corporate TV Man on a full-time basis. 

“This isn’t costing very much so it buys you a lot of creative freedom and it buys you certainly a lowering of expectations in terms of the ratings you deliver,” Davies said. “So every .01 rating is good news. It doesn’t feel like we are being owned by The Man.”

Bennett had another theory.

“We have watched Wayne’s World many times and we know what happens when Wayne and Garth sign with Rob Lowe,” Bennett said. “There is an excitement about signing a deal with Rob Lowe, but Rob Lowe is the dark side. Ultimately, working in a tiny panic room is working in a panic room.”

2. ESPN NFL Countdown analyst Tom Jackson has become a leading voice on the subject of domestic violence -- and the NFL’s mishandling of it -- among the ex-NFL-players-turned-television-analysts. I transcribed something Jackson said Sunday on SportsCenter because he provided the audience with another example of something bold and thoughtful.

I thought it [Goodell’s press conference] lacked substance. When understanding the violence against women and the violence against children, there has to be a cultural change about how the men in these offices feel about violence against women. They are going to have to be brought screaming and kicking to the table. The pressure on the Commissioner’s office came in the court of public opinion, political pressure, corporate sponsorship. That is the reason we finally saw him at a podium but he was unwilling to attach anything meaningful change to what was going to happen. I can put a committee in place to deal with domestic violence and deal with these issues but I can’t do it until Super Bowl. Quite frankly, it is just not enough…There has to be a cultural change about how the men in these offices feel about the women who are being violated. Until that happens, we are going to have a close watch by the public on everything they do until they finally understand the importance of the issue and not the importance of players being back on the field.

2a. Fox NFL analyst Troy Aikman on Goodell’s presser: “I think there was just a lot of spin there. It was a great opportunity for the commissioner to come out and be forthright and let everyone know what in fact he did know and why the investigation stopped when it did. Instead of getting answers, I think everybody walked away from watching that press conference without any answers whatsoever. I think if you’re going to hold players and coaches to a certain standard, then you as the commissioner -- who has served as judge and jury since 2006 -- you’ve got to be held to the same standard as well. If it is proven that that tape in fact did make its way to the league office there on Park Avenue -- whether he saw that tape or didn’t see that tape, ignorance is no excuse, that has been levied against the New Orleans Saints and Sean Payton -- I think there have to be some pretty severe punishments for the commissioner himself.”

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2b. Carter said he was not surprised that Randy Moss, his former Vikings teammate, is now working (and working successfully) as an NFL analyst for Fox Sports.

“I was really happy for him because I knew what it would require and I knew it would require letting his guard down,” Carter said. “I know how much he loves football. The number one thing is that dude loves some football. Finally, people can hear how he thought and he played the game at a level only matched by a few people. I encourage him and tell him he is really doing well He can be one of the main faces on that show one day. He’s like 'Really?' I’m like, 'Man, that's what they are grooming you for.’”

2c. Carter said he has long-term designs on broadcasting with one exception -- if an NFL team hired him in a management role on a daily basis. “That would be the only thing that would stop me from broadcasting,” Carter said. “I am not qualified to be a general manager but if someone wanted to have me as an understudy or special assistant to the owner, I would love to work with the players on a daily basis.”

2d. On the subject of his own recovery, Carter said he does not go to AA meetings because he finds it hard to go anonymously. “I really don’t like to promote my way because I never went to rehab and I don’t go to meetings,” Carter said. “But I have my faith and the group of people I have. I still have a counselor I am in regular contact with and my circle around me keeps me accountable.”

2e. Carter said he considers Jackson to be his television mentor. “Tom has taught me so much about broadcasting,” Carter said. “He has helped groom me from the first day I was at ESPN.”

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2f. ESPN NFL Countdown analyst Ray Lewis defended Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome and owner Steve Bisciotti on Sunday.

3. Those who read this column regularly know that I consider the ESPN feature “Carry On” to be the best piece the network has ever aired. The 21-minute feature ran in July 2013 and documented the remarkable friendship between former Cleveland high school wrestlers Dartanyon Crockett and Leroy Sutton. The two friends were originally profiled by ESPN in 2009, and in that piece, ESPN reporter Tom Rinaldi described Crockett and Sutton as "a wrestler who couldn't walk carried to matches by a wrestler who couldn't see." Crockett is legally blind, and Sutton lost his legs at age 11 when he was hit by a train.

Lisa Fenn, who produced the original piece for ESPN before leaving the company to raise a family, became an integral part of the lives of her subjects after the feature -- and that unlikely trio was at the center of the updated feature in 2013. Next month, “Carry On” will be honored with an Edward R. Murrow Award for best news documentary.

Last week I checked in with Fenn for an update after the news that Crockett, 23, had won the International Sports Federation (IBSA) Judo World Championships in Colorado Springs. He now has an automatic bid to the Rio 2016 Paralympics and is enrolled at Pikes Peak Community College, pursuing a social work degree. Sutton, 24, graduated from Collins College last August, the first high school graduate in his family, and now the first with a college degree. 

“Leroy has spent the last year enrolled in an adaptive driving program, learning to operate a vehicle using hand controls,” Fenn said in an email. “Last Tuesday, wearing Dartanyon's championship t-shirt, he passed his road test on the first try! This major step toward self-sufficiency frees him to interview for full-time employment in the video game design industry. He interviews with Electronic Arts (EA) toward the end of this year and is being mentored by top character artist Isaac Oster until then.”

The trio will be in San Diego from October 17-19 to help raise money for the Challenged Athletes Foundation and in November they will speak at two United Way mentor recruiting events in Ohio.

“The most rewarding part of this journey to me personally is watching them grow and learn that the pain of their childhoods does not have to be for waste,”Fenn said. “They are finding their voices and using them for good and for change.”

Fenn said there is a writer working on a Carry On screenplay, which will be produced by Mayhem Productions and Identity Films. “What will come of it we do not know, but we are enjoying the process,” Fenn said. “And I am pecking away at the Carry On book when my little ones (she has a five-year-old son, and a three-year-old daughter) here at home allow me. They love when Leroy and Dartanyon visit, and Talia's (her daughter) always asking if she can watch Uncle 'Tanyon do judo on mama's computer."

Fenn said she spent her summer interviewing more than 50 of Sutton and Crockett’s family members, friends, neighbors, teachers, surgeons, paramedics and coaches, collecting their stories and memories. 

“The book will expand on the childhood atrocities Leroy and Dartanyon endured while delving into the lessons they took away from those experiences, allowing them to overcome daunting circumstances,” Fenn said. “But I see our story as more than two underdogs exceeding expectations. It is a tender tale of an unlikely family forged through barriers of race, class and disability.  It is a memoir of love and trust rising up out of East Cleveland quarters.  It is a book that seeks to inspire hope in those up against all odds and to motivate other to become agents of change.”

4. Sports Pieces of Note

•Did the Ravens mislead the public about the Rice assault? Did the NFL? ESPN’s Don Van Natta and Kevin Van Valkenburg investigated.

• In full agreement with espnW’s Kate Fagan: Hope Solo should be suspended from the U.S. national team.

Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur blows up Roger Goodell.

• Grantland’s Louisa Thomas on domestic violence and the NFL.

• A great piece by SI’s Alan Shipnuck on golfer Anthony Kim, MIA since 2012.

• Grantland’s Bill Barnwell on what football would look like in a post-NFL world.

• SI’s Lindsay Applebaum compiled some of SI's Faces In The Crowd who became NFL players.

Newsday’sNeil Best on how NFL's 'partners' cover off-the-field issues differently.

Non sports pieces of the week:

• Brilliant work by Matt Bai of the New York Times Magazine on reconstructing the Gary Hart scandal and how it forever changed American politics.

• This New Yorker piece on the little-known story behind Wonder Woman's origins is terrific.

• Via The Washington Post: The drug that turned a heroin user's life around.

• Read this from the New York Times: After Surgery, Surprise $117,000 Medical Bill From Doctor He Didn’t Know.

5. ESPN's coverage of the WNBA Finals averaged 659,000 viewers, up 91 percent from 2013. Overall, ESPN, ABC, ESPN2 and ESPNEWS averaged 489,000 viewers and a 0.3 US household ratings for the 10 playoff games they aired. That was an increase of 90 percent (257,000 viewers) over 2013.

5a. Game 2 on the Western Conference Finals – a 96-78 Phoenix victory over Minnesota  – was the most-viewed WNBA postseason game on ABC since 2007, drawing 828,000 viewers.

5b. EPIX airs a documentary (Forgotten Four: The Integration of Pro Football) on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on Kenny Washington, Woody Strode, Marion Motley and Bill Willis -- the group of athletes broke the color barrier in pro football in 1946. Actor Jeffrey Wright narrates the doc. The executive producers are Ross Greenburg and Wesley E. Smith.

5c. Condolences to ESPN college football and basketball host Rece Davis on the passing of his father, Jerry.

5d. ESPN baseball editor Claire Smith, a pioneer in sports writing as an African-American female columnist and national baseball writer at The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Bulletin and Hartford Courant, wrote a piece last week on her career for the Povich Center’s “Still No Cheering In The Press Box” series.

5e. Awful Announcing’s Matt Yoder highlights the issues of former NFL and Redskins paid consultant Frank Luntz appearing on Fox Sports 1 to discuss how Roger Goodell performed during his press conference. Not a good moment for Fox Sports 1.

5f. Sam Ponder’s commentary about Jameis Winston during Saturday’s College GameDay was, in my opinion, the ESPN college football reporter’s best moment as an on-air broadcaster.

5g. On Sunday Wendy Venturini became the first female to call radio play-by-play of a Sprint Cup race as part the Performance Racing Network (PRN).