Mark Brunell did not expect to see his name trending on Twitter last Thursday afternoon. Heck, given Super Bowl 49 was still nearly two weeks away and most of the NFL head coaching openings had already been filled, Brunell anticipated his afternoon would be very light on NFL news. Little did the ESPN NFL analyst know that he’d be a panelist for an episode of NFL Live that drew 1.172 million viewers, the most-viewed episode of that show since Aug. 11, 2011, according to John Ourand of Sports Business Daily.
Why the mega-interest that day for an NFL program that airs daily? Well, it had one hell of a lead-in-- the live press conference where Patriots quarterback Tom Brady denied having any knowledge of game balls being intentionally tampered with during his team’s AFC Championship Game win over the Colts. Immediately upon Brady proclaiming innocence -- and setting a press conference record for the use of the word “balls” -- NFL Live host Trey Wingo asked Brunell if he believed Brady’s answers. Brunell then did something you rarely see an ex-NFL player-turned-broadcaster do: He essentially called out a member of the NFL fraternity for lying.
“I did not believe what Tom Brady had to say," said Brunell, in a segment where he nearly choked up. “Those balls were deflated. Somebody had to do it. And I don’t believe there is an equipment manager in the NFL that would on his own initiative deflate a ball without the starting quarterback’s approval.”
Why such an intense reaction to Brady’s presser?
“One was surprise,” said Brunell, in an interview with SI this week. “I didn’t expect Tom to say that. Two, I guess I was disappointed. I truly expected him to take some of the blame. I expected him say, “You know what? I am on the record that I like the balls deflated, and that is my preference. I asked the equipment guys if we could get it to that point and I didn’t realize they would be deflated that much. I made a mistake. I won’t let it happen again. Hopefully, we can go forward, but this is something certainly going forward, I’ll make sure we are within the league limit on that footballs.” That’s what I thought he would say but it just didn’t happen.”
Instead, Brady said he would never do anything outside of the rules of play and that he did not notice a difference against the Colts in the first half when most of the balls had significantly less pressure.
“It just doesn’t add up to me,” said Brunell, who played 17 seasons as a quarterback for the Jaguars, Redskins, Saints and Jets before retiring in 2011. “The balls were deflated and in my experience with equipment guys is they have one job: Take care of the personal preferences of each player, especially the quarterback. It just didn’t add up and that’s why I was surprised.”
The Deflategate story last week crossed over from sports to an across-the-board media obsession. The topic has attracted bloviators from all precincts on cable news and even science educator Bill Nye. (Good luck to those old-school NFL journalists who think Media Day has become a circus because the circus is really coming to town this year.)
There are plenty of narcissistic hot take artists in the sports media that produce content with the sole attention of getting you to look at them. You know who they are. Brunell doesn’t strike me as one -- nor does he have that reputation in-house -- so no matter where you stand on Brady’s veracity, you can admire Brunell for offering an unfiltered take. (Fellow NFL Live panelists and Brady skeptics Jerome Bettis and Brian Dawkins also appeared to be speaking from the gut and not just looking for a headline.)
Brunell said he heard from a number of former players and coaches who told him “Good job, way to take a stand.” He also heard from tons on social media who were not as friendly. And he was excoriated in the sports blogsphere for reacting as if he was watching Old Yeller. Said Brunell: “I added close to 1,000 followers on my Twitter account and heard a lot worse things than “You’re an idiot.” Listen, that’s just part of the job. This is new territory for me. But as an analyst, I have to be honest and I have to call it like I see it. That’s really the job.”
Brunell joined ESPN in August 2013 and has a much-limited schedule compared to some of ESPN’s prominent NFL analysts such as Cris Carter, Ron Jaworski and many others.
“It was a first for me, having an opinion just coming off the press conference,” Brunell said. “Most of the work we do as analysts are breaking down tape, talking about personnel, evaluating strength and weaknesses. This was different. But that’s the job and what I have been told for the last year is to be honest and if you have a strong opinion, communicate that in the best way possible”.
Brunell said there was not much talk between his on-set producer (Matt Garrett) and his fellow panelists afterward. (He had to hustle to do SportsCenter and work on a digital piece for ESPN.com.) He does not have an ESPN assignment at the Super Bowl but will be in Glendale working with NFL Alumni. His next ESPN assignment comes the third week of February and it will be interesting to see what the carryover is (if any) after challenging one of the most celebrated football players in history.
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the week's top media stories.
1. SI.com can report that NBC will have a robotic camera in the NFL’s replay booth during coverage of this year’s Super Bowl game. That camera will be focused on NFL Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino and other replay officials reviewing any challenges or booth reviews. If there is any controversial play, such as Dez Bryant’s non-catch in the Green Bay-Dallas divisional playoff game, NBC will have the ability to put Blandino on the air for an explanation of the rule. NBC has had similar access to Blandino for regular season games but never for a Super Bowl. Network officials asked the league if they would make Blandino available to be used on the air if needed and the NFL agreed.
1a. The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas spoke with Sunday Night Football broadcaster Al Michaels, who addressed his Pravda-like coverage of the Mueller Report during the Patriots-Ravens playoff game:
1b. ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi, on whether he is unbiased when it comes to the Patriots:
“Is it hard for me to be unbiased? Sure. It is sometimes. It is sometimes hard for me to be unbiased. For goodness gracious, I presented them with the Lamar Hunt Trophy after they won the AFC Championship. So it is hard. There are moments where I've been critical of them. I think right out the gate, I don't think it took me long to criticize fourth and two with Bill Belichick, things like that that I've disagreed upon. I'm not shy to disagree with him because I had a lot of disagreements with my coaches when I was there. The same way, as hard as they coached me, I try to give them my input back, too. That's what I try to do as best I can. It makes me lucky that they win a lot, I guess. But I was just as hard on the offensive line this year after the Kansas City game, just as everyone else was. And I knew they had problems that had to be fixed. So I'm not shy to recognize that. I guess that's my answer.”
1c. Brunell said he had always been friendly with Brady while playing in the league. “I have always respected him as a player, and as a person,” Brunell said. “He has always been very cordial with me. At times, he asked me about my family and how I was doing, normal quarterback stuff. My relationship with Tom has always been solid but I do not know him well and we are not close. But after a game you shake the other quarterback’s hand, wish them well, and go on.”
2. A story I hope you read: Three sportswriters (Jerry Green, Dave Klein and Jerry Izenberg) have covered all 48 Super Bowls. This is their story.
2a. Here's a piece I did on the New York City tabloid newspapers having a field day with the Patriots the game balls controversy.
2b. The New York Post’s back page on Sunday was a Tour-de-tabloid force.
3. ESPN Radio broke new ground on Saturday with the debut of “espnW presents Spain & Prim on ESPN Radio,” a two-hour sports-talk program featuring two female hosts (Sarah Spain and Prim Siripipat) and a female producer (Ali Bronson). How did the idea and conception for a show (it will air regularly on Saturdays from 12-2 p.m. ET) featuring Spain and Siripipat come about? Credit ESPN Radio program director Louise Cornetta for making the push for a pioneering show for ESPN’s audio division.
“In December I was asked to take a look at our weekend programming and I wanted to come up with a plan that would make our lineup as strong as possible and better reflect our audience while also being a place to hopefully groom our next stars,” Cornetta said, in an email interview. “Working with my supervisor, Dave Roberts, I put together a plan of diverse hosts not just of ethnicity but diverse in location. The first show I knew I wanted to add to the weekend lineup was an all-female one. In September I had overseen joint production with espnW of an all-female roundtable on the State of NFL in light of the Ray Rice incident. Hearing an all-female show on such a sensitive topic was refreshing and insightful. Sarah Spain was a part of that special and is a talent we had been aware of through her work on ESPN 1000 in Chicago and from espnW. I was familiar with Prim Siripipat’s radio work from her time filling in as a co-host on ESPN Radio weekend shows such as Coach & Company with Jonathan Coachman. We put together three test shows to see how their chemistry would be together and after the first one, we knew we had a winning combination.”
Cornetta said she thinks the show can be compelling and attract a national audience because, in her words, both hosts have experience working in sports at a national level, both are opinionated, and both possess the ability to be self-deprecating. She also thought it was important to have a female as a producer for the show. (Smart people in sports radio will tell you that a good producer is as important, if not more important, than the host or hosts). Bronson has worked at ESPN Radio for seven years.
“We are all aware of the elephant in the room, which is there will be listeners that will immediately dislike them without even listening to the show because all they hear are two females talking,” said Cornetta, whose first job at ESPN Radio was working on the Fabulous Sports Babe Show in 1996. “They have no issues letting the audience know they’re aware not everyone is going to love them or give them a chance. They know sports, have an opinion, like to have fun and are good storytellers. Those qualities are what I am looking for in any talent, male or female.
“When I started in this business 20 years ago I was often the only female in a locker room or meeting. Today, it is rare for that to happen. Females aren’t just working more in sports but are proud to be sports fans. We want to appeal to a wide audience. Hearing a story from a female perspective maybe gets someone to think or see from an angle they had never thought about. Hearing diverse opinions educates us all.”
3a. Fox Sports announced last week that it had hired John Strong to an exclusive contract to call Major League Soccer (MLS), Women's World Cup, and international soccer events. It’s part of a meteoric rise for the Oregon-based broadcaster, who won’t hit his 30th birthday until June. Strong had previously worked for Fox and NBC calling MLS, Europa League, and Premier League games. Here’s a nice example of one of Strong’s goal calls.
“Fox has been a second home for me since August 2012,” Strong said in an email. “They allowed me to jump essentially full-time to national broadcasting, and were very accommodating -- as was NBC -- about my shutting back and forth between both companies the last year-and-a-half. I've loved all of the different, varied things I've worked on with Fox, and now they have the property that matters most to me: MLS. What could have been a difficult situation, and has been for a few others, with the MLS rights shifting from NBC to Fox, was made pretty pain-free for me thanks both to keeping up a relationship with both place.”
Fox has yet to announce its game broadcasters for the Women’s World Cup later this year but it’s a good bet Strong (who shares a broadcast agent with the famed Martin Tyler) will get some major games. I’d also keep an eye on Fox naming Strong as one of its game-callers for the 2018 World Cup. Strong said, as of yet, he had not been assigned to anything beyond the MLS. “Whatever my role ends up being, it's a dream come true to get to play any part of broadcasting a World Cup,” he said.
Strong said the most impactful soccer broadcaster on him from a foundation standpoint was the electronic voice of John Motson on the FIFA Soccer video game.
“I got my first FIFA game right around the 1998 World Cup, and the first time I ever actually heard him [Motson] call a live game was the 2002 World Cup final,” Strong said. “Martin Tyler is, not shockingly, the broadcaster who I've probably studied the most. But I'm always paying attention to the announcers in any game I watch, always listening, always trying to pick up little things. That being said, I've been very lucky in the last few years to have JP Dellacamera be a very hands-on mentor of mine. He's someone who perhaps doesn't get the credit he deserves, especially for all the work he was doing long before it was at all cool to be a soccer broadcaster. We've spent a lot of time together in L.A. when we're in town to do Fox games, and he's always been very supportive, very willing to answer whatever questions I have, and he's told me some fantastic stories about the early days of U.S. soccer broadcasting.”
4. Sports pieces of note:
•SI’s Ben Reiter on the time Wayne Gretzky invited Igor Larionov, Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov over for beers.
•Grantland’s Charles P. Pierce has a piece on the farce of Foxborough.
•Grantland’s Bryan Curtis on the epidemic of media members stating questions with “Talk about….”
•With Jerramy Stevens in the news, I’ll post the brilliant work the Seattle Times did on Stevens over the years. Enabled, again and again.
Non sports pieces of note:
•Indianapolis Star reporter Tim Swarens on an Auschwitz survivor’s journey to forgiveness.
•Via Seth Stephens-Davidowitz: One of the many reasons sex is puzzling is that we lack reliable data:
•The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore on if the Internet can be archived.
•A fantastic, honest Q&A by Jeff Pearlman with a high school senior on what it's like for her at 17.
•Via The Daily Beast: A never-before published column from Jimmy Breslin from Winston Churchill’s deathbed.
•The Roger Sterling of sports authors, Drew Magary, profiles Motley Crue in entertaining fashion.
•The NYT’s John Koblin on the end of the NYC media power lunch.
5. It appears ESPN has its own version of Deflategate (also Inflategate): Last week a Reddit user under the tag of “sharpinator” posited that ESPN NBA Draft analyst Chad Ford had altered his work after publication to reflect better analysis. The user cited examples. That was followed by further analysis across the sports blogosphere including NBA blogger Haralabos Voulgaris, SB Nation’s Tom Ziller and Deadspin’s Tim Burke offered analysis. On Sunday an ESPN spokesperson sent out the following: "After reviewing the post on Reddit today, we have found that changes were made manually to Chad Ford’s NBA Draft prospects rankings. We have not been able to determine who made the changes, or when. We have talked to Chad Ford, who strongly denies any involvement, and based on his past work and professionalism, we believe him. Our review will continue but it is unclear at this time if we will be able to ascertain who was responsible."
5a. Fox Sports 1’s coverage of the UFC Fight Night on Jan. 18 -- featuring popular Irish fighter Conor McGregor defeating Dennis Silver -- drew 2,751,000 viewers, the most-watched MMA event ever on Fox Sports 1 and the most-watched MMA event on ad-supported cable television since Dec. 2009. The network said viewership peaked in the final quarter-hour (12:00-12:15 AM ET) with 3.162 million viewers.
5b. The Fox Sports Live edition following the fight averaged 1,167,000 viewers, making it the most-watched Sunday edition of that program all time.
5c. truTV has ordered a pilot for Shaq Inq. (working title), a workplace comedy loosely based on the business life of Shaquille O’Neal, who is executive-producing the show with Mike Tollin.
5d. Former ESPN anchor and current 120 Sports host Michael Kim could have a future actor as part of his clan: His 11-year-old son, Matthew, makes his cinematic debut at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday in a movie called Advantageous. The movie is a futuristic-themed film set that is focused on a mother and daughter relationship. Matthew Kim plays the son of Ken Jeong's character.
5e. House of Cards: The Washington Post’s Cecilia Kang explains why you are about to pay more for ESPN.
5g. CBS has re-upped We Need To Talk, its all-female cast, weekly hour-long sports show, for another year. The show makes its 2015 debut Monday at 10 p.m. ET on the CBS Sports Network.
5h. Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski will rotate as Fox Sports analysts for the network’s coverage of NASCAR’s Xfinity series. Fox Sports 1 will telecasts 12 of the events while Fox broadcasts the races from Phoenix and Talladega. Adam Alexander will call the races alongside Michael Waltrip and the rotating analysts.
5h. ESPN Radio has added some new weekend programming (including Spain & Prim) while keeping some unlistenable and low-rated options. Here’s the lineup.
5i. Newsday reporter Laura Albanese attended FrancesaCon last Saturday, a fan tribute for New York City sports radio personality Mike Francesa:
5j. Best selling-author James Andrew Miller reported last week that Stephen A. Smith has signed a new deal with ESPN that will pay him in the range of $3.1-$3.5 million annually. Presuming Miller’s reporting is accurate -- and he’s the gold standard for ESPN financial information -- Smith will be paid approximately 15 times more annually than the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.