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How the networks handle criticizing Goodell; threats for ESPN reporters

With the Roger Goodell–Tom Brady Deflategate controversy still fresh, how critical can the NFL’s broadcast partners be of Goodell?

So how critical can the NFL’s broadcast partners be of Roger Goodell?

While thinking about my annual preview of how the football-airing networks will bring you the NFL this season — I looked at CBS below and will do the other networks throughout the week amid other columns — I was curious how executives at CBS, ESPN, Fox and NBC would answer the question above. Obviously, there’s no need to ask the league-owned NFL Network the question given it would be like asking state-run China Central Television if they can criticize Chinese President Xi Jinping.

What you rarely see (if ever) from the NFL’s television partners is in-game criticism of Goodell’s decision-making. The pregame shows occasionally tackle league-wide issues but they rarely go beyond top-line discussion and most savvy viewers already know which television talent will go soft on the league and which talent is the designated hitter. Here’s how the executives answered the question (predictably, I’d say), but how they did offers a bit of their network’s philosophy, at least within the game:

CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus:

“I don’t see our job as being critical. I see our job as letting our analysts express their opinions, and if they have negative opinions on something the NFL has done or something Roger has done, they are free to express that opinion. We don’t put any kind of limitations on them. But I don’t look at our job as praising or criticizing any individual, including Roger Goodell. I look at our job as evaluating it fairly and expressing that evaluation through our analysts and commentators.”​

Fox Sports president Eric Shanks:

“We don’t ever dictate or give guidelines to announcers to what they can and can’t say. Whether it is Jimmy Johnson or Troy Aikman or Randy Moss, I don’t think they have ever heard Fox Sports say don’t say what is on your mind or what you feel in an appropriate situation. I think everyone who has a microphone at Fox Sports has said whatever they have wanted to say.”

ESPN Monday Night Football producer Jay Rothman:

“Well, I think Mike [Tirico] and Jon [Gruden] need to shoot straight in their opinions.  I don't think we’re out there to blast Roger or blast the NFL. We’re there to cover a football game. But if there are things that we don’t agree with and Mike and Jon don’t agree with, we certainly encourage them to have the forum to express that. But our goal is not to lambaste Roger. We’re there to cover the games.”

NBC Sunday Night Football coordinating producer Fred Gaudelli:

“I think you can be critical when there are mistakes and missteps. Now, sometimes you have information you have gathered that unfortunately is off the record but someone tells you, ‘This is what really happened but you can’t use it.’ So you have some knowledge of it. But I have never heard a word from the league about anything we have ever done that might shine a negative light. If it was wrong, I might hear a word. Look, can we be as free-wheeling as Bill Simmons? No, of course not. But obviously ESPN did not think they could be either because he’s no longer there. There is no question it is a delicate balance but I can tell you Roger Goodell has never called me and said, ‘Why did you do that?’ Nor have any of his assistants or people like that at the league level.”

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1. Some thoughts on CBS’s NFL coverage this year:

While the broadcaster pairings at CBS remain essentially the same from last year (more on that below) CBS has given its The NFL Today studio show an aesthetics makeover. The show has a new set, a new opener (which pushed Super Bowl 50, noting that it would air “exclusively” on CBS 147 days from Sunday) and has embraced the favorite new move of television consultants — having studio talent standing or moving rather than sitting behind a desk. On Sunday, host James Brown opened the first segment standing as he introduced the games of the day. He then sent it over to analysts Bill Cowher and Tony Gonzalez (standing at another part of the studio), who passed the baton to analysts Bart Scott and Boomer Esiason (standing in another part of the studio) who sent it over to insider Jason LaCanfora (standing in another part of the studio). What was clear, outside of the thesis that such movement will keep the viewer occupied, was that the segment was sponsored by Southwest Airlines.


Was the show better than last year? Well, it felt fresher and the set certainly looked great. The bumper spots to breaks were also very sharp, too. But speed isn’t always great for viewers. Cowher delivered something interesting during a roundtable discussion — the former Steelers coach said headset issues happen for NFL coaches in every city and that it wasn’t unusual — but he offered no follow-up or specifics why that wasn’t unusual. So viewers were not educated on the issue outside of knowing the segment was sponsored by Dominos. The in-show crossover to the NFL Network’s GameDay crew seemed only for the promotional benefit of both networks — and not viewers. Interestingly, when the group got behind the desk and did a segment on which teams were on the rise (they highlighted the Chiefs, Dolphins, Vikings and Eagles), it was the most viewer-friendly part of the show. I thought it was very thoughtful of the producers (fronted by Brown) to acknowledge the death of basketball great Moses Malone. One additional note for viewers: There is very little fantasy focus on The NFL Today.

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1a. The 2015 CBS NFL broadcast group has some minor changes from 2014. The lineup:

No. 1: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms and reporter Tracy Wolfson
No. 2: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts and reporter Evan Washburn
No. 3: Greg Gumbel, Trent Green and reporter Jamie Erdahl
No. 4: Kevin Harlan and Rich Gannon
No. 5: Spero Dedes and Solomon Wilcots
No. 6: Andrew Catalon, Steve Tasker and analyst Steve Beuerlein
No. 7: Tom McCarthy and Adam Archuleta
No. 8: Brian Anderson and Chris Simms

“I think we have the best and deepest team of announcers for all the networks,” said McManus, echoing a line all executives would say about their talent.

1b. CBS will air 104 regular-season games including some NFC crossover games. In addition to the AFC package of games, CBS’s schedule features NFC games including Carolina at Dallas (Thanksgiving Day); Chicago at Seattle (Sept. 27); St. Louis at Green Bay (Oct. 11) as well as other NFC crossover flex games to be determined later in the season.

1c. The two biggest games on the CBS’s regular season NFL lineup? I’d vote New England at Dallas (Oct. 11) and Denver at Indianapolis (Nov. 8).

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1d. CBS will broadcast the first seven games of the Thursday Night schedule before handing off to the NFL Network (using CBS’s talent and game production team) on Nov. 5. CBS then returns on Dec. 3 to air the Packers at Lions before NFL Network finishes the schedule. “The transition both the first and second time from CBS to the NFL Network is critical because we want to make sure the NFL Network grows as well as CBS grows,” McManus said.

1e. I’m going to highlight at times how often an interviewer is shown during a feature piece on an NFL-related show. See thoughts on this here. Gonzalez was shown four times during his segment on Texan defensive linemen J.J. Watt and Vince Wilfork.

1f. Clip and save: Gonzalez picked the Bills to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks.

1g. Fox NFL Kickoff analyst Champ Bailey, on the lack of success in Washington. “It’s all about leadership and it starts at the top. You look at Dan Snyder. Back in 1999 I was a young rookie, the summer before my first season, he had just bought the team. He walks into the team meeting, looks at everybody in the room and says words that I probably can’t repeat right now. But he made it known that he was going to make it hard for you to work for him. Now how do you want to win for a guy that sets that kind of precedence? You have a coach that fears you, (and) players don’t respect your coach because he fears you. How do you get the players to play?“

1h. Prior to the Rams’ overtime win over the Seahawks, here was NFL Network analyst Michael Robinson (former Seattle fullback): “I’m concerned about the psychology of the Seattle Seahawks on game day. [Holdout safety] Kam [Chancellor] is a big contributor to that. He’s a guy who speaks to the team before the team goes out. He’s the guy who speaks to the rest of the defensive backs before they take the field, he gets guys lined up.”

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1i. The Patriots’ 28–21 win over the Steelers last Thursday averaged 27.4 million viewers, the second most-watched kickoff game in the 14-year history of the event. The game peaked at 30.2 million viewers and was television’s most-watched show since the 2015 NCAA men’s basketball championship (28.3 million viewers on CBS). The Top 10 markets were: 1. Boston 2. Pittsburgh 3. Providence 4. Baltimore 5. Richmond 6. Norfolk 7. Buffalo 8. West Palm Beach 9. Cleveland 10. Denver

1j. The NFL Network’s airing of Do Your Job: Bill Belichick and the 2014 Patriots averaged 465,000 viewers, the most-watched NFL Network original programming presentation in 2015 among 18–49 year-olds.

1k. HBO’s Hard Knocks with the Houston Texans averaged 874,000 viewers over its run, which is the show’s most-viewed series behind only the 2010 New York Jets edition (898,000 average viewership) since 2002.

1l. Former Patriots player and NBC Football Night in America analyst Rodney Harrison, from last week's Pro Football Talk on NBCSN, on whether any Patriots coach gave him signals from opponents:

“I can honestly tell you this. No coach — Ernie (Adams), the guy that’s accused in the report — never came up to us and gave us any calls, any signals, ever said, ‘Hey, you need to play this defense.’ When I was out there on the field, I was the strong safety. I was in charge of making the defensive calls, just as well as Tedy Bruschi. Sometimes, we would confer and say, ‘Hey, can I change this call?’ and he’d say, ‘Yeah, Hot Rod, make a check.’ How do we know ... even if the coaches knew, even if Ernie knew, how would they relay that back to us? That’s the disappointing part, because you know we worked so hard to be great players and to have a great team in 2003 and 2004. We never made excuses when the New York Giants beat us in the Super Bowl. We said, ‘You know what, they played better, they’re the champions, and that’s it.’ But when it comes to the Patriots, every time we just win, whether it’s us bugging a locker room, or taping something, it always has to come with something with it — and that’s the disappointing part.”

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2. Multiple sources at ESPN have told Sports Illustrated that a number of ESPN’s NFL and OTL staffers have received threatening phone calls, emails and tweets — well beyond the usual sports media criticism or angry social media blasts — over the network’s reporting of the Patriots and allegations of cheating. Some tweets have included threats of physical violence. (One ESPNer described the Twitter attacks as “vile.”) Another source said ESPN security has been involved. Emails have alluded to meeting up with ESPN staffers when they are working in Boston. Family members of ESPN staffers have also dealt directly with threats. When asked about the severity of the threats and whether ESPN security is involved, an ESPN spokesperson said, “We are going to decline comment.”

2a. On a related issue, Boston Globe media reporter Chad Finn had a worth-reading piece last week on ESPN’s curious editing of Patriots reporter Mike Reiss. ESPN declined comment to SI on why Reiss was edited other than what they initially told Pro Football Talk. “The story was given a tighter edit.” Very tough position for Reiss, a quality reporter and a guy who has to take one for the team here by not commenting. He declined comment to SI last week.

2b. On Friday I reported that Bomani Jones, the co-host of ESPN’s Highly Questionable and the host of ESPN Radio’s The Right Time with Bomani Jones show, will move from evenings to the 4–7 p.m. ET shift previously occupied by The Dan LeBatard Show (which replaced Colin Cowherd’s show). Said an ESPN spokesperson: “We expect to make an announcement about the 4–7 slot shortly.”

3. The 18th episode of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features ESPN digital host Antonietta (Toni) Collins, who anchors news and analysis video segments in every sport category for and has also hosted studio shows for the network. In the episode, Collins talks about how she got her start in journalism, what it's like being the only Latina reporter in locker rooms, the benefits and challenges of being a bilingual reporter, how the coverage of Hispanic athletes can improve, what she's learned from her mother María Antonieta Collins, a well-known broadcast journalist in Mexico, what she hopes is next for her career and more.

A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and you can view all of SI's podcasts here.

4. Non-sports pieces of note:

• If you've never read this Steve Hendrix piece in the Washington Post on an F-16 fighter pilot and Sept., 11, 2001, I highly recommend.

• Via The New York Times: In 1978, 542 black men went to medical school. In 2015, just 515 did.

• From Army veteran Joe Quinn: “I learned to understand shame after losing my brother on 9-11.”

• The time Donald Trump’s empire took on a stubborn widow — and lost.

• I asked people on Twitter to respond to the question of "Where were you on September 11, 2001?" Reader Howard Riefs put together a Storify with more than 1,500 personal stories. Many thanks to him.

• Via Washington Post: Why it costs $14,000 to treat a snakebite with $14 medicine.

• Amazing dedication by the families of Flight 93 to honor those who were true heroes.

• The first day of college.

• Via The New York Times: A Dying Young Woman’s Hope in Cryonics and a Future.

Sports pieces of note:

• ESPN’s Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham offer a deep-dive on tension between the Patriots and the NFL.

• From Grantland’s David Shoemaker: Why Wrestling Matters: Explaining WWE’s growing popularity and mainstream acceptance.

• This piece by Spencer Hall of SB Nation on his childhood is honest, artful and very well done.

• If you're an aspiring sports writer, or magazine writer, this Jeff Pearlman interview with Michael Farber is something you’ll want to read.

• Serious accusations leveled by author Thomas Hauser against Floyd Mayweather and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.

• Via The New Yorker: The Bible Of Texas Football.

New York Times reporter John Branch spent two weeks following around Serena Williams.

5. Why ESPN’s College GameDay is embracing point spreads.

5a. Tim Tebow is returning to the SEC Network as an analyst.

5b. Thanks to the SI editors for assigning me to cover the U.S. Open. First, it’s healthy to get away from sports media for a couple of days. It was also particularly great to cover Roberta Vinci’s stunning semifinal win over Serena Williams. I consider it the biggest tennis upset in the Open era. My piece from Flushing Meadows.

5c. Well done by Fox Sports 1 anchors Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole with this sendoff for former FS1 colleague Mike Francesa.

5d. Joe DeLessio profiled longtime Yankees radio announcer John Sterling.

5e. Here were the viewership numbers for Colin Cowherd’s first three days of simulcasting on Fox Sports 1, courtesy of Douglas Pucci of TV Media Insights and Awful Announcing.

Sept. 8: 82,000 viewers
Sept. 9: 58,000 viewers
Sept. 10: 49,000 viewers

5f. Last Wednesday’s meeting between Serena Williams and Venus Williams in the U.S. Open quarterfinals drew 5.99 million viewers on ESPN.

5g. TNT NBA analyst Charles Barkley, on the death of fellow NBA Hall of Famer Moses Malone: “The man I called 'Dad' passed today. Words can’t explain my sadness. I will never know why a Hall of Famer took a fat, lazy kid from Auburn and treated him like a son and got him in shape and made him a player. Every time I saw him I called him ‘Dad.’ I hope he knew how much I appreciated and loved him.”

Classic Sports Illustrated photos of Moses Malone