When Tommy Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen and his crew from the Danish television network TV3 Sport hit the ground during Super Bowl week, they’re often hard to miss.
At Super Bowl XLVIII media day, Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen dressed as Where’s Waldo. Another year, one of his colleagues at the station challenged Rams star defensive tackle Aaron Donald to a game of slaps, engaging in playful hand combat with one of the strongest defensive players in the league, while hundreds of journalists watched in stunned silence (this was a blessed, pre-COVID-19 setting, of course). Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen said he freestyle rap-battled Cam Newton before Super Bowl 50. And before Super Bowl LII, he walked around media night asking players about their grandmothers (while holding up a picture of his own).
Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen is also an NFL analyst, who provides live Danish commentary during two NFL games every Sunday, plus Danish studio commentary during breaks of Sunday Night Football and Thursday Night Football, both of which are broadcast only in English. Aside from the media night high jinks, he also comes to the Super Bowl each year trying to put together a reported, nuanced story about something of particular interest to his viewers back home.
Last year, he wanted to do a story about Chiefs top receiver Tyreek Hill.
“We felt like every time we showed a Chiefs game in Denmark, we would have to discuss his issues,” Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen said over Zoom this week from his home country—because of the pandemic, he’ll miss his first Super Bowl in more than a decade. “We felt like we couldn’t praise him for everything he did on the field without also discussing the accusations off the field. It’s always tough. It’s tough figuring out, especially when you’re from Europe. Your [justice] system is difficult to understand.”
Hill was arrested back in 2014 for punching his pregnant girlfriend in the stomach and choking her. He would later plead guilty to domestic assault and battery by strangulation, which required three years of probation and anger management courses. In 2019, he was investigated for battering the couple’s three-year-old son. Neither Hill nor the mother were ever charged—the district attorney stated that he felt a crime had been committed, but he didn’t have enough evidence to charge anyone. Around that time, audio recordings of a conversation between Hill and his then fiancé included Hill saying, “You need to be terrified of me too, b----.”
If this isn’t a totally familiar story to you or if the details seem hazy, that’s because Hill is now almost exclusively discussed in terms of his speed on the field during U.S. football broadcasts. The football viewing public has moved on. The accounts are blanketed in vagaries.
The inability to penetrate a surface-level conversation puzzled Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen, who, during media sessions on Wednesday and Thursday of Super Bowl week last year, asked Hill and some of his teammates about how an arrest and further accounts affected their relationship with Hill and complicated life inside the locker room. Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen said Hill appeared offended by his questions. Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen described Hill’s teammates as welcoming, but “no one wanted to talk about the issue in a real way.”
“We got a story done,” he says, “but if this had been Danish soccer players, who I interview the most, we would have been able to talk about it in a different way. I guess maybe we’re just more up front about more serious issues.”
On Sunday, Hill will be on the field for the Chiefs. Buccaneers receiver Antonio Brown, who has a pending civil trial for sexual assault and rape that has been delayed until December 2021, is on Tampa Bay’s active roster (but may not play due to a knee injury). While it’s important not to lump these stories together, their fallout has taken a similar path, one that seems to fast-forward through public contrition (Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht recently told NBC that Brown has been “nothing short of spectacular” and lauded his ability to mentor Tampa Bay’s younger players). Meanwhile, someone like Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen, who isn’t familiar with our penchant to avoid difficult conversations, especially on Sunday broadcasts, is preoccupied by the elephant in the room.
“Americans are a little more afraid to talk about the stuff that hurts,” he says. “The stuff that might explode between your hands.”
During a Danish NFL broadcast, TV3 Sport goes to commercials only a third of the time American football broadcasts do, which means the telecast takes on more of a narrative flare. There is more time—and a greater desire from fans—to learn about the backstories of their favorite players.
This year the crew has been joined regularly by former Giants receiver Amani Toomer, who is spending time in the country during the pandemic. It helps them broaden the subject matter, which, like most U.S. football pregame and studio shows, attempts to tackle both the hardcore, granular football information and the sport’s theatrical side.
Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen said that he loves the narratives that end like “American movies”: stories of players coming from obscurity, rising from poverty and overcoming adversity. Two of his favorites were packages they did on Chargers running back Austin Ekeler and legendary Washington safety Sean Taylor. They have a big piece planned on Tyrann Mathieu for this year’s Super Bowl.
But there is also a journalistic tug to balance out those narratives with some of the issues plaguing the league. Brown in particular (one of his studio cohosts is a huge Steelers fan and, thus, has been following Brown’s fall from grace quite closely), has generated a lot of discussion. Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen said that, for example, they had a long and critical conversation about the optics and ethics of Tom Brady’s taking Brown under his wing.
“It was a good talk to have,” Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen says. “I just couldn’t imagine ever seeing that on U.S. television.”
To understand Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen’s approach it’s important to get a glimpse of the Danish media landscape as it relates to their own national stars, at least from his own point of view. Recently, most of the scandalous news surrounding Danish football relates to gambling. Some players had blown personal fortunes at a local betting house. Another manager came out and admitted that his own players have been gambling on their own games.
“Every time a case like that comes up, everyone is open about it,” Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen says. “You just go to the club and ask them to interview the players. We don’t hide anything, we just say, ‘We’re here to talk about the gambling scandal,’ and then the players are available to do interviews.
“I’m not praising media availability in Europe. Players in America are widely available. And I’m not saying the tough questions don’t get asked, because there are a lot of good interviewers [in the U.S.]. But sometimes there are just these topics where it’s like, ‘Huh, I wonder why they don’t talk about this?’ ”
Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen remembers when a former Danish men’s national soccer team member, Nicki Bille, was shot during an altercation with a biker gang to whom he owed money. After washing out of the various clubs around Europe, including Villareal, and returning to the Danish superleague, one of the conditions of his reinstatement was an interview in which he agreed to explain everything.
Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen conducted it himself. He asked about prison, and heard stories of fellow people in prison heating oil in a tea kettle, thrashing around the molten liquid as a weapon.
In unpacking those experiences, he touched what felt like a raw nerve, the unending, cyclical process familiar to us, one that seems to lack ultimate accountability. Because of that accountability void, we demonize bad actors while forcing contrition, which contributes to the faux-humility (or outright bypassing) of the public apology and, thus, more demonization from those demanding contrition.
Generally, Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen said, Danish people are more conditioned to give people a second chance. It seems like a different cycle altogether, a first instinct to express actual contrition and doing so in an unvarnished, public setting, resulting in a more empathetic public willing to have a conversation about what to do moving forward.
“It’s a more cultural thing, to talk about your mistakes and not be ashamed of your past,” he says.
Back in 2016, Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen lived in Burbank, Calif., for a year with his wife and son. It had always been his dream to spend some time in the States, so when his parent company asked him to help its esports arm transition from Twitch streaming to television studio production in Los Angeles, he jumped at the opportunity. He had a great house and a pool. He had friendly colleagues at work.
But what he noticed over time is that he’d end up having a version of the same conversation every day, one that never broke beneath the surface. He remembered, for example, being confused about a situation involving how to get the local water authority to turn the water on at his house and wanting to ask someone about it—a step beyond hello and how are you. He felt like there was an immediate recoil.
“It only stays on a certain level of conversation,” he says.
It shines a light on something that seems to permeate culturally, reverberating from the sporting world that Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen finds himself thinking so much about. Maybe it’s the end result of widespread, rigorous media training, which creates a fast-food experience of well-meaning words pieced nicely together but ultimately containing no substance, an appeal to our innate desire to move on. In some unconscious way, does our lack of exposure to actual humility and openness inform our default setting, which is to simply wince through the tough stuff and avoid it in real life, too?
“Sometimes it just feels like we’re talking to politicians,” he says. “They have the correct, diplomatic answer to everything. You never get a story that resonates with people.”
The phenomenon is not necessarily unique to the U.S. Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen saw, for example, the further any players drifted from Denmark (perhaps to the English Premiere League) the less likely they were to be interested in answering difficult questions or exhibiting any kind of remorse for something negative that had happened. It creates a situation where it feels for Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen like he is doing something wrong when he’s merely asking fair questions.
What’s strange, he says, is that he noticed a few years back all of the Danish soccer players who began to adopt some of the best qualities of U.S. sports. Charitable work, for example, has become prevalent among footballers who have seen their counterparts in the States undertake a passion for bettering their community, fighting a disease or helping a cause. The U.S. approach to athletics during COVID-19, too, while far from perfect, has been something of a pipe dream to European athletic associations, who aren’t employing the use of bubbles or even tracking devices that can determine close contacts.
Access to athletes in the U.S., generally, is also much better than it is in the top European leagues, like the English Premier League or La Liga. During a normal year, there is nothing stopping Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen from asking any of the participants in the Super Bowl anything he wants. Just an invisible barrier to receiving a satisfying answer to a question about something we’re not emotionally well-equipped to talk about.
Time and time again, Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen said he’s had discussions with his fellow analysts in Denmark about second chances in the NFL, who deserves them and who does not. During the Chiefs’ playoff win over the Browns, they wondered why Kareem Hunt was not retained by the Chiefs after video emerged of him kicking and shoving a woman in his hotel, but Hill was allowed to remain. Why was Brown given another opportunity?
It’s hard not to develop an American sense of cynicism—he concluded that talent, mostly, is the main factor—though that doesn’t stop him from trying to ask. During the NFL’s opening night, which took place over virtual conference call this year instead of the raucous public setting where Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen once appeared in costume, he raised his hand for a question but was never called on (a second person from his station also requested a question during the session but was not called on). He said the only thing he took away from the media session with Brady was that he was pressed on his support of former President Donald Trump by USA Today columnist Nancy Armour, but that Brady gave what Kjærsgaard-Rasmussen called a “Michael Jordan answer.”
He said he’s not optimistic about his ability to turn a story around on Brown this year based on that experience. Not a lot of people know TV3 Sport, and it will probably be difficult to get a question in. But his crew will keep talking about it. Maybe, through discussion, they can get somewhere meaningful.