This is true of most athletes transitioning from the field to the broadcast booth, but becomes especially so for Tom Brady: His success as a broadcaster—if we really, truly, actually get there, following Tuesday’s announcement from Fox that Brady will join the network after retirement and Brady doesn’t orchestrate some kind of black-ops NFL franchise takeover, installing himself in every key position—will rest solely on his willingness to tell the truth. Or, at least, some version of the truth.
Once most athletes hit the booth, their corporate life of titanium-member travel and insider access hinders their ability to be open and honest to the millions of people watching a game. It’s stunning how quickly players and broadcasters with real experience and opinions fall victim to the buddy system of coercion from head coaches, coordinators and PR executives, who spend their weekly closed-door pregame broadcast meetings propping themselves or their owners up and often see those talking points spewed directly into the microphone on game day. If you’re bored, go back and listen to a game from any point over the last 10 years featuring a team with controversy surrounding it (search for “Antonio Brown” here). Or even a team marred by a recent losing streak. Do the broadcasters ever really address the heart of the matter, burying a coaching staff or a front office, or do they wait for the embattled player or coach to make a play, then haughtily suggest: Nothing unseemly going on here.
With Brady, there is an even greater concern that he will be just another banal voice howling into the game-day void because it will waste an incredible opportunity. What makes Brady interesting as a player are all the flash-point moments in NFL history he has been attached to and how they color his rise to league monolith. Combine this with his internal library of scheme and experience, and you have the formula for transcendent television. In many ways, Brady is the crypt keeper of modern football knowledge—both the sport’s biggest villain and its central caretaker. All of the moments of football greatness bolstered by the fine line of rule bending throughout his years with the Patriots. All his real and imagined hatred of opponents (a year ago, he called an active NFL quarterback “that motherf-----” on LeBron James’s HBO show because that player was more coveted by his coach than Brady).
That is the guy we’d like to hear from. The one who has been creeping out in moments of humility since his departure from New England. Admitting the tuck rule may have been a fumble. Stumbling around boozy and tweeting about it after the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl. What if there was a moment late in a game where a slow-motion replay showed a quarterback gripping a soft-ish looking football, and Brady went on a tirade about ideal gas law and the league’s owner-approved witch hunt to take him out?
What would make Brady truly worth the hype and the adulation as a broadcaster is if he’s willing to do what he did as a player and avoid the pressure to conform. Major networks pack all voices into a composter so that they all come out looking and sounding exactly the same. At best, we don’t notice or care who is calling the game. At worst, they stick out like some kind of bumbling doofus doing a horrendous impression of an actual broadcaster. If Brady is just another stuffed suit in the booth, soaking us in clichés and talking about how every person who makes a play is a “great competitor” then there was no point in signing Brady in the first place (or paying him a reported $375 million over 10 years). Despite his public leaning into the world of interesting personality with things to say, Brady also has an understandable desire to control the narrative. His foray into documentary filmmaking was an effort to tell his story on his terms, which often paints Brady in the familiar fairy-tale protagonist role that we’ve been fed since his humble beginnings as a sixth-round draft pick. That is the guy we’ve heard enough from. As much as this venture is steeped in potential, it’s also a platform with which Brady can sell us his fleet of lifestyle products and polish his personal brand, making us all easy marks.
The football television wars have taught us there is a stark difference between what companies think we want and what we actually desire. Broadcasters do not matter to the lot of us unless they offer something extraordinary on either end of the spectrum: if you are Tony Romo telling us what’s going to happen or Jason Witten failing to recognize anything is happening at all. There is a real challenge to break through in a meaningful and artful way, but if anyone could do it, and anyone has the contractual clout to try and fail, if anyone has the incredible preparation skills and Zen attention span to swallow decades of film and pour it out in a cogent way, it’s Tom Brady.
Let us pray these powers are used for good.
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