Roundtable: NFL Reporters Discuss League's Future, Players' CTE Concerns and More
- With the NFL season nearly underway, six beat reporters around the league offered their thoughts on where the league's popularity will stand in 20 years, how team-affiliated websites compete with mainstream media outlets and many other topics.
With Week 1 of the NFL preseason upon us, I thought it would be a good time to empanel some respected NFL beat reporters for a roundtable discussion on a number of NFL-related topics, including the biggest league-wide story heading into the season, the biggest story on their beat and how much discussion exists in locker rooms on the issues of CTE. They were terrific.
• Eric Branch, 49ers reporter, San Francisco Chronicle.
• Mary Kay Cabot, Browns beat writer, Cleveland.com.
• Clarence Hill Jr., Cowboys reporter, Fort-Worth Star Telegram.
• Stephen Holder, Colts reporter, Indianapolis Star.
• Nicki Jhabvala, Broncos/NFL reporter, The Denver Post.
• Mike Reiss, Patriots reporter, ESPN.
The panel was asked to go as long or as short as they wanted with their answers. They were free to skip any questions. Some of the answers have been edited for clarity.
What do you consider the biggest league-wide story heading into the 2017 regular season and why?
Branch: Heading into the season? I think it’s the issue of brain trauma and CTE, particularly in light of the recent study published by the American Medical Association just before training camp. It generated a new wave of headlines and intensified the spotlight on the lone issue that can threaten the NFL’s supremacy in America’s sports landscape. The long-term health effects of playing football is an ominous cloud hanging over the league. That said, the NFL machine will flex its muscle once the real games start. If the Patriots and their 40-year-old quarterback make a run at 16-0; or if the Cowboys make a Super Bowl run; or if Colin Kaepernick is a mid-season starter … those stories will push the league’s biggest problem to the background, at least momentarily.
Cabot: I think it’s the study by neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee that 110 of 111 NFL brains were found to have CTE. Even though McKee notes that the brains were donated by individuals who exhibited C.T.E. symptoms, or by their families, it’s still giving a lot of players pause. Former Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins, who just received his master’s degree from Columbia, retired the same day the study came out. He didn’t attribute it to that, but Hawkins suffered a serious concussion in 2015, and I doubt the timing was a complete coincidence. He had a chance to play for the world champion Patriots and win a Super Bowl. You don’t walk away from that lightly, and Hawk can still play. I think it’s made a lot of players think, and it will hasten the exit of some who were on the fence.
Hill: Colin Kaepernick’s continued unemployment remains the biggest story in the NFL. There is no question he is being blackballed. The league has been guilty of collusion before. Why not now? There is no football reason why Kaepernick is not on a team right now. Why would other players speak on issues when they see how Kaepernick has been blackballed?
Holder: I think it’s the Patriots after the offseason antics of Bill Belichick. We’ve never seen him go on a binge like he did in free agency and with trades that gave away draft picks rather than accumulate them. There are certainly rumors from people around the league that this could be his farewell season. Who knows if that’s true, but I think the Patriots are going to be a fabulous football team and I am really eager to see what they can do in 2017. I’m just as eager to see whether Belichick sticks around once it’s over.
Jhabvala: Pain management. It’s an ongoing issue, but it’s a broad one that needs addressing at all levels, from both a physical and mental standpoint. The push for cannabis use among players to effectively treat football-related injuries has increased in recent months as more players have spoken out on the issue, and the NFL finally seems ready to talk about it and contribute to research initiatives. But the political landscape has changed drastically since talk of cannabis and general pain management in the NFL began to heat up. As the Trump Administration attempts to clamp down on drug laws, will it make harder for the players to bargain for change to the league’s substance-abuse policy as it pertains to marijuana? You also have the Cory Booker marijuana bill that was recently introduced, further confusing the discussion with dueling policies. Then there’s the side of the game that no one wants to talk about: players’ mental health. Depression, anxiety, the general stress of the game—all are rarely discussed, but they should be. Active players across the league will sometimes to talk to me about it off the record, but rarely on. Former players are more willing to open up about some of the things they dealt with.
Reiss: Tom Brady attempting to do what no other starting quarterback has before: Win a Super Bowl at age 40. While no one in New England is betting against Brady, Patriots owner Robert Kraft—one of his biggest boosters—acknowledged in March that the list of starting quarterbacks who have had success in their 40s is a very short one. The Brady story has multiple subplots, which includes the team’s future plans with his promising backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, whose contract expires after the season.
What do you consider your beat’s biggest story heading into the 2017 regular season and why?
Branch: If Kyle Shanahan can successfully transition from offensive coordinator to head coach. Shanahan is their fourth head coach in the past four seasons and the 49ers only convinced him to ignore their dysfunction and instability by giving him an almost-unheard-of six-year contract. He’s a savant-level play-caller, but not all brilliant offensive coordinators are cut out to be head coaches. If the 49ers can sniff respectability in his debut season—not a sure thing after a 2-14 disaster—it could be that Shanahan is closer to Sean Payton than Norv Turner.
Cabot: The biggest story for the Browns is the same one it’s been since they sprang to life again in 1999: The quarterback situation. We’re 26 strong on starting quarterbacks since ’99, and if it keeps up this way, it will take an XXXL t-shirt to fit all of the names. The Browns drafted DeShone Kizer No. 52 overall to have a crack at being their franchise quarterback. The coaches loves his physical skills—the ball flying off his hand, the mobility, the prototypical size. He’s also book smart and has a high football IQ. But will he be ready to take on the Steelers in the opener and three AFC North teams in the first four games? That’s the decision facing Hue Jackson and his staff.
The second-biggest story: Is this analytics-driven regime getting it right? Are the Moneyball folks drafting the right people with their boatload of picks and acquiring the right veterans with their fistfuls of cash? Have they parlayed their abundant resources over the last two years into a roster that can win some games? If they don’t win at least five or six games this year, something is wrong with the plan. You shouldn’t go from three victories, back to one, and then up to three our four. That’s not progress. That’s spinning your wheels. They do have two more first-round picks next year and three seconds, but they must demonstrate this year that they know how to use them.
Hill: Obviously, it's the NFL's year-long investigation of star running back Ezekiel Elliott. Any suspension would be a huge setback to the Cowboys and their chances. The schedule is much tougher than a year ago. They can't afford to give away games. Beyond the football aspect, there is legitimate concern among the Cowboys regarding Elliott's off-field behavior. Even if he doesn't get suspended, the Cowboys hope the scrutiny serves as a big wakeup call for Elliott.
Holder: There are two, in my opinion. Right now, it’s the quarterback. Specifically, the question is whether Andrew Luck makes his return from shoulder surgery in time to play in the regular-season opener. You can pretty much assume he won’t make an appearance in the preseason. This will continue to be a story until something changes, especially when you consider how reliant the Colts have been on their quarterback because of a deficient roster. The other story that is simmering is the future of coach Chuck Pagano. He is under contract through 2019, but after firing former general manager Ryan Grigson, owner Jim Irsay would say only that Pagano is the coach for 2017. Beyond that, he basically said, “We’ll see.” New GM Chris Ballard is taking a wait-and-see approach, and he has told me that he won’t judge Pagano based purely on the team’s record this fall. This will boil down to the question: Is the arrow pointing up at the end of 2017, or are the Colts once again a team that appears to be regressing?
Jhabvala: The biggest storyline going into the season is the quarterback competition between Paxton Lynch and Trevor Siemian. It’s taken on a life of its own outside the Broncos’ walls. The coaches seem much less concerned about finding their starter than everyone else does. On local sports radio you hear “CHOOSE. YOUR. SIDE!” as if this is the Hunger Games. Everyone in Colorado seems to have an opinion about who should win and everyone thinks they know who will win. And yet no one really knows. The longer it goes on, the weirder the theories get. To me, it’s fascinating to watch the spectacle.
Reiss: Adding on to the thoughts on Brady at 40, can the Patriots, who are widely viewed as the Super Bowl favorite, meet the sky-high expectations and repeat as champions? It has reached the point in New England where anything but a Super Bowl title would be a disappointment. That’s a high bar to reach. How else to explain that players were being asked about the possibility of going 19-0 on the eve of training camp?
How often have you interacted with players on the subject of CTE and if you have, how have they viewed it?
Branch: On Friday, I wrote this story that was based on a question posed to 49ers players: Given the spotlight on brain trauma and CTE, do they think about what could await them in retirement? In response, they were more candid than I expected. The majority said every player gives it some thought and acknowledged it was a concern. Tight end Vance McDonald said that if a study connects football and CTE, “It’s going to change the game dramatically.” I was particularly interested in asking fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who has an economics degree from Harvard and has other options. He said he's given thought to leaving football, but his love for the game overrode his concerns. Juszczyk also just signed a $21 million contract—making him the NFL’s highest-paid fullback—after playing on a far-more modest rookie deal.
Cabot: Unfortunately, I’ve had to deal with this topic more than I’ve ever wanted to. A study conducted in 2015 revealed that the Browns had more concussions than any NFL team since 2012 at 31. Several players suffered very serious concussions, including Hawkins as mentioned above, and Joe Haden, who missed 10 games with his in 2015. In addition, Browns 10-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas—the face of the franchise—revealed this offseason that he’s suffering from memory loss. For ironman Thomas—who’s never missed a snap and has played with torn ligaments—to admit that was a bombshell. The Browns made Thomas and Haden available at the start of camp, and CTE talk dominated the press conference. They were both very open about it. All of the players have been. Everyone wants to be part of the solution, and we must all keep pressing the issue.
Hill: The active players don't like talking about it. They are more aware of the risks than players were five years ago. But they are players and they remain focused on the now. Most are hoping that it's something they won't have to deal with or rather it will happen when they are much older. The sad truth is that all going to have to deal with at some point.
Holder: I have to admit that, as a local beat writer, it’s difficult to strike a balance between the minutiae—the roster, the injuries, the fallout from Sunday’s game—and the topics that are important, yet not necessarily germane, to the game at hand. But I have had my share of conversations with players, both on and off the record, on this subject. I have found a majority of players don’t spend a great of time thinking about CTE. I will say that players today are more accepting of the fact that they now are likely to miss playing time under the current concussion protocol, whereas years ago they would not have been. The fact that they’re required to see an independent neurologist before being cleared is a factor, because players know there’s no shortcut to getting back on the field.
But, generally, I believe players take the “it won’t happen to me” approach to CTE and hope for the best.
Jhabvala: I have talked to numerous former players about CTE, but only a few active players are interested in discussing. Their concern is on the game and keeping their roster spot. While they’re certainly aware of what’s being written and studied, I think there’s a fear that if they discuss that openly or even think about it too much, it’ll hurt their play and their chances of staying. But the former players I’ve spoken to either left the game because of head injuries and the general brutality of the game, or have been removed long enough to offer their honest opinion without fear of repercussion. Nearly all are deeply concerned about it. Many currently deal with side effects from concussions, like headaches and anxiety and sleeping issues, sometimes depression. But what really seems to bother them is not just the daily lingering pain, but the fear of not knowing if they have CTE or something else as a result of playing. Interestingly—and perhaps not surprisingly, too, almost every former player I’ve spoken to about CTE or head injuries in general say, despite knowing what they know now, they would still play if given the chance again.
Reiss: When the New York Times published its story about the study of 111 NFL brains and how 110 were found to have CTE, I was alerted to it by a player who shared the link and asked this question: “What do you think when you read this?” That reflects the concern that some players have as more studies and more information is learned about CTE. In general, I would say those conversations are more in-depth with veteran players who might be toward the end of their careers and could be considering how much longer they want to play. Some are balancing the risk of playing another season or two vs. the possible long-term effects it might have on them and their families.
What is the NFL staffing situation at your media outlet and how has that changed over the last five years?
Branch: The staffing situation at The Chronicle hasn’t changed since I was hired in 2011. We have beat writers covering the Raiders (Vic Tafur) and the 49ers, and two columnists who regularly contribute to our coverage. On the road, we have a columnist with the beat writer at each game.
Cabot: At Cleveland.com, we recognize the impact of our Browns coverage and devote a lot of resources to it. We have three writers that cover the Browns on a regular basis, plus one videographer and two photographers. We also have two columnists who weigh in on the Browns a lot. Fans here can’t get enough of the Browns despite the losing, and we keep feeding the beast. We’re also still sending four or more people to every road game. It’s changed in the last five years in that we’re covering it more thoroughly and in many different ways. We’re very fan-interactive and social-media oriented. No matter how you choose to consume your news, we’re providing it for you—whether it’s podcast, videos, chats, Snapchats, or Facebook Live. A typical game for me now include Facebook Live, stories, videos and a podcast.
Hill: We no longer have an NFL reporter. We have one less person covering the Cowboys but we are asked to more work than ever as digital journalists. Five years ago we sent five people to every Cowboys road game (three writers and two columnists). This year we are sending three (two writers and one columnist).
Holder: I feel very fortunate to be in one of the league’s smaller markets yet still be able to benefit from my newspaper’s significant investment in resources on the Colts beat. We have two full-time reporters on the team—no longer a given outside of the country’s largest markets—and we generally travel with three writers to every regular-season road game. I cover the Colts year-round and can’t recall the last time I was asked to cover anything else (unless it was my choice). This is largely a result of a commitment made by our paper’s management to covering the Colts at a level commensurate with local interest in the team. We’ve also made a strong commitment to covering sports in general at a high level, something that many newspapers are wavering on these days. But the resources newspapers are investing in covering the NFL does not always trickle down to other sports. I continue to hear more and more stories about cuts being made in travel and other areas on NBA and NHL beats, for example. I do honestly wonder if and when that starts to happen on NFL beats.
Jhabvala: Well, we’re down to just me but currently looking to add a second beat writer. Every year since I’ve been on the Broncos, a co-beat writer has left for another gig, either in TV or with a national outlet. When I started in 2014 we had two beat reporters. The last two seasons we had three beat reporters. Now we’re looking to get back to two.
Reiss: ESPN.com has a reporter covering each team—which comprises NFL Nation—and that reflects a strong commitment that I don’t believe is matched by any media outlet. That has been the biggest change over the last five years that I’ve noticed. One of the benefits of this approach is that when something significant happens—such as Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill going down with a potentially serious knee injury on Thursday—we have boots on the ground and can be serving ESPN’s multiple platforms (TV, radio, web) in an instant with smart, informed, on-the-scene analysis. The coverage of Tannehill is a good one to reflect another big change I’ve noticed over the last five years: A general melding between the TV, magazine and web operations. That has been a necessity of sorts with staff reductions that have been well-documented.
What would you tell someone trying to break into NFL reporting?
Branch: For starters, the usual modern-day advice: Be versatile. Be able to write … and shoot video … and handle various social media responsibilities. But I think young people looking to enter the business grasp this and are handier with their iPhones than most grizzled NFL beat writers. However, given the proliferation of blogs and web sites, some are also entering the business without classic journalism training. Most of my peers only landed an NFL job after they spent time preparing for the role by handling smaller beats (while walking 10 miles in the snow to events, of course). Covering high schools, small colleges and lawnmower races in Twelve Mile, Ind. (yes, I speak from experience) provides invaluable training. With that in mind, my advice would to be follow the tenets of good journalism. Don’t be a fan and don’t be afraid to ask tough-but-fair questions. Don’t rely solely on team-issued player/coach transcripts; seek out unique stories to tell.
Cabot: Become well-versed in all aspects of multi-media. Become a social media expert and stay ahead of the curve. Get in front of the camera and behind it. Practice writing whenever you get a chance, but polish your on-camera and speaking skills as well. Be willing to take any job connected with covering a team, and then make an impact whenever and wherever you can. I know a reporter who once paid his own way to the Senior Bowl from thousands of miles away. He invested in himself and it paid off. Fortunately, I minored in telecommunications, so I was ready when the camera lights came on many years into the Browns beat.
Hill: Make sure you concentrate on being a good reporter and writer first and not make your bones being a snarky twitter analyst. Being a good reporter is not being a “First Take” clone. The basics of being a good reporter on any level or for any beat hasn't changed. But the responsibilities have. You have to prepare to be a full-fledged digital journalist. You have to write, report, take pictures, do video, blogs, podcasts and be an effective social media strategist.
Holder: I get the sense that too many young reporters are looking to get into sports writing for the wrong reasons. I didn’t become a sports writer because I believed I was an expert on sports. I actually learned how to be a reporter first and, as it turned out, my first real opportunity to do reporting just happened to come in sports. I went from writing 150-word roundups on high school football as a college sophomore for the Miami Herald to covering college football and the NBA in my eight years there. But if asked, I could change jobs tomorrow and take on our criminal courts beat. I assure you I would likely be lousy at first, but at some point, your reporting instincts take over. The point here is that the same reporting chops that would allow you to be a good City Hall reporter are the ones that will help you work a locker room. Sure, it’s a different environment and the subject matter is dissimilar. But this is, above all, a people business. You have to know which questions to ask, how to ask those questions, and how to decide what to make of the answers. I know, for example, you have to cater your approach to people based on a number of variables, including their personality and your specific relationship with them. Like I said, it’s a people business. Knowing stats won’t make you a good sports reporter. Concentrate more on the “reporter” aspect and less on the “sports.”
Jhabvala: Build relationships and go to as many events with players off the field as you can. Year One for me on the beat was the most difficult because I knew very few people within the team and the league. I was the new face in the locker room so players, perhaps rightfully so, had little reason to trust me or want to talk to me. But the more you’re there, the more they see you. The more people you talk to, the better you’ll be as a reporter. It takes time, though.
Reiss: It’s similar to how head coaches often view players when forming their 53-man roster at the start of the season: The more you can do the more valuable you will probably be to the team. So the idea would be to be careful about locking in to just one thing (e.g. writing, on-camera, behind the camera etc.). Another thought that comes to mind is don’t be afraid to be different. The number of reporters at Patriots camp seems to grow every year, and while some stories are covered by all because it is the obvious story of the day (e.g. Tom Brady speaking for the first time on Friday), it always catches the eye when someone thinks outside the box and isn’t afraid to go in the opposite direction of the crowd with a solid, thoughtful piece.
How concerned are you that team-affiliated websites will edge out independent media outlets?
Branch: I’m not. Team sites might have certain built-in advantages when it comes to access, but I think they have a disadvantage that can’t be overcome: Their employees are charged with portraying the team in the most flattering light. Team sites want the owner to keep providing a paycheck; we want to hold the owner accountable. NFL fans have an insatiable appetite for information, warts and all. Why did the QB throw that interception? Why did the first-round pick show up 30 pounds overweight? Why won’t the team release a player with multiple arrests? Why did the head coach snap at a benign press-conference question? Those questions are important to those at independent outlets. I think they are often ignored by team sites.
Cabot: It’s getting increasingly difficult because of the restrictions on content, but we have to keep giving readers and viewers something they can’t get on a team website. We have to provide our viewpoints on practices and games, because they’re not necessarily going to get much of that analysis from the team. The lines have blurred between reporter/columnist. Every reporter must now tell you what he thinks, which provides its own set of challenges for a beat writer covering the team on a daily basis. But it’s a vital part of the job now, and there’s no going back. You also have to hope that the team you’re covering understands the balance between rocking their own website and robust local coverage. Fortunately the Browns do.
Hill: Not much because most of them don't cover the team critically or issues that might be considered controversial, especially off the field. Of course, they get better access and fans eat up their behind the scenes material. But for the unfettered truth, independent media outlets remain the No. 1 source for news on a respective team.
Holder: The whole notion of team-affiliated reporters still baffles me. Like, how did this happen? In no other industry that I’m familiar with is there a similar structure. Does the tech industry do this? Wall Street? Do companies in those fields have legitimate reporters who cover the subjects? Generally, that falls to the marketing department. That said, I don’t know that team-affiliated reporters truly worry me. I actually don’t have much of a problem with their role in most places (at least in pro sports; I can’t speak to colleges). What I do have a problem with is when the access is not equal. Take, for example, when new assistant coaches or members of the front office are hired in the NFL. Oftentimes, those personnel don’t speak to reporters until months after they’re hired. However, it’s not uncommon for a team-affiliated website to be granted an interview with those subjects long before other reporters in the market. As for those websites edging out independent outlets, I don’t see it. We will always have the advantage of being free to pursue the kinds of stories that will never be approved by team management. Case in point: The Colts traded Dwayne Allen to the Patriots in March. We wrote about that story at length the same day it happened. Well, the Colts’ website wrote about it, too—a day later, after the trade became official.
Jhabvala: Not too concerned, primarily because there’s nothing I can do about it. I like to believe the NFL needs neutral media. I don’t think the game is what it is without a balance of critical (but fair) and positive coverage, and team sites aren’t going to that.
Reiss: The Patriots do a terrific job with their website and in-house television operation, with 3-4 reporters covering the team on a daily basis. They also have access to unique content that other media outlets don’t, such as post-game locker-room video of Bill Belichick addressing the team after victories and a weekly breakdown of key plays with Belichick. It is really impressive and if you’re not watching it, you’re really missing out. When looking at it from that perspective, and how teams aren’t limited by the same time restrictions for video on the web, it might seem like that’s a major threat to more independent media outlets. But I still believe there is enough food at the table for everyone to eat. One of the things that I’ve noticed in recent years in New England is that fans are more aware and interested in who is asking certain questions in news conferences, in part because those are aired live on TV and radio. There are certain questions important to fans that might be more likely to be asked by those from independent media outlets, which I think is one example that highlights how those independent media outlets remain an important part of coverage today and into the future.
How much do you study film to understand the intricacies of the game?
Branch: It’s important to review games, partly because my game-day duties often prevent me from watching fourth quarters too closely. Like most other beat writers, I write a running story that posts online as soon as the game ends and, well, subtle details can be missed while writing that story. Beyond that, reviewing film provides a better understanding of the game, can inspire intelligent questions and stories and build rapport. Players appreciate reporters who make an effort to go beyond statistics and understand their job. I often review games to further explain the biggest storylines. If the 49ers, for example, allow seven sacks, I’ll post a blog detailing each sack, who was responsible etc.
Cabot: With the Browns having the No. 1 pick this year, I watched a lot of film of the top prospects, especially Myles Garrett and the quarterbacks. I enjoy watching film, and wish I had time to watch more. My first experience with film study was back in 1991 when Bill Belichick invited me and then Browns radio play-by-play man, the late Casey Coleman, to come in and break down the game film on Mondays. I learned very quickly to keep my mouth shut, because Belichick shot me down on just about every observation I tried to make. But those sessions were invaluable, and taught me that what you think you’re seeing might not be what is. With NFL Game Pass, it’s easy to go back and watch. I wish more NFL coaches would use film to explain things, maybe in their Monday pressers. We have the technology, why not use it? Once a week, let’s get in a meeting room for 15 minutes with some cutups. I’ll bring the popcorn. Let’s go.
Hill: This is the new frontier for sportswriters. It's the new cottage industry. I think there is niche there. I played the game as a kid. I grew up watching the game. I'm still old school, I rely on the experts when it comes the X's and O's. I would rather talk to a scout, player and coach to explain the intricacies of a particular play or scheme. But, yes, with league making the all-22 available for everyone, I watch more film than ever. It allows you to ask better questions.
Holder: I don’t know how to define the term “study” as it relates to this question. But I can tell you what I do: I use film to augment what I report and to be better informed when actually doing my reporting. It’s gotten much easier to do this, obviously, and you wouldn’t be a resourceful reporter if you did not avail yourself of that opportunity. I pride myself on trying to avoid spouting ill-informed opinions, which are very prevalent today. I choose my words very carefully, so as to not make claims I can’t back up. The film definitely helps with this. Now, do I spend hours on end watching film? No. I do not believe that is the best use of my time. With all the demands on reporters in today’s 24-hour news cycle, it’s just not realistic. This goes back to what I said earlier about the job not being defined by us being experts on football. My job is not to emulate what Jon Gruden does in the broadcast booth. For me, the film is but one of many tools I can use to help do my job well.
Jhabvala: A lot. I don’t think I can fairly or accurately report on a subject without researching it. Same for any beat, really.
Reiss: During the season, it’s a disappointment if I haven’t had the chance to re-watch every game in hopes of understanding the “why.” We all know what happened, but the hope is to take it to the next level and explain why game-turning plays unfolded the way they did. NFL.com’s Game Pass, which has coaches film, has made this easier to do in recent years and is a great resource. At the same time, my feeling is that if that film analysis isn’t paired with old-school reporting, there’s a good chance any analysis will be incomplete. It is difficult to make definitive statements about a play without knowing the specific call or the blocking assignments, etc., which is reinforced on a weekly basis when talking to coaches and players. So if you can take what you watched on film, and bring it to a player or coach, my feeling is that is the best approach to most accurately understand the intricacies of the game.
Will the NFL be the country’s most popular sport in 20 years? Why or why not?
Branch: No. Perhaps it’s foolish to predict a dip in popularity for a sport with the NFL’s revenue stream and ability to get strong TV ratings from its product at its very worst (preseason games). Still, it’s not a stretch to think the NBA will overtake it before 2037. Safety concerns are already creating a significant dip in popularity at lower levels. In the Bay Area, Novato High, which was a recent prep powerhouse, has considered not fielding a varsity team this season due to a lack of participation. Similar stories are playing out across the country. A shriveling talent pool could knock the NFL off its throne.
Cabot: I still think it will be, especially with the popularity of fantasy football and the growth potential of the sport in Europe. If we continue to legislate vicious head blows out of the game and make progress on the concussion front, parents won’t be afraid to let their children play the game, and it will continue to grow. I still think the NFL does a poor job of protecting its quarterbacks. Too many of them are still getting drilled after the throw, with their heads smacking violently on the ground. But I just don’t see any other sport overtaking football anytime soon.
Hill: Yes. Our thirst for football remains at an all-time high, despite more and more information about the dangers of the game. The fact that the league is actually finally taking steps to make it safer will only enhance the product going forward. The NFL gives you the drama of WWE, the in-your-face physicality of the MMA, the grace of the NBA and the speed and skill of soccer all rolled into one sport. I see nothing that will top that in the next 20 years.
Holder: I think it very well could be because football is cultural. We have built Sundays around pro football in this country. No other sport is more of an “event” than a football game. The Super Bowl is an American institution. I just think it’s become so much a part of the fabric of America that it will take more than a couple decades to reverse that. I do wonder what will happen when and if the pipeline of players begins to dwindle as parents, perhaps, steer their kids away from football. But as the father of a son who will begin playing college football this fall, I can tell you that I see no lack of zeal for the game in my son’s generation of players. I don’t believe that phenomenon has begun in earnest, and who knows when or if it will?
Jhabvala: Yes. Demand will still be there. Even with greater awareness of concussions and injuries, fans still watch on Sundays (and Mondays and Thursdays).
Reiss: Yes. I think the way the sport is set up compared to others will help keep it as the country’s most popular in 20 years. What I mean is that the one-game-a-week set-up seems to fit well with what fans like; there aren’t too many games and most are on Sunday, which makes it easier to follow than most others. The length of the season—early September to late December (and into the playoffs in January) ties into that as well, as it seems to be just enough for most fans. And the growth of fantasy football should further fuel the popularity.
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. Episode 130 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features Tim Kawakami, the editor-in-chief of The Athletic’s Bay Area edition, and Matt Yaloff, a host and reporter for MLB Network. In this podcast Kawakami discusses why he joined The Athletic, a startup focused subscription-based quality sports journalism; the expectations of the site; why he believes this model can succeed; how to convince readers who have never paid for sports content to pay for sports content; how he is dealing with the business side of journalism; why Marcus Thompson is a different-maker as a hire; what the initial days have been like for the site; how The Athletic will adapt when its paywall hardens; his philosophy when it comes to blocking people on Twitter and whether that runs counter to building a subscription based business; the line between talking politics and sports on social media; how he perceives the national reporting to be on Colin Kaepernick; a cameo from Peter King, and much more.
Yaloff discusses how he prepares for MLB Network Strike Zone, a baseball equivalent of NFL RedZone; what he thinks the toughest job in baseball broadcasting is; the stroke he suffered on July 29, 2016 and how it changed his life; the difficulty of rehab; how MLB Network allowed him to work back slowly; how he is a different person post-stroke; working in the baseball media in baseball-crazy Philadelphia and New York City; whether the Astros are built for the postseason; why he loves Jim Thome, and much more.
You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher.
2. Season 12 of HBO’s Hard Knocks debuts on Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT, with this year’s program embedded with the Bucs. The series arc will change from previous years given NFL owners voting to eliminate the first cut-down period, forcing teams to trim their roster to 75 before the final preseason game. There will now be just one cutdown following the preseason, from a 90-man roster to a 53-man roster.
HBO said they have a staff of 32 in Tampa (featuring 20 cameras overall including six manned cameras) and have been filming since July 21. The director is Matt Dissinger, who was the first robotics camera operator for the series. The production now uses 14 robotic cameras to shoot 350 hours of film for each episode.
3. Notre Dame is the latest college sports program to strong-arm reporters when it comes to reporting via their social media accounts. The most egregious part of the memo below is Notre Dame declaring reporters should not “quote, paraphrase, or report comments made by coaches or players during a practice session.”
For those hot talkers who say the guidelines are about protecting competitive advantage, please. Most reporters would have little issue not reporting specific plays from college programs. These guidelines are never about practice. They are about censoring access, controlling messages, and intimidating the press. Texas Football also seems inspired by China Central Television with its policies.
The reality is the Notre Dame athletic department can obviously do as they wish. But so can reporters. Both local and national reporters should push back, and take every opportunity to explain to the public why these regressive measures are anti-press freedom. They should also tweet what they hear and see from practice if they find it newsworthy for the public.
3a. The PGA Championship from Quail Hollow in Charlotte will feature the debut of Andre Iguodala as an on-air golf contributor. No, that is not a misprint. The Golden State Warriors forward will contribute to the coverage on TNT, CNN, PGA digital and social media. TNT will air the tournament from Thursday to Sunday featuring hosts Ernie Johnson and Brian Anderson hosting. Former Masters champ Trevor Immelman has been added as a course reporter.
3b. CBS Sports will air the third and final rounds of the PGA Championship on Aug. 12 and Aug. 13 (2:00-7:00 PM, ET; both days). Jim Nantz will anchor the coverage alongside Nick Faldo. Ian Baker-Finch will call the action at the 17th hole, Gary McCord at the 16th hole, Frank Nobilo at the 15th hole, Verne Lundquist at the 14th hole and Bill Macatee at the 13th hole. Dottie Pepper and Peter Kostis will serve as on-course reporters. Amanda Balionis serves as an additional reporter.
4. Non sports pieces of note:
• By the time Noura Jackson’s conviction was overturned, she had spent nine years in prison. This type of prosecutorial error is almost never punished. Great work by Emily Bazelon.
• Via NPR’s David Folkenflik: Behind Fox News' Baseless Seth Rich Story: The Untold Tale.
• From Alec Luhn of The Guardian: Gulag grave hunter unearths uncomfortable truths in Russia.
• Via Thomas Lake of CNN: The endless death of Kyle Dinkheller.
• New York Times Magazine writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner on Losing It In The Anti-Dieting Age.
• Via The New Yorker: When Should a Child Be Taken from His Parents?
• Episodes 102 and 103 of The Reply All podcast are sensational. Check it out.
• From Michael Lewis: Why the scariest nuclear threat may be coming from inside the White House.
• Hannah Drier on covering Venezuela for the AP.
• From The Atlantic’s David Frum: Leaking transcripts of Trump's calls is a dangerous violation of norms.
• From CJR: Why arguments against WaPo’s Oval Office leaks are wrong.
• From Bloomberg Businessweek: The Hijacking of the Brillante Virtuoso.
• Via James Risen of the New York Times: If Donald Trump Targets Journalists, Thank Obama.
• Via Anne Applebaum of The Washington Post: If this were the Cold War, American would lose. In the new disinformation wars, we aren't even fighting.
• From James Warren for Vanity Fair: Is The New York Times vs. The Washington Post the last great newspaper war?
Sports pieces of note:
• From SI’s Ben Reiter: The sad life and death of Hideki Irabu.
• Via ESPN’s Mike Reiss: Tales of Tom Brady on his 40th birthday.
• ESPN’s Liz Merrill on a rural high school in Texas that play six-man football.
• From Houston Chronicle writer Hunter Atkins: The woman who sleeps across from Minute Maid Park.
• From Paul Lucas of ESPN.com: The exclusive untold story behind the Astros' rainbow uniform.
• Via Alan Shipnuck: First Golfer: Donald Trump's relationship with golf has never been more complicated.
• Here’s a podcast that explains the reporting behind the above story.
• ESPN’s Sam Borden, on Darko Milicic today.
5. If you combined all the television audiences for the MLS All Star Game, the game set a new mark with just over 1.9 million viewers between Univision/UDN (1,484,000 viewers) and FS1 (420,000). However, FS1’s 420,000 viewers was down 18 percent in viewership from last year’s game on ESPN (513,000), and this year’s game was the smallest audience on English-language TV since 2013 (319,000), per Sports Media Watch.
5a. Emily Caron, a senior at the University of Virginia who interned at espnW this summer, earned airtime on Outside The Lines last week for her piece on Penn State kicker Joey Julius’ battle with an eating disorder. It was the first time she had ever appeared on television.
5b. SI’s Ben Golliver on a reunion of Jim Rome callers.
5c. ESPNU will become ESPN8: “The Ocho” on Aug. 8, with a lineup of unconventional sporting events including Disc Golf, Ultimate Trampoline Dodgeball and Firefighters World Challenge.
5d. Sports Media Watch ran an interesting graphic on NFL Hall of Fame game viewership since 1999. This year’s game drew 8.2 million viewers on NBC, down 23% in viewership from Vikings-Steelers two years ago (11.0 million). One big caveat, though: It was the first Hall of Fame Game since 2005 that took place on a weeknight. The game is usually played on Sunday, the most-watched television night of the week. Per Sports Media watch, this year’s game drew the largest weeknight preseason NFL audience since Eagles-Steelers on Fox in 2011 (8.6M).