Two hours before the start of one of the most memorable NFL pregame shows ESPN has aired, a group of 15 on-air staff and key production staffers for Sunday NFL Countdown met in DC2 Conference Room in Bristol, Ct. to discuss how they would approach President Donald Trump comments and tweets urging NFL owners to fire players who do not stand for the national anthem. The meeting lasted an hour, a continuation of individual meetings producers of the show had with cast members Rex Ryan, Randy Moss, Matt Hasselbeck, Charles Woodson, guest analyst Anquan Boldin and host Sam Ponder.
“They shared their individual experiences from their diverse backgrounds and everyone walked away with a greater understanding,” said ESPN senior coordinating producer Seth Markman. “We didn't rehearse but knew what points they wanted to get in. I did know what Rex was going to say about Trump and was comfortable with it.”
What Ryan said about Trump was major sports media news on Sunday and on this day, the various NFL pregame shows set the dialogue for the day ahead. As for Ryan, the former Bills coach was one of Trump most prominent NFL supporters prior to the election, including introducing him at rally in Buffalo. On Sunday, he said he now regretted supporting Trump following the President’s comments.
“I’m pissed off, I’ll be honest with you,” Ryan said. “I supported Donald Trump. When he asked me to introduce him at a rally in Buffalo, I did that. But I am reading these comments and it is appalling to me. And I am sure it is appalling to almost any citizen in our country. It should be. I mean, calling our players S.O.Bs and that kind of stuff, that is not the men that I know. The men I know in the locker room, I am proud to be associated with them in the locker room. I apologize for being pissed off but that’s it. Right away I am associated with what Donald Trump stands for because I introduced him. I never signed up for that. I never wanted that.”
As the then-coach of the Bills, Ryan introduced then-Republican presidential candidate Trump during a campaign stop at the First Niagara Center in April 2016.
“One of the things I admire about Mr. Trump is that he says what’s on his mind,” Ryan said during the rally. “So many times you’ll see people want to say the same thing [as Trump]. But there’s a difference: they don’t have the courage to say it. They all think it but they don’t have the courage to say it. And Donald Trump certainly has the courage to say it. And that’s what I respect. And you know what? So do the people of New York.”
Sunday NFL Countdown opened its show with 22 minutes of conversation on the topic. It was honest television and the best discussion of the issue I saw on Sunday. All of the football networks addressed what Trump said in some form and gave legitimate time to the issue. None avoided it. Nor should they have. It was a very good week for a genre that too often feels like a bro-rally.
ESPN opened Countdown by showing the sidelines of the Jaguars-Ravens game in London. Then came the cast intros, and Ponder introducing Trump’s “son of a bitch” comment (with no bleeps) at an Alabama rally. That was followed by on-screen statements from Roger Goodell, Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. Interestingly, Ponder went immediately to the recently retired Boldin to start the discussion. “I’m disheartened waking up and reading the tweets that our President tweeted out,” Boldin said. “It is disheartening to see where his heart is.” Boldin called Trump’s words hate speech.
Markman said he was struck by what Moss said in the meeting prior to show air. “You got some of that on TV but when he talked about what he experienced at 17-years-old and I thought about my life at 17 and the possibilities that were open to me and not to him,” Markman said. “I will never forget that.”
What Moss said on the air was this: “I think we have to look at when President Trump is out of office. How far can something like this set our country back, getting worse than it already is? When I woke up this morning, reading those tweets, listening to the news, it took me back to when I was 17-years-old. You know, when you should be telling a kid to get good grades, stay focused, listen to your parents, live out your dreams, but instead at 17-years-old, I was being hated on because of the color of my skin.”
Woodson did not hold back—he framed what happened as a larger choice for Americans.
“He has roped everyone into it—the rhetoric, and the way he talks, the way he speaks, the way he singles out certain groups, he has roped everybody into it,” Woodson said. “To me, disheartening is a perfect word. It is unbelievable to me that after damn near 400 years of slavery in this country, we still going through this. Still. Still going through this. And not just from anybody. You talk about the position. This is the President of the United States who is trying to drive a wedge between our locker room.
“To me: This is choose-your-side Sunday. It really is. And what side are you on? Are you on the side of humanity and equal rights for all human beings, African-American, European-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Native American? Are you on that side? Or are you on the side of Donald Trump? ... He has tried to hijack that American flag. And for us, for African-American people, what we tried to say, what [Colin] Kaepernick was trying to say, is we want that flag to cover all of us.”
Hasselbeck discussed the honor of playing in front of the flag and thinking about people sacrificing their lives in military conflict. He said this year he has been enlightening from African-American teammates and colleagues. It was intelligent discussion and ESPN wisely went long on the segment. Well done.
How did the other networks cover it:
•The NFL Network: The league-owned network was also strong, with analyst Kurt Warner and host Rich Eisen standing out.
“The flag represents to me, it’s a symbol of the ideals of our great country: one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all,” Warner said. “The anthem, it’s a reminder to us of those things. The President of the United States, his role is to uphold and to fight for the rights of every person, every American. And so when I heard the comments, I was so disappointed because I believe the comments are completely contradictory to what the flag represents. We have this narrative that these protests are contradictory to the flag and they’re contradictory to our military. I don’t see them that way. I see them as complementary to the ideals of the flag, to the military and what they fought for, the service men and women and what they fought for. I have not heard one player that has not been more than grateful to our military. This isn’t about that at all. It’s about standing up for the ideals of the flag. I contemplated in the meeting room, when I went back to my hotel room and I contemplated is it more honorable to stand and face the flag when you don’t represent the ideals of what the flag represents, or is it more honorable to kneel in protest in an attempt to try to accomplish what the flag was designed to represent? When I heard those comments I was just so disappointed because it was contradictory and we put this narrative out there that I believe is wrong when we look at these players and what they’re trying to do and what they’re trying to represent. We talked about it for an hour, an hour and a half yesterday and I couldn’t get it out of my mind because what are we trying to do here? What are we trying to accomplish, not just as players but as a country? I just couldn’t be more disappointed in those comments.”
Said Eisen: “I guess to wrap it up, I just want to say one thing because I know that the president has been known to watch television, to monitor the way things that are going on in the country and statements that he said how it’s playing out in the media. Should that be the case that he’s chosen on this day where politics and sports are mixed together he’s chosen this show—we are the first on the air. I just wanted to say this in case the President of the United States is out there that offensive speech should not be tolerated in this country and offensive behavior that tears down the fabric of this country like we saw in Charlottesville should be called out. What is going on the field in the National Football League while the national anthem is being played is not that. It’s not that. What it is are people who are not trying to offend when they are taking a knee or sitting down during the national anthem. What they are, are people who are offended by their American experience, their American experience that perhaps you, Mr. President, or many of us have not experienced personally. This is a moment when they are taking a knee and when they are sitting down, they are doing so to spark a conversation, to spark a dialogue which is the most democratic thing that could be done in this country. That is why an American flag literally the size of a football field can be unfurled on a football field during the national anthem. That is why that can be unfurled and many of us can stand—I’m one of those who stands—and some can sit and take a knee. That is something to which I may not relate but it is something I can see and try and understand and listen to have the conversation. That is liberty and justice for all. That is what the democracy is about, an American experience that is better for all, governing for all. That is what this is about and today hopefully will turn out to be a day of unity in the National Football League and through the sports world.”
•Fox: While Fox News has made it clear where it stands regarding NFL players, Fox Sports addressed the subject in the same manner as its competitors. They started their show with a quick preview of the upcoming Week 3 games before heading immediately into Trump’s comments (they did bleep the word “bitch”) and statements and tweets from NFL executives and players. They then went to NFL insider Jay Glazer to get a sense of the tone around the league.
“It’s hard to believe I’m going to say something about the most powerful man in the greatest country in the world,” said co-host Terry Bradshaw. “Probably like a lot of you I was somewhat surprised that the president came out attacking NFL players for them exercising the freedom of speech. While I don’t condone the protest during our national anthem, this is America. If our country stands for anything, folks, it’s freedom. People die for that freedom. I’m not sure if our President understands those rights, that every American has the right to speak out and also to protest.”
Said Howie Long, whose son Chris (an Eagles defensive end) has been prominent in the post-Charlottesville discussion. "Kneeling or sitting for the anthem is not something I would choose to do, but I fully support the right to do it. That being said, what keeps getting lost in the form of the protest is the message of inequality. Put in a perspective, as a white father having raised three boys, there were a million things to worry about on a daily basis, but it's impossible for me to truly understand the challenges an African-American father faces at every turn while raising his children. But in a league that is comprised of 70 percent African-American players, if you're a white player in an NFL locker room, that puts you in a unique position to try and better understand those struggles and subsequently as we've seen, show your support for your teammates in your own way. Understanding starts with a dialogue and the most important part of dialogue is to listen.”
In an email on Sunday, Bill Richards, the coordinating producer of Fox NFL Sunday, said that he decided to cover the story at the top of the show as lead-in Fox NFL Kickoff did. The two Fox shows combined for about 16 minutes of coverage on the topic.
“It’s a subject that our guys could go on for hours about,” Richards said. “I think there is a limit to how much the viewers want on something like that. With that said, between the two pregame shows we spent more time on it than any other subject this season or last. There was no time limit. Our guys expressed their opinions on the topic and we moved on. Glazer worked all weekend to get an accurate sense of what the players and coaches were feeling. That’s what we tried to convey to viewers. With our talent on the desk, I just wanted them to speak from their unique vantage points, stay true to their own beliefs and speak freely on the topic. We gave them the option to speak or not speak and all chose to speak on the topic. The guys were happy with it. Everyone reacted well. It was an important news story and we needed to cover it.”
•CBS: The NFL Today had its traditional opening, highlighting the CBS games of the week before an initial seven-minute discussion on Trump’s comments. That discussion featured guest analyst Charles Barkley, who was the first to talk.
“Number One, the President of the United States should never use the words SOB,” Barkley said. “That’s just 100 percent inappropriate. I am embarrassed because he said it in the speech in Alabama and got a rousing reception when he said those things. It hurts me that those ignorant folks in Alabama would applaud something so stupid.”
“You are talking about what is next but as players, we also have to handle what is now,” analyst Nate Burleson followed. “There are players that will sit and knee and teams that will stay in the locker room because of things that are going on in this country but also because of the words of our President. I don’t want any narrative to be changed or look at the players and look at what they are doing. This is a direct response to our President calling players—and I say us—SOBs. … He is a representation of who we are and what we stand for and this is not how you should be approaching any type of argument we are having or disagreement we are having.”
The NFL Today added a second segment on the issue that went nine minutes. It included Face The Nation host John Dickerson, an interview with Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and thoughts from Amy Trask on how NFL owners should be approaching Trump’s comments. She said to invite military families in the area to games and a series of town hall meetings to encourage discussion.
•NBC: While NBC had its Football Night In America cast discuss the comments, I thought the best thing about the pregame show was getting post-game images from inside the locker room. There were very strong words from Denver linebacker Von Miller, Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, Saints coach Sean Payton, quarterback Drew Brees and Browns quarterback DeShone Kizer and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.
In a discussion with Mike Tirico and Al Michaels, NBC Sunday Night Football analyst Cris Collinsworth said Trump should apologize. “I would say he should apologize,” Collinsworth said. “They are not SOBs. They are smart thoughtful guys. They really are. They have seen things that are unimaginable in some cases. And they want exactly what the President wants: They want a better America. Their version of how to get there is different than the President, I understand that.”
Said FNIA analyst Tony Dungy: “I was disappointed. My dad always used to tell me, ‘What are you going to do to make a situation better?’ And I didn’t feel the president’s comments made the situation better. When you paint a broad brush and say everybody is a certain way, all should be fired, all are unpatriotic, everybody that does this is an SOB, that’s just not right. We have young men who are great young men, patriots that decide to protest in a certain way. They have the best interests of this country at heart and to paint them all – that’s why the players are so angry, the owners, the coaches. I just thought it was inappropriate.”
The issue was everywhere Sunday morning and extended well beyond the pregame shows. On NBC’s Meet The Press, the White House director of legislative affairs told moderator Chuck Todd: “I think it's pretty simple. I think the reality is that there are high school coaches across America today who are punished for leading their players in prayer. And, yet, when an NFL player takes a knee, somehow that player is presumed to be a martyr for a social cause.”
No one was sticking to sports on Sunday, which was an honest admission given sports are inherently political.
THE NOISE REPORT
-1. Some additional thoughts from the NFL Weekend.
• Good work (and the correct decision) by CBS and Fox to show the national anthem and images around it including Broncos, Eagles and Falcons' players locked in arms and Browns, Patriots and Saints players keeling.
•Ray Lewis, who works for FS1 and Showtime Sports as an NFL analyst, was on the sidelines for the Ravens-Jags games in London as the team’s honorary captain for that game. As a viewer, I become more suspicious of an analyst’s opinion when they take an active role with a team while in theory working as an independent observer of the league. Also, Lewis has been highly critical of Colin Kaepernick’s commitment to football. On Sunday, he took a knee as Kaepernick did.
•CBS NFL reporter Jamie Erdahl landed a big pregame get from Steelers coach Mike Tomlin and also provided a quality report at the start of the Browns-Steelers game on the decision of the players not to come out prior to the game.
•On the same broadcast, excellent insight by play-by-play commentator Greg Gumbel telling viewers that when the production group met with Tomlin on Saturday, the coach said he did not know what would happen on Sunday
•Sports Business Daily media reporter John Ourand said the sports TV executives he spoke with expected the ratings to be buoyed by Trump’s comments. The key rating to watch on Sunday: CBS’s late-afternoon game where the Packers and Bengals overtime game extended late in the 7:00 p.m. ET hour.
•Great call by CBS broadcasters Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts on Tom Brady’s game-winning throw to Brandin Crooks.
•Last month Richie Zyontz, the lead producer for Fox Sports on Joe Buck and Troy Aikman’s NFL broadcast, offered some insight into Fox’s thinking on national anthem protests. It played out today. “It is an interesting and divisive topic,” said Zyontz. “I discussed privately with colleagues at our Fox NFL meetings, and opinions are split: Some feel it has no place in the broadcast; others feel it’s part of the game story. Our boss Eric Shanks, similar to last season, has asked us to acknowledge what our cameras see without dwelling on it, and I totally agree. I think we should document what transpires during the national anthem on both sidelines. I don’t think it would be right to show a single player without the context of his teammates and the other sideline. Every game account and every radio call-in show will be rife with description and discussion on Monday regarding the anthem so to ignore it would be negligent.”
2. Episode 138 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features a return of the sports media roundtable. The guests are Sports Business Daily media writer John Ourand and Andrew Bucholtz, a staff writer and editor Awful Announcing. In this podcast we discuss Ourand’s piece on angst at ESPN and the growing belief among ESPN management that some of the problems are not all self-inflicted and that some believe that 21st Century Fox is orchestrating attacks against ESPN to bolster the fortunes of rival sports channel FS1; how ESPN handled the Jemele Hill situation; Fox Sports personalities going on Fox News programs to discuss ESPN; whether their are parallels between Hill, Curt Schilling and other ESPN-ers who have been disciplined; how Ourand contacted Fox for his story; whether ESPN’s as a left-leaning organization is real, a narrative posited by competition, or a combination of both; what responsibility sports TV executives have for talent talking politics on linear television; whether Hill should have been suspended or fired; Bucholtz’s column on ESPN public editor Jim Brady and the reaction to his column on Hill and Twitter chat on the column; whether the public editor position at ESPN should continue, and much more.
You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Stitcher.
3. Everything is different. First, there’s the strange location, a stretch on Broadway between West 43rd and West 44th Street in Manhattan, a setting where the locals are as likely to utter Securities and Exchange Commission when asked about the power of the SEC. Then there is this week’s control room. The show’s producers are used to working in a broadcast truck outside of the main campus set. Not today. On this late September morning in the college football hotbed known as Times Square, ESPN’s College GameDay production group has set up shop in a control room normally used by staffers for ABC’s Good Morning America. They are working a couple of floors above a crowd featuring fans wearing Rutgers and Fordham gear in addition to Florida State and Alabama. One cheeky GameDay sign says it all: “Worst TRL Ever,” referring to MTV’s iconic Total Request Live show which ran from 1998 to 2008 and had studios in Times Square.
I spent the first hour of College GameDay on Saturday inside the control room to get a sense of what goes on behind the scenes of arguably the greatest sports studio show in history (Inside The NBA is No. 1 for me, but it’s all subjective). It’s a massive operation, from the stage managers and crew working overnights to set up the staging, to the core production group. I’m sitting near lead producer Jim Gaiero, coordinating producer Drew Gallagher, director Rodney Perez, assistant director Jeff Dorsey and producer Aaron Katzman. Lee Fitting, now the vice president of production for ESPN's college studio shows. Here’s the story.
4. Non-sports pieces of note:
•From Marie Claire’s Danielle McNally: These Women Are the Last Thing Standing Between You and Nuclear War.
•From the WSJ’s Michael M. Phillips: Brothers in Arms: The Tragedy in Small-Town America.
•From The Huffington Post: Rural health care is facing a crisis in the U.S.
•From The BBC’s Ankit Panda: What would a nuke in the Pacific mean?
•From Jesse Singal, writing for the New York Times: Undercover With the Alt-Right.
•From The Atlantic: What Total Destruction of North Korea Means.
•From Ashley Powers of California Sunday Magazine: Is College Worth It?
•Via Zander Sherman of The Walrus (Can.): After twenty years, they still can’t find the bodies of the four missing seniors in Muskoka.
•How the Kremlin built one of the most powerful information weapons of the 21st century—and why it may be impossible to stop. From Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times.
Sports pieces of note:
•Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur on the death of stick to sports.
•From Daniel Brown of the Mercury News: Where have you gone, Tim Lincecum? In search of the beloved Giants ace.
•From Washington Post writer Kent Babb: Marshawn Lynch and Oakland are ready for one last ride. And you’re not invited.
•Ad Age’s Anthony Crupi goes deep on the NFL’s ratings.
•From ESPN.com’s Kevin Van Valkenburg: On Eddie Lacy, and what it feels like to be relentlessly mocked on the Internet.
•From Philly.com’s Vaughn Johnson: By day, she's the mayor's receptionist. By night, she's a pro wrestler.
•From SI.com’s Bruce Feldman:
The Oral History of How Joe Moorhead Created Penn State's Cutting-Edge Offense.
5. On Saturday NBC Sports’ Premier League Pass paid-subscription service crashed, causing an avalanche (understandably) of social media vitriol toward NBC. Said an NBC Sports spokesperson: "We had a service interruption due to a technical problem. We are working to resolve the issue and are in the process of connecting with those subscribers who were impacted."
5a. The late Bob Wolff has been selected to be the 10th recipient of the Vin Scully Lifetime Achievement Award in Sports. The Awards will be presented on Nov. 1 and is presented by Fordham University's WFUV radio station. It is named for Scully, a Fordham graduate.
5b. The production group The Relish followed Kate Scott as she became the first woman to call a football game on the Pac-12 Networks:
5c. ESPN said it averaged 968,000 viewers for its U.S. Open tennis coverage on TV and digital, up 8% over 2016. The highest-rated markets for the Open were Washington D.C., West Palm Beach, New York, Richmond and Tampa.
5d. Broadcaster Jason Benetti had a busy day on Saturday. He called NC State's upset of Florida State and arrived in the second inning to call the White Sox-Royals in Chicago. Here’s some video of his day.
5e. On Tuesday at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT, Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel will profile the McDonough brothers featuring Sean (the voice of ESPN’s “Monday Night Football); Ryan (the general manager of the Phoenix Suns) and Terry (the vice president of player personnel for the Arizona Cardinals). Their father, Will, who died in 2003, was a well-known NFL writer for The Boston Globe and a pioneer among writers appearing on television. The daughters of Will McDonough are also wildly accomplished: Erin is a senior vice president at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, while Cara is an executive at Under Armour.