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Q&A With First Take’s Top Exec

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Richard Deitsch of SI.com recently conducted an interview with Marcia Keegan, the ESPN vice president of production who oversees First Take as well as other shows including SportsNation, Numbers Never Lie and Outside The Lines (OTL). The conversation reads below as a straight Q&A.

SI.com: As the top executive regarding stewardship of some of ESPN’s highest profile studio shows, how do you view your role regarding First Take?

Keegan: First Take is one of the shows I oversee and I am involved with it similarly in the way I am with other shows, which is to make sure things keep going the way they should be going and that people are generally happy. If there are going to be any drastic changes of direction, I am spearheading that. Day to day, I am hands off.

SI.com: Are you proud of the show?

Keegan: I am proud of the show.

SI.com: Why?

Keegan: Because it appeals to an audience that some of the other shows I have responsibility for don’t. We’re a big tent at ESPN. I am very proud of OTL and their journalistic efforts. It is journalism at its best and this [First Take] to me is a different way of reaching different fans.

SI.com: How fair is it for me to describe First Take as a program built around disagreement-as-entertainment?

Keegan: That’s not unfair.

SI.com: Given that, one could suggest that the concept of disagreement as entertainment is highly flawed because you ultimately need to manufacture disagreement to maintain what the program is.

Keegan: No, we never manufacture disagreement. What we do is find topics where there is disagreement and there are times when they have agreed on things. But mostly it is a debate show. So if there is a topic they are in vehement agreement about, it might be one we choose to go with that day.

SI.com: What journalistic purpose does First Take serve, if any?

Keegan: It depends on how you define journalistic. I’d say journalism like OTL, if you are looking for that, it’s not. But neither are Top 10 highlights on SportsCenter. A lot of what we do is not journalism per se. It all depends on the show and the topic and so forth.

SI.com: Let me ask you some questions I received from readers if I could. From Andrew Bucholtz [who runs Yahoo! Canada’s CFL blog]: What does ESPN want to see from First Take? Audience numbers? Sports points of view that aren’t expressed elsewhere? Something that inspires conversations elsewhere? What is the actual goal from the show?

Keegan: The answer to that is yes. We want to offer something different and talk about things people are talking about. We try to do it in a way our SportsCenters can’t and don’t have the freedom to, and may not want to. He’s highlighted three things I do want to do with that show.

SI.com: From Matt Yoder [who is also the managing editor of Awful Announcing]: How has “Embrace Debate” positively and negatively affected the ESPN brand?

Keegan: I think it has positively affected it in almost every way you can think of.

SI.com Why?

Keegan: It has been great for ratings. If you told me five years ago when I first had responsibility for this that we could regularly do a 0.4 [350,000-450,000 or so viewers.] at 10:00 a.m. on ESPN2, I’d say what are you smoking? It is a great for ratings. I will not share with you the financials but it is good for financials. And I think it is good for the brand.

SI.com: From reader Ken Weide: Why is the show is so focused on topics that are looking to “blame” someone?

Keegan: I would disagree with that characterization.

SI.com: Why would you disagree with that characterization?

Keegan: I think we talk about everything. Not just a blame game but an opinion game. One thing I don’t know if you looked into or talked to people about is we do race very well.

SI.com: We’ll get to that later, for sure. From reader John Kollm: How do they target certain demographics and how does that shape the show?

Keegan: We never set out to target a demographic. When I was given First Take [Keegan took over in fall of 2009] I looked at it and said, “What is its identity?” I don’t know what this show is. It often appeared to be ‘Not SportsCenter.’ We were just giving the viewer something that was not SportsCenter at that time of day. Then I asked Jamie Horowitz to come in and look at the show and debate always rated well on the show. He is the one who suggested all debate. I was a little leery at first but I said give it a shot. And it has done very well. So that is how it evolved.

SI.com: People on Twitter often ask me about Bayless’s Twitter feed and I will be the first to admit that I also solicit people’s opinion on what he has said. He tweeted at the end of the NBA Finals, “I cannot express how much fun I’m having watching LeBron cry at the end of the bench,” He’s called LeBron James, “LeCramp” and “Prince James” among other names. One my readers sent a graphic of Bayless sending nearly 30 tweets on LeBron over a short time span. How would you characterize Bayless’s comments on LeBron James?

Keegan: Expressing his strong opinions about LeBron James.

SI.com: How would you counter my assertion that his attacks on LeBron James are unprofessional, unbecoming of ESPN, and done merely to call attention to Bayless?

Keegan: I’d certainly argue that are done solely to call attention to Skip. Skip believes everything he says. He has strong opinions and wants them out there. Different people have different ways of communicating their thoughts. Skip has 1.4 million Twitter followers so there are a lot of people who want to hear what he has to say.

SI.com: So in terms of the content of his tweets and specifically on his tweets about LeBron James, you are comfortable with what he is putting out there?

Keegan: I would not tweet that, okay? But I also allow for the fact that some people want to hear that and that is how some people communicate. The line between acceptable and unacceptable — and we deal with this all the time with our tweets — is not clear. I don’t think Skip has ever crossed that line.

SI.com: A couple of years ago Bayless said that Dwight Howard looks like Tarzan and plays like Jane. He’s called Chris Bosh by the nickname of Bosh Spice. Do you see any sexism or misogyny with those comments?

Keegan: I don’t recall those comments but I can’t separate them from the Skip Bayless I know and he is anything but sexist or racist.

SI.com: Outside The Lines is also under your purview. The show has moved previously in July or August from ESPN to ESPN2 before the start of the NFL season. Will that happen again?

KeeganYes. The daily show for certain. I’ll have to check on the Sunday show.

SI.com: When will that change happen?

Keegan: I believe it is mid-July.

SI.com: You and your colleagues know my point of view when it comes to OTL. Is that a fair move for a show that just won a Peabody Award?

Keegan: Programming is the department that makes those decisions and a lot of things go into it: contractual obligations, ratings, sales. I can’t really address why it is done.

SI.com: As the person who oversees the show, how concerned are you that the audience will hemorrhage with switch as the metrics showed it did last year?

Keegan: Hemorrhage is a strong word. If the viewers want to see it, we try everywhere possible to tell them where to find it. People get OTL segments on SportsCenter. They go to the dot-com for portions of the show. There are all sorts of ways to get the content of the show and the ratings only is not a fair assessment of that.

SI.com: Do you consider Bayless and Stephen A. Smith to be journalists?

Keegan: Yes.

SI.com: Why?

Keegan: I think that their background is clear that they are journalists. But to go back to what you asked me earlier: Is First Take itself a journalistic show? No, not in that sense.

SI.com: Let me read you something from Richard Sherman who said the following to Skip Bayless on your airwaves: “I am intelligent enough and capable enough to understand that you are ignorant, pompous, egotistical cretin, and that’s what it comes down to. And I’m going to crush you on here in front of everybody because I’m tired of hearing about it.” Do you consider that a good or bad moment for First Take and why?

Keegan: I consider it a moment. I don’t characterize it. It certainly was not what we were looking for and not what we were expecting.

SI.com: How much of the show’s content will revolve around Johnny Manziel heading forward?

Keegan: If he remains a hot topic, it will remain a topic.

SI.com: In hindsight, how do you feel about the show’s coverage of Tim Tebow?

Keegan: At the time Tim Tebow was in the news every day and we talked about him a lot. Other shows followed suit at ESPN so it wasn’t as if everyone was saying that is a terrible idea. He was a hot topic.

SI.com: You are not in the day to day production meetings at First Take but when it comes to First Take’s topics, who decides the topics chosen?

Keegan: Stephen A., Skip, Antoine Lewis (the show’s coordinating producer) and our producers all talk about it. But we do want Skip and Stephen A. to feel strongly about the topic. They are two stars.

To read the entire interview visit SI which is where this story was first published

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Doug Gottlieb, Nick Wright Feud Over College Sports NIL Issues

“Gottlieb caught wind of Wright’s rant and let his disapproval be known.”

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FOX Sports hosts Doug Gottlieb and Nick Wright definitely do not see eye-to-eye when it comes to money going to college athletes.

Despite both being employed by the same company, Gottlieb, who is never afraid to voice his opinion, fired back at Wright Friday regarding his take on college football’s NIL rule in the wake of Alabama head coach Nick Saban’s claiming Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher “brought” his recruits.

On Wright’s morning show, First Things First, the colorful broadcaster had a two minute rant about how he’s happy that schools are finding workarounds under the new NIL rules implemented by the NCAA to pay the players for their name, image and likeness. He said the universities have been taking advantage of college athletes, particularly black student athletes from rough backgrounds, for years and now that the tide has shifted, people are freaking out.

“The general sports public wants extra regulations and extra rules, is keeping their thumbs on college football and basketball players because their is an undeniable and always has been an incredibly uncomfortable racial context of the guys,” Wright said. “It’s mostly young black men from mostly really tough circumstances, generating billions of dollars. Who’s sharing in that?” Wright asked.

“An overwhelmingly white administration, an overwhelmingly white coaching staff, and an overwhelmingly white non-revenue sports. How do we pay for the tennis team and golf team, ah men’s football and basketball. What do they get? A scholarship. Be happy, we pulled you out the hood. Maybe you’ll have a better life if somehow you make the league or do something with your education.”

Gottlieb caught wind of Wright’s rant and let his disapproval be known. That resulted in a back and forth between the two sports personalities on Twitter.

Gottlieb continued, claiming the NIL rule puts exceedingly high expectations on the student-athletes before ever stepping on campus and are given something without having to “earn it.”

“The sad part is this push to pay SAs before they have even played a game, taken a class or assimilated to a school sets them up for failure in their post sports career. If you have been given before you earn, where is the motivation when you get to the real world?”

Wright then took a shot at Gottlieb, saying it always feels good that his take is the complete opposite of Gottlieb’s.

The dialogue continued with Gottlieb throwing shots at Wright, calling his take “embarrassing” and mentioning how he failed to point out the educational imbalance in society during his take. Wright asked Gottlieb what are some of the other “fake racism” takes that he claims are out in the media.

Gottlieb is no stranger to conflict with his FOX Sports colleagues. Troy Aikman called his opinion on Andrew Luck’s retirement “total bullshit” in a tweet from 2019. More recently, Gottlieb got into it with Speak for Yourself co-host Emmanuel Acho after Gottlieb ripped his brother Sam’s “Top 5 QB list” on First Take. He also called out Skip Bayless for name-calling.

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Bob Cousy: ‘JJ Redick Is Untalented Using Me To Get Attention On ESPN’

“People with less talent will always try to make a name for themselves by criticizing other people and hopefully getting some attention and perhaps increasing their credibility,” Cousy said.

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Celtics legend Bob Cousy was not too happy with J.J. Redick dissing his game and credibility as an all-time great player.

During an appearance on First Take, Redick got into a fiery debate with Chris “Mad Dog” Russo about whether Chris Paul deserves to be mentioned among the best point guards in NBA history despite another disappointing exit from the playoffs. Russo claimed that Paul is “no Bob Cousy” which prompted Redick to retort, saying Cousy couldn’t even dribble with his left hand and called the players he played against, “plumbers” and “firemen.”

“Bob Cousy won championships when there were eight teams in the NBA and you had to win two playoff series,” Reddick said. “Let’s celebrate Bob Cousy in his era, but you can’t compare pre-1980 with the modern NBA.”

The 93-old Cousy made an appearance on SiriusXM Radio where he went scorched earth on Redick, basically calling the ESPN analyst “untalented” while listing some of the players that he went up against in his era.

“People with less talent will always try to make a name for themselves by criticizing other people and hopefully getting some attention and perhaps increasing their credibility,” Cousy said.

“So when you respond to something like this, you play into their hands. I won’t do that, but I will defend the firemen and the plumbers that he referenced. And I’ll just give you a few of the names of these firemen that I played with and against during those years. How about Bill Russell, the aforementioned, not too bad a player. Wilt Chamberlain, remember that guy? He wasn’t bad. I guess he must have fought fires as well. But in any event, Wilt Chamberlain.

“Still the best, in my judgment, small forward that ever played the game, a guy named Elgin Baylor. A couple of point guards that weren’t too shabby, my colleague who also had an award created [in his name], guy named Oscar Robertson, who was pound for pound the best player perhaps in the game.”

Chris Paul is a 12-time All-Star compared to Cousy’s 13 appearances.

One thing Paul and Bob Cousy do have in common is their aptitude for leadership. Cousy developed and started the NBA players union in 1954, being named its first president. Paul served in that same role from 2013-2021.

The two men also share similarities off the court. Cousy was a stanch anti-racist advocate during the civil rights era 50s and 60s, when it wasn’t all that popular to so. Paul has also spoke out on issues regarding race, working with commissioner Adam Silver to address some of the issues facing the black community.

Maybe the two have more in common than either Redick or Russo would like to admit.

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Cole Cubelic: ‘A Lot Of Media Wasn’t Prepared To Talk About Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher’

“There were multiple other messages that were attempted to be delivered by Nick Saban two nights ago that I don’t think anybody paid attention to, and I’m wondering if Jimbo paid attention to them.”

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The comments from Alabama football coach Nick Saban regarding other teams allegedly “buying” their players through the new rules pertaining to name, image and likeness (NIL) deals has set the college football world abuzz.

In his comments, Saban directly accused Texas A&M Head Coach and one of his former assistant coaches at Louisiana State University Jimbo Fisher of unreasonably using NIL deals to recruit college football players, and remarked that the system as a whole has created a fundamental disadvantage for certain programs. Additionally, he stated that Alabama has never tried to lure a player solely based on these deals; however, he left the door open to potentially having to adjust his recruitment strategy to align with the actions of his competitors around him.

Much of the college football world weighed in on the comments, but the voice everyone was waiting to hear was that of Jimbo Fisher, including McElroy and Cubic in the Morning on Jox 94.5 FM in Birmingham, Ala. On Friday morning, the program opened with show co-host Cole Cubelic reacting to the candid response given by Fisher in a news conference carried on multiple media outlets in which Fisher called Saban a “narcissist.”

“When we’ve had coaching feuds before, we’ve had guys go back and forth; we’ve had guys go at one another, sometimes in a little bit more of a subtle way; sometimes maybe a less-confrontational way,” Cubelic said. “Jimbo even said it yesterday – he’s not afraid of confrontation; he’s not worried about it.”

An aspect of what has made this discordance between two highly-accomplished and eminent coaches a story being followed across the college football landscape is the fact that it has taken place within the public sphere. When Saban appeared on SiriusXM Radio and apologized for singling out Texas A&M in his comments from earlier in the week, there was not much emotion involved, according to Cubelic. Fisher’s remarks in his press conference though, were of a completely different sentiment – and may have escalated the situation altogether.

“Debates often turn to arguments as soon as emotions become involved,” Cubelic said. “…Jimbo Fisher yesterday at 10 a.m. – that felt emotional; that felt personal, and that one had to dig deep. Jimbo Fisher said yesterday he doesn’t anticipate things are going to be repaired. I don’t see in a way that these two sort of get things back in line.”

“The bridge is burned both ways,” added show co-host Greg McElroy. “They’ll probably shake hands; do what they need to do pregame. But as far as any love lost? Nah, that’s a wrap.”

A part of this story that remains seminal when reporting or commenting on it is listening to the full extent of the comments from both Saban and Fisher on the situation so as to more effectively contextualize and comprehend the situation. Cubelic said that he did multiple interviews on different programs yesterday, and some of the interviewers, as he anticipated, had solely listened to portions of the comments, rendering them not completely prepared to have a truly pertinent discussion about the topic at hand.

“We said it here on the show yesterday morning — right out of the gate — people are going to take the Miami; the Jackson State; and the Texas A&M stuff, and they’re going to clip it and they’re going to play it and they’re going to read it and that’s all they’re going to pay attention to,” said Cubelic. “There were multiple other messages that were attempted to be delivered by Nick Saban two nights ago that I don’t think anybody paid attention to, and I’m wondering if Jimbo paid attention to them.”

Jimbo Fisher and the Texas A&M Aggies visit Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide on October 8 in a matchup that will sure to be a primary topic of discussion in the weeks and months leading to kickoff.

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