When People Aren’t Safe, Sports Can’t Resume
“Jay Mariotti says the UFC now stands for Unabashedly Flouting Coronavirus, and calls for leagues to shut down sports before someone dies.”
Do we need sledgehammers to blast away the ignorance? Blowtorches to thaw the collective brainfreeze? Simple medical logic cannot be repeated enough: It’s unconscionable, if not criminal, to resume contact/close-quarter sports amid a pandemic until athletes know they’re safe beyond doubt. And with testing capacity still woefully inadequate, and no vaccine or cure in sight, they will NOT be safe — does everyone grasp this? — regardless of flim-flam assurances from sports leaders who’ve suddenly become infectious disease experts, armed with overnight degrees from the University of Phoenix.
For every realistic soul such as NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who told players that resuming the season is increasingly unlikely amid perhaps “the single greatest challenge of our lives,’’ America remains vexed by an obnoxious wave of empathy-challenged snakes such as Dana White, who said not long ago, “I don’t give a sh-t about the coronavirus.’’
The mixed-martial-arts maniac thinks he’s a conquering hero after staging UFC 249 in Jacksonville, Fla., the first live U.S. sports event of magnitude since the outbreak. I would call him a rogue so obsessed with making money, turning itchy gamblers loose and promoting his violent sport — at $65 a pop, for a card without spectators in a nation where nearly half the adult population is jobless — that he abandoned all cogent concern for human life in what only can be called a debacle. In a sane world, White would be apprehended for putting lives at risk, proceeding with the event after a fighter, Ronaldo “Jacare’’ Souza, and two of his cornermen tested positive for the virus. This after White and UFC owner Endeavor, a Hollywood agency rocked by the crisis, angered the health community by using 1,200 antigen and antibody kits that should have been directed to states and municipalities lacking tests.
The mayor of Washington, D.C., Muriel Bowser, says her virus-gripped city can test only 1,500 people a day. But White can use 1,200 tests, damned the dying. See, he wanted to be “the first’’ to carry out President Trump’s reckless desire to resume live sports, convinced that his hotel-to-studio quarantine plan provides the playbook for other leagues when, in truth, it’s a cautionary tale for why sports shouldn’t resume. Let’s see if White gives “a sh-t’’ should the virus spread through his kingdom, cancel two more fan-free events this week in the same building and, I don’t know, maybe infect him.
“It’s not unexpected one person would test positive. The system works,’’ said White, whose count was off by two, if not more to come. You will hear not even the slightest condemnation of White on any news platform attached to ESPN, which greeted app users hours before UFC 249 with an eyeball blitz: a large ad hawking the ESPN+ exclusive pay-per-view stream. Remember, ESPN is owned by Disney, purveyor of hopes and dreams, and run by Bob Iger, who said during an earnings call reporting the company’s $1.4 billion bloodbath: “People find comfort in our messages of hope and optimism.’’
If Iger thinks hope and optimism ooze from sweaty cage fighters who might be spreading a deadly virus, I invite him to climb into the Octagon. Or listen to Zachary Binney, an Atlanta-based epidemiologist who used his Twitter page to torch White as “negligent’’ for mishandling safety protocols and restarting the event too soon. “If this was your system working as designed,’’ wrote Binney, “your system is bogus.’’
But then, this is what happens when the UFC president worships Trump. He thinks the White House is named for him. “I want to congratulate Dana White and the UFC. We love it,” Trump said on the broadcast. “We think it’s important. Get the sports leagues back. Let’s play. You do the social distancing and whatever else you have to do, but we need sports. We want our sports back.”
It’s enough to make one hurl — and puts into perspective a story that normally would elicit contempt, the possibility that Mike Krzyzewski’s imperial reign at Duke will be sullied if Zion Williamson was paid in the latest chapter of the sneaker scandals. Does paying a college basketball player, even at pious Duke, compare to jeopardizing lives? If it struck you as odd that no fighters criticized UFC for proceeding with the event after Souza was sent home, well, it seems Dana The Megalomaniac threatened their livelihoods. As tweeted by Showtime Sports president Stephen Espinoza, they were required to sign documents agreeing to accept possible losses of purses and bonuses. Responded White: “What (expletive) law school did he go to? I can’t stand that (expletive) creep if you couldn’t tell. He’s just a (expletive) — look at him, that creepy, little dude. What the (expletive) does he know about our contracts?”
After which White declared, somehow, that his life-and-death-farce was an unequivocal success, providing a blueprint — gulp! — for other U.S. businesses to resume. “The whole world is weird right now. Everything is weird. This whole event is weird,’’ he said. “We live in a different world than we did two months ago. The bottom line is, the system worked. What you don’t want to do is two days after the fight say, `Oh (expletive), Jacare tested positive.’ The system worked that we put in place.
“Without sounding like a jackass, we’re really good at what we do. We’re very, very good at what we do. We’ll just get better. The longer this goes, the better the testing technology will get and the faster it will get. We’re going to prove by next Saturday that professional sports can come back safely.”
Or, that he can put several of his employees on ventilators. Never mind that White, while waiting for the test results Friday, not only staged a weigh-in with Souza but wasn’t wearing a mask as he fist-bumped the fighter. And never mind that UFC bagged its original safety-first plan and held post-fight interviews in the Octagon, which placed color commentator Joe Rogan in virus peril when he was to have conducted remote interviews as fighters wore sanitized headsets in isolation. Yep, this is how we do it, Dana.
What frightens me is that too many power players in sports, a $200-billion industry teetering on the brink, share White’s hellbent view about the health catastrophe of our time. Of course, millions worldwide want sports to return — the owners losing billions, the networks dying with Korean baseball, the fans who need entertainment and self-identity joyrides, the gamblers who would rather contract Covid-19 than go another day without real action. But athletes are not automatons or slaves in this fraught, unprecedented equation. They are human beings with loved ones who shouldn’t be subjected to wealth-over-health pressures just because live events are “essential’’ to the American psyche, the crumbling sports and broadcast economies and Trump’s nighttime La-Z-Boy diversions. The smart play for Big Sports is to wait, until 2021, and then move forward after assessing the fallout and reimagining the industry.
Once again, with emphasis: Why resume games and events if the people in uniform — players, coaches, officials — aren’t safe?
“I think 2020 has been practically lost,’’ said tennis icon Rafael Nadal, speaking for many athletes. “I’m hopeful of being able to start next year. Sadly, I’m not going to lie to you, the feeling is that we are losing a year of our lives.’’
“I am worried like the rest of the world,’’ NBA star C.J. McCollum told Yahoo Sports. “You have to think at some point when there are drastic measures that need to be taken, `Is it really worth it?’ It’s either safe or not.’’
Yet the stench of self-interest continues to share the air with zillions of coronavirus particles. Don’t confuse the cautious reopening of businesses — or even attempts to re-establish the PGA Tour, the ultimate solo sport — with the ill-devised concept of team sports returning while defying physical distancing mandates and mass-gatherings bans. Leagues and broadcast networks would like to play ball as soon as this summer while people continue to die in large numbers, maybe right next door. And if you dare to oppose the resumption of games, well, you must be a negative nabob or germophobic dweeb who hates sports, as I’ve been called.
In the rush to resume — Major League Baseball wishful-inching toward a July 4 start, the NFL releasing its schedule and expecting a September start with fans in the stands, the NBA clinging to a pipedream within a quarantined Walt Disney World and Las Vegas casino hotel — it’s inhumane to be planning games, even on television with empty seats, until every commissioner, pushy owner and sneaky operative with a political or financial agenda can state the following without flunking a lie-detector test: Sports Bubbles will not be petri dishes for contagion.
They might hope for the best, but hoping is not knowing when it comes to the pandemic. I shouldn’t have to issue updates: the death count hasn’t slowed, with the virus killing nearly 300,000 worldwide and 80,000-plus in the U.S.; at least 1,000 Americans have died and 25,000 have been infected each day since early April; and the U.S. leads the world with almost 1.4 million cases. But Big Sports continues to shrug and wear blinders, dedicated to ignoring the blight in the interest of money. It’s one thing to resume sports after 9/11, or during wartime when the battles are overseas. But this virus is a ghostly, unsolvable evil that has locked us all in a toxic grip, capable of striking anyone at any time despite inane views that it afflicts only the elderly and the poor. Sports, with or without spectators, is just asking for a mass breakout. This is no time to come off as greedy and arrogant in a nation overwhelmed by two horrors: Covid-19 and rampant unemployment. The leagues can curry the favor of politicians and doctors who downplay the health risks, yet isn’t that a blatant disregard for life, especially if they use tests still lacking in some hospitals and laboratories? And if sports leaders do hoard resources like White, do they realize how many tests would have to be regularly administered? How difficult and maddening it would be just to stage one nine-inning ballgame or 60-minute football game?
Is anyone out there thinking? Not MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, who is proposing a season of 80 games or so in geographical pods, with expanded playoffs, while asking players to take pay cuts — and assume health risks. This reeks of a typical attempt by owners to paint players as bad guys in a brewing labor dispute, and right now, no one is in the mood for mud-slinging between billionaires and millionaires. Shame on the owners for not pausing their selfish desires and waiting for credible medical answers, assuming any are coming.
“The coronavirus will establish the timetable for sports. … We will have coronavirus in the fall. I am convinced of that,’’ said Dr. Anthony Fauci, in quarantine himself after possible contact with a Trump administration staffer who tested positive.
Actually, Silver is thinking. As NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal calls for the season to be canceled and Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers admits he’s “worried’’ about reopening practice facilities, Silver is confronting the truths that other commissioners prefer to disregard, telling players gloomily on a conference call, “Until there is a vaccine or some magical cocktail that prevents people from dying from this virus, we are going to be dealing with it, collectively.’’ Meaning, players will assume health risks to resume play and draw ample salaries sure to shrink. That’s because spectators aren’t expected until next season at the earliest, if then, in a league that generates 40 percent of revenues via paying customers. According to The Athletic, Silver told players the NBA “couldn’t start now even if we wanted to,’’ even as franchises are “crushed’’ financially by the pandemic.
And California governor Gavin Newsom is thinking. His state is home to 15 franchises in the four major sports leagues and numerous big-time college facilities, yet he is the anti-White, refusing to consider sports without live audiences, let alone with fans in the stands. Asked about the NFL’s schedule release, Newsom could have played a smooth political hand, knowing that a $6 billion stadium for the L.A. Rams and Chargers is nearing completion. Instead, he posed a hard question for commissioner Roger Goodell and owners.
“Imagine what the league — broadly, leagues — do when one or two of their key personnel or players are tested positive,’’ he said. “Do they quarantine the rest of the team if an offensive lineman is practicing with a defensive lineman, and they (have) tested positive? What happens to the rest of the line? What happens for the game coming up next weekend? It’s inconceivable to me that that’s not a likely scenario, so it’s a very challenging question you’re asking.”
As for fans in stadiums and arenas, it’s impractical until 2021 in a state that has topped 2,700 deaths. “It’s difficult to imagine a stadium that’s filled until we have immunity and until we have a vaccine,” Newsom said. “it’s a very tough question for these leagues to answer, because they must have a safety-first, health-first mindset, and there are conditions that persist in this state and this nation that make reopening very, very challenging.”
It’s also good to see Mark Cuban, who still hasn’t ruled out a presidential run, finally emphasizing health-first after once leading the charge for sports to resume. “Seriously, if you’re a player, who do you trust with your life?’’ Cuban told ESPN Radio. “If you’re a coach or a trainer or, anybody for that matter, that’s essential personnel for getting something back together, do you trust the hotel that we’re going to stay at to keep everything safe — the technology they’re using, the protocols they’re using? … The problem, obviously, is because we can’t test people, then we can’t assure anybody’s safety, whether they’re basketball players or anybody else.’’
How long will it take for sound judgment to cut through the self-centered delusion? Stop to consider the Real Real. We’re actually going to abandon distancing and masks so football players can tackle each other, basketball players can drip sweat beads on each other and baseball players can breathe on each other? We’re really going to proceed with seasons when one positive test — among hundreds of essential personnel who would be tested daily — might shut down the league? The NBA is weighing whether to allow children, wives and girlfriends inside its Quarantine Bubble, which could prompt Vegas to set at least one over-under in its empty casinos: How many people catch the virus on the first day of testing? God forbid if a league copies the UFC strategy of not creating a lockdown perimeter around the hotel and arena, asking 300 workers to be responsible when entering the outside world during an eight-day period of events. MLB wants teams to play in home ballparks within areas less infected by the virus, but wouldn’t players risk bringing strains back to their families each night? And does Manfred, an attorney by trade, realize legions of lawyers are ready to pounce if the virus spreads? MLB has political support from Trump and some governors, but what about other officials in states, cities, counties and one Canadian province? How can baseball start in July when five ballparks in California are shut down? They’re going to make the Dodgers, Angels, Giants, A’s and Padres play only road games for months? Has Manfred called the wives and kids of affected players, telling them Dad won’t be around for a while … and might bring home the virus, too?
Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, two of baseball’s biggest names, already have said no. How can MLB stage a legitimate season without superstars who don’t want to take risks? And I don’t need to tell athletes that a second wave of the pandemic could be in the on-deck circle, preparing another wicked blast. All of these proposals, these hopeful stories disseminated by ESPN and other sports media ventures whose survival depends on the resumption of sports — has anyone asked the athletes what they think? Sports cannot happen unless the athletes say yes. Don’t presume they will.
“We’re in a situation where you can’t make this mandatory. You can’t tell a guy you have to come play or else your roster spot is not going to be here when you come back. You can’t tell a guy to risk his life and the life of his family and the lives of anyone he chooses to be around to come play this game,’’ Boston Red Sox pitcher Collin McHugh told Mass Live. “I’m a husband, I’m a father. There are many guys in the league with underlying conditions, with preexisting conditions like diabetes and heart arrhythmias. You look at our coaching staffs, there’s tons of guys over 65. Umpires, there’s a lot of guys over 65. When you’re talking about the risk factors, there are going to be guys who sincerely have to weigh the risks of coming back versus staying at home.”
Said St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Andrew Miller, in an ESPN interview: “I don’t think anything can be done until (safety) can be guaranteed and we feel comfortable with it. It’s not hard to get one degree of separation away from players who have kids who may have conditions, or other family members that live with them.’’
Don’t tell that to some sports executives who are pressuring athletes to return … or else. ESPN quoted two NBA general managers — unnamed — who expect athletes to cave in and play when faced with no paychecks. This is not the time, obviously, for meat-on-the-hoof demands.
Yet the NFL marches on, convinced a gladiator sport will proceed with fans and expecting players to be ready for tackling warfare in September. Hopefully, this is more a grandstand play ahead of lucrative broadcasting negotiations than an actual firm plan, because how did the virus spread in Italy? Oh, when tens of thousands of fans, packed together in a soccer stadium, simultaneously released untold amounts of saliva when goals were scored. Let the Miami Dolphins present a vision for physical distancing and 20-point cleansing while reducing Hard Rock Stadium to a 15,000-seat venue; it’s still a petri dish. And if local governments, such as California, don’t allow fans inside stadiums, the NFL insists it will play in states and cities that do — the same strategy proposed by MLB. Is this not absolute lunacy? In a matter of weeks, we’re casually going to assume regular seasons will happen, with no concern for consequences if, say, a star player fails a temperature check and must be removed for immediate testing? Imagine the panic, the preposterousness of it all, just so rich leagues and networks can salvage billions.
That is to assume Americans even want sports without bodies in the seats. What begins as a unique experience inevitably will devolve into a creepy reminder of lost normalcy. Imagine an NBA playoff game with no fans, Tom Brady vs. Drew Brees with no fans, SoFi Stadium debuting with no fans for Rams-Cowboys. People who say they’re ready aren’t giving themselves enough credit for their roles in the total experience. Fox Sports has talked of creating virtual fans and piping in a crowd-noise track that ebbs and flows depending on game developments. Look, the essence of sports is palpable human energy. And it’s gone until people come back to stadiums and arenas. And most aren’t coming back, as several surveys have indicated, without a vaccine.
Sports continues to stay somewhat relevant in the news cycle. LeBron James is among those outraged by the fatal Georgia shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black man gunned down while jogging by two white men. Charles Barkley still bemoans his frayed friendship with Michael Jordan, whose 10-part docu-series hit a creative peak Sunday night with a chronicling of his father’s murder and his subsequent decision to play minor-league baseball — though still failing, in a production controlled by Jordan, to investigate his unavoidable gambling habits during a still-murky 1993. The college basketball cesspool gurgles, with the NCAA referring to Kansas and coach Bill Self as “egregious’’ rules-breakers, while Giannis Antetokounmpo says his social-media accounts were hacked and that he doesn’t ache to sign with the Golden State Warriors. Oh, and the Baltimore Ravens want to dump safety Earl Thomas after his wife, allegedly pointing a gun at his head, found him in bed with other women … and his brother Seth.
Still, I can’t help but fixate on the fool in Jacksonville and his two encore events this week. UFC now stands for Unabashedly Flouting Coronavirus.
The athletes aren’t safe.
So, please, shut down sports before someone dies.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of “Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Podbean, etc.). He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. He appears Wednesday nights on The Dino Costa Show, a segment billed as “The Rawest Hour in Sports Broadcasting.’’
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.
Robert Griffin III Wants to Tell Your Story the Right Way
“Even if I do know you personally, I’m not going to bring that to the broadcast because that’s not my job.”
During last season’s VRBO Fiesta Bowl, Robert Griffin III was part of ESPN’s alternate telecast at field level alongside Pat McAfee. Suddenly, the Heisman Trophy winner took a phone call. Once he hung up the phone, Griffin divulged that his wife had gone into labor and proceeded to sprint off of the field to catch a flight. An ESPN cameraperson documented his run and jubilation as he returned home to welcome his daughter, Gia, into the world. It encapsulated just what motivates Griffin to appear on television and discuss football, and why he is one of ESPN’s budding talents with the chance to make an impact on sports media and his community for years to come.
“This was an opportunity for me to go out and be different in the way that the media covers the players and truly get to the bottom of telling the players’ stories the right way,” Griffin said. “I look at this as an opportunity to do that.”
Griffin was a three-sport athlete as a student at Copperas Cove High School, and ultimately broke Texas state records in track and field. In addition to that, he played basketball and was the starting quarterback for the school’s football team as a junior and senior, drawing attention from various schools around the country. He ended up graduating high school one semester early and quickly became a star at Baylor University in both football and track and field.
Robert Griffin III’s nascent talent was hardly inconspicuous, evidenced by being named the 2008 Big 12 Conference Offensive Freshman of the Year and then, three years later, the winner of the Heisman Trophy. In the end, he graduated having set or tied 54 school records and helped the program to its first bowl game win in 19 years.
Ultimately, he transitioned to the NFL in a career with many trials and tribulations, but through it all, he never lost his sense of persistence. Nearly a decade later, he returned to college, but this time as a member of the media covering the game from afar. Unlike a majority of former players though, Griffin did not formally retire from playing football when inking a broadcasting contract with ESPN.
“I haven’t retired yet at all,” he said. “I tell everyone that asks me the question that I train every day [and] I’m prepared to play if that call does come. I’ve had some talks with teams over the past two years; just nothing has come to fruition.”
While Griffin’s focus as a broadcaster is undeniable, he never thought about seriously pursuing sports media until his broadcast agent pushed him to do so. He was urged to take an audition at FOX Sports. Griffin broke down highlights and called a mock NFL game alongside lead play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt. He was not prepared for that second part, but impressed executives and precipitously realized a career in the space may not be so outlandish after all.
Griffin then moved to ESPN where he experienced a similar audition process, this time calling a game with play-by-play announcer Rece Davis. Once the audition concluded, it was determined that Griffin would not only begin working in the industry, but that he would be accelerated because of his ability to communicate in an informative and entertaining style.
As a player, he saw the way media members covered teams – sometimes bereft of objectivity – and therefore saw assimilating into the industry as a chance to change that. Now, he is focused on telling the stories of the players en masse while being prepared to pivot at a moment’s notice.
ESPN’s intention was to implement Griffin on its studio coverage, but once executives heard him in the broadcast booth, the company had a palpable shift in its thinking. He was told he was ready to go out into the field and start calling games immediately, something of a surprise to him. FOX Sports felt similarly. This led to a bidding war between the two entities, which ultimately concluded with Griffin inking a contract with ESPN. He appeared over its airwaves plenty of times as a player, and even participated on a variety of studio shows in 2018 where he was almost permanently placed on NFL Live. This time around though, Griffin was suddenly preparing to work with Mark Jones and Quint Kessenich on college football games. He did not have time to consider the implications of the decision, instead diving headfirst into the craft and remaining focused on what was to come with producer Kim Belton and director Anthony DeMarco at his side.
“These guys took me under their wing, and I’m beyond indebted to them for that,” Griffin said of his colleagues. “They taught me everything that I know about the industry. They taught me everything I know about how to present things to the masses to where it can be easily digestible. They’ve allowed me to allow my personality to shine through.”
Demonstrating his personality was a facet of his makeup Griffin felt was inhibited by playing professional football, but he knows it would have been considerably more difficult to attain a chance to cover the game had he not laced up his cleats. Calling college football games with Jones accentuated his comfort in the booth because of Jones’ adept skill to appeal to the viewers and penetrate beyond the sport.
“He has the way to connect different generations of listeners to hear what he’s saying and perceive it in the same way,” Griffin said. “To me, that’s what we all strive to do in this industry is to be able to find the connective tissue between the fan who is 60 or 70 years old, and the fan who’s in their late teens or early 20s.”
From the beginning, everyone told Griffin to be himself and not adopt an alternate persona in front of the camera. That advice has guided him as he approaches his third year working in the industry.
“It is so hard to maintain a character or try to be someone that you’re not, but if you are who you are every single day, then every time you show up on camera you will be that person,” Griffin said. “I’ve made sure that when I stepped foot in front of that camera, I was going to be myself.”
Griffin identifies his style as pedagogical to a degree, critiquing players as if he was coaching them on the sidelines. He will never look to penetrate beyond football with his criticism, as drawing conclusions and using unrelated parlance could be viewed as indecorous. In short, Griffin III knows what it means to represent ESPN.
“We’re not a gossip website. We’re supposed to be critically acclaimed, prestigious journalists, and at the end of the day, that’s how I try to approach the job that I do. That’s why I got into the business – because I felt like there was a little of that going on, especially during my career, so I would never do to somebody else what was done to me.”
Over the course of his NFL career, Griffin was subject to immense criticism that went significantly beyond the gridiron. For example, sports commentator Rob Parker suggested that Griffin was not fully representative of the Black community and proceeded to question if he was a “cornball brother.” The incident resulted in Parker receiving a 30-day suspension from ESPN, and after he defended his comments and blamed First Take producers in a subsequent interview, the network decided not to renew his contract.
“My goal as a member of the media is to tell players’ stories the right way, and if I don’t know you personally, I’m never going to make it personal,” Griffin said. “Even if I do know you personally, I’m not going to bring that to the broadcast because that’s not my job.”
In addition to broadcasting college football games with Jones on ESPN and ABC, he also appears on-site for Monday Night Countdown, the network’s pregame show leading up to Monday Night Football. Making the decision to add NFL coverage to his slate of responsibilities meant that Griffin would be able to tell more stories and utilize his knowledge of players during their collegiate careers to enhance the broadcast.
The energy that he felt attending tailgates and interacting with fans at the college level gave him a unique skill set to translate to the NFL side, leading him to present the production team with an unparalleled idea for Week 1. He wanted to race Taima the Hawk, the live game mascot for the Seattle Seahawks who flies around Lumen Field prior to the start of each home game. It was an outlandish idea, but one that made sense for television because of the visual appeal it can present.
“If you know anything about hawks, they can fly up to 120-140 miles per hour, so they’re like, ‘There’s no way he’s going to beat this hawk in a race, but we’ll do it,’” Griffin said. “To that crew’s credit, they never once balked at any of the creative ideas that I brought to the table because they want to try different things and be exciting and have fun on the show.”
Griffin ended up winning the race, commencing the new season of Monday Night Countdown with immediate excitement before the Seahawks’ matchup against the Denver Broncos. He thoroughly enjoyed his first year on the show and having the chance to work alongside Suzy Colber, Adam Schefter, Booger McFarland, Steve Young, Larry Fitzgerald and Alex Smith.
“They always tell me, ‘Hey, anything you’re not comfortable with, you just let us know and we won’t do that thing,’” Griffin said of the show’s producers. “My answer always back to them is, ‘Well, I won’t know if I’m uncomfortable with it if I don’t try.’”
While Griffin had what looked like a seamless assimilation into the broadcasting world, he had a difficult moment when using a racial slur on live television in discussing Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts. The clip quickly gained traction across the internet, and Griffin issued an apology on his Twitter account for using the pejorative language and claimed that he misspoke.
“I was shocked that it came out in the way that it did, and I immediately jumped on it and apologized because there’s no need to deny,” he said. “You messed up. You move forward, and I think that’s the easiest way to get over those types of things and to get back on your feet.”
The football season at both the college and professional level is undoubtedly a grind, and it requires a combination of dedication, passion and persistence few people possess. Robert Griffin III has garnered the reputation of being an “overpreparer,” often partaking in considerably more information than necessary to execute a broadcast. The information he consumes and conclusions he draws combined with his experience at both levels has cultivated him into a knowledgeable analyst who makes cogent, intelligible points on the air.
“I over-prepare for everything, and 70% of the information that I soak in going into a game or going into a broadcast for Monday Night Countdown, I don’t use because there’s just not enough air time,” Griffin III said. “There’s not enough opportunities to talk on it all.”
At the same time, he makes a concerted effort to make the most of his time with his family and separate himself from the field, engaging in activities including playing ping pong, going to the movies and supporting his children. He also embarks in charity work through his RG3 Foundation and strives to teach his daughters the importance of giving back. The mission of the nonprofit foundation is to discover and design programs for underprivileged youth, struggling military families and victims of domestic violence, and it has made a significant impact since it was launched in 2015.
“Trying to end food insecurity; making sure that our under-resourced youth have access to the things that they need just to survive – talking about food, clothes, books, the ability to learn [and] putting on these after-school programs,” Griffin elucidated in describing the organization’s mission. “We want to have an impact on our community. We mean that with everything in us and have shown that to be the true case of why we do this.”
Griffin’s wife, Grete, serves as the executive director of the foundation and also runs her own fitness business. Staying physically and mentally in shape is something they actively try to accomplish in their everyday lives, and lessons they are passing down to their daughters.
“I’m 33 years old right now, so if I want to continue to train every single day, I can do that for the next 10 years if I need to,” Griffin said. “Not taking hits and being physically fit is also a good thing for your own health, which is something me and my wife are extremely passionate about.”
Although his experience is in playing football and working in sports media, Robert Griffin III does not believe in limiting himself and would consider exploring opportunities outside of sports and entertainment. He wants to become the best broadcaster possible no matter where he is working in the industry and continue finding new ways to be distinctive en masse.
“We’re storytellers,” he said. “We’re here to break down things [and] to tell people a story the right way; things that people are interested in, and that expands across all media levels. We’re not closing the door on anything from that standpoint.”
While he was playing in the NFL, Griffin dealt with a variety of injuries that ultimately kept him off the football field and made it difficult to display his talents. Ranging from an ACL tear, shoulder scapula fracture and hairline fracture in his right thumb, staying healthy was a challenge for him over the time he played in the NFL.
Through surgeries and rehabilitation, he learned how to face and overcome these challenges. It has shaped him into the broadcaster and person he is today as he looks to set a positive example to aspiring football players and broadcasters everywhere.
“The eight-year career that I was able to have thus far didn’t come without roadblocks in the way [and] didn’t come without adversity. Learn from the adversity that you go through and learn from all the things and the lessons that you have that sports teaches you, and then go be able to present that to the masses.”
Derek Futterman is a contributing editor and sports media reporter for Barrett Sports Media. Additionally, he has worked in a broad array of roles in multimedia production – including on live game broadcasts and audiovisual platforms – and in digital content development and management. He previously interned for Paramount within Showtime Networks, wrote for the Long Island Herald and served as lead sports producer at NY2C. To get in touch, find him on Twitter @derekfutterman.
Pac-12 Pushing Enhanced Access, Deion Sanders Reeks of Desperation
What good is enhanced access for TV broadcasts or the star power of Coach Prime if those game telecasts aren’t seen?
Getting experimental has drawn some attention to USFL and XFL broadcasts during each league’s seasons. The Pac-12 is apparently hoping the same approach will draw viewers to its football telecasts beginning this fall.
Last week, the conference announced that its broadcasts on ESPN, Fox Sports, and Pac-12 Networks would feature enhanced access for viewers. Head coaches will be interviewed during games. Players and coaches will be mic’d up during pregame warm-ups. Cameras will have pregame and halftime access to team locker rooms. And handheld camera operators will be allowed to film parts of the field and game experience which were previously prohibited.
Those familiar with USFL and XFL telecasts will likely see some similarities to the greater access that those leagues allow their TV partners. Coaches are mic’d up on the sidelines, giving viewers insight into play calls and strategy. Players are interviewed during the game, providing near-instant reactions to success or failure. Cameras in the replay booth show how officials decide to either overturn or uphold calls on the field.
What the Pac-12 intends to do with its broadcasts won’t go as far as the USFL and XFL. Access to coaches and players is being expanded but will still have limits. The conference doesn’t have to demonstrate familiarity, credibility, and legitimacy to fans and media.
Spring pro football leagues are a tough sell to mainstream sports fans accustomed to college football and the NFL from September through January. Especially when the level of play is subpar and rosters are filled with unfamiliar names, the USFL and XFL have to give fans more reasons to watch.
USC, UCLA, Washington, and Oregon are established national brands and regularly compete with the top teams in college football. Utah has played in the past two Rose Bowls, seen on millions of televisions during the New Year’s Day holiday. All five of those schools finished among the final AP Top 25 rankings of the 2022-23 season. USC quarterback Caleb Williams won the 2022 Heisman Trophy.
Yet the Pac-12 is promoting the gimmick of enhanced access because it needs to attract positive fan and media attention. Right now, most of the headlines the conference is generating aren’t flattering.
Notably, the Pac-12 needs a new media rights deal. Losing two of its most prominent schools, USC and UCLA, to the Big Ten in 2024 certainly isn’t helping with that. Rumors have persisted that Washington and Oregon could soon follow. Additionally, the Big 12 is reportedly eyeing Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah as possible expansion targets.
Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff is left to tout Colorado’s new head coach, Deion Sanders, as a selling point in a new media rights deal. Never mind that Sanders hasn’t coached a game in Boulder yet. The Buffaloes are also coming off a 1-11 season and have won more than five games only once since 2007.
If Coach Prime is as successful as Colorado hopes, how likely is he to jump to a better program and stronger conference? And as mentioned in a previous paragraph, even if Sanders sticks around, Colorado could be poached by the Big 12. How much value would Coach Prime provide for the Pac-12 then?
ESPN’s deal with the conference expires in July 2024, shortly before USC and UCLA defect, and reportedly has no intention of renewing. (ESPN could still agree to a package of lower-tier games for late-night broadcast windows, but Andrew Marchand of the New York Post reports that doesn’t appear likely.) Fox’s agreement is up at the same time, though prospects of a renewal seem more optimistic. The network needs Pac-12 games to fill its college football Saturday inventory.
The options from there aren’t promising. CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd reports that current speculation has USA Network, part of the NBCUniversal conglomerate, as a possible landing spot. According to The Athletic, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff believes that the conference’s next media rights deal will have a large streaming component with Amazon and Apple TV+ mentioned as potential partners.
A streaming partner might be good from a financial standpoint, helping produce some of the revenue that ESPN has cut off. But forcing fans to find your product and asking them to pay for another TV platform isn’t a good way to draw interest. It may well be a path to irrelevance and obscurity. That’s not going to compete with the Big Ten and SEC, or even the Big 12.
And as The Athletic’s Chris Vannini points out, how can streaming be expected to save a conference like the Pac-12 when it isn’t even helping TV networks (or standalone providers) right now? Disney is losing money with Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu. NBCUniversal has lost billions on Peacock, as has CBS with Paramount+. Maybe the Pac-12 won’t care about that because it got paid. But there’s little chance for growth.
OK, Lincoln Riley, Chip Kelly, Dan Lanning, and Kyle Whittingham could be interviewed during games. But they probably won’t say much interesting during a game. Caleb Williams, Bo Nix, and Michael Penix Jr. will be mic’d up during warm-ups. Maybe we’ll see coaches and players going crazy in the locker room at halftime. Just remember that Peyton Manning said most players only have time to use the bathroom and have a snack. There’s your compelling television.
What good is enhanced access for TV broadcasts or the star power of Deion Sanders if those game telecasts aren’t seen by large audiences? To say otherwise is desperate. That’s exactly where the Pac-12 is.
Ian Casselberry is a sports media columnist for BSM. He has previously written and edited for Awful Announcing, The Comeback, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. You can find him on Twitter @iancass or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ESPN Deal Used to Mean Stability for ACC, Now It Means Anything But
It was April 19, 1775 when the first shots of war were fired on battlefields in Lexington and Concord that would send shockwaves across the world. Some brave soul among a group of rebel farmers and blacksmiths, doctors and lawyers literally pulled the trigger on what would become known as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World”. Indeed, the world would never be the same.
The college athletics version of that event was June 11, 2010. On that day, regents at the University of Nebraska officially applied for Big Ten membership and were unanimously approved by the other eleven schools (if the number in the conference name not matching the number of schools in that conference is something that bothers you, this column may not be for you). From that day forward, we have never really exited the “expansion era”.
One conference that has gone largely untouched in that time is the ACC. Only Maryland has left the ACC since 2010, heading to the Big Ten, and the conference has added Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville in that same window. That is significant when you consider only the SEC and Big Ten have avoided any departures in this era. Every other major conference has seen great turbulence while those three conferences have primarily seen only growth.
That trend may actually continue for the ACC and that may not be a net positive for the conference or the ACC members. This is thanks to the long term grant of rights deal the conference schools negotiated with ESPN. The grant of rights means ESPN holds the broadcast rights to all home games of the current ACC schools, and do so for the next 13 years.
When the deal was signed in 2016, the 20 year media rights deal seemed like a win for the ACC, creating stability in a time of great instability. Now, what seemed like a “must have purchase” may be the impulse buy that the league schools regret for decades.
Put simply, the ACC has been lapped in the media rights race by the Big Ten, SEC and even the Big 12. At best, the ACC schools are working at a $10-15 Million per year deficit when compared to Big 12 schools. At worst, they are operating at a much larger $30-$40 Million annual deficit when compared to Big Ten and SEC programs. It would be a battle of monumental proportions for the ACC to compete on the same level as those other conferences at that large of a disadvantage.
The conference’s options are slim. ESPN has a deal that is locked for 13 more years, what benefit would it be to them to renegotiate just so the ACC can compete? For instance, it would require $140 Million annually from ESPN just to place the ACC in the same financial neighborhood as the Big 12 Conference. What would be the benefit to ESPN in doing that?
The other option for ACC schools would be to bang the departure drum. Almost all legal analysts have painted a very grim picture for the schools that would be itching to leave. The exit fee is $120 million and may get the schools some nice parting gifts but does not give them their media rights. Their home game broadcast rights will still be a part of the ESPN deal with ACC. That greatly reduces a departing school’s value to any other conference.
Maybe ESPN is willing to broker a deal for a departing school if it is going to a conference, such as the SEC, that has a large rights deal with ESPN. If one of the schools desires a departure to the Big Ten, who has large deals with networks not named ESPN, one would have to think The Worldwide Leader would be in less of a deal-making mood.
Some league athletics directors, led by Florida State’s Michael Alford, are suggesting teams be incentivized for success. Breaking the code; rather than equal distribution, the power schools want a bigger share of the money. This is where Wake Forest points out that it is all they can do to exceed football expectations on their current stipend, what will become of them if that money shrinks? It seems that conferences and leagues that steer away from an equally shared revenue model have had a difficult time making that work long term.
Maybe the ACC teams that are ready to punch out could flash back to the period of time our country was in with the events we started this column remembering. They have a team in Boston, go throw some tea in the harbor and revolt, have a modern day Boston Tea Party. As it stands now, there are several ACC members that want to leave the party they are part of. Their only problem is they are all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Ryan Brown is a columnist for Barrett Sports Media, and a co-host of the popular sports audio/video show ‘The Next Round’ formerly known as JOX Roundtable, which previously aired on WJOX in Birmingham. You can find him on Twitter @RyanBrownLive and follow his show @NextRoundLive.