Richie Zyontz is a name unfamiliar to most people who follow sports but he’s an important figure in NFL circles. For four decades Zyontz has produced pro football at the highest level, including the last 15 years as the lead producer for Joe Buck and Troy Aikman on Fox’s top NFL broadcast. He has served as the lead producer for five Super Bowls (XXXIV, XLII, XLV, XLVIII and LI), an assignment maybe 20 or so on earth can say they’ve done.
Prior to this season Zyontz, like most sports network staffers who produce NFL games, thought hard about how to cover the on-field political activism of NFL players. He and his Fox colleagues knew it would be a storyline this season, and no matter the course they opted to forge, they knew their decision would alienate some viewers. What the networks (and the NFL) could not have predicted, of course, was that the issue would ultimately become a major topic for the President of the United States. It is a smart one for Donald Trump to push because it widens his base: The country, if you believe polling, is divided on the issue of players kneeling during sporting events.
“It is an interesting and divisive topic,” Zyontz told SI in August. “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.”
The NFL TV rights-holders have no good options on the national anthem. Whatever they decide, millions of viewers won’t be happy. On Sunday Fox Sports opted for a split decision of sorts. “As we have in previous broadcasts of NFL games from London, Fox will show the national anthem as well as ‘God Save the Queen’ live,” said a Fox Sports spokesperson. “As is standard procedure, regionalized coverage of NFL games airing on Fox this Sunday will not show the national anthem live. However, our cameras are always rolling and we will document the response of players and coaches on the field.”
CBS opted to do what they did last week—they showed the anthem live and the images surrounding it for the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoffs. They opted not to do so for the late game given markets go to that game at a different time. NBC aired the anthem Sunday night and showed images from both sidelines, including some Seahawks players sitting during the anthem and Colts players locking arms. ESPN told the Sporting News it would not air the anthem live on Monday prior to the Redskins-Chiefs game.
If you want a snapshot of opinion—and an unscientific one—read the mentions below this tweet. The only commonality is criticism on all sides. Last Tuesday Neil Best of Newsday and I asked Eric Shanks, the head of Fox Sports, what his plans were for this Sunday on the issue of airing on-field political activism.
“The standard procedure is not to show them because of the way the commercial format works and the timing of the anthem to get to the kickoff,” Shanks said. “So I think we’re going to pay attention to events. Who knows what’s going to happen? A lot of time is happening between now and then. But I think the plan would be to get back to a normal schedule. I think that’s where we sit today on a Tuesday. It seems like there’s more than 24 hours in a day now, doesn’t there?”
The NFL historically has cared about one thing above all: revenue. As DeMaurice Smith, the NFL Players Association executive director told ESPN’s Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham this week, “Knowing the league the way I know the league, they are first and foremost concerned about the impact on their business,” Smith said. “That’s always their first concern. I mean, who are we kidding?”
They are kidding no one. This is a group that started caring significantly about the safety of players only when it started becoming a major PR issue. The league is about revenue. Everything else is always background noise until it starts screwing with the money. While the national anthem has a long history at sporting events, NFL players appearing on the field for the anthem is a relatively new phenomenon. The practice was re-upped in 2009 and as this Tom Curran report from last year confirms, the league wanted to highlight patriotism.
The NFL’s TV partners want this to go away. It won’t. The truth is there are no good options but only one honest choice if you are CBS, ESPN, Fox, NBC and the NFL Network. Your job is to document what transpires on the field at all times. Show any and all players who have decided to protest either live or on tape, comment if anything is newsworthy about those actions, and move onto the game. There will be millions who don’t like it, but that is the honest thing to do. The cult of the NFL owner has long been sold by its television partners and it’s important context when thinking about how protests are covered.
The coverage has always had a patriarchal feel (“Mr. Kraft meet Mr. Mara”). For those who watched the Buffalo-Atlanta game on Sunday, you got a nice first quarter infomercial for the largesse of Mercedes-Benz Stadium from Greg Gumbel and Trent Green. It was the kind of sell Ric Flair did for his opponents.
Covering player protests is much more uncomfortable and this is the reality now. As one longtime sports television executive for an NFL rights-holder told me this week. “It’s not easy and it’s not like there is a roadmap already traveled when it comes to this specific action, and the emotions are so strong on both sides. However, when you televise live events you have a responsibility to document the event. We’d all love to be talking football and not politics but that’s not afforded to us at this time. This a news event.”
Yes, it is. Show the anthem and the players.
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the most notable sports media stories of the week)
1. Some items of note from the NFL weekend:
•On the subject of NFL ratings, Shanks called it one of the most bizarre starts a season given all the news surrounding the league. Fox is down for the year but Shanks has hope that October will provide a robust viewership thanks to the Cowboys “We always knew that when we get into October it was the strength of our season,” Shanks said. “We still have five doubleheader Cowboys games left including Dallas-Green Bay and Dallas-Washington and Seattle-Dallas. We always knew our schedule was stacked at a certain part of the season. I think we’re optimistic knowing that and seeing the progress that the league is making. But everybody has their opinion on what’s going on.”
•ESPN analyst Charles Woodson on NFL owners reactions to the player protest: “You saw what Jerry Jones tried to do last week by taking a knee before the national anthem and standing up during the national anthem. To me, I think its over. I think the message as been lost. What Colin Kaepernick was kneeling for has been overshadowed … If the players really want to make a difference, start getting involved in your local elections.”
• An average of 372,000 people watched the Bears-Packers game on Amazon Thursday night.
• FS1’s Shannon Sharpe has become a thoughtful voice on NFL protests. This topic is the best TV work he’s done in my opinion.
• Worth noting: The NFL pregame shows barely touched on player protests this week compared to last week.
• Last week’s episode of Sunday’s NFL GameDay Morning on the NFL Network was the most watched regular season episode in show’s history (2008-): 927,000 viewers. Through Weeks 1-3, overall viewership of NFL GameDay Morning is up +16% compared to last season.
• ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown has not had the same uptick. Per Douglas Pucci of Programming Insider and Awful Announcing, here are some troubling numbers:
Sept. 24, 2017 Countdown episode: 1.342 million viewers
Sept. 25, 2016: 1.623 million viewers
Sept. 17, 2017: 1.223 million viewers
Sept. 18, 2016: 1.72 million
Sept. 20, 2015: 2.143 million
Sept. 14, 2014: 2.166 million
•An NBC Sports spokesperson said reporter Michele Tafoya interviewed Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett prior to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department press conference last Friday where they announced that they found no evidence of excessive force in the August incident involving Bennett. Following the airing of that interview on Football Night In America, host Dan Patrick informed the audience when the interview had taken place. He then turned to insider Mike Florio, who reported that he spoke with Bennett’s attorney on Saturday. Said Florio: “I talked to Michael Bennett’s lawyer on Saturday and he said regardless of any video that may or may not be out there that the police made available, the most critical item of evidence will never be available—the body camera footage from the officer that originally detained Michael Bennett and allegedly put a gun to his head, and put Michael Bennett in this fear that can’t be corroborated now by video. So it is basically Michael Bennett’s word against the officer’s word with no video that will ever fully confirm or debunk that.” (SI legal expert Michael McCann analyzed the case here).What I wished NBC would have done here—given the timing of the Vegas press conference—was to have Florio go on-camera (or via audio) with Bennett’s attorney so we could hear the back and forth of that exchange, and also show a clip of the Vegas press conference. That would have been fuller context to a complex story.
•Crazy Red Zone day for Scott Hanson with 1 p.m. ET games in the balance in the final minutes between the Bills-Falcons, Rams-Cowboys, Patriots-Panthers and Jaguars-Jets. As always, great work by Hanson and his producers to toggle back between everything, particularly the stretch when the Jets-Jaguars and Panthers-Patriots were in the final minute.
2. As part of this week’s SI Media Podcast, Doris Burke discusses becoming the first woman at the national level to be assigned a full season rotation of games as an NBA game analyst. Over the last couple of years, Burke has worked selected NBA games as a color commentator but now gets cemented as a regular. Burke said she will keep her role as lead ESPN NBA sideline reporter for the NBA Conference Finals and NBA Finals.
“As a member of the distaff side, this is exciting to me because I think the perception of what a woman can do, should do, and how we are looked upon is absolutely changing,” said Burke. “And I will say this about the NBA: To me, it has always been one of the most forward-thinking sports leagues and I mean that in two ways … The league is pro-active about things that matter inside the lines and they should be because it is about integrity and perception. Then you have a commissioner [Adam Silver] who is at the forefront of social issues. Adam Silver marches in the Gay Pride parade in New York City. To me, it goes beyond just the NBA because the game of basketball has always been so inclusive. Going back as far as I do covering men’s college basketball, the objections to me being an analyst never came from inside the game. The players and coaches have always showed me the utmost respect, and quite frankly my gender has never felt like an issue inside the game.”
Burke said she does not yet have an official number of games she will do. “Over the last four or five years I have probably done 10 games a year as a regular season analyst, “Burke said. “It will be definitely more than that and I will do some sideline reporting as well. For the most part, it will be all NBA for me this year and that is exciting. I love the league.”
Burke’s first game this season as an NBA analyst is a preseason game on Oct. 8 between the Kings and Lakers in Las Vegas.
2:00: ESPN assigning Burke to a fulltime NBA game analyst
4:00: The amount of games Burke will do this year.
6:00: The hirings of women such as Sarah Kustok, Stephanie Ready and Kara Lawson to work as analysts on NBA games
10:00: The progressive nature of the NBA on political talk
13:00: Who will be Burke’s partner?
14:30: What can we expect from Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony in Oklahoma City
16:30: How often do women in sports media reach out to Burke?
2a. Episode 139 of the Sports Illustrated Media podcast features three independent sports journalists: Dejan Kovacevic, the founder, editor and writer of DKPittsburghsports.com; Paul Kuharsky, the founder and writer of PaulKuharsky.com, and Greg Bedard, founder and columnist for BostonSportsJournal.com. In this podcast, Kovacevic discusses how he founded his site in July 2014; what kind of market Pittsburgh is for sports coverage; how he developed the tech and infrastructure for his site; how he has been able to grow his staff to double digits; what kind of troubleshooting an independent sports site much do daily; what the Pittsburgh-based teams think of his site; why the Penguins provide the most traffic for him; how he worked with Bedard on his site; why his site is transparent with its numbers of subscribers and much more. Kuharsky discusses why he started his Nashville-based site; why the Titans are of significant interest in his town; how he looks at his readers; whether he would consider adding staff; why he gives his readers his cell phone number; what the ceiling is for a site like his, and much more. Bedard discusses why he started his site after being let go by Sports Illustrated; the challenges of competing in the highly-charged Boston market; how much money he put into the site; why there is so much interest in Celtics and Patriots content; why Patriots coach Bill Belichick would be a dream staffer; what he thinks of The Athletic; what lessons he has learned after a couple of months of business; what the ceiling is for his site, and much more.
3. CBS Sports producer David Brand produced a terrific feature on Tennessee defensive back Micah Abernathy, the grandson of Rev. Ralph Abernathy, a major civil rights fighter in America and a former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
3a. Nice work by Fox Sports and FS1 producer Rick Thomas on Iowa Stead Children’s Hospital and the origins of the Kinnick wave.
3b. ABC’s Saturday Night Football featuring Clemson-Virginia Tech earned a 3.0 overnight rating, the best among all networks in week 5. ESPN said the game beat Fox’s primetime game by 67 percent and CBS’ afternoon game by 15 percent.
3c. Katie Nolan’s tenure as a Fox Sports employee is coming to an end. Multiple sources have told Sports Illustrated that Nolan is negotiating an early release from her Fox Sports contract. Her contract is believed to officially conclude at the end of 2017. The formal release is expected to come soon.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• Yahoo’s Greg Wyshynski, on P.K. Subban saying that he’ll ‘never’ take a knee in protest during the national anthem.
• From SI’s Michael Bamberger: The Other Arnold: Palmer’s daughter reflects on the chasm between the brand and the man.
• From David French of The National Review: This Culture War Isn’t about the Flag; It’s about Conscience.
• From SI’s Scooby Axson: I Am an African-American Army Veteran, and I Take No Offense to National Anthem Protests.
• ESPN’s Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham go inside the NFL owners and players trying to handle protests.
• From Vann R. Newkirk II: Football Has Always Been a Battleground in the Culture War.
Non-sports pieces of note:
• Remarkable video in this NPR piece: Air Force Academy Head Tells Cadets About Racism On Campus.
• Via Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post: How the military handles sexual assault cases behind closed doors.
• Politico’s Dan Diamond and Rachana D. Pradhan have done amazing reporting on Tom Price’s flying cost to taxpayers.
• Amazing to read today. The 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Death of a Playmate” by Teresa Carpenter.
• Via ProPublica: In Memphis, an entrenched legal culture has made bankruptcy a boon for attorneys while miring people in a debt cycle.
•Remarkable piece by Mac McCelland on what happens after a defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity. Highly recommend this podcast on the topic from The Daily on Sept. 29 from The Daily podcast as well.
• From the New York Times staff: One Day in the Life of Battered Puerto Rico.
• From John Woodrow Cox of The Washington Post: From her dad’s killing during the crack epidemic to a Supreme Court clerkship.
• From Ian Frazier of Smithsonian Magazine: What happened to the Russian Revolution?
• Via The Washington Post: By age 3, inequality is clear: Rich kids attend school. Poor kids stay with a grandparent.
5. NHL fans: This is pretty awesome. League announced that they have digitized 100 years of stats.
5a. The Worldwide Leader in Corporate Memos announced management structure changes last week.
5b. ESPN announced that Paul Pierce has been hired as a full-time NBA analyst. Pierce will regularly appear on NBA Countdown and The Jump throughout the regular season and the NBA Playoffs.
5c. CSN Mid-Atlantic announced that Kara Lawson has been named the primary analyst for Washington Wizards’ games.
5d. The Athletic announced that Peter Gammons had joined them as a contributor.
5e. ESPN said its Sunday Night Baseball viewership was up eight percent in 2017: a game average of 1.762 million in 2017 vs. 1.625 million in 2016.
5f. The Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism will host Jerry Brewer (Washington Post sports columnist), David Meeks (USA Today Sports managing editor), Kyle Melnick (The Diamondback sports editor), Terry Taylor (former Associated Press sports editor) and Lisa Wilson (The Undefeated sports editor) on Oct. 11 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. for a discussion on off-field and on-field issues in sports and the role and responsibility of those who cover these issues.
5h. On Sunday the longtime Dallas Stars and NBC Sports NHL announcer Dave Strader passed away. He was 62. Strader returned to the booth last year after missing the first 59 games of the 2016-17 season while battling through different forms of treatment for his bile duct cancer. He was away from hockey for 283 days. In a very cool scene, Dallas players on the ice honored Strader after his first game back by raising their sticks toward the booth. He will be missed.