The Last Dance: A Clinic in Michael Jordan’s Image Control
“Guest columnist Jay Mariotti says The Last Dance is presenting Michael Jordan’s story exactly how Jordan wants it perceived.”
Even as a rookie filmmaker, Michael Jordan is forever the badass dictator, controlling “The Last Dance’’ like a mash-up of Craig Ehlo, Bryon Russell, Jerry Krause, Steve Kerr’s chin, Reggie Miller’s eyeball and Isiah Thomas’ feelings. The 10-part documentary series finally addressed one of Jordan’s dirty deeds, his gambling missteps with various creeps and cocaine dealers, yet somehow, hints of an all-time American scandal were spun Sunday night into a profile in perseverance and a triumph over unscrupulous media.
“A hobby,’’ Jordan called it, never mind that the IRS found his $57,000 check in the account of a convicted drug trafficker and three checks totaling $108,000 were discovered in the briefcase of a murdered bail bondsman.
“Michael was betting on his golf game. But given Michael’s earnings, it never reached epic crisis levels in my belief,’’ said David Stern, then the NBA commissioner, who said he dismissed a possible gambling problem because Jordan’s wealth justified the extravagant amounts he was betting.
And this from Phil Jackson, who suggested criticism of Jordan’s infamous gambling trip to Atlantic City and other accusatory stories inspired the Chicago Bulls to their third NBA championship: “Respond, he did.’’
As always, Jordan has slayed another challenge. He owns this production the way he owned sports and Planet Earth at the close of the 20th century. The badass smirks as he clutches the ball, waves it in the faces of mesmerized millions, peeks in at co-conspirator Scottie Pippen, allows superfreak Dennis Rodman his load management, lends a respectful ear to Jackson, imparts a master’s wisdom to Kobe Bryant, conquers popular culture and sneaker commerce, and, in the end, toys once again with every obstacle, real and imagined. And when the series wraps in two weeks, he will have taken that ball, soared through the mob like Jumpman himself and slammed his honed legacy into the grills of LeBron James — who foolishly anointed himself “the greatest player of all time’’ in 2018 — and an ignorant cult of LeBron-obsessed, recency-biased millennials and Gen Z-ers who’d buried Jordan as some cobwebbed myth.
The man has crushed all else. Why wouldn’t he take over Hollywood, too, not only controlling the narrative but enhancing it forevermore?
It should be clear now that “The Last Dance’’ — as approved, influenced, shape-shifted and executive produced by his Jump 23 company — is designed to maximize Jordan’s grandeur, minimize his flaws and leave no doubt about historical basketball supremacy. Because only he would survive with barely a smudge when, in the fifth episode, he defended his aversion to political commentary thusly: “I never thought of myself as an activist. I thought of myself as a basketball player.” Jim Brown, a vocal critic of Jordan, would have provided a thoughtful counterpoint. Colin Kaepernick, too. Jordan has already succeeded, gloriously, in presenting his story as he wants it perceived. If Jordan didn’t brow-beat director Jason Hehir into exquisitely sculpting every nanosecond of the film, then his trusted business advisors, Estee Portnoy and Curtis Polk, have served as obedient gate-keepers for the first six episodes. He really should add his byline: “The Last Dance, by Michael Jordan.’’
And don’t expect revelations in the final four shows, either, now that Hehir has pleased all parties: presenting the gambling subject in a way that satisfies Jordan and the NBA and answers media who thought the angle would be played down. Yet to be tackled is his father’s murder, which came amid the gambling stories and Stern’s investigation, a succession of events that rattled the land in the still-murky haze of 1993. The director could have broken new ground by interviewing Daniel Andre Green and Larry Demery, convicted of murdering James Jordan Sr. that July. We’ll likely only hear Jordan’s take and NBA-friendly comments with no attempt at definitive truth-telling.
See, none of the principles invested in “The Last Dance’’ — from Jordan to NBA Entertainment to ESPN — is interested in any lasting result beyond the advancement of the Jordan legend for posterity. Of course, he wouldn’t be participating without complete say-so over the content, no matter how much Hehir raves about access and his willingness to answer any and all questions. Jordan’s aim is to celebrate himself without warts. This drew the wrath of the acclaimed American documentarian, Ken Burns, who has refused to watch and told the Wall Street Journal that Jordan’s editorial influence has tilted the series into a journalistic sham.
“If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made, it means that certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in aren’t going to be in, period,’’ Burns said. “And that’s not the way you do good journalism … and it’s certainly not the way you do good history, my business.”
To which Jordan surely chuckled. Typically, he’s just trying to win the game — the documentary. Though he’ll never admit it, his purpose within the process is to win the Greatest Ever debate, as engaged by James, by beating LeBron at his own game: movie-making. Let’s not forget when Jordan decided to dust off and release footage of the Bulls’ final title, from the 1997-98 season, and present it to a new generation: the day after James and the Cleveland Cavaliers overcame a 1-3 deficit in the 2016 Finals to upend the Golden State Warriors. The world was buzzing about LeBron as the G.O.A.T. and forgetting about Jordan, who had been mostly media-reclusive while suffering as owner of a nondescript franchise in Charlotte. As quickly as he said yes to the pitch of producer Mike Tollin, Jordan was armed with the leverage to circumvent All Things LeBron and make his own documentary in his own words, effectively bringing his pre-eminence back to life in a matter of five weekends in 2020.
Notice how “The Last Dance’’ has yet to include any contribution from James. The series has featured basketball greats who have made Jordan’s case for him, augmented by video evidence that encompasses 500 minutes. As Magic Johnson put it, “Young fans that never got to see Michael play now understand why he’s the (G.O.A.T.) of basketball. For me? Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson and Beyonce are the three greatest entertainers of my lifetime, and you probably could throw Muhammad Ali in there.’’ Jordan never has involved himself in the James debate, preferring to take the high road. As a Chicago columnist, I cornered him in a United Center hallway during James’ rookie NBA season, just after Jordan had retired from the Washington Wizards, and asked what he thought of LeBron.
“What do you think?’’ said Jordan, refusing to go there.
As recently as four months ago in Paris, Jordan shrugged off a James-as-G.O.A.T. question before a Hornets-Milwaukee Bucks game, saying, “What was the name again? Pardon me, who? Oh, is he playing? I just think we’re playing in different eras. He’s an unbelievable player, one of the best players in the world, if not the best. … I’m a fan of his. I love watching him play. But when you start the (Jordan-James) comparisons, I think it is what it is. It’s just a standup measurement. I take it with a grain of salt.’’
It doesn’t require passive-aggressive expertise to translate. Jordan knew “The Last Dance’’ was coming. He also knew what James had said 13 months earlier in his own production, “More Than An Athlete,’’ claiming his title in his native northeast Ohio put him over the top. “That one right there made me the greatest player of all time. That’s what I felt,” James said. “I was super-super ecstatic to win one for Cleveland because of the 52-year (title) drought. The first wave of emotion was how everyone saw me crying, like that was all 52 years of everything in sports going on in Cleveland. And after I stopped, i was like, `Shush, that one right there made you the greatest player of all time.’ … Everybody was just talking about how (the Warriors) were the greatest team of all time, like, it was the greatest team ever assembled. For us to come back the way we came back in that fashion, I was, like, ‘You did something special.’ ‘’
Special? Yes. Transcendent in the tiresome greatest-ever debate? No, not when James has lost six times in the Finals and not always maximized the talent around him as Jordan did. LeBron, who tends to whine at times, might claim Jordan has the advantage of a captive global documentary audience during a pandemic. I would suggest apologies are in order, along with an acknowledgment that James’ upcoming Space Jam project — assuming we’ve ever allowed to enter a theater without a Hazmat suit — was a ripoff of Jordan. As was the day he decided to wear No. 23. (My God, now I’m partaking in the debate.).
The docu-series also has succeeded in using interview subjects who mostly buff Jordan like one of his $200,000 sports cars. To his credit, he didn’t nix Sam Smith, a longtime Bulls beat writer (and operative of Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf) who wrote a seminal book, “The Jordan Rules,’’ that painted Jordan as a tyrant and presented a less-than-glowing look as he was rising as a global phenomenon. Sunday provided a glimpse into media-related dysfunction surrounding the team; Jordan said teammate Horace Grant was a prime Smith source for the book, which Grant denied while raising suspicions that Jackson and Reinsdorf provided leaks to Smith. Media politics were a central part of the story in that some who covered the team took sides — Smith was embedded separately with Reinsdorf and Jackson, prominent national columnist Michael Wilbon was a Jordan guy, and Chicago-based Rick Telander was a lightly opinionated bystander who wrote as-told-to-pieces for ESPN The Magazine from the mouths of Jackson and Jordan. Journalism students, if any still exist, are reminded to remain independent and avoid appearances of trying to make money by climbing into bed with the people you’re covering.
So far in the docu-series, no media person has been permitted to make Jordan look even remotely bad. Hehir chose to use Barack Obama to effectively smooth over the political controversy when Jordan uttered, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Rather than presenting a Detroit side of his still-fiery feud with Thomas and the Bad Boys Pistons, Hehir allowed Jordan to condemn Thomas — “There’s no way you can convince me he wasn’t an a—hole’’ — while showing 1991 video of Thomas and teammate Bill Laimbeer refusing to shake hands with the victorious Bulls. This gentle coverage of Jordan’s controversies has led influential basketball journalists of the time to wonder why they were omitted from the docu-series. Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum was front and center as an objective chronicler of Jordan dynasty. Where is he?
“I would be less than honest if I said it didn’t matter to me that I wasn’t interviewed for the doc, though over the years I have pontificated about Jordan and others of his generation on outlets too numerous to count,’’ McCallum wrote recently on the SI site. “I was scheduled on at least four occasions to talk on camera, but each was called off, one of them because, I was told, `We have to do J.T.’ ‘’
And where is Peter Vecsey? His Bulls coverage was must-read material during a stretch when he was the ultimate NBA insider, dishing scoops in print and on NBC’s weekly coverage. “ESPN never called me about `The Last Dance,’ ” he told the Boston Globe. “It’s absolutely amazing to me that they could be that stupid. I had so many inside stories that were printed that they are not even going to address it. It’s amazing. They interviewed Sam Smith; they couldn’t avoid that. I was involved in all of that stuff.”
We’re also left to ask if Reinsdorf was allowed editorial approval, or if he leaned on his high-placed connections to protect him. As controlling owner, he had the power throughout the ‘90s to stop the never-ending madness — how Pippen and Jackson were woefully underpaid by market standards; how Jordan had to play out an eight-year, $24 million contract before he was paid his worth; Krause’s vengeance-fueled whim to run off Jackson and prematurely break up the Bulls; the decade-long tensions pitting Jordan, Pippen and Jackson against Krause. But Krause, who passed away in 2017 and unfairly can’t present rebuttals, is painted at every turn as the lone villain, with Reinsdorf allowed by Hehir to sit back as a narrator of the dysfunction rather than one who could have stopped it. As TNT analyst and former Jordan confidante Charles Barkley pointed out on Dan Patrick’s radio show, Reinsdorf was the owner, wasn’t he?
“(Krause) didn’t take that apart — anyone who thinks that is a fool. That thing was orchestrated by Jerry Reinsdorf,’’ Barkley said. “The notion that that little man broke up the Bulls is asinine and absurd … Jerry Reinsdorf broke up the Bulls ‘cause he didn’t want to pay anybody. You think about this — he let Horace Grant go because he became a free agent and they didn’t want to pay him. They probably don’t want to talk about that in the documentary. That’s why he went to Orlando. He only paid Michael the last two years. When he had Michael at a bargain, he was happy. To try to make Krause the bad guy, I thought that was very disingenuous of Reinsdorf.’’
And why wouldn’t Jordan use the docu-series to crucify Reinsdorf, as he has done in conversations with a few media people, myself included? Oh, maybe because Jordan, as an NBA owner, prefers to smear Krause and protect a fellow owner who always could exact stealth revenge on Jordan in league circles. Even at 84, Reinsdorf keeps secrets. He would have been a much better private investigator than sports owner; beyond Jordan’s six titles, of which any owner could have rode the coattails, Reinsdorf’s dual ownership of the Bulls and Chicago White Sox has produced only one championship in almost eight decades of collective ownership.
Hehir won’t be winning an Oscar, not that he deserves one. Technically, “The Last Dance’’ isn’t eligible, says Dawn Hudson, CEO of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “If you meet our requirements for being a movie — you have been scheduled for a theatrical release, which the ESPN series is not, and you are presented in one sitting, which the ESPN series is not — then you are eligible for the Oscars. But that doesn’t apply to this series, even though it’s terrific content,’’ Hudson told the Hollywood Reporter. With Jordan running the show, “The Last Dance’’ can’t possibly have the same gravitas of ESPN’s Oscar-winning “O.J.: Made In America,’’ the five-part miniseries crafted by director Ezra Edelman that didn’t have O.J. Simpson as a creative overlord.
Gambling? There will be no investigative attempt to ask if the murder had anything to do with Jordan’s wagers and seedy North Carolina connections — including Slim Bouler, the cocaine trafficker who took Jordan’s money on golf courses. Another Jordan image cop, longtime agent David Falk, told WFAN Radio: “At the end of the day, Michael was almost Teflon. There’s very few things people criticized him for. The gambling thing was it. He loves to gamble. He’s an extremely competitive guy. If he loses $150,000 playing golf, big freaking deal. If I told him tomorrow, `Hey, I’ve got an appearance for you for five minutes for $150,000,’ he’d laugh at me. If it was $1.5 million, he wouldn’t do it. So yes, he lost money in gambling and it sort of had a little bit of a black eye for five minutes. He apologized and the thing went away. But any of these Oliver Stone conspiracy theories that somehow it pushed him out of basketball were ridiculous.”
Not so ridiculous: the possibility that Jordan, who was wagering obscene sums and was exposed by former San Diego sports executive Richard Esquinas in a book (“Michael & Me: Our Gambling Addiction — My Cry For Help!’’), was vulnerable to betting-line extortion if he was down a few million on another bad golfing day. Esquinas was the former president and general manager of the San Diego Sports Arena. Did it occur to Stern that the NBA Clippers, before moving to Los Angeles, played home games in that arena? That Esquinas had a direct connection to the league? Jordan denies betting on NBA games — “I only bet on myself,’’ he said, which is what Pete Rose said. The league constitution mandates a fine, suspension or expulsion for “any player who, directly or indirectly, wagers money or anything of value on the outcome of any game played by a team in the NBA.’’ But did the league truly conduct a legitimate and comprehensive investigation of Jordan in the summer of ’93, when he was threatening to retire because of the probe? And shouldn’t the probe, headed by former federal judge Frederick Lacey, have intensified after the murder of Jordan’s father? Wasn’t it peculiar when the NBA closed the probe only two days after Jordan announced he was leaving the Bulls? And why was Stern, before his 2019 death, so defensive and dismissive about Jordan’s gambling “hobby’’ instead of emphasizing public transparency, especially as baseball was coming off Rose’s gambling scandal?
We won’t be getting more answers in the 10-part docu-series, even after 100-plus subjects were interviewed. “I found out later what kind of people I was dealing with. But the act of gambling, I didn’t do anything wrong,’’ Jordan said.
So this could be the biggest of all his victories, in a sense. He indeed has achieved Rare Air, somehow floating above the scrutiny of society’s biggest sports greats and celebrities. Jordan knows his audience wants celebration, not revelation. He also knows he’s lucky: The pandemic has created a hunger for the upbeat. Witness the lines Sunday inside and outside an Atlanta mall, where people waited to buy his newest sneaker model — “Air Jordan 5 Fire Red 2020’’ — that sold out outline. Were they even thinking about Covid-19?
The most majestic athlete of our lives finds himself nearing another fourth quarter, armed with the usual untouchable lead. He could relegate the final four episodes to the cutting-room floor and still know he has won again. Michael Jordan didn’t have to spend millions of dollars or plot deep strategies to control his image.
He just called ESPN.
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.