Heading into last week’s NBA Draft, there was plenty of talk this was one of the weakest classes in recent history. As if this statement needed any further confirmation, as soon as the draft was over, all the talk turned toward the growing feud between now-Clippers coach Doc Rivers and ESPN’s Bill Simmons. It escalated as Friday progressed, on Twitter naturally, and devolved into he-said, he-said.
The crux of the argument here – and boil away your personal feelings toward Simmons’ persona – is whether or not somebody who’s never a) played b) coached or c) worked for an professional sports team is qualified to give their opinions via a national television platform. Rivers isn’t alone in the ex-jock fraternity who thinks you’re only allowed to give an opinion about sports on television if you played the game yourself.
At roughly the same time Simmons and Rivers were carrying out their feud, to a rapt audience of media observers, former Eagles Pro Bowl quarterback Donovan McNabb was being lampooned across the Internet for his laughably banal tweets. McNabb, now an analyst with NFL Network, dropped these insightful gems during the course of the week that saw a prominent player, Aaron Hernandez, arrested on murder charges:
What are your thoughts of the NBA Draft? Did your team do enough to help them win a championship?
— Donovan McNabb (@donovanjmcnabb) June 28, 2013
Given the evidence that we’ve heard so far with the Aaron Hernandez trial do you find him innocent or guilty?
— Donovan McNabb (@donovanjmcnabb) June 27, 2013
Turning the tables here, the counterargument to Simmons vs. Rivers: is every ex-athlete qualified to become a media pundit after their playing careers are over? Simply because you played the game at a high level, doesn’t mean you’re necessarily an engaging or insightful media personality. Take the CBS ‘NFL Today’ set, has Dan Marino ever given the viewer at home on the couch anything worthwhile other than some canned laughter? Tom Jackson has carved out a decades-long career in Bristol by playing safe, instantly forgettable NFL opinions yucking it up next to Chris Berman.
Some ex-jocks do “get it” and realize they’re no longer part of the playing fraternity. Once they become part of the media they have to be honest to the viewer or reader, not trying to protect their old pals. Charles Barkley has been a master of this working for TNT, but his out-sized personality and rare candid honesty is the exception, not the rule.
Even if you’re not a fan of his, ex-lineman Warren Sapp seems do a good job balancing his athletic allegiances with stirring the pot as a media wonk across multiple platforms. Chris Webber has been praised for his candid takes as an NBA analyst, too. Same thing for the majority of analysts employed by MLB Network, who give insight over shtick. MLB Network has even used Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci as an analyst on its game broadcasts and the world didn’t spin off its axis that a writer, not a former player, sat in the booth and offered opinions over nine innings.
You wonder, in the wake of Simmons vs. Rivers will networks be willing to take chances and put non-traditional voices in analysts chairs? Big Lead Sports colleague Jason McIntrye took time to prasie Simmons’ work during the draft. Is it possible we’ll see more outsiders, without playing or coaching experience, given a voice in more prominent places? You know, people who aren’t afraid to say what most of the folks sitting home on the couch are thinking during a broadcast, not the usual jock-speak cliches?
Or will the harsh reaction by Rivers toward a non-athlete television commentator prove that Simmons remains a rarity, buoyed by his large base of power at ESPN which affords him more leeway than anyone else would receive. Remember, neither Tony Kornheiser, a newspaperman by trade, or Dennis Miller, a comedian, lasted long as part of the ‘Monday Night Football’ booth, which itself had been made famous by another noted non-jock, Howard Cosell who had no qualms playing the role of an iconoclast. Based on years of watching sports on television, you’d have to say network executives remain much more comfortable with a former All-Star in the booth who says nothing of substance than anyone with an non-playing or coaching background.
Still, if we look at how the Internet has changed how we sports opinion as it’s been taken over, in part, by non-traditional journalistic voices on blogs and sites such as this one, television eventually has to accept and embrace these voices as well to catch up with the constantly changing times. It would point in that direction, wouldn’t it?
There’s always a third option here, having enough faith in yourself as a sports fan, to form your own opinions and not worry about anything a guy in front of a camera behind a desk has to say be he a former Super Bowl MVP or some former Boston Sports Guy.
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