Happy Anniversary to me. Finally, a personal note. (As if I haven't thrown enough "personal notes'' and full-fledged "personal columns'' at you in this space over the last 12 years.)
I don't keep a lot of what I write, or the covers I've had at the magazine over the years. I've just never been that kind of "file it away you'll be glad you did someday" guy. But the current cover, the June 1, 2009, edition of the mag with Tom Brady on the front and my story inside, is one I'll keep. Because that date --today -- is my 20th anniversary at the magazine.
Mark Mulvoy, the longtime managing editor at Sports Illustrated, hired me 20 years ago today, and it got me to thinking how much the game has changed, and how much the media has changed. I can't imagine a more revolutionary 20-year period in either the game or the media, ever.
Think back to 1989. The architects of the two Super Bowl teams who had just played were Paul Brown and Bill Walsh. Walsh's 49ers were a few months removed from winning their third Super Bowl, after which Walsh resigned. Tom Landry had just been ousted by a new, maverick Dallas owner.
A few weeks before I got hired at SI, Pete Rozelle resigned as commissioner. When Rozelle quit, Giants president Wellington Mara and Kansas City owner Lamar Hunt were named chairmen of the search committee charged with replacing him. I was at the meeting where Rozelle resigned in Palm Desert, Calif., and I remember four names surfacing immediately as candidates to replace him: GM and respected NFL voice Jim Finks, Cowboys president Tex Schramm, former management council boss Jack Donlan and politician and former quarterback Jack Kemp, whose dream job was to replace Rozelle. On the players' side, Gene Upshaw was in his third year as executive director of the players association.
The kingmaker in my business was Will McDonough. In fact, before Rozelle announced his resignation, an APB went out for McDonough, who was a few miles away at a California Angels exhibition game with some NFL people. But those were pre-cell-phone days, and McDonough could not be found, and so the press conference had to go on. But when McDonough came back to the hotel, he still ended up with a better story than anyone else because Rozelle gave him an hour in his hotel suite. (It would be in a McDonough story that week, of course, that the name of league attorney Paul Tagliabue would surface as a possible successor to Rozelle. Five months later, of course, Tagliabue, behind the support of the new, younger owners in the league, got the job over Finks.)
Think of those names that were the heaviest of hitters 20 years ago: Rozelle, Walsh, Brown, Landry, Hunt, Mara, Schramm, Finks, Donlan, Kemp, Upshaw, McDonough. All 12, dead. Takes my breath away to think about it, to think how much the stewards of this game have changed.
What I distinctly remember at that meeting, and in the weeks that followed, was unrest by the young owners in the league, unrest that played a big part in the events of the last 20 years. When the committee was formed to search for Rozelle's replacement, four old-line owners -- Dan Rooney (Steelers), Art Modell (Browns), Judge Robert Parins (Packers) and Ralph Wilson (Buffalo) -- joined Hunt and Mara on the committee. Stupid, old-guardish, decision.
Recently minted owners in the league, such as Jerry Jones, Pat Bowlen and Eddie DeBartolo Jr., had paid gazillions for their franchises compared to the thousands paid by the old-timers, and they felt ignored, as though the elders were saying to them, "Go over and sit in the corner while the adults make this really important decision." It set the stage for a fight for this commissionership. Whoever the old line wanted -- and it wouldn't have mattered if he were the reincarnation of John F. Kennedy -- the new owners were going to block it. Ergo, Finks, the chosen one of the old line, got trumped by Tagliabue, and Finks' last years in the game were bitter ones.
But I think that selection was important in gaining 20 years of labor peace for the game. In Rozelle's last seven years, the league was a litigious war zone. There were two strikes, and no one was happy. I think the selection of Tagliabue made the younger owners feel more empowered, and Tagliabue built a strong relationship with Upshaw. Who knows where the labor deal goes now, but I've felt strongly over the years that the move toward a brainier, legally savvy league office was the right move at the time.
I think back to when I was hired, and I remember thinking what a plum job this was. Mulvoy told me I'd be responsible for some NFL stories in the offseason, and maybe a story or two in other sports, but I'd be able to enjoy the offseason. In the first couple of years, I bet I had 10 weeks in the offseason when I didn't have an assignment, including vacation. What a life! No TV, a little radio, no Internet, no cell phones. I wrote my Inside the NFL column for the magazine each week during the season, and maybe six or eight times each offseason.
That started changing with McDonough's success on TV. I had a two-year gig at ABC for the Monday night games, and then on CNN for six years for the Sunday morning show that six janitors in Wichita watched. In 1997, this column started. My former pro football editor, Steve Robinson, went to run the new CNNSI sports channel, and the CNNSI.com Web site, and he needed content. "Just use anything you don't use for the magazine, and we'll put it on the site on Mondays,'' he said, or words to that effect.
That's how this mayhem began. I started out as a sportswriter. Now I'm a sportswriter who does the NBC Football Night in America show, a radio gig (Sirius NFL Radio) one or two mornings a week, a few other talk shows around the country, and multiple columns for SI.com. And I Tweet. It's amazing how the media world has grown.
When I took this job, there was no free-agency, no year-round draft-related coverage, no coverage of the scouting combine (in fact, 17 media people covered the 2000 combine, and about 400 covered it this year), no organized access to teams in the offseason, no daily coverage of mini-camps and Offseason Training Activities. I didn't write this column year-round until 2003. I think it's right about that time that Web sites started covering the NFL like it was the White House. It's only gotten more serious.
The other day, Mike Florio of profootballtalk.com made a great point about the difference between Mike Vick coverage during his possible return to football in 2009 and the coverage of Leonard Little's return to football in 1999. Little got 90 days in jail for vehicular manslaughter while being more than two times over the legal limit for alcohol, and he was suspended by the NFL for eight games. Florio's point was that if that happened today, the court in Missouri would have gotten ripped to shreds for a relatively light sentence (it also included 1,000 hours of community service and four years' probation), and the scrutiny on the NFL's punishment of Little would have been huge, instead of the basic afterthought that it was. He thinks, and I agree, that Little would have likely been treated more harshly today than he was a decade ago, and one of the reasons is because of the hot spotlight the media would have focused on the league and the authorities in Missouri.
I think in some ways we beat horses until they're long past dead today. In some cases, the pressure to be first causes those of us in the news business to react too quickly. The Boston Herald's false Spygate report comes to mind. That concerns me. But I also think the instant-ness of the news today helps people know things sooner instead of waiting hours or days to discover truths.
A few days ago, it was reported that J.J. Arrington, the running back of the Broncos, was cut. Immediately on Twitter, cries of "stupid Broncos'' went out, seeing that the team had signed him to a reported four-year, $10-million deal with a hefty signing bonus just a couple of months ago in free-agency. Well, originally it sounded like Denver cut him because of an overcrowded backfield, and I thought he'd get his knee healthy and play somewhere else this year. But then it became apparent his knee likely would prevent him from playing this year.
I made a call to find out exactly what his contract was. Turns out Denver paid him only $100,000 to sign, with the first portion of a hefty $300,000 roster bonus due in June. So if Arrington wasn't going to play this year, Denver was smart to dump him when it did. I tweeted Thursday morning: "When you look at the Arrington deal, Denver rented him for 3 months for 100k to see if he could come back. No harm, no foul.'' I don't know if it put the fire out right away, but it should have. I can't answer questions that quickly all the time, obviously, but when I can, and it's about something of a minor nature like the Arrington deal, why not Tweet the answer a bunch of fans want to know?
So we're in a new world of football, and a new media world. Where's it going in the next 20 years? No idea. But it's pretty exciting to be starting another decade.
Quote of the Week I
"They just want me to learn multiple positions. We don't know quite where I'm going to play right now. I'm just learning a little bit of everything. Whatever they need me to play, I'll play.''
-- Minnesota rookie running back/returner/receiver Percy Harvin, after playing everything but trainer in recent Viking practices.
Quote of the Week II
"I think it's despicable. What he put the Packers through last year was not good. Here's an organization that was loyal to him for 17, 18 years, provided stability of organization, provided players. It just wasn't about Brett Favre. In this day and time, we have glorified the Brett Favres of the world so much, they think it's about them. He goes to New York and bombs. He's 39 years old. How would you like Ray Nitschke in his last year [playing for] the Vikings, or I retire, and go play for the Packers. I kind of hope it happens, so he can fail.''
-- Fran Tarkenton, the former Viking and Giants quarterback, on Brett Favre's waffling about retirement, and possible return to Packer-rival Minnesota, on 790 The Zone in Atlanta, via sportsradiointerviews.com.
Quote of the Week III
"I think he has been a great flamboyant quarterback, but he has made more stupid plays than any great quarterback I have ever seen.''
--Tarkenton, lobbing another bomb toward southern Mississippi.
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