Samantha Steele talks Ponder; NFL pregame shows talk tragedy, again
ESPN's Samantha Steele discussed her personal life at length for the first time
Response to her engagement and comparison to Erin Andrews has surprised her
The NFL pregame shows again dealt with tragedy and most handled it well
Samantha Steele is talking about her fiancé, something she has not done publicly at great depth. His name is Christian Ponder and if you are an NFL fan, you have no doubt heard of him. This is the new normal for Steele, a 26-year-old reporter for ESPN who in the past 16 months has replaced Erin Andrews on her network's most popular studio show (College GameDay), served as a sideline reporter on the network's Thursday-night college football package and announced her engagement to Ponder, the quarterback of the Minnesota Vikings.
"I definitely did not desire to be in a relationship that people would talk about and ask about outside of my family," Steele said. "But I don't know how it has changed anything for me with my work. It sure does not seem like it as far as the way my colleagues have treated me and how things have gone at GameDay and Thursday night. I think it's more in the social media sense and more people paying attention. Look, the term high-profile relationship for us is laughable because we are probably the biggest scrubs when it comes to the way we live our lives."
Such self-deprecation is appreciated but the truth is Steele is navigating terrain that we have never seen (at least publicly) in sports broadcasting in the United States. You want an example? On Fox NFL Sunday, analyst Jimmy Johnson suggested that Steele could "maybe teach Ponder how to throw" when referencing the Vikings' quarterback, whom he called "the worst in the league." Colleague Terry Bradshaw suggested that perhaps "the love bug" would help Ponder "step it up." You think Fox NFL Sunday will be talking about Scott Van Pelt's significant other next week? In the words of Ali G, ich don't think so.
Steele said she told her bosses and colleagues about the relationship early on, and inquired of her agent how she should approach things regarding any journalistic landmines. She said she would reconsider her assignment if she believed her relationship with Ponder posed a conflict editorially.
"I don't do anything in the same circles professionally as him," Steele said. "When it comes to doing my job and covering the sports that I cover and doing my best to do that with journalistic integrity, there has not been a single time where that has ever come up and been a problem. I understand what you are saying in the sense that there has never been something as clear-cut as this, but I did not invent this wheel. This has definitely gone on before. The main thing for us is we were going to be honest about this situation once we realized this was the real deal. Obviously, I had zero interest in people knowing about it, but once people started asking I certainly was not going to lie."
ESPN expressed its take early this year, saying via a spokesperson: "Regarding any policies, we expect any commentator to raise any relationship that could be a conflict with the sport they cover. This does not fit that scenario as she covers college football."
Professionally, Steele made great strides this year on both the sidelines and as the host of ESPNU's coverage of College GameDay. She said colleague Rece Davis often gave her performance feedback, as did her feature producers. She cited this feature on Oregon coach Chip Kelly and his offseason work in Africa as something she was particularly proud of this season.
"The great thing was in the midst of all the constructive criticism they [ESPN colleagues] gave me -- even as simple as getting in and out of breaks, things I was not used to doing with sideline stuff -- there was also a constant theme of, Have fun and be yourself," Steele said.
Obviously, Steele knew she would draw comparisons to Andrews, who previously hosted the ESPNU hour on Saturday morning and got the network's biggest college football sideline assignments.
"For the most part, I tried to stay away from that," Steele said. "I learned really quickly in this industry -- and I don't know if I am more insecure than others -- but I just don't like seeing that [comparison] stuff, whether it is positive or negative.
"That being said, it's not like I don't hear people chanting Erin's name or making a reference to her when I am walking on a sideline or at GameDay. I hear all of it. I know they don't mean it as a negative. She did such a great job, had so many people that loved her and she obviously has a huge following, I mean, I would be stupid not to think that I wasn't going to hear comparisons there. Obviously, she just left and I am new around here. That was to be expected. It was the reality of the job."
Steele's job, as I've noted before, is an odd mix of sports knowledge and sex appeal, journalism and entertainment. She has a growing social media presence -- more than 100,000 Twitter followers -- and hears from college football fans daily during the season. She says the benefit of Twitter fame (she likes playing football with people who tweet at her on GameDay sites) outweighs the negative (people name-dropping "Jessica Simpson" when Ponder is not playing well, a reference to when Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo dated the singer in 2008).
Next up for Steele is the Capital One Bowl (Georgia-Nebraska) on Jan. 1 as well College GameDay's coverage of the BCS title game on Jan. 7. She then moves on to coverage of college basketball.
"If somebody would have told me as a kid that when I was 30, I'd get to cover the Phoenix Suns for my local station, I would have thought I had made it," Steele said. "That would have been as good as it gets. I did not have plans for any of this. The biggest struggle for me this season was trying to find balance between work and the rest of my life. I hate to say it was tough because it's a relative term. I have nothing to complain about, but it was new for me to figure out how to balance being the best at my job, and also as a woman, to be a good friend, girlfriend, daughter, and all of the things away from my job that are important to me."
(SI.com examines some of the more notable sports media stories of the weekend.)
1. Last week, I expressed my disgust about how CBS' The NFL Today handled the murder-suicide of Kasandra Perkins and Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher. It was as tone-deaf a sports program as I've ever seen given the severity of the news, and was properly excoriated by fans and critics equally.
The show thankfully rebounded this week with the appropriate editorial sensibilities regarding the death of Cowboys practice squad linebacker Jerry Brown Jr. and arrest of teammate Josh Brent on a charge of intoxication manslaughter after he flipped his car in an accident on Saturday evening.
There will be no over-the-top attaboys or plaudits here for The NFL Today. This is what adults should expect from a pregame show when an NFL player is involved in the death of another NFL player. Bypassing its usual opening, host James Brown came on screen with the proper sobriety and set the tone immediately: "For the second time in eight days, tragedy has struck in the NFL, this time in Dallas." Brown then voiced-over a taped feature that provided the relevant news, including an interview with the college coach of both players at Illinois, CBS Sports Television college football analyst Ron Zook.
CBS then went live to Cincinnati, where longtime Dallas sportscaster and former Cowboys quarterback Babe Laufenberg reported on the state of the team. (There was also a memorable visual of Cowboys safety Gerald Sensabaugh crying on the field.) CBS then provided viewers a four-minute recap of the murder-suicide in Kansas City that did not offer new reporting but did show important video from the funeral of Perkins as well as the thoughtful reflections of Bill Macatee, the game caller for Chiefs-Browns.
2. The NFL Today was at its most impactful during a roundtable discussion with its analysts. Shannon Sharpe, who rarely provides anything other than volume, was forceful and thoughtful on the negligence of Brent. "Often we sit up at this desk and talk about NFL players and DUIs," Sharpe said. "Josh Brent upped the ante. Because through his careless and reckless behavior -- this was not an accident -- this was careless and reckless behavior, he cost a teammate and a friend his life."
The show then shifted to a quick discussion on guns in the NFL, citing this USA Today story that surmised that three-fourths of the league's players own firearms. Finally, James Brown ended the 12-minute segment (with no commercials) by reading a prepared essay on domestic violence.
"Right now, three women per day on average are being killed by their husbands or boyfriends," Brown said. "This means since Kasandra Perkins' death last Saturday, at least 21 more women have met the same fate. Respecting and valuing women would seem to be a no-brainer, but profane language in music, the locker room or anywhere else that degrades and devalues women can contribute to attitudes and beliefs that are destructive and potentially violent."
For 12 minutes, CBS Sports (which declined comment) bypassed the chuckle-hut nonsense, product placements and over-the-top graphics and let the news dictate where it went. It was compelling and thoughtful television and what the show should aim to be weekly.
3. Fox NFL Sunday hit the right tone for the second straight week with its open as it started with a live shot from Paul Brown Stadium and host Curt Menefee speaking in a sober tone: "Like a recurring nightmare, the NFL is once again in a state of shock and sadness after another tragedy leaves one Dallas player dead and another behind bars." The show then headed to Cincinnati, where reporter Laura Okmin interviewed Cowboys owner Jerry Jones on the state of the team.
Menefee then gave the audience some background on Brent's previous DUI before bringing in reporter Jay Glazer, who provided details of how Cowboys coach Jason Garrett informed his team of the accident and information on the programs that are available to NFL players for car transportation. The only analyst who weighed in on the manslaughter was Michael Strahan, who offered thoughts and prayers from Fox but nothing discussion-worthy compared to CBS. (Strahan said Brent made a "bad decision.") The opening segment lasted five minutes and included a thoughtful graphic honoring the birth and death of Jerry Brown. Fox returned to its normal NFL coverage after the first break.
Where Fox massively abdicated its editorial responsibility on Sunday was with its coverage (or lack of it) on the Kansas City story. There was zero follow-up on the murder-suicide of an NFL player, not even a cursory recap of the news that broke the following week from the release of police footage to player reaction to the state of Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli after watching a man kill himself in front of them. (Thankfully, Fox did make time for a four-minute segment featuring comedian Rob Riggle in Hawaii and some beautiful-looking women in bikinis.)
Said a Fox spokesperson on Sunday night: "Fox NFL Sunday covered this unfortunate, tragic story in the most respectful and thorough way possible. Our thoughts and prayers remain with all of the family members affected by this situation."
3a. ESPN's Cris Carter offered a strong take on the manslaughter in Dallas. "In the National Football League, they go to the max as far as the amount of money that they spend on the substance abuse program," Carter said. "I know this personally. I was involved in the program for my whole career, all right. I know the type of information. There are no excuses, all right. It comes down to decisions... Roger Goodell, there's only one answer for all of this. The only thing the players know, the modern-day athlete understands, is take him off the field."
3b. Worth noting is ESPN canceled its comic piece with Frank Caliendo for the second straight week. "Our producers felt it would not be appropriate to air," an ESPN spokesperson said.
3c. The NFL Network's First on the Field show went with its traditional opening -- featuring Sterling Sharpe screaming at viewers -- but co-host Melissa Stark provided a solid nuts-and-bolt recap of the Cowboys story, including video of where Brent's vehicle jumped a curve and flipped. NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport followed with live reporting from Cincinnati that included information about Brent's previous arrest and jail time and some insight into his driving habits. NFLN showed the statement from Brent in an on-screen graphic and informed viewers it would continue updating the story throughout the day. Good work.
3d. NBC hit on both the Cowboys and Chiefs stories in its Football Night in America pregame show, including some serious candor from analysts Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison. The transcripts:
Dungy: "As an NFL coach, you're coaching very, very young men. So I would always talk at the first team meeting of the year. I would talk about decision making, about drugs and alcohol and parties, and late hours. You just constantly preach to them all year -- make good decisions. Every Friday I used to tell our team after practice, Be smart, get home early, don't drink and drive. But you come in Saturday morning, and every coach says this, not just me, but you come in Saturday morning and you just hope everyone gets there."
Harrison: "You coaches do a great job relaying that message each and every Friday. But at 25 years old, I'll have to admit, I was a guy who went out. I partied on Friday. I had three or four drinks, and I got behind the wheel and drove home. Why? Because I thought I felt invincible. 'Oh, nothing would happen to me.' But the older I got, I started gaining perspective. I started realizing what was important. Suddenly, I became that guy who would preach to the younger players about family, about career and about the dangers of DUI."
Dungy: "I couldn't tell them not to go out, because I knew they were going out. But be smart. Come home at 12 o'clock. If you're going to drink, use the vehicles, the car service, and be smart about it. But you just don't know if they're listening."