Still, it wasn't until 1987, when ESPN landed its first National Football League package and beefed up its own NFL programming to match, that Berman found the place where his enthusiasm ("Chris still cares who wins the games every Sunday," says Ley) and the persona he had created over the previous decade came into perfect convergence. It was television that had brought the games from out of the bleachers and onto the sofa. It was the NFL that had first adapted its product to the rising medium, and hence, while Chris Berman and every other fan of his age was growing up, slowly but surely, America had found itself with a new national pastime.
Because of how pro football had used television to transform itself into the gravitational center of the American sports universe, the acquisition of a regular NFL package was the last great step that ESPN took out of its primordial ooze. And Berman, who, like the rest of his generation, had watched the NFL come to dominate televised sports, knew it instantly. "In '84 we'd say, Well, maybe we can get the NFL in about 15 years," he explains. "I mean, man, [now it came] after we had been around for eight years, and they're going to invent a Sunday-night package for us."
Between the Sunday NFL Countdown pregame show and the highly rated NFL PrimeTime package on Sunday nights, as well as his work through 1999 on the halftime highlights on the Monday-night games carried by ESPN's synergistic big brother, ABC, Berman has come as close to being the television voice of the NFL as anyone ever has been. And, unlike Cosell, who came nearly as close, he does not bridle at the thought.
On Sundays, Berman is omnipresent on the ESPN lot. He does the morning show and then retires with his partners to watch the day's games in a raucous session that generally gets Berman chaffed for his pronounced predilection to run with the favorites. "He is without question the biggest front-runner I know," says Chris Mortensen, who works with Berman on NFL Countdown. "We're all over him about that."
It is the NFL that lights Berman up. They are mostly NFL names that he drops, one after the other, as the conversation quickens. His good friend Bill Belichick up in New England. His very good friend Eddie DeBartolo Jr., once the owner of the 49ers out there in San Francisco, who's out of football now because he had to turn state's evidence against former governor Edwin Edwards in a political scandal that was messy even by the standards of Louisiana. In 1991 Berman accepted a 49ers championship ring from DeBartolo, only to return it after taking some flak for it, within and outside ESPN. "I know one thing," Berman says of DeBartolo. "The league misses him."
Berman has become a creature of the league, and it shows. Despite all the bombast, and the nicknames, and the genuine bonhomie, he walks a professional line that can thin almost to disappearing, if he's not very careful. "Look," says Mortensen, a prize-winning newspaper reporter before he joined ESPN in 1991, "when you're a so-called reporter like me, walking into this situation, you're accustomed to taking a different approach. Chris makes no bones about it. He's a fan."
"You know," Berman explains, "these [athletes and executives] aren't enemies to us. We get into sports because we like the games and we like the people who play them. Maybe what we're supposed to be, to quote Woody Allen from Broadway Danny Rose, is friendly but never familiar.
"It almost goes to, you know, 'Are you a journalist?' With the stuff [I] learn all the time, it isn't like, 'I have a scoop' or anything like that. I may not have a scoop, but I [get it] right. I mean, ask the people I work with. Go ask Belichick or [ Philadelphia Eagles coach] Andy Reid. My job is different from the guys at the network who have to be pit bulls. I mean, I've got information that can sink countries. I just don't need to bury banana republics every day. It's not my M.O."
The question of Berman's friendship with some of those about whom he bellows on a Sunday seems these days almost as quaint as asking whether or not he has rabbit ears atop his TV or an antenna on the roof. The question has always been central to the hiring of ex-athletes and ex-coaches as commentators, a practice that nearly drove Cosell mad, but one which ESPN has refined into high art. Moreover, the question isn't even unique to Berman, to ESPN, or to sports television, for all that.
In August, Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman turned MSNBC host, showed up at a rally at which he was seen applauding President George W. Bush. In response to complaints, MSNBC president Rick Kaplan split a preposterously delicate hair, stating that there were different rules for "opinion hosts" than there were for "news hosts." Elsewhere, Fox News has as one of its principal anchors Tony Snow, a former speechwriter for the first President Bush. And within the same conglomerate that employs Berman, ABC handed its Sunday morning news program over to George Stephanopolous, who once spun for President Bill Clinton. On that same show one of the regular analysts--the Chris Mortensen of the Beltway, as it were--is columnist George Will, who, in 1980, just as Chris Berman was establishing himself in Bristol, once famously prepped Ronald Reagan for a debate with President Jimmy Carter, and then turned up on television essentially praising his own handiwork. In fact, the television news universe is now replete with former flacks, hacks and political quacks, all performing in reportorial drag, and on issues infinitely more important than who might be starting at running back this weekend for the 49ers. Given that unruly menagerie elsewhere, the question of whether Chris Berman is a "journalist" seems pretty much like locking the barn after the horse was stolen, then escaped from his
captors and set himself up in life with a new job pulling a beer truck in St. Louis.