“Put an ex-jock in the booth, and their cliché-ridden presentation of a game is the least of their sins. As a result of their lack of training, most of them are blessedly lost when trying to establish a storyline for a telecast … Thus, they tend to view a game as a series of plays rather than as a contest, and often they are ignorant of the human perspective.”—Howard Cosell from I Never Played the Game
Legendary sportscaster Howard Cosell railed against the “Jockocracy”—the easy route former players have from the playing field to the broadcast booth. Clearly anyone who has watched a football game with Tony Romo on the call or a baseball game with A-Rod in the booth, you know there’s great value to have a recently retired player in the booth. What about former players in Sports Radio? Where do they fit in and what makes one retired player successful in Sports Radio and others unsuccessful?
Over the past 20-plus years I have had the pleasure and challenge of working with a lot of former athletes in Sports Radio. Hall of Famers like Gale Sayers, Mike Ditka, Walter Payton, and Cal Ripken; and some really good players like Dan Jiggetts, Doug Buffone, Tim Grunhard, Bill Maas, Larry Bowa, and Rob Dibble. At first, I was in awe of each of them.
After a while you get past that. You quickly learn who comes to play for their shows and who is coasting on their reputation. While this may sound simple, I have narrowed it down to four areas that determine whether a former athlete has a role on your station or not:
- Do they really want a career in sports radio?
- Are they willing to put in the work to learn the craft and prepare for every show?
- Are they able (and willing) to put aside their team allegiances and be critical of the team or league they used to play for?
- Can they talk knowledgably about all the local sports teams and all major sports?
There’s a difference between “a job” in sports radio and “a career.” When you hire a host, anchor, or producer from a smaller market you know that they want a career in sports radio, but what about former professional athletes? They are used to big paychecks, regimented schedules, being pampered and catered to. The only way to find out for sure is to give them some work. Fill-ins and weekends and see how they do. How do they respond to callers? Can they ask good questions of the guests? Can they sustain their energy over the length of the show? After a few shows, you’ll know the answer to these questions which will tell you if they want a career in this.
If they get past the first hurdle, then you get to see over a longer period of time if they’re willing to put in the work. When I say work, I’m talking about preparation and the work of hosting/co-hosting a show. Anyone hosting a sports talk show has to watch the games, read up about the teams, and know what’s happening with the big national sports stories. The PD needs to spend time and encourage these former athletes. Talk to them about preparation and performance during the show. Aircheck them. It’s like a film session for a former football player. Point things out and give them tips to improve on. They will improve and they will make mistakes. Help them learn from their mistakes.
Putting aside team allegiances is hard for many former athletes. Some of them aspire someday to work for the teams they played for in a broadcasting, coaching or personnel capacity. In the 1990s I worked with former Bears linebacker Ron Rivera. Ron is a terrific guy with great insight on the game of football. We would sit and talk before the show and his insight on a pretty bad Bears team was spot on. He would talk about players who weren’t living up to their potential, coaching mistakes, etc. It was truly impressive. Then the on-air light would go on and he shied away from being critical of the Bears players, coaching staff, and front office. His great insight was wasted on a handful of us in the office. In his case, he was eyeing a return to the Bears as a coach and in 1996 he returned to the Bears as a defensive quality control coach. He used his smarts and insight to work his way up through the coaching profession and has been the head coach of the Carolina Panthers since 2011. Oh and his wife, Stephanie, was a great basketball coach, too!
The listeners’ perception is that somehow a man or woman, who played a professional sport, only knows about that sport. On the flipside, most professional athletes played multiple sports growing up or follow another sport. In 2003 I had the opportunity to work with HOFer Cal Ripken at XM. Guess what? Cal knew the NBA, its players, and the game inside and out and had a great passion for it. Regardless, a former baseball player has to prove that he knows football and basketball, while a former football player has to prove that he knows baseball and basketball. Not entirely fair, but it is the standard that they are held to.
I think Howard Cosell was wrong about the “Jockocracy” and feel that former players have a lot to offer. But don’t just listen to me, look around the country at the former athletes hosting national and major market sports talk shows—Boomer Esiason and Bart Scott at WFAN in NY, Tom Waddle and John Jurkovic at ESPN 1000 in Chicago, Scott Zolak at the Sports Hub in Boston, Brock Huard at 710 ESPN Seattle, Mike Golic at ESPN Radio, Tiki Barber at CBS Sports Radio Network, Mark Malone at NBC Sports Radio, and Sean Salisbury at SB Nation Radio.