Less than two months ago, four former athletes, a white female pseudo-reporter, and a rapper were announced as the new co-hosts of a worsening sports morning show. It was an example of how networks, and viewers, have incorrectly become obsessed with the idea that more athletes/coaches serve these broadcasts better than journalists. In the past few weeks, Rodney Harrison and Donte Whitner have proven what many of us in sports media have known for decades — a lot of these athletes aren’t built for TV.
If your logic for preferring former athletes on TV over journalists was based on the fact that athletes could “relate better” and have “walked the walked,” then your entire thesis has been exposed, given the recent ire that two former athletes have caused by dissing current athletes on live TV.
“But watching that tape, man, you gotta look at this dude and say, ‘Oh, he is garbage.’ Like we should really tear him apart,” Harrison said to Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones on Sunday Night Football after Kansas City defeated the Jets 23-20 in Week 4, to bait him into speaking negatively about New York quarterback Zach Wilson.
“Dak Prescott sucks, period,” said Donte Whitner on NBC Sports Bay Area’s 49ers Postgame Live after San Francisco demolished Dallas on Sunday Night Football 42-10, in a game in which Prescott threw three interceptions. “They talk so much about Dak Prescott being a top-tier quarterback, franchise guy. I don’t see it. I see them trying to cover up for what he lacks. A lot of quick throws, cutting half of the field off and giving him easy throws. Other than that, he’s not a quarterback that can drop back and really take advantage of a defense and carve it up. And today we saw it. The 49ers’ defense made him look like a tier-four quarterback.”
Whitner followed that up by lashing out at Miami Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill on social media for wondering why Whitner did what he did. “You’re fast but you’re lucky…. I’d have killed you on that field… Mind your business homie…” he wrote in a now-deleted post.
Back-to-back Sunday night games. Back-to-back unnecessary errors from former players that would have gotten a journalist fired if they made them. In the case of Harrison, he did apologize to Wilson for his words — but the damage is done.
“But acting like former athletes are journalists and interviewing each other is the sad part,” Rob Parker, one-half of the Odd Couple on Fox Sports with Chris Broussard, told Deadspin back in August. The focus of my column then was on how sports shows have become Twitter on TV, and how network executives are focused on eradicating the people — journalists — who ask tough questions and provide context. “That’s where fans get the short end of the stick. You almost never hear a hard question when all players are involved.”
Longtime sports journalist and author Howard Bryant was also featured in that story, and he spoke about the real-life ramifications when too much room is made for athletes, devaluing the presence of journalists.
“The reason why this is important is jobs,” Bryant explained. “Who gets to work? Who gets to buy houses? Who gets healthcare? Who gets to actually have a life?” And if you’re a reporter competing against an ex-athlete that’s already set for life financially, you’ve got no shot at this.
“Television visibility is what they see. It adds to your credibility, visibility, and your bottom line,” added Bryant about how the notoriety that comes with television can help a journalist be better on the job. “It’s what the players respect. So when you walk into the locker room or the clubhouse and they see you, they treat you differently and treat you a little better because you’re more of a name. And if that position is being taken away from the journalist, the journalist is at a complete professional and financial disadvantage, because TV pays better than the writers.”
Be clear, there must always be a space reserved for athletes in sports media. But over time — and especially over the last few weeks — those former athletes have shown us that the desire to put more of them on TV has led to mishaps and/or poor ratings. Everybody isn’t ready for the bright lights, and putting athletes who don’t have the depth on camera in front of millions is hurting, not helping.
This isn’t to say that journalists are perfect on TV, and haven’t made their fair share of mistakes over the years. But, not too long ago, there was a time when sports television was balanced. The former athlete or coach brought insight that only they could deliver. The journalists brought expertise from their years of covering an athlete or sport and provided context and nuance with data. It worked, and then it went away. We’ve all suffered ever since.
Now we’re left with idiotic hot takes from former athletes and egotistical media members — who were once journalists, but now act like they don’t have a clue of how the job is done — screaming, ranting, and debating on television every morning. And on Sunday nights, we have “experts” like Rodney Harrison and Donte Whitner taking shots at players due to their lack of vocabulary. We used to be a proper country.