When sportscasters misspeak, results spread like a virus
Lamar Thomas thought he was sticking up for his alma mater. Isn't that what his producers told him to do, to be more pro-University of Miami? As he watched the bench-clearing brawl between his Hurricanes and FIU last month, he sat quietly. But wh...
Lamar Thomas thought he was sticking up for his alma mater.
Isn't that what his producers told him to do, to be more pro-University of Miami? As he watched the bench-clearing brawl between his Hurricanes and FIU last month, he sat quietly. But when it was all over, he opened his mouth.
"Now that's what I'm talking about. You come into our house, you should get your behind kicked," Thomas yelled. Later that night, his comments were played over and over on ESPN.
Then it was on again the next day. Then it was on YouTube. Then it was on message boards. Then national media shows started calling. His remarks spread like a virus, earning him universal scorn while turning him into a national villain. He lost his job.
Thomas is not the first to say something stupid and then get fired because of it. But the way his entire situation unfolded speaks to the ever-changing sports broadcasting climate. Used to be a time when a broadcaster could make a mistake and it would disappear into space, never to be heard again.
With the advent of all this instant technology, every little comment is going to be scrutinized. Every mistake is going to be magnified, and any Johnny-come-lately with an opinion will demand to be heard. Makes for some tough times in the broadcasting business.
"Times have changed," said radio play-by-play announcer Gene Deckerhoff, the longtime voice of the Florida State Seminoles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "I don't know how you can be too cautious. I hope you don't make people stop talking or stop writing because they're intimidated by what they might say."
Days before Thomas was fired, Steve Lyons lost his job with Fox Sports after he seemed to make fun of Hispanics during Game 3 of the American League Championship Series during a lighthearted moment with Lou Piniella.
It was the last straw for Lyons, who signed an agreement not to say anything else the network deemed inappropriate after making light of former Dodger Shawn Green missing a game on a Jewish holiday in 2004.
Historically, some of the most well-known sports broadcasters have made inappropriate comments. In 1983, Howard Cosell referred to Washington wide receiver Alvin Garrett as "that little monkey" in describing Garrett's running ability. ABC defended the legendary announcer.
In 1988, CBS commentator Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder told a Washington, D.C., television station that black athletes are better than whites, because blacks "are bred to be that way because of his thigh size and big size." He was fired.
More recently, Rush Limbaugh said this about Donovan McNabb in 2003 while serving as an ESPN pregame show commentator: "I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well." Limbaugh resigned.
"It's happened throughout the history of sports broadcasting through now," said Matt Guokas, the Magic's television color analyst. "Any time you're on the air for two, three hours doing a game and talking quite a bit, there's always that chance that something is going to come out of your mouth that somebody isn't going to understand what you really meant."
But that risk is much greater in the current climate, especially for local broadcasters. In Thomas' case, he was doing a broadcast that was being taped to air later in the week. It was also part of ESPN's pay service, GamePlan. Though Thomas stayed quiet during the fight, he spoke about it once the players went back to their respective sidelines and defended the Hurricanes.
That is when ESPN decided to listen in to the broadcast, heard his inflammatory remarks and put them on the air. Thomas should have never said what he said, but what ensued was day after day of his comments being replayed and transcribed. He blamed the "media machine" for what has happened to him.
"The audio was put over the fight; that's what got America a little outraged," Thomas said. "I've been made to look like the villain here because of editing. I thought the fight was a horrible thing; I later said that in the telecast. But no one wants to write about that."
Because Thomas should have been taken to task. But if the clock were turned back a few years, he might have been able to get away with what he said.
"Twenty, 25 years ago, something might slip out, but it was out and gone," Guokas said. "It's not like it was gone or was going to be talked about for the next four or five days. It's a lot more difficult now with all the exposure. When you're trying to be loose and speak from the heart and from the hip, something crazy can come out."
Though no one condones what Thomas said, his position on the broadcast team also raised questions. He played at the University of Miami and was hired because of his background and outspoken personality. There is, however, a difference between being outspoken and being insulting.
"We've always urged people to be outspoken; we encourage opinion. It's what we look for in any discourse, but there are clearly things that we believe you can say and things we don't believe you can say," said Vince Doria, senior vice president and director of news at ESPN. "Anything that's offensive, whether it's in terms of gender or race, are clearly out of bounds."
Still, there almost seems to be a level of hypocrisy at work. Networks want to hire outspoken announcers but then get upset when the announcers are, well, outspoken.
"Sports broadcasters have become a victim of their own doings," said Keith Strudler, a sports communication professor at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. "They have ushered in the age of the sports celebrity. These guys made the people on the field superstars. In turn these people started to become celebrities as well. Once you become a celebrity, you become primed for being taken down. It's the American way."
Athletes turned broadcasters -- like Thomas -- are more prevalent these days, too. Maybe they find it more difficult to stay objective.
"It's OK to be a cheerleader if he wants to be a cheerleader for the university, but he broke the boundary line there," ESPN basketball commentator Dick Vitale said about Thomas. "That can be an excuse and alibi, but you're old enough to know right from wrong. I do think there's a tendency when you come out of a uniform that you want to protect your home base."
But the same can be said for all hometown broadcasters. They are expected to focus on the home team, to make fans feel like they are going through the same emotions. It makes it even harder for announcers covering a university, especially because the criticism from fans on message boards can be so hateful at times. Do you root, root, root for the home team and risk losing the fan base that thinks you are just being a homer? Or do you tell it the way it is, and risk losing the fan base that thinks you are not being supportive enough?
Joe Zagacki, radio play-by-play commentator for the Hurricanes Radio Network, has changed his approach this year because the environment in Miami is so volatile. The Hurricanes are having a down year, and many want Larry Coker to lose his job.
"I keep drilling it in my head as the play-by-play guy I don't need to editorialize. I just try to give the down, distance, time and score. Stick to the facts. That's the best way to handle it during a game," Zagacki said.
But if everyone does that, then the games could get boring. After all, part of their job is to entertain and maybe be a little funny. As Zagacki said: "It is a show. It's always been a show. It's show business, so you have to be entertaining."
That is what Thomas thought he was doing.
"The argument most people are going to make is, you have guys going to schools that are doing these games," Thomas said. "But I tell people this, I am a true University of Miami fan. I was hired for the passion of the game, and I was fired for the passion of the game. If that's the way it goes, that's the way it goes. If you bring in someone else, you're going to get vanilla. You're not going to get chocolate thunder."
Not necessarily true. Nearly all broadcasters give their opinions without being offensive, and can crack wise a few times, too.
But there is a constant awareness of what is coming out of their mouths. Vitale said he keeps a note in front of him on every broadcast that says, "Satellite," reminding him that someone, somewhere might be listening--whether he is on the air or not.
"You police yourself," Vitale said. "If I'm going to be fair, and I remember to treat people the way I would want to be treated, you don't have a dilemma."
Perhaps CBS and HBO commentator Dan Marino said it best: "You just have to use common sense and understand people's feelings. Just because you're on the air doesn't give you the right to say whatever you want."
Andrea Adelson is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.