O’Boyle: Trouble in Prime Time
Daniel O'Boyle | Friday, March 23, 2018
Deion Sanders is undeniably one of the best football players there’s ever been.
He was feared by quarterbacks across the league for his big-play ability, helping two different teams to championships. The constant threat of him picking off any pass and turning it into a big play at the other end is what makes him the greatest defensive back in history.
What it does not make him is the best analyst.
That became clear Tuesday, when Sanders weighed in on the Texans’ signing of former Cardinals slot cornerback/safety hybrid Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu is a top defensive back with a versatility few can match, who played like a defensive player of the year candidate in 2015. More than that, he’s a big-play threat with a brash attitude and an iconic nickname, “the honey badger,” so it’s not hard to see why “Primetime” would like him so much. Calling Mathieu “the best safety in the league,” as Sanders did, is a reasonable enough opinion if you defend it in the right way and explain the value of his versatility.
But Sanders’ complete lack of the knowledge required to be an NFL analyst became clear when Tennessee Titans All-Pro safety Kevin Byard chimed in on Twitter, arguing that the two AP All-Pro selections, himself and Harrison Smith, deserve a mention.
Sanders’ reply made it clear he didn’t even know who Byard was, finishing with “You continue to be a fan and I will continue being the man.” Maybe Primetime was the man on the field, but if he mistakes one of the best defensive backs in the league today for a fan, he most certainly isn’t the man when it comes to player evaluation.
That speaks to a bigger problem in modern sports broadcasting. Too many former stars get by only on their playing careers and clearly don’t believe they need to do any other work. That’s not to say former players can’t still make the best analysts: Tony Romo’s intelligence and play-recognition abilities became clear within the first game of his move to an announcing position. Similarly, Kobe Bryant’s short films breaking down the Cavaliers and Warriors offenses during the 2017 NBA Finals show what a former great can do to help viewers understand more of what they see.
But for too many former players, the expertise they should surely have gained from an elite career is never seen by viewers. Instead, you get Sanders failing to recognize an elite player, Cris Collinsworth manufacturing controversy around a clear Eagles touchdown during the Super Bowl or TNT’s awful “players-only” NBA broadcasts filled with former stars criticizing the modern era. Former players need to understand that what they bring to the table is experience of the game, knowledge of plays and what it’s really like in a pro locker room.
Most of the onus here is on the networks hiring these players. Deion Sanders was an all-time great athlete, but did he ever seem like the kind of star who would bring a real expert opinion to the table? Players can make the most intelligent analysts, but this is not necessarily true of the best players. There are plenty of former pros out there with incredible intelligence who never reached elite levels because of a lack of athleticism. If networks picked the smartest former pros instead of the most famous ones, we’d see much better coverage of sports. This same effect contributes to the lack of women broadcasting sports: If player-turned-analysts were selected based on their knowledge of the game instead of star-power, there would be much more equality among talking-heads.
Seeing what a former player can tell you about the current game should be one of the best aspects of sports TV. Instead, it’s often one of the worst. But if some former players can’t do the bare minimum and learn who the top names in their sport today are, then what use is their perspective? Networks need to recognize which former stars provide real input and which ones just coast on the strength of their names.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.