There will be no true “Media Day” at the Super Bowl this week.
Even in the best of times, throngs of reporters surrounding football coaches and players is a cauldron of potential infectious disease spread. There's more room in the womb than in the crush in front of Tom Brady. And that’s before some “reporter” dressed in a superhero costume tries to bait a player into a viral moment or late-night talk-show bit.
The NFL’s primary goal for this Super Bowl is to keep Patrick Mahomes, et al, virus free. Media Day will be a few Zooms. It makes sense.
For plenty of media, and at least some players and coaches, it won’t be missed.
I’m not one of those people.
I love Media Day. I absolutely love it, even as it veered so far from a discussion between reporters and participants about the upcoming championship game that the NFL rebranded it “Super Bowl Opening Night fueled by Gatorade” and now broadcasts it in prime time.
It’s still Media Day, still a great day to get stories, insight and angles. If you want them.
Start with this: Most of the players are actually excited to be there. They’ve grown up watching this freak show and consider participating in it part of their Super Bowl experience. They usually walk around filming it on their phones. They are eager to talk and understandably proud of reaching the big game.
While some of the joke interactions can make some players uncomfortable, you can sometimes actually glean information from non-traditional methods. For example, in 2008, Ines Gomez Mont of TV Azteca out of Mexico donned a wedding dress and asked Tom Brady and Eli Manning to marry her. They both deftly, and politely, declined, so you knew these two weren’t easily rattled.
At Media Day in 2017, a 7-year-old reporter, Joseph Perez, got Brady to choke up when he asked who the quarterback's hero was. “My dad,” Brady said before a lengthy pause. It was a curtain-pull of humanity for the often unflappable QB.
Neither situation happens anywhere except Media Day.
There is just something to be said watching Bill Belichick’s face not even crack when he is suddenly asked a question ... by a puppet. Or observing a player when, in 2013, comic Artie Lange asked: "Ray Lewis says God doesn't make any mistakes. Looking at me do you believe that is true?"
In 2014 and 2015, Marshawn Lynch delivered the same two answers to every question: "I'm just 'bout that action, Boss"; and "I'm here so I won't get fined." It was quintessential Marshawn. He became even more popular.
Once upon a time, reporters could descend on a team hotel and find a shirtless Joe Namath sprawled out by the pool and willing to talk. Eventually the Super Bowl got too big and “Media Day” — among other media sessions — became a tradition.
In 1991, MTV personality “Downtown” Julie Brown completely changed the game when she showed up for the syndicated show “Inside Edition” and asked non-football questions. “I was trying to do the fun side of the Super Bowl,” Brown told Yahoo Sports in 2016.
Brown’s presence was met with resistance from the expected quarters but there was clearly a big audience for the kind of coverage she was providing. Julie Brown was a huge hit, and the NFL, seeking larger and larger television audiences, leaned into it. Pretty much anything went after that.
There’s no going back. At least we hope not.
It’s not just the ridiculousness that can pay off — most of the gimmicks for the late-night shows are actually stale and never get aired. But the atmosphere changes everything.
If nothing else, everyone is available for a full hour. That’s a lot of time. By comparison, Brady’s post NFC championship game Zoom last week was about six minutes long. There is time for everyone from up-and-coming coordinators, to bench warmers, to the biggest stars in the sport to reveal themselves.
There’s Pittsburgh reserve Sean McHugh in 2009, describing the preposterous season where he got cut from the 0-16 Detroit Lions only to be picked up by the Steelers en route to the Super Bowl. “A door closed and a world opened,” he said.
There’s then San Francisco defensive coordinator and now New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh in 2020, talking about being a Muslim and Arab American in the NFL, the most American of sports. “I am very proud of where I come from,” he said.
There’s Belichick in 2012, with no way to end the media session, finally breaking down and discussing his fashion sense. Why does he cut the sleeves off his hoodie? “I have short arms,” he revealed.
Soon he was telling a story about Mark Bavaro and Lawrence Taylor going mano-a-mano at a New York Giants practice. He described it in length and detail, if only as a football filibuster to keep from more inquiries into his wardrobe.
Either way, fascinating.
Even team owners are usually available. Other than Jerry Jones and a few others, NFL franchise owners rarely utter a public word. Yet here you can pepper questions at a billionaire, who usually has a panicked personal public-relations executive standing nearby.
It can yield some classics. In 2009, former Arizona Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill tried his best to fight his reputation for being frugal and boring only to admit he celebrated the Cardinals winning the NFC championship not by, say, going out to dinner, but just going home to “finish off the morning coffee in the microwave.”
Not even a fresh pot, Bill?
Not to get too inside baseball for sports journalism, but Media Day is a dream come true for a reporter. Everything is available even if nothing is obvious. You have to work for whatever you get, sometimes literally throwing elbows, but it’s all getable. There are no rules. Every reporter is equal.
This isn’t an often negotiated, one-on-one sitdown on a network pregame show. It’s not a softball inside deal through an agent in exchange for some free agent scoop three months down the line.
In a league that tries to control everything, and rewards those who agree to be controlled, there is none. Not at Media Day.
It’s a complete free-for-all, as close to Namath lounging by the pool as it gets these days.
Zoom won’t be the same this time, so by next year, please bring back Julie Brown’s circus. At least some of us will be missing it.
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