“Stick to Sports!”
That’s been the loud complaint from some viewers who don’t like the growing intrusion of politics, race and culture into their former sanctuary of sports TV.
With the sports media still debating how to cover things such as 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the U.S. flag/anthem, these fans might have found a new champion: Joe Buck of Fox Sports.
Sporting News interviewed the play-by-by announcer about “Undeniable with Joe Buck,” on the AT&T Audience Network, which wraps its third season Wednesday night with an interview with ex-Yankees/Red Sox pitcher (and accused steroids cheat) Roger Clemens (8 p.m. ET, DirecTV, DirecTVNow, AT&T U-verse).
Buck spoke strictly from his own standpoint as an NFL/MLB game announcer. But pushing political hot buttons during an NFL or MLB game telecast is bound to anger viewers, he said.
“I think people watch these games to get away from that stuff. I think you risk alienating, and upsetting, a lot of people when you start going down that rabbit hole,” he told SN.
The son of legendary announcer Jack Buck, the Emmy-winner serves as Fox’s lead play-by-play voice on the NFL with analyst Troy Aikman and sideline reporter Erin Andrews. He’s also Fox’s lead voice for MLB and USGA coverage.
Buck predicts Tony Romo will succeed as CBS Sports’ No. 1 game analyst. But he warns the ex-Cowboys quarterback will have to steel himself for the massive scrutiny and criticism that come with the job.
With CBS demoting former No. 1 NFL analyst Phil Simms, we asked Buck whether he thinks Aikman is now king of NFL TV analysts.
We also talked to Buck about “Undeniable,” a long-form interview show that’s part therapy session, part confessional.
And we asked about the time fans ripped his game call on Twitter — when he wasn’t even working the telecast. Excerpts of our Buck interview:
SPORTING NEWS: You’re finishing Season 3 of “Undeniable” Wednesday night. How’s the show going from your standpoint?
JOE BUCK: I couldn’t be happier with it. I think there’s a definite void out there for long-form interviews with sports stars like this. I think typically we see these men and women in clipped versions of themselves, either talking about last week’s game or promoting next week’s game. Or giving you boring answers about “trying to help the team one game at a time” and all that garbage. I think the interesting part of this show is really getting to know who these people are. How they were shaped. Hearing about their personal trials and where they failed. Where they fell down, and had to pick themselves up and move forward. I think the funny thing is, I’m one of the producers with Vince Vaughn and Peter Billingsley. Vince has always thought this would be a good self-help series. When you’re talking to Michael Phelps, who’s the most decorated Olympic athlete ever to put on a Speedo, and he’s talking about how low he was and how he contemplated suicide. When we popped a picture of him up on the screen, instead of seeing the gold medals around his neck, he saw the big ears and the awkward smile. Because that’s what he was made fun of as a kid for. Makes you realize it doesn’t matter who you are: Everybody has to deal with the same kind of stuff. I think it’s interesting to see these people who we think have it all, who are perfect, are really anything but. They’ve had to go through some issues in their lives. They’ve had to persevere and keep working and keep trying to get better. I think those people ended up exceeding their own goals and ambitions. That’s why they end up on that seat.
SN: Give us a preview of your Roger Clemens interview. That’s a helluva get. He’s been mostly MIA.
JB: He was great. … I found him really fascinating, really emotional. We popped up a picture of his stepfather — who basically raised him. He wasn’t prepared for it I guess. He immediately broke down. You see these big, strong, intimidating athletes emotional like that. I think it’s powerful. He was really open. Nobody has come there and given the superficial stuff. They’re willing to really open up. We’re sitting with these people sometimes for two-and-a-half to three hours. The show you see on the TV screen is an hour. There’s so much good stuff left behind. But you have to wear them down a little bit to get them to open up sometimes.
SN: Did you ask the Rocket about steroids use?
JB: Yeah. Absolutely. You can’t interview Roger Clemens and not talk about that. You can’t interview Pete Rose and not ask about betting on the Reds and being banned from baseball. When they walk off the stage, the guests seem actually physically lighter. Like a weight has been lifted. I hit him with all that stuff. We talked about (ex-trainer Brian) McNamee. When he was giving his defense to me on the stage, I said, “Roger you know there a lot of people who don’t believe a word you’re saying.” He got hot. He wasn’t hot at me. He defended himself really well. I’m not going to pin him down. I’m not going to continue asking him the same questions. That’s why I said they almost look lighter off the stage than they did when they got on. They can explain themselves for as long as they want. I’m not going to cut them off. I’m going to hit them with more questions. Maybe try to guide them through some of the evidence. There’s no clipping of what they say. They appreciate that. Same with an interview with Alex Rodriguez we just shot that will come out in the fall. Alex was as honest as anybody who’s ever admitted performance-enhancing drug use. The shame that it brought. What it was like to tell his daughters. Roger has not admitted any use. … At some point you have to move on. There’s not going to be a public flogging. At some level, you have to accept what they say. And let the audience be the judge.
SN: Is that why fans can’t forgive Clemens? Because he never came clean with the American public?
JB: I kind of poke at that a little bit. … One of the questions I liked with Alex was because of his response. It was, “What have you learned about people in general?” I think it was more the forgiving nature of people. And how they’re willing to understand, hear the reasons why and move past it. I’ve talked about this on the air. Probably too much. People ultimately vote with their wallet. When you consider the money being made in Major League Baseball, and other sports, that have PEDs swarming around them. You understand that fans are willing to know that they don’t know the whole story. I don’t think any of us do. I don’t think any of us have understanding of how deep that problem was. And what remains with that problem in today’s game. It would be naive to think all that stuff has been completely eliminated from the game of baseball. I know they’ve done a good job of eliminating amphetamine use. That’s why you see guys wearing down. That’s why you see a lot of the teams that are younger are more effective at the end of the year. The older teams just can’t sustain that kind of physical performance without some of the help that guys used to rely on. So they’ve done a good job with amphetamines. But by no means can we say the steroids issue has been solved. I think the Hall of Fame becomes a whole new discussion. There’s no way that the baseball writers, who are the judge and jury for the Hall of Fame, are going to bat a thousand on who did or didn’t do steroids. It’s just impossible. When you see some of the bodies of the guy who have tested positive. A guy like Freddy (Galvis) of Philadelphia. He’s not a big burly guy. So people are going to get in now, going forward, who have used performance-enhancing drugs. If that’s the case, then I think you have to start opening the Hall of Fame up to the Barry Bonds and guys that are on that list. Because it’s just impossible for writers to bat a thousand on this.
SN: Should game announcers stick to sports? How did you deal with Colin Kaepernick’s protest on the air last season? And how would you deal with a similar political protest by a player this season?
JB: It’s hard. …There are news shows that I watch, whether it’s on CNN or Fox. They’re debating these issues for an hour. If there’s something that kind of blends its way into politics, or some sort of racial situation or some sort of societal situation, I’ve got to be aware that another play or another pitch is about to happen. My job is to call the action. Not stand on a soapbox and go on and on and on about a point, and forget about the game. I said this to a writer at The New York Times with regard to the Kaepernick situation: We don’t cover (the national anthem) during the regular season because of the timing before a kick. And never have. For the big events we do, obviously. With him kneeling, it was a story. I think our bosses wisely didn’t want to appear that we were just ignoring it. Because it was something that people were talking about. Certainly after the game and certainly during the game on social media. You have to address it. So we recorded him kneeling. At some point early in the game, Richie Zyontz, our producer, said, “We’re going to roll into video of Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem, be ready for it.” That’s the time where you have to really prepare — and be ready. It’s to the point where I script that. I have to sit down beforehand and think, “If I have 15 seconds, which is the most I’m going to have, how am I going to use those 15 seconds to state what he’s doing, why he’s doing it and what the goal is for him doing it?” It’s tough. Because we’re all on a play clock. You come out of that (commercial) break, you haven’t thought about it, you’re just trying to wing that — your words can get you in a lot of trouble. It’s a dangerous minefield to walk through in today’s world. Much more so than when my dad was doing this or Harry Caray was doing this. Everybody’s antenna is up. If you want to get yourself in trouble, come off half-cocked on this stuff. Just wing it and hope for the best. You better nail it. Because if you mis-speak in those 12 seconds, then you’re trying to get it back. It just becomes a mess. Unless I’m completely wrong, and I know in this case I’m not, nobody’s tuning into the 49ers-Cowboys game to hear my political opinions, whether it’s about Trump, or Kaepernick or Flint, Michigan. That’s not why they’re watching a football game. It’s misplaced. I hear guys doing it at times. It seems self-serving. Like they want to inject themselves into the conversation. Wait for a talk show. Go on Bill Maher’s show. Bill O’Reilly. Whoever. I think people watch these games to get away from that stuff. I think you risk alienating and upsetting a lot of people when you start going down that rabbit hole.
SN: CBS dumped Phil Simms and handed their No. 1 NFL analyst job to Tony Romo, a guy with zero TV experience. How do you think Romo will do in the booth?
JB: It’s a big job. You know as well as I do, Mike, that there’s a level of scrutiny that seems to intensify every year over the year prior. I think it’s a more demanding job than people realize. Fans think you just show up and start talking about football and throwing stuff against the wall. You and I know very well that’s not the case. It is a highly scrutinized position, whether you’re the play-by-play guy or the analyst, at that level. It’s not just the NFL. I, and we (at Fox Sports), learned a lot from our first year covering the U.S. Open golf tournament. You have to get in there and do it when it counts. Tony can do all the practice games he wants. But until you know that there are people out there listening, it’s a completely different feeling. That’s the same as regards to our golf coverage. You can practice and game-plan and think you have it all worked out. But you have to get in there and do it to find out where to step, and where not to step, and what you need to know, and what you don’t need to know, and how to prepare properly, and what’s expected of you and how to better give the information every time you open your mouth. So it is going to be a steep learning curve for a really good guy. I think Tony’s a good person. He’s got a big heart. He wants to do well. I’m sure he will. But it’s going to be a lot. I don’t know that he’s aware of how much it’s going to take to step into that booth and go 100 mph.
SN: You should know about scrutiny. One of my favorite Buck stories came from Lou D’Ermilio. Wasn’t there a game when fans were ripping you on Twitter and you weren’t even calling the broadcast?
JB: Hah. That was back when I used to look at my Twitter feed. I was seeing these comments as I was walking around New York. I was there doing a Giants preseason football game. These guys were killing me because I said some Yankee base runner was out at second, the replay showed he was out, but the guy was called safe, you hate the Yankees, blah, blah, blah. It gave me such great satisfaction to be able to tweet back to that guy, and others, that I was actually in my hotel room not even watching the game. That it was Kenny Albert, not me, so direct your complaints to Kenny. Fans have always been that way to a certain degree. My dad dealt with it in 1990 and 1991. I remember my dad and Vin Scully talking about it. Scully used to get a lot about it when the Dodgers were in the World Series with the (Yankees). “You’re in New York — but you’re the Dodgers guy!” You can’t win. And so a lot of that stuff, you have to just throw away. It’s, “Who are you rooting for?” “Why do you hate my team?” All this ridiculous stuff, when it’s the furthest thing from your mind. You don’t even think that way. But fans do. So they assign you getting excited to the other team hitting a home run, or scoring a touchdown, to you rooting against their team. Yes, there’s a level of scrutiny. If you want to tap into it — and read all that stuff — you drive yourself insane. I don’t know that you would ever open your mouth again. If you’re to have any opinion, which is kind of what they pay you for, then you can’t read that stuff. You have to believe what you’re saying. You have to state it, and sell it, and make it understandable between plays. That’s a skill that you have to develop. If I were to sit down with Tony, and maybe I will someday because he and I have talked about it a little bit, and if he ever asked me I’d be happy to help. I’d say you have to be louder than normal, you have to be decisive, you have to annunciate. He’s kind of a very soft-spoken guy. I think he’s going to have to change his delivery — and to really punch his points. That doesn’t even touch what you’re going to say. That’s how you’re going to say it. You have to start with the how. Then you get into the what. That’s what he’s really being paid for: the what. So you have to break down a play immediately. You don’t have time to look at it, rewind it, rewind it again, come up with your point, then figure out how you’re going to say it. You have to do it with the play clock winding down. They’re getting ready for the next play. Ronnie Lott did a couple of games for Fox. One of the producers told me the story. They said he left the booth and said, “That was harder mentally and almost physically than playing the game.” Your mind is going so fast that he walked out of there just completely drained. I’m anxious to see Tony do it. I hope he does great. But I think he’s going to be surprised at what it takes. Then the voices out there that are going to try and tear apart whatever he says, no matter what it is, we all live with that.
SN: Here’s something CBS may not have thought of. For every Cowboys fan out there, there are two more who hate America’s Team. Will Romo be disliked because he’s another Cowboy QB behind the microphone?
JB: That’s another layer. Troy has dealt with it. Troy chalked it up to the fact that a lot of these places where we go, whether it’s New York, Philly or San Francisco, there’s a lot of fans in those place who remember Troy beating them in championship games. Those wounds don’t heal. But I don’t care who you are. If you’re Tony Romo, Troy Aikman, Joe Buck, Jim Nantz, Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, whoever. If you’re going to worry about that stuff, you’re sunk. If somebody doesn’t like Tony because he was a Cowboy, they’re probably not going to like what he says. And so what? If (CBS Sports chairman) Sean McManus and Jim Nantz are pleased with how he’s going about it, then that’s all that should matter. If Jim Nantz is tweeting at me, “Go back to baseball, you suck at golf,” then I’ve got problems. If it’s somebody else who’s just a voice out there, well, that just comes with the job. Let me tell you, Troy gets as much grief (in Dallas) as I do in St. Louis from the home crowd. The Dallas fans want Troy to say everything’s perfect in Dallas, and everybody’s the greatest player in the NFL. There are times you have to be critical. You have to say that was a bad throw, that was a bad play call, that was a missed tackle. It’s not always flowery. Sometimes fans of a particular player from a particular team don’t expect that when it comes to the team that (the analyst) played for. That’s your job, though.
SN: With CBS putting Simms put out to pasture, is Troy the No. 1 NFL game analyst?
JB: I think so. I think he combines everything. I think he combines work, studying, authority and the knowledge of what it takes to win. He doesn’t have to prove every time he opens his mouth that he knows what it takes to win. I think that’s a blessing and a curse. I remember the first preseason game we did. He was critical of (Eagles QB) Donovan McNabb. In the post-game press conference, they were asking Donovan McNabb about what Troy Aikman said about him. His words carry such weight. He has to be really be careful sometimes with what he says. In this day and age, you’re answering for everything you say all week long until you go to the game the next week. He picks his spots. I can tell you nobody has more integrity than Troy. Forget who I’ve worked with; it’s who I’ve met. His word is his bond. He doesn’t throw opinions out without thinking about them. He doesn’t throw critiques without really doing his homework. So he’ll come into a game with ideas. If they play out in the game we’re watching, then he’ll say it. But he’s not just throwing stuff out there to get a reaction. I think some guys do that because they have to. Troy doesn’t need to. When Troy’s buried, on his headstone, other than being a great dad, it will say he’s a three-time Super Bowl champion quarterback. Then maybe somewhere down the line, or in the funeral announcement, will say he was a broadcaster. People know Troy Aikman as a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. That carries tremendous weight. Because he really guards against overexposure, or just saying stuff for effect. When he really says something that’s critical, people notice. It carries a lot of weight. (Fox baseball analyst) Tim McCarver was that way. If he said something, somebody might not like it. It comes from somebody who wants to win and who works really hard at his craft.
SN: Why have TV ratings fallen for the unsinkable NFL and other sports over the past year?
JB: I don’t know. I think the viewing habits in this country have changed fast and furious. Obviously, people talk about attention span. These games last a long time. Thinking about baseball, I completely agree with (MLB Commissioner) Rob Manfred, with his desire to make these games less laborious. To pick up the pace a little bit, where you can, without sacrificing the integrity of the game. I think there’s a lot of merit in that. I know the NFL ratings went down last year. I’m anxious to see what the story is this season. I’ve never watched more political opinion shows in my life than I did this last year, with this election, with Hillary and Trump. It was fascinating TV. You know better than I, but I know at least one, if not two, Sunday night games went up against (presidential) debates. Plus, the London games. When you have big markets, playing games that start at 6 o clock in the morning on the West Coast, that’s asking a lot of the casual fan. It reminds me of Roy Green, who used to play for the football Cardinals here in St. Louis. He used to say, “People say that I’ve lost a step. Well, I had a step to lose.” He was still faster than everybody else was his point. If you’re the NFL you say, “OK, they went down a tick. But we’re so far and away ahead of everybody else.” I think the total reach was over 170 million people for this past Super Bowl. It’s stunning how many people are watching these games. So I’m going to withhold judgment until we go through another season where there is not another Trump vs. Clinton sideshow going on.