NFL players-turned-analysts still can hit hard

Former Giants defensive end Michael Strahan is now

Former Giants defensive end Michael Strahan is now one of many former NFL players that work as broadcasters. Photo Credit: AP

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Joe Namath retired from football after 1977 and did not take up TV analysis until 1985. But even after nearly a decade away from the locker room, there were lines he would not cross.

"I still adhered to the rules I lived for many years," he said. "You felt no one outside should know what was happening. I was more sensitive to players' and coaches' feelings than to journalistic needs."

Quaint. But that seems like a millennium ago now, given a crowded media environment in which athletes often shower next to a guy one season, then shower him with public criticism the next.

Namath himself has evolved with the times, pointedly critiquing the Jets on his website,, on weekly 1050 ESPN radio spots, on Twitter and on Facebook.

But he still marvels at some of what he sees on television, where athletes who have spent their playing days looking toward second careers in media are better prepared than ever.

That means superior information and sharper analysis, but also this: "You are schooled by the folks at the various outlets that they want controversy," he said.

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Shock to their system

Call it controversy or call it spirited debate, but everyone understands the culture. Take Kris Jenkins, one month into his first season as a retired football player and already a budding TV star. That's because he is both colorfully quotable and bluntly honest on SNY and CBS.

But it has not taken the former Jets nose tackle long to arrive at a bluntly honest analysis of his new profession: "Good attention, bad attention, if you keep your face out there it helps," he said.

For many former jocks across the media landscape that means standing out by lashing out.

Not that there's anything wrong with that, if done responsibly and to educate viewers. But being analyzed on national TV by a recent former teammate often comes as a shock to active players.

It is not easy, even for someone as even-tempered as Eli Manning, who in 2007 fired back at Tiki Barber after the former Giant questioned his leadership skills on NBC.

"I don't know what they're trying to accomplish or what their goal is," the Giants quarterback said last week, referring to recent retirees turned critics.

Then he added this pragmatic take: "They are trying to do a job and we are trying to do our job on the field. Sometimes those things do not always make for a perfect match."

Social media savvy

The phenomenon is driven by the boom in outlets where former (and current) players can emote, from Twitter to talk radio to NFL studio shows that seem to multiply by the week.

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To couch opinions in shades of gray or to pull punches aimed at members of the fraternity is a road to media oblivion.

Barber said that ESPN, for example, "has a huge bench of talent, and the people they want to have on are the ones who move the needle, good or bad.

"There are so many voices out there that if you don't make yourself sound different or get known for giving a strong opinion, even if some people perceive it as unfair, people won't listen."

Seth Markman, ESPN's senior coordinating producer for NFL studio shows, said the network does not "coach anyone to just go out and say provocative things just for the heck of it."

Honesty, he said, is paramount. Still, he encourages analysts to say on the air what he hears off it.

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"I do sometimes challenge them and say, 'Are you willing to say that on television?' " he said. "The right answer is, 'Yes.' "

"One thing I always say is you do have to be fearless and you do have to realize you're going to be honest," he said. "You're going to have to be critical at times of your friends and former teammates."

Even long-retired icons are not immune to the 21st century media fray. Namath has made news several times during the past two years, including questioning whether Jets coach Rex Ryan is too nice to his players.

"I'm not going to change who I am because Joe Namath makes a comment or somebody else makes one," Ryan told ESPN. "I really don't care."

Some Jets fans have accused Namath of of disloyalty.

"This [charge of] disloyalty is out of leftfield,'' he said. "I want to see the New York Jets win the Super Bowl, because I'm a fan and I know the fans . . . But I'm entitled to give my opinion.''

It's 'nothing personal'

Even in the current atmosphere, there are boundaries for former players. Revealing personal information is a no-no. And the subject of injuries is exceedingly delicate.

Former teammate Michael Strahan, an analyst on Fox, recently used Twitter -- during a game -- to tweak Giants defensive end Justin Tuck about allowing an injury to force him to the sideline.

Then another former Giants defensive captain, Antonio Pierce, said on ESPN Radio that as team leaders Tuck and Brandon Jacobs should play through their injuries.

Tuck expressed disappointment in Pierce publicly and directly, on the phone. Jacobs insisted he was not bothered, saying, "He's getting paid to do that. They might have given him a little extra bonus here and there to say that."

Pierce shrugged off the criticism of his criticism.

"When you switch over and are not a player anymore and you put on a suit or microphone you're just giving viewers your most honest opinion," he said. "That's why ESPN hired me."

Pierce, a Giant from 2005-09, insisted he said nothing publicly that he would not -- and had not -- said to players' faces in the locker room.

"Maybe I'm old school in my thinking if the injury is not that severe to need surgery you should be out there," he said. "That was my philosophy. I don't think my way was too bad. It led us to the Super Bowl championship."

Pierce said he was not questioning the players' toughness, that he still pulls for the Giants and that he "respects the heck out of those guys" from the Super Bowl XLII team.

"But if I sugarcoat it in any way, it takes away the credibility of me," he said. "I am no longer employed by the NFL. I'm employed by ESPN.

"You don't play football to make friends. You play to win. And I'm not in this business to rub somebody's back or butt in what I say."

Jenkins said, "It's hard for guys that are playing because all they understand is those four walls of the facility," adding most buy into the we-are-family agenda of the coaches and front office.

"You need something like that to keep 53 egos capable of physical destruction in line. When we leave, they have to understand we're not there anymore, so that formula is no longer our formula."

And in any case, it's usually nothing personal.

Namath recalled a dinner in the 1960s with Jets president Sonny Werblin and his wife, Leah Ray.

"I was angry about something dealing with the media," he said. "She just chuckled and said, 'Oh, but Joseph, it's show business.'

"I said, 'No, it's not show business. It's football.' She just said again, 'Oh, honey. It is show business.'"

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