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Answers and Questions: A Bulldog at Super Bowl Media (Circus) Day

By Adam Zielonka

Beyond this point, no prior knowledge of the National Football League is required. I will mention many players’ names and positions, but they do not affect the story. This story is not about the X’s and O’s of Sunday’s game. It’s not about game-related questions or answers. It’s a sketch of today’s sport media by an aspiring sportswriter, a study of contrasting personalities and a story of a father and a son.

Super Bowl Media Day is a large press conference held every year the Tuesday before the Super Bowl, where thousands of writers, media personalities and production crew descend upon a large room to ask players everything from their opinions of the opposing team to “If you could be a tree, what kind of tree would you be?”

This year’s Media Day was held last Tuesday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., the home of the National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils. It was only the third time the event was open to the public. Complaints of cold weather be damned, we are happy that Super Bowl is being played in the state we were both born and raised, my dad doubly so now that his Seattle Seahawks, the team he has long been a fan of, have made it. But with game ticket prices astronomically high, he and I decided to make Media Day our own little Super Bowl.

I have long supported his team as my second favorite (as the New York Jets may never make it back to the big game), and furthermore, I have dreamed for years of being a sportswriter. Attending Media Day would not only give us a chance to see Dad’s favorite players in person, but it would hopefully also give me an impression of the sport media I hoped to join someday by seeing them up close. Going meant skipping my four Tuesday classes at DeSales, but it was a small price to pay.

****

The train left my hometown of Somerville, N.J. at 7:42 a.m. Tuesday morning.

“So I’ve got a surprise for you,” Dad told me after the first few train stops.

“What’s that?”

“I upgraded our seats this morning.”

He had showed me StubHub’s  assessment of the event the night before, comparing our seats on one far side of the mezzanine level (if we were going to a New Jersey Devils game, we’d have been behind one of the nets) to sections closer to the floor where tickets were still available. But I was surprised all the same.

“We’re in section 18 now, right toward the middle of the floor.”

peyton2

Photo by Adam Zielonka

“Dad, that’s great! Thank you!” I told him. We read and chatted until the train pulled into Newark Penn Station.

We received gift bags as a reward for cooperating with Security’s metal detector wands. Besides the several products and coupons courtesy of official NFL sponsor companies (from Pepsi to Gillette to McDonald’s), the bags contained small personal radios with earbuds and lanyards. Sitting and watching Media Day live is a fun idea, but impractical without these radios, which let us tune in to any one of five interviews at a given time, or to NFL Network’s coverage.

Our new seats were aisle seats, twenty rows from the floor. NFL Network’s television set was to our left; the second of five stand-alone podium-booths lay in front of us (the remaining podiums lined the far side of the floor, behind these five main ones). A dozen large cameras and masses of reporters and crew already surrounded this particular podium, 45 minutes before the Broncos were scheduled to enter. It was the area designated for Peyton Manning, who will go down as one of the greatest players of all time. The Broncos’ quarterback will be playing in his third Super Bowl this Sunday after winning one and losing one as an Indianapolis Colt.

We hadn’t been in our seats for ten minutes when a man with a microphone and a woolen Yankees hat approached us. He spoke with an Australian accent. “You’re a Seahawks fan?” he asked my dad. “You didn’t just jump on the bandwagon, did you?”

“Yeah, I did, 32 years ago,” Dad replied with a smile.

He explained to the radio host (we assumed he was a radio host, as he had a microphone but no camera crew) that he’s a Jersey boy, not from Seattle, and yes, it’s really fortunate that Seattle made the Super Bowl this year when it was in our home state.

Then he told us we were going to play a game. He unfolded a piece of paper, showing us the names and pictures of three Australian men – Ray Warren, Geoffrey Rush and Tony Abbott. Below them were three occupations: Hollywood actor, prime minister and football commentator. “You’re gonna match each man to his job.”

This is not as random as you would think. Super Bowl Sunday is America’s unofficial national holiday, but it’s a global event, too. Media Day, being the biggest media event in the league year, is also the one day media from Europe, South America, Asia and Australia appear. These are generally television personalities composing two-minute fluff pieces, often trying to force a connection between their home countries and the Super Bowl. This year, a woman from China wanted opinions on the approaching Chinese New Year, never mind that no player or coach on either team is of Chinese heritage. Broncos head coach John Fox told her, “I’m happy about the Chinese New Year, and I’m happy that the animal is a horse.” If that isn’t an allusion to his team’s nickname, I don’t want to know what it’s an allusion to.

“Is that American football, Australian football or soccer?” I asked our Aussie friend about the “football commentator” occupation.

“Rugby, actually. Have you ever seen a game of rugby league?”

I smirked mentally. I go to DeSales University, guy. I even know rugby players!

Dad took a shot in the dark and matched them all perfectly. Geoffrey Rush is a Hollywood actor, Ray Warren a rugby commentator and Tony Abbott the current prime minister of Australia. I discovered later that Geoffrey Rush is actually pretty famous here, too (playing Captain Hector Barbossa in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, for instance), but neither of us had any idea at the time.

We didn’t win anything except the privilege of being featured on an Australian radio program, the name or station of which neither of us thought to ask about.

The sea of people and equipment only grew around Manning’s podium and the rest of the floor until the Broncos entered. Leading up to that, there had been some minor interviews of non-Super Bowl participants cast onto the big screen hanging in front of us. That big screen was made up of five smaller ones, which would go on to broadcast the interviews at the five “main attraction” booths in the middle of the floor for when the players and Coach Fox took their seats. Manning, Fox and cornerback Champ Bailey would have their conferences broadcast in their entirety on the middle three screens. Screens One and Five rotated through the rest of the players.

As a fan, it’s all too much to take in at once. I could switch my radio to listen to NFL Network – but they just played Manning’s conference for the first fifteen minutes. I tried to listen to Bailey for a while, but I was distracted by everything else going on – glancing back and forth between the screens and the real live thing going on in front of me; finding people in random costumes on the floor and wondering how they got there (Waldo, as in Where’s Waldo? took the cake this year); and seeing the outer two screens rotate through different players.

Denver tight end Julius Thomas appeared on Screen One, and I tuned my radio in to his interview. After a few minutes, the image of a microphone slowly floated up from the bottom-right corner of the screen, and I heard a female reporter speak. The mic had a logo: “espnW,” the women’s-oriented branch of ESPN’s online presence. The reporter asked Thomas these questions in this order:

“Peyton Manning has been gaining attention for shouting ‘Omaha!’ in his pre-snap routine. Can you name any other city in Nebraska?” (Thomas, after a beat – “Lincoln!”)

“Do you have any superstitions before you play?”

“The Seahawks’ secondary is known for calling themselves ‘The Legion of Boom.’ Do you and your guys have any nicknames you call yourselves?”

“What’s your favorite thing about New Jersey so far?” (After a short pause, she quipped, “Nobody’s been able to answer that so far.” Classy.)

“This Super Bowl is notable for featuring the two teams from the two states that have legalized recreational marijuana. What’s a better movie, Up in Smoke or Half Baked?”

I was disappointed, not that I didn’t hear Thomas name his favorite stoner movie, but that this batch of questions, representing a website that claims to be “a voice for the woman who loves sports,” was a mix of the vapid and the absurd. It’s much less tolerable than the foreign correspondents’ foreign questions; I give them a pass for likely knowing little about American football. America has plenty of female football fans, and female football fans are just like male football fans. They don’t care about the answers to these “pop culture grid”-type questions, and frankly, it insults their intelligence. Worse, it doesn’t shine women in sport media in a good light. I know of plenty of great female sportswriters, and there are many more out there I don’t know yet. Apparently, none of them work for espnW.

Photo by Gerry Zielonka

Photo by Gerry Zielonka

Players get annoyed with this line of questioning, too, or so I imagine. The same espnW reporter asked multiple players, “What’s your biggest pet peeve?” In their shoes, I would have smiled and replied, “Answering stupid questions.”

There were other dumb queries throughout the day. My radio picked up Denver wide receiver Demaryius Thomas telling reporters about his Mohawk, though he seemed to enjoy doing so. Broncos tackle Orlando Franklin was asked to choose one – “gym, tan or laundry?” – because New Jersey hadn’t been bashed enough yet.

Late in the Broncos’ session, a concession hawker in a referee-striped shirt came by, peddling his wares. He was talking to someone standing in the aisle next to Dad, but I was too busy listening to some Bronco at first. Then I realized the concession hawker was being photographed. I took out my earbuds and looked to my left. I read the photographer’s credential hanging from a lanyard: “Benjamin Lowry. ESPN the Magazine.”

The hawker was insisting he only wanted his image to be used in print, not online or anywhere else. When they finished negotiating, I had to pipe up before Lowry walked away. “How did you start working for ESPN?”

Lowry told me he had been a combat photojournalist overseas for ten years, but wanted a safer domestic job so he could be with his wife and kids. His buddy hooked him up at The Mag.

Dad asked before I got a chance. “What advice would you give an aspiring young sportswriter?” Coming from Dad and not me, it probably sounded funny to Lowry at first.

“It’s a golden age of journalism, and a horrible time to be a journalist,” Lowry told me.  He told me he freelanced, and the business side of journalism isn’t taught as much as it ought to be for how important it is – “Build your brand.”

He also advised me not to go to graduate school for journalism. He wasn’t the first to have told me that the information taught at J-school – “trying to get sources, things like that” – can be easily learned on the job.

I realized while talking to this journalist that I myself was currently being a terrible journalist – I hadn’t brought a pen and pad with me to Media Day to write anything down. Trying to type quotes into my phone wasn’t effective, and this very article now suffers as a result. Learning on the job, indeed.

Lowry bade us goodbye, but not before continuing to build his brand by giving us his business card. As badly as I wished I could be down on the floor rubbing elbows with the writers I know from newspapers, magazine and television, I realized that I was learning plenty about my dream career by just being in the stands at Media Day, without leaving my seat.

*****

The Seattle Seahawks took the floor at 12:45. They joined Richard Sherman, who had already set up camp at his podium and was answering his third or fourth question.

A few weeks ago, Sherman made the biggest play of his career in the NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers by tipping away a possible game-winning touchdown pass headed toward 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree. It was momentous because Sherman tipped it directly toward his teammate, linebacker Malcolm Smith, who intercepted it with 30 seconds left to play. Seattle won the ball and the game, sending them to the Super Bowl. After trying to congratulate Crabtree post-game and getting shoved in the facemask in reply, Sherman told FOX sideline reporter Erin Andrews and the rest of the world that he believed Crabtree to be both “a sorry receiver” and “mediocre – at best.”

The rant made Sherman a household name, and the media hasn’t let go since.

Sherman has always been a talker, but his notoriety for it reached an all-time high. Writers either ran to his defense or debated his enhancement of the role of “the thug athlete” in sport. While his podium throng was still slightly smaller than Peyton Manning’s was, it was no surprise that Sherman fielded questions from rows and rows of reporters. He didn’t mind. Whatever your opinion of Sherman, it’s clear he enjoys the attention.

Some professional athletes live for the spotlight off the field as much as – or even more than – on the field. Other players are more reserved when they are not playing, when they can see the cameras recording them. And then other players are Marshawn Lynch.

The Seahawks’ star running back is known for his tough running style and gobbling of Skittles on the field, but off it, he shies away from the cameras. Lynch has always been very introverted around media, and was fined by the league toward the end of the season for evading media availability all year. The league later revoked the fine, with the caveat that it would be restored and doubled if Lynch skipped another media obligation.

In a room with 2,000 credentialed members of the media, Lynch did not have nor want his own podium. He stayed wrapped up in his hoodie and shades and stood to the side. Pro Football Hall of Famer and NFL Network commentator Deion Sanders persuaded him to do a one-on-one, which lasted all of two minutes and revealed almost no information. As the interviewer, Sanders did a lot of the talking, not unlike during his playing career. It was a juxtaposition to behold: Sanders, legendary for talking the talk just as much as he walked the walk, and Lynch, who would not be able to pass Professional Speaking at DeSales.

Surprisingly, the interview produced the most quotable quote of this year’s Media Day. Sanders asked, “You camera shy? You just don’t want to talk, really?”

Lynch: “I’m just about that action, boss.”

Sanders ended the interview by telling Lynch he was proud of him, but the Hall of Famer was in the minority. The Pro Football Writers of America issued a statement expressing they were “extremely disappointed in the lack of meaningful access” to Lynch on Tuesday, but the league continues to hold that Lynch fulfilled his requirement to participate, and that there would be no fines at this time.

From my amateur news writing experience, I understand that journalists are always looking for a story. But when a player like Sherman can’t stop talking, the media tear him to pieces, and when a player like Lynch wants to maintain a low profile when cameras get in his face, the media gives him the same treatment. Sport television pundits enjoy charging loud players to let their game do the talking for them (from the safety of a remote TV set), but the only person willing to accept Lynch’s “I’m just about that action, boss” is the one and only Deion Sanders. It’s irony-ception.

Come on, I’m allowed one bad pun per two thousand words.

During the Broncos’ session, I took pictures and posted on social media like mad, caught up in the grandeur of it all. Shortly after the Seahawks took the floor, my Twitter machine died from overuse, so I took the chance to sit back from participating and just observe. Dad had lost his earbuds somewhere between Lowry and lunch, so we were presently sharing mine, one for each of us. I forget who we were listening to and it doesn’t matter. Every time I looked at him, he had the same look of glowing contentment on his face. Not giddiness, not awe. He was simply happy where he was in that moment, and so was I. I wouldn’t have wanted to go on this adventure with anyone else than the man who instilled in me my passion for football.

To extend that idea, it not been for him, I’m not sure I’d have figured out what I want to do in life yet. But being able to unite my two passions, sport and the written word – I’ve known that was it for almost ten years now. I wasn’t impressed with everything I saw and heard at Super Bowl Media Day, but being there confirmed my career goals nonetheless. The experience was far more valuable for me than one day’s worth of the four classes I had skipped to attend.

I was looking over the floor one more time after the Seahawks left, watching writers, cameramen, Mozart and Waldo intermingle, knowing I’d be down there someday. From behind, I heard Dad tell me to turn around and smile for a picture. He took a shot of me with NFL Network host Rich Eisen in the background.

When he showed me it, all we could do was exchange grins. We were ready to start back to Newark Penn Station and head home.

Photo by Gerry Zielonka

Photo by Gerry Zielonka

******

To read the Minstrel’s further coverage of Super Bowl XLVIII, check out the latest print issue or read it online at theminstreldsu.com.

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