The Thinking Voice of the NFL: A Conversation with Mike Carlson
"If I was doing the same thing in the States, I’d probably be getting lot more criticism, not only from the fans but also from the people themselves."
For the hundred of thousands of the sport’s fans in the UK, Mike Carlson is the voice of the NFL. Since 1998 he’s been the studio analyst for Channel Five’s coverage of the League, and in that time he’s redefined the role of sports TV presenter.
Covering the NFL’s Sunday and Monday night games live; broadcasts don’t begin until well after 1AM. Ad breaks are few and far between, and that combination of broadcast slot and the sheer length of time available have given Carlson the opportunity to speak his mind.
The one time tight end from Wesleyan University certain knows his football, and he’s not afraid to veer away from the game unfolding in front of him. Filling his conversation with references to music, film and literature, Carlson is unafraid to crack jokes and wear his liberal sensibilities on his sleeve. Saints running back Reggie Bush is always “The Bush you can support”. Any back leaping over the goal line is “High, but not in the Ricky Williams sense”. The open wide receiver “couldn’t be more alone if he was a poodle in Michael Vick's living room”, or similar, the topical simile changing with every highlight clip.
He’s a funny guy and superb at describing the nuances of the game, but what separates Carlson from his sports broadcast contemporaries is that he’s unafraid to treat his audience as intelligent people. The BBC has called on his services too, placing Carlson alongside Hall of Fame players Rod Woodson and Jerry Rice for the channel’s rare NFL broadcasts (the Super Bowl and this year’s regular season game at Wembley Stadium). We discussed the changing nature of sports broadcasting and the NFL over a drink in a London pub.
Do you get feedback from viewers about the kind of off-football comment that comes up all the time? Last week you started discussing the socialist nature of the NFL and how the USA becomes a socialist country to support its corporations, but not its citizens.
The Channel Five audience is a fairly committed one, or are late-night viewers looking for something to attract their attention. The BBC is looking at is as a sports casual audience. I wouldn’t do that on the BBC. If we were on Five at eight in the evening I don’t know if we could do it. The one thing we got negative feedback on, and it got very serious, was when Rush Limbaugh got caught making the Donovan McNabb quote (about the black quarterback receiving undue praise because of his skin colour - RC], which became a huge issue in the States.
We discussed it on the show, and for the next couple of weeks during the highlights pieces, and there were about seven or eight black starting quarterbacks in the league at that time, every time we finished a highlight where a black quarterback had been in the game when the slide with the statistics came up I’d say something like, ‘Dante Culpepper threw for 338 yards and three touchdowns, but he’s only starting because the media wants black quarterbacks to succeed’. And I’d say that five or six times during the show. It was obviously ironic.
One American lawyer turned on the TV, heard this and called saying that’s there’s a racist presenting the show. All the producers went to bat for me, but they did say 'don’t do anything like that again.' That’s still in the back of my mind. It’s so easy to offend one person.
That’s what you get for treating the audience as intelligent people. That seems to be a rarity in sports broadcasting.
It’s not that they’re unintelligent people, but you narrow the broadcast down to the sport itself and the quest now is to become more informative, which means more statistics and more replays and more technology.
When I came to Britain I knew more about the minutiae of the NFL and Major League Baseball than almost anyone else in the country. Now the team-specific fans in the UK probably know more about the day-to-day of that team than I do. I don’t want to give them info. that they already know. I want to grab the parts of the game that jump out at me that the American coverage doesn’t do.
We can tell when Madden and Michaels are having a good day because I’ll tell the guys to hold a play, and then Madden will replay the same play and talk about it. If that happens, we have more time to talk about other things and entertain.
Isn’t that what they’ve tried to do in the US with Tony Kornheiser and Dennis Miller? It didn’t really work that well.
In a sense, they’re trying to do what we do on Five, but they can’t do it to a big enough extent to make it work. You can’t have a designated comedy guy in the booth, because if you’re not doing comedy you don’t have a place.
Both Tony and Dennis had to trot out statistics for credibility. And you could tell they were being set up. Kornheiser does some great stuff on PTI because he’s doing what he should be doing, which is opinion.
Which British sports broadcasters do you like?
I used to listen to a lot of cricket. Henry Blofeld in his day was very funny. What we do on Five is much more like cricket or baseball commentary, especially on Sunday night, when we assume the audience has the time to be distracted from the game. That’s a luxury the Americans don’t have, or people doing soccer coverage here don’t have.
How have you seen the NFL change in the years you’ve been in the sports business? I’ve seen a lot of documentaries recently about the NFL stretching back to the '60s, and it strikes me that players from previous generations seem to have a lot more personality. Listening to players from the '70s they seemed to be smoking and drinking and screwing like rabbits. I guess they’re just better trained to deal with the media now.
Unless you’re Plaxico Burress.
That’s it. The characters used to be hell-raisers. Now they’re just idiots.
When I was a kid, football players were regular guys. And they weren’t that much bigger than regular guys. In the early '60s they often worked in the off-season.
The cult of the celebrity football player probably begins with Joe Namath in the late '60s, but it doesn’t take hold until ESPN comes on in the mid-'80s and turns it into a 24-7 business. That broke down the barriers of covering the sport and covering the business and lifestyle around it. Beat writers stopped reporting on players in the traditional way as heroes and started covering their injuries and their lives.
The other thing about the TV is the money is huge now and football players, like sportsmen everywhere, are no longer sportsmen. They’re entertainers and get paid like entertainers. But it’s the sport itself that draws the audience.
That’s something that’s echoed on the soccer coverage here. Every week we’re told you can’t miss the game because it’s going to be such a colossal clash.
I used to laugh at their promos. It was like, ‘Leicester City really would quite like to win this week, and Derby County would quite value a win as well’. Now their model is the Americans and the Australians. The Australians are famous for tribalising sports and trying to attract their audience by appealing to the tribal mentality. They’ve tried to do the same thing here.
Having been around the NFL for many years, do you find it's a very conservative environment?
By and large, yes. To get where sports stars are, they have to work very, very hard. But at the same time, virtually all guys at that level are in the elite of the top half of one percent in human beings, anyway.
A guy like Roger Clements thinks he’s gotten where he is because he’s worked really hard, but he wouldn’t have come close to being in the Major Leagues if he didn’t have all that natural ability to begin with. I don’t say this in the slightest to belittle what these guys have had to do, but they are in a physical elite already. But they all believe they’re there because they’ve worked harder than everybody else. So they do tend to be guys who believe that individual effort will be rewarded.
I could have worked as hard as Wes Welker, and I would never have come close to the NFL. I should have worked harder – I’m not that kind of guy.
I distinctly remember listening to Magic Johnson say that his hard work proves that anyone can do it. Give me a break; he’s six foot nine!
Loads of people buy into it. Schools and colleges are full of kids who don’t study because they all think they'll be stars and pros, and working damned hard at it. But the real stars are usually a product of both unusual physical abilities and unusually hard work.
With guys who are making a lot of money because of their own hard work, it’s hard to persuade any of them to look to the collective social well-being. Loads of NFL guys work really hard for charities, not because teams tell them to – although they do – but a lot of them come from very poor backgrounds and they give a lot back.
I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about political orientation. A lot of NFL guys worked for Obama, not because of his politics but because of what he stood for. As we’re realising, the symbolism of Obama is a lot greater than the actual political impact of Obama.
You wear your liberalism on your sleeve.
I try not to make a huge deal of it, but it’s inescapable every now and again. And being an American in the UK, there’s a sense that you want people to remember, especially in the last eight years, that there is another America out there.
America is not defined by the War on Terror. Not everybody’s jumped on the same boat. The majority of Americans didn’t vote for George Bush in the first place. To an extent being an ex-pat makes me more sensitive to criticism and perceptions of Americans. There is a lot to be said for the friendliness of Americans and their willingness to help people.
I’ve been out of America for 33 years and it makes you both more critical of it and more defensive of it. When I go back I feel like an outsider now. I really enjoy it for a couple of weeks and after that I feel like I’m not responsible for it.
When was the golden age of the NFL for you?
Probably from the 1958 Championship game between the Colts and the Giants to the NFL-AFL merger. Both leagues were really exciting and the AFL had very exciting football.
This might be a stretch, but that conflict between the two Leagues – the conservative NFL and the expansive, experimental AFL -- almost represented America during the 1960.
You can always argue that the games reflect the society. Don Delillo has a great novel called End Zone, which basically argues that we’re in the Vietnam War because we play American football.
I’ve got Underworld sitting by my bed with a bookmark about ten pages in. It’s so huge its daunting.
If you look at a good American football coach, the equivalent you’re looking at is Dwight Eisenhower or George Marshall or Omar Bradley – one of these generals who succeeds because he’s incredibly well organised and because he can get people to do things. If Montgomery was a football coach he’d be Mike Martz – great ideas but doesn’t know how to get people to execute them. Bill Walsh was more like Rommel.
You can probably break football coaches down into whether they’re Patton or the head of the CIA. The game now is more technical than ever. The coach is in communication with the quarterback, and now the defence is, as well. There are instant pictures coming down from the cameras upstairs.
I was reading a column recently that asked when they’ll put a chip in the ball.
That will come. Americans always think that any problem is solvable by technology. And you also have the technology of steroids, which have made the players immensely huge. Remember The Hogs in the '80s? None of those guys would be big enough to play in the NFL today.
Is that steroids use or kids getting encouraged to get bigger at an earlier age?
It’s both. But it was steroids that propelled this size revolution. They are cracking down on it now. I don’t think there’s any way around it, and I don’t think there’s any way around the 340-pound offensive lineman. Brandon Jacobs weighs 265 pounds and there isn’t much fat on him. And I’ve seen his whole body naked!
You have to be careful, when you’re the analyst, of how you criticise. I have the freedom to poke fun at people, and I try to do it in a good-natured way. If I was doing the same thing in the States, I’d probably be getting lot more criticism, not only from the fans but also from the people themselves.
When Tom Coughlin was coaching at Jacksonville I used to watch as his face got redder and say that his head was about to explode. There’s a freedom I have over here that I wouldn’t have in the States. When I do go over there and do interviews I’m much more straightforward. We try to relax and ask off the wall questions. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
Sports media here is so football/soccer dominated.
I watch soccer, but I go crazy when people say ‘the sport you Americans call soccer’. A – it’s an English word, and B – no one ever says it’s the sport Australians call soccer. In 1994 I was producing a host feed for the World Cup in Chicago. A guy comes from BBC radio to interview me because the groundskeeper at Soldier Field was going to cut the grass in circles.
How can you do this? he says to me.
It’s really easy, I said. You go clockwise, then you go anti-clockwise and pretty soon you’ve got circles.
No, no, he says. I mean won’t the players get dizzy?
Only the ones who are 30 feet tall.
But isn’t this just symptomatic of awarding the World Cup to the one country in the world where football isn’t the number one sport?
Have you ever been to Ireland, I say?
He looks at me and says, What?
Football isn’t the number one sport in Ireland. It’s not the number one sport in New Zealand or Australia or Pakistan or India. It’s not the number one sport in Japan or Canada or Cuba or Lithuania or Israel. Shall I go on?
The guy just looked at me and I said, This isn’t going to make it on air, is it?
It was great. Nice guy and no false modesty about him. He knows he’s the greatest receiver of all time. He’s not overbearing about it, but he’s not falsely modest about it.
We mentioned that Terrell Owens had gone second on the list for all-time touchdown catches, but he still has about 70 to go to catch Rice. He’s got huge hands. I have big hands but Jerry Rice’s hands are about half as big again as mine. He can hold a football in his hand and it looks like he's holding a mobile phone.
It was great working with Rod Woodson at the Super Bowl, too. Rod pitched himself perfectly to our audience without having to be instructed. He wasn’t leaping into really technical stuff or really obvious stuff. He forgot to wear his Super Bowl ring, and his wedding ring. My wife thought I was running around New Orleans, so it gave me a chance to hold my hand up and say ‘Look honey, I’ve got mine’.