At 8:58 AM EST this morning the news of Aaron Hernandez' arrest had blown up my Twitter feed and sent me reaching for the remote control. My instincts, well-trained by years of watching sports on television, were to pop in the numbers 728 and allow some guy named Bram tell me about the arrest and subsequent perp walk on the four-letter network.
I then stopped myself.
NFL Network has to be all over this.
Where is the remote?
There it is.
No that's Golf Channel, idiot. You watch it for nine hours a day. You know that.
Commercial! Commercial!? Now?
The scroll at the bottom of the screen read, "BREAKING NEWS: Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez taken out of his North Attleboro..."
The image above that scroll was Tony Siragusa trying to sell me a pad to stop penile leaking. Or maybe it was anal leaking. All I know is he said leakage a few times and if Tony Siragusa is leaking I don't want to be within three zip codes.
Back to ESPN I went. For only a few minutes, yes. But a pivotal few minutes.
In fairness to NFL Network, when they returned from commercial break after the hour break they did not leave the Aaron Hernandez story for the eight hours. They brought in legal experts and Boston Globe reporters. They brought in Brian Billick to discuss how an organization handles a situation like this, being that Billick was head coach of the Ravens when Ray Lewis took a slap on the knuckles for his role in an Atlanta homicide. (Lewis, now an ESPN employer, was nowhere to be found.) They maintained their focus in a drastic departure from what they had done the previous week.
When the story had broken the previous week, NFL Network was airing their NFL AM program. This is not a good television program. This is one of the television programs I watch and think, "How can the most powerful sports league in the world be responsible for something so horrific?" As one of the league's players was being implicated in a murder plot, they were dissecting the NFL Network's Top 100 list. (Side note: I am sure some people care about this list. I just can't for the life of me understand why.)
ESPN had Hernandez. CNN had Hernandez. Three or four major news sites had Hernandez. NFL Network had Steve Wyche rambling about Jimmy Graham or something. Right position. Wrong guy.
It reminded me of Tiger Woods. On Friday night, after the second round of The Masters, my phone started blowing up as I met with friends at a bar down the street. I, being a rabid Tiger fan, was barraged with texts reading things like "what's going on" and "is he going to get DQ'd" and "fucking Tiger". I ran home, flipped on the Golf Channel to see the scroll. 15th hole. Dropped ball. Rule violation.
Above the scroll? Reruns of a recap show from earlier in the evening. Golf Channel had the golf story of the year to discuss and debate and they were talking about Marc Leishman.
League networks do not have, for the most part, the most important commodity in the world of sports television. They don't have the games and thus don't have the massive advertising revenue that accompanies those game broadcasts. This limits their ability to pay the best broadcasters and reporters in the business to work for them and leads to people like Adam Schefter and Jason LaCanfora using them as a springboard to bigger and more lucrative things.
Sure, NFL Network has the Thursday night package. Golf Channel has a lot of LPGA and Champions Tour but never much worthy action when it comes to the big boy tour. NBA and MLB have channels but neither airs anything of note. (The exception to this is Tennis Channel seeming to be the only network airing non-Grand Slam tournaments.)
It is incumbent upon these networks to do EVERYTHING else and to do so with a thoroughness and detail unavailable to the other outlets for their own credibility. This goes especially for serious news discussion - the element most lacking in the sports world. Since ESPN decided to relegate their news operation to a half-hour of Bob Ley in the middle of the afternoon, no one on television has picked up the news reporting slack. And when I say news I don't mean who signs where and for how much money. I mean the issues that transcend the sports itself.
Let's focus clearly on the NFL. Has NFL Network:
- Given the notion of the Jacksonville Jaguars, their stadium and possible London move serious air time?
- Broken down the economic/political ramifications of a cold weather Super Bowl site?
- Discussed this off-season's trend of one-year contracts and the possibility of collusion amongst ownership?
- Asked why the NFL is so hellbent on safety yet so unable to further HGH testing?
- Gone back and asked individuals who did NOT draft Aaron Hernandez why? They had four days to gather information prior to his arrest. Did they?
I don't expect the network to take down its own sport with a Woodward and Bernstein "follow the money" attack. But I do expect NFL Network, Golf Channel...etc. to lead the reporting when it comes to news stories that both define and transcend their respective sports. If they do no more than touch the surface they are no better than what Dan Patrick refers to "the mothership".
But the opportunity is there for these networks to be journalistic beacon when it comes to the coverage of their own sport. Will they take that opportunity? In the NFL's case, it might actually put some eyes on their channel outside of those few hours on Thursday night in-season.