Feinstein: Covering The Super Bowl Is Awful

John Feinstein is happy he covered the Super Bowl many years ago; he's just as happy he no longer has to

John Feinstein
January 30, 2019 - 11:32 am

USA Today Images


It is Super Bowl week.
Every year, as soon as the conference championship game are played, I am repeatedly asked the same question: “Are you going to the Super Bowl?”
At this point in my life, the answer is—mercifully—no.
Why would I say that? After all, I like football—I’ve written three books on the sport, two on the NFL and the one I enjoyed more than any other, “A Civil War,” which was about the Army-Navy rivalry.
Will I watch the game? Of course. I might even watch the halftime show, although at this moment, I can’t begin to tell you who is performing. I thought Mick Jagger was great and Bruno Mars—much to my surprise—blew me away.
But speaking strictly as a REPORTER, there is no event in sports I would rather NOT cover than the Super Bowl.
Because you can’t really be a reporter at the Super Bowl. To be fair, this has become more and more true at almost all major events in sports. They’ve all become mega-big and the chance to get one-on-one time with participants has dwindled considerably.
In college basketball and in golf, I’m fortunate because I’ve been around so long I often have long-standing relationships with those involved. At the Final Four, I can usually grab a coach after he’s finished a press conference and get a few minutes alone with him in the hallway or in a corner of his locker room. At the major golf tournaments, I can—sometimes—find players in the locker room who are willing to talk for a few minutes.
But even there, access has become more and more restricted. At the PGA Championship, media can no longer walk onto the range and at the U.S. Open. We’re supposed to stand behind a rope unless "invited" by a player to talk. Fortunately, I can usually find players who will "invite" me.
But the Super Bowl? Are you kidding? It’s a little bit like covering the White House (any White House, not just this one): you’re little more than a glorified stenographer. I’m sure for football reporters who have been around the sport the way I’ve been around college hoops and golf, there are ways to get a moment or two with assistant coaches or non-star players.
But one-on-one this week with Bill Belichick or Tom Brady—even for five minutes? Forget it. Sean McVay or Jared Goff? Doubt it.
I can tell you firsthand, both as a real reporter and as a radio talk show host, what it’s like to go to the Super Bowl. As a reporter, you collect your credentials—after supplying 43 forms of ID and submitting to a blood test, drug-testing and extensive vetting on whether you’ve ever said anything bad about Roger Goodell, Paul Tagliabue or Pete Rozelle—and then you sit through one press conference after another.
There aren’t just press conferences for players and coaches—those are the ones held at the stadium where credentialed reporters often interview other credentialed reporters: “Hey MTV person, who are you trying to interview?”
There are also press conferences for the halftime entertainment, the national anthem singer, new NFL corporate "partners," the commissioner—who this year may have to actually answer a question about the NFC championship game—and, finally, the Hall of Fame announcement, which has become almost as drawn out as the nominating speeches at political conventions.
There’s one sentence that every reporter cherishes at these glorified infomercials: “And in conclusion.”
(That line always reminds me of Bill Clinton’s nominating speech for Michael Dukakis in 1988, which dragged on so long the only line that drew a cheer was "and in conclusion." I knew at that moment the guy had no future in national politics. This insight explains why I’ve stuck to writing about sports).
As bad as being a print reporter is at the Super Bowl, hosting a radio show is worse—far worse.
“Radio Row,” as it is called, is usually housed in a massive room that is filled to overflowing from dawn until dusk—and beyond—every day of the week. When I first walked into the room in the New Orleans Convention Center during Super Bowl week in 2013, I was reminded of something John Tudor, the talented but remarkably unpleasant St. Louis Cardinals pitcher said during the 1985 World Series.
Looking around the clubhouse and at reporters surrounded him after he had pitched a four-hit shutout in Game 4 of the Series, Tudor said: “What does it take to get in here, a driver’s license?”
On Radio Row at the Super Bowl, a clipboard will usually get the job done. The room is overrun by PR people stalking the room with clipboards on which they keep schedules for the "celebrities" they are lining up interviews for.
Every single person in the world who is selling ANYTHING shows up on Radio Row.
Basically, if you want to get anyone on your air during the week, you have to let them promote their product—whatever it may be. Which means, in essence, you’re paying the person for an interview. All of which goes against all my instincts as a reporter: you don’t pay for interviews.
Before I arrived in New Orleans, I was told in no uncertain terms by my bosses at CBS Sports Radio that I would be interviewing people who were selling product. Their reasoning was simple: “If you don’t, you won’t have any guests.”
Sadly, they were right.
I rationalized the situation by telling my partner, Andrew Bogusch, that he would take the "product" questions. “So Dick (Vermeil), tell us about the wines you’re making these days?”…”Andy (Roddick), we’re dying to hear about the new internet site you’re involved with.”
My least favorite interview was with Doug Flutie—someone I would normally have loved having on the show. Flutie had a fascinating career: Heisman Trophy winner at Boston College; author of one of the great miracle plays in college football history; forced to play in the CFL for years largely because of his (5-foot-9) height and then finally having success in the NFL.
Flutie’s bright and articulate, a good story-teller. Except that the interview was painful—literally. Flutie was promoting a knee brace, telling people how much it had helped him as a player and now as a retired player.
This was in New York, the second year I hosted from Radio Row during a Super Bowl.
Bogusch had the press release explaining why this was the greatest knee brace in his hands, ready to go. Flutie sat next to me and, about three questions in, began snapping the knee brace at me—smacking me in the shoulder—to let me know he wanted to talk about it.
I held up a hand and pointed at Bogusch to indicate he’d be asking those hard-hitting questions in a couple of minutes. Flutie continued snapping, maneuvering the brace so the wood part of it began bouncing off my shoulder.
I looked at him. He looked at me. The thought of simply thanking him for coming on without ever mentioning the brace and going to break crossed my mind. Bogusch, who had worked with me for more than a year by then, clearly read my thoughts. He shook his head as if to say, "Don’t do it."
I nodded, pointed at him and then, without looking at Flutie, took off the headset and walked away. Bogusch told me later that Flutie never asked why I’d left. He didn’t care as long as he got to talk about the knee brace.
There were also the PR people who would offer you someone and then, when they got a better deal, either tried to reschedule or cut the interview short. Often, I’d see PR people hand-signalling me to end an interview because their guy had someplace else to go. I would then (of course) extend the interview, even if I had nothing left I really wanted to ask the guy.
When CBS cancelled the show at the end of 2014 my very first thought was this: I don’t have to go to the Super Bowl!
And so, when people ask me this week—as they will, early and often—if I’m going to Atlanta, I will happily tell them no. I will spend this week going to college basketball games where I will have access to the players and the coaches and an excellent seat from which to watch the games
On Sunday evening, I will watch the Super Bowl from the comfort of my home, and when it is over, I will turn off the TV and go to bed. I won’t have to sit in a press conference or get bounced around a jam-packed locker room by guys wielding cameras. Or deal with a packed airport—or long drive—the next day.
I’m very glad I had the chance to cover the Super Bowl—actually cover it as a reporter—many years ago. I am just as glad to not be covering it anymore.
John Feinstein’s most recent non-fiction book, “Quarterback—Inside The Most Important Position in the Natoinal Football League,” is currently a New York Times bestseller. His latest work of fiction, “The Prodigy,” tells the story of a 17-year-old with a chance to win the Masters, who must deal with agents, apparel and club reps and his own father, all of whom want to turn him into a human ATM machine. John’s website is: JFeinsteinbooks.com