There’s a well-known adage that sports should stay out of politics, and politics should stay out of sports. But in the age of Trump, that clearly hasn’t been the case. The president has pointedly lashed out at NFL players who have kneeled or protested during the national anthem, and he’s tweeted that basketball star Steph Curry had been disinvited from the White House to commemorate the Golden State Warriors’ championship.
Still, sports is sports, and there’s often enough drama as it is—like Boston Celtic forward Gordon Hayward’s horrific-looking season-ending injury and former quarterback Tony Romo’s amazing play-calling for CBS. Nick Greene has been covering all the on-the-field and off-the-court antics in the NBA and NFL this season for Slate, and he talks to Chau Tu in this edition of the S+ Extra podcast, which is exclusive to Slate Plus members.
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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Chau Tu: Let’s start with the NFL. We’ve heard all about Trump versus the kneeling players, and the person who started this movement, of course, was Colin Kaepernick. Can you tell me a little bit more about what’s going on with him right now?
Nick Greene: He, about a week and a half ago, filed a grievance, him and his lawyer, with the NFL owners saying that they colluded against him to prevent his employment which is against the collective bargaining agreement. Currently, there’s a report that came out two days ago saying that it is headed toward the discovery stage now. I’m not a legal expert, but they are collecting text message conversations, emails. I’m not sure how total the collection will be, but Kaepernick and his lawyer are looking for any texts between team owners basically saying, talking about him and his prospects as a quarterback.
There’s a good piece on Slate by Jeremy Stahl about how even Trump is going to get wrangled into this because he has frequent conversations with many NFL team owners. If he kind of was running his mouth and pushing them around or really kind of sticking his nose in this, that might come up and even help Kaepernick in his legal efforts.
I mean Trump kind of made this into a kind of bigger thing than it was.
So unlike him. [Laughs.]
He made it kind of personal, right?
There were more than 200 players who sat, knelt, or raised their fists during the national anthem in the second week of the season which is right after Trump made these comments. What has happened since then?
The first week of the season there was only a handful of players who did these demonstrations during the performance of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” but after Trump made those comments and essentially called players sons of bitches and personally attacked them, it kind of brought more players together. Since then, Mike Pence attended an Indianapolis Colts game in a clearly staged political stunt and left after the opposing San Francisco 49ers—some of them knelt during the anthem, which they’ve been doing since the start of the season [and] since last season, so it was no surprise.
It was this really embarrassing expensive stunt where basically it was kind of hypocritical and ironic and everything else because for all the criticism against the players. A common refrain you hear is that they’re making this about themselves rather than the flag or the anthem; here, you have the vice president doing a very choreographed “look at me” stunt at a football game. It’s kind of all devolved into a real crazy opera of sorts.
Yeah, because there was the tweet that came out basically right after Pence left the stadium, right?
Yeah. It was one of those tweets where you have too many words for the actual tweet so you have to kind of make an image macro and get into Photoshop and do all that. Astonishingly, he had that ready to go, so I don’t think he was taken by surprise. He wasn’t so offended and a volcano of emotion when he saw the players kneel that he had to storm out. This was something that who knows how long it took them to plan this one.
But I feel bad for the fans who have to go through additional security just so Pence can walk in and stand there for two minutes and then leave. That’s really annoying.
Politics aside, this is still sports, so there’s still a lot of drama going on just on the field as it is. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you think about this season so far?
This season, it’s been interesting. It’s been wide open so far. There are a few really, really terrible teams which seems to be the case every year. The forgotten class of the NFL are really standout and seems to get larger every year. The Browns and the Colts and the 49ers, they’re all really offensively terrible. But there are some good things going on.
Tony Romo, who is former Dallas Cowboys quarterback, is announcing games with Jim Nance on CBS. He’s great. He’s so good. He kind of makes you realize that this was a job you can actually have someone who is interesting and passionate and smart participate in it because we’re so used to these color commentary guys being cheesy or kind of performatively macho but never really telling you the interesting ins and outs of the game.
Football is too complicated. It’s the most complicated sport. They change rules every year. It’s full of kind of little slang and terminology that it’s impossible to keep up with. Romo is really, really good at slowly breaking it all down, telling you the difference between a nickel defense and a cover two and why that matters. He is genuinely excited for the plays. The fact that he’s only been doing this for six weeks now and is already clearly the best is pretty cool.
Are the ratings down for NFL? There’s obviously been a lot of controversy [around the league] just in general.
Yeah. The ratings seem to be falling. They were falling last year as well, and no one knows why. There’s like a scientific field now of people studying NFL ratings to see what’s happening. Some blame the anthem protests. Others blame cord-cutting. There are seemingly infinite amount of possible reasons for it, but the fact remains that the ratings are slipping. They’re slipping, but they’re clearly the most watched sport in the country, still.
There’s always a ton of games going on, especially on Sundays. How do you keep up with everything going on?
Yeah, it’s difficult. There’s a channel called RedZone, which basically goes between every game that’s happening simultaneously and takes you to the most intriguing part of whatever game is currently in the red zone—where it gets its name—in the end zone. I rely on that a lot, and I’ll have that on my computer and the local game or a single game on my TV and basically just trying to keep up with everything and following Twitter. I never get to watch more than a couple games at a time, which I think is probably good because I don’t think my brain could process all that. But Sundays are busy. They’re very busy.
And you also recently wrote a story talking about some of the camera work that was going on in this one specific NFL game, right?
Yeah. On Sunday, the New England Patriots played the Atlanta Falcons in Foxborough, Massachusetts. It was a rematch of the Super Bowl. During the game, this incredibly dense blanket of fog just took over the stadium. It looked so eerie you thought Jack the Ripper was going to pop out. It was becoming increasingly difficult for the NBC cameras to pick up the action. Players were disappearing into the mist.
For Sunday Night Football, NBC uses something called the Skycam, which has been around for a little over 15 years. It’s this remote-controlled camera on wires that is stationed behind the quarterback. It keeps track of the play and kind of flies around the field and follows them. They had two last night and the closest one was 12 feet from the ground. It was below the fog cover. Basically for the first time in their history, they had to rely on this camera for the wide shots, for the live play-by-play shots. Usually it’s the camera up in the stands that gives the side view, but this view, which is kind of common, it’s the video game football view; it’s when you’re playing Madden, it’s the same thing you see.
They had to use this for the entire second half which was pretty cool, actually. People on Twitter and online were saying how much they loved it. It’s a kind of eerie, almost ghostly look at the game like you’re hovering above them, but it looks great. I got to talk to the executive producer of Sunday Night Football, and he talked about their decision and how they went about doing that.
This camera is incredibly complicated. It requires two people to operate: one person who does the zoom, the tilt, the focus like a normal camera and the other person who flies it around like a drone pilot. They have to be in concert and kind of doing everything perfectly in sync for it to work. They usually use it for replays, and that way you can kind of pick and choose which ones look good and which ones look bad. On Sunday, they had to do it for the entire game. It was pretty impressive. The crew who did it clearly did an amazing job because every shot looked pretty good.
It was like a true gametime decision, right?
Yeah. I mean it was later than that. The producer was saying it was a beautiful sunny day all day and then the second the game started, just this eerie fog descended. He was saying that they don’t plan on making that the standard view because you can’t clean the lens when raindrops get it on. You have to bring it down during commercial breaks and it’s difficult, but because so many people loved it and it got such a positive reaction, he’s considering using it more for live action. That’s something to look forward to for the next couple of weeks and beyond.
You’re also covering the NBA for Slate. There was already a big thing that happened in one of the first games, which was between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics—there was this huge injury. Do you think you can set this up: Who was this person? What happened?
Yeah, this was six minutes into the season. The Boston Celtics, who are the second-best team in the Eastern Conference behind the Cavs, had this offseason sign, Gordon Hayward, who’s a very talented small forward. He used to play for Utah. He’s really good. He’s a definite improvement for them; he’s an all-star.
Six minutes into the first game of the season on TNT, he went up for an alley oop and, when he came down, landed very awkwardly on his leg. His ankle essentially just snapped in two. It was a dislocated ankle and a broken tibia. [Ed. note: It’s a fractured tibia.] It was a gruesome injury that, upon replay, you could see his foot basically at a 90-degree angle to his ankle. It was gruesome.
I remember looking at some of the reaction shots from people in the crowd and players on the bench just seeing that happen.
Yeah. I had the game on, [but] I wasn’t paying super close attention to it. I was probably checking Twitter or something, and I looked back up and I saw players kneeling on the court, guys with their heads in their hands, walking away. The crowd, it sounded like a TV or movie courtroom scene with a shocking verdict—thousands of conversations and worried statements all being uttered at once. Clearly, something awful had happened. The commentator, Kevin Harlan, immediately started almost yelling, saying “He broke his leg. He broke his leg. Oh my gosh. Oh my gosh.”
It seems like there’s actually been a few recent cringeworthy horrible injuries that we can remember recently, right?
Yeah. In 2013, Kevin Ware, who was a player for Louisville in the NCAA tournament, had a similar injury where his shin snapped and poked through his leg which was really, really just a cruel awful injury. It was made even worse by the fact this is a college kid who isn’t getting paid for this and really had his career and much of his life kind of tossed aside by this one freak injury that he experienced in front of millions and millions of people on TV. The replay is much like the Hayward replay, although I would have to say much worse.
For this article, unfortunately I had to revisit all these terrible injuries. That one was just terrible. There’s been a couple in football. Willis McGahee in 2000 in the National Championship game had a terrible knee injury like that as well.
These things, because they’re so many camera angles—and we were talking about Skycam and whatnot—there are no kind of ambiguous injuries like that anymore. They get every single shot possible. They don’t replay them over and over again for obvious reasons, but nowadays those get immediately loaded to Twitter and kind of fly around. Even if you didn’t know who Gordon Hayward was, didn’t know that the NBA was having its season opening game, you likely have seen his ankle scrambled within his sock.
I think the images and the videos can even catch you off guard because it’ll be on Twitter or other types of social media.
I mean, it’s traumatic. You look at the players who are playing with him who had to kind of sit in stunned silence. I was at Warriors’ practice the day afterwards, and Shaun Livingston—who had a very famous and traumatic injury, a similar one when he was a young player, I think, in 2007 so 10 years ago—he was saying he couldn’t watch the Hayward injury, that it was just too much for him and sent him his best and sent a tweet out on him. As someone who has suffered himself, he kind of knows the shock and trauma of it all. He was very clear that he had no plans to ever look at the video of Gordon Hayward’s injury.
It’s just too traumatic, I’m sure. Gordon Hayward was one of the big players that got picked up in offseason, but there were lots of moves just in kind of response to the Golden State Warriors and making their mega team last year and winning with it. What do you think were some of the biggest trades that happened this season, biggest offseason moves?
It was pretty frenetic and frantic, which is kind of to the NBA’s benefit. I’m sure the commissioner, Adam Silver, is loving it because even when they’re in the doldrums of summer, they’re still making huge waves and always on the front page of ESPN and whatnot.
The Celtics also got Kyrie Irving—the Cleveland Cavaliers, their rival’s point guard—through a trade because he didn’t want to play with LeBron anymore. He didn’t want to play in Cleveland and kind of facilitated his own trade. So they sent a bunch of pieces back and forth.
The Minnesota Timberwolves got Jimmy Butler, a really great player from Chicago. Chicago’s kind of intent on blowing up its team. They wanted to lose to get better draft picks and so they sent away their all-star, a terrific two-way player. He’s on a Timberwolves team, who has a lot of great young talent and are trying to kind of be the sparky upstarts in the Western Conference. Chris Paul, who is a Clippers point guard, is now on the Houston Rockets. He’s hurt as well. He’s going to miss a month or two, I think, with a knee injury.
But all these kind of big moves or teams positioning themselves—not to beat the Warriors, more like hope something goes wrong with the Warriors and be able to sneak in and capitalize on it. Because even though they’ve had a slow start, Golden State, they’re still heads and shoulders above everyone else.
Is it just because they have amazing players like Kevin Durant and Steph Curry?
That’s pretty much it. It’s not too complicated. I mean you ask Steve Kerr, their coach, about it and he’ll say, when you have guys like that, it’s not too hard to coach them. They have Kevin Durant, who’s a top two player in the league; Steph Curry, the best shooter the league’s ever had; Draymond Green, the most versatile talented defender in the league. They play kind of free and loose and pass the ball a lot. They’re constructed in a way that is a puzzle to figure out how anyone can even keep up with them. As I said, they have lost a few games to start the season, but I think that’s more a result of them maybe having a pretty good time during the off season and celebrating their championship rather than anything to be actually worried about.
Do you think they’re going to meet up with the Cavaliers again in the finals?
That’s a good question. The Cavs look different, but it’s hard to discount LeBron James. I think that’s pretty much what’s going to happen. I think Charles Barkley recently said—it’s funny. I’ll paraphrase it. He said, “I have to sit around and pretend for six, seven months that it’s just not going to be Warriors-Cavs again which it probably is going to be.” If it’s not, it means something terrible has happened to either one of those teams, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to be that one more time which will make it the fourth year in a row.
Anything else you’re looking forward to in these sport seasons?
I’m looking for the NBA season to kind of develop and go on more. It’s so early and it’s already proving to be pretty intriguing, but there are some really great players that are coming into their own. Giannis Antetokounmpo, a great player on the Milwaukee Bucks, is probably the most exciting player in the league. He’s been playing incredibly these early games. If you ever see them on the schedule and if they’re in your town and the Bucks are coming, that’s definitely worth buying a ticket to see. He’s just too much fun.
That’s about it. Keeping track on the Kaepernick stuff. As I said, I don’t know really the timeline for this discovery, but it’s bound to get interesting as it develops.