On April 23, 2020, NFL fans got their first glimpse of what might become the new normal when it comes to player and coach interviews. To set the scene, it was NFL Draft night. Outside of the Super Bowl, it’s arguably the biggest night for the NFL and its fans, as hope permeates inside of NFL fan bases and organizations. As the COVID-19 virus forced the NBA, NHL, and NCAA Basketball to cancel or postpone their respective seasons, questions arose on how the NFL would handle its biggest night.
NFL draft night historically involves huge productions, huge crowds, and face-to-face interviews with athletes and the reporters. This year was going to be no different, as the NFL prepared to host the draft in Las Vegas, NV. Draft night 2020 was rumored to be the biggest and the grandest of them all.
For safety and perception, the NFL was forced to alter its plan. For the first time in its history, the NFL Draft went 100% virtual. Many, myself included, had serious doubts on how this would look. I enjoy seeing players backstage, waiting for their names to be called. I enjoy seeing them walk across the stage as their dreams are finally being realized, bear-hugging commissioner Roger Goodell as they pander to the crowd. But most of all, I really enjoy the interviews with NFL reporters, as the players don the team hat and jersey, crying tears of joy. I had zero desire to see a watered-down version of arguably the best night for the NFL.
During the production of the NFL draft, for the first time fans were able to get unbelievable access. Cameras took us inside the homes (and in some cases yachts) of NFL coaches, general managers, and owners. We were able to see them interact with their wives, kids, grandkids, and other love ones. It was a refreshing moment. This kind of in-depth access using technology had set the stage for a different type of access, and ultimately better ways to gain more insight into the minds of the players and coaches of our favorite teams.
Fast forward to present day. We have already begun to see the shift. We’ve started to see a different side of players and coaches who are conducting interviews via virtual video-communication platforms instead of the traditional face-to-face type. Both players and coaches seem to be more open, more engaged, and overall more honest in their interviews. Even the reporters are asking better questions, and seemed to be more willing to push for better answers.
In early June, in light of the civil unrest and protest in the United Sates, defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier conducted a 42-minute virtual interview with the Buffalo Bills’ beat reporters. ESPN reporter Marcel Louis-Jacques asked coach Frazier, “as a Black man in a position of power, what kind of role do you think you have or think you can be for so many of your players that this hits home for?”
Frazier’s response was eloquent, insightful, and clearly thought out. To paraphrase, he talked about taking ownership. Looking inward about what each of us can do to make things better, with the hope of galvanizing individuals to make things better in our society. In the interview he elaborated on many non-football, real-life topics, which are often considered taboo within NFL organizations.
Coach McDermott, who we all know tends to keep things close to the vest and often gives pretty generic answers to tough questions, conducted a virtual interview from his home with NBC Sports Mike Tirico, on his Lunch Talk Live show. Tirico presented some of the same discussion points and questions that were asked of Frazier. Like Frazier, he answered the questions directly and honestly, and looked comfortable doing so as he peered into the camera on his computer in the basement of his home.
Recently, Bills All-Pro defensive back Tre’Davious White and defensive tackle Ed Oliver conducted their own virtual interviews with Bills beat writers. WGR’s Sal Cappacio asked White about his decision to play football this season, as other players decided to opt out due to COVID-19 concerns. Without much prompting, White admitted that he wasn’t sure if he was going to play, in which he went on to give a really honest and introspective reason why. Jon Scott from Spectrum News asked White about his upcoming contract, a subject that usually results in generic answers by players. Instead, White talked about putting himself in a better position to take care of his family long-term and building generational wealth. Providing not just money for his family, but creating jobs for them as well. In the interview, you can tell that White had given both subjects a considerable amount of thought, but also how easily he was willing to share. There was a certain level of honesty and vulnerability that you don’t know normally see from players.
Ed Oliver, was asked by Jon Scott and other Bills reporters about his DWI arrest over the summer. (Charges were eventually dropped and it was revealed he blew a 0.00 on the breath test.) Oliver, like White, went into an unusual amount of detail about the arrest. He talked about being violated and frustrated by the entire process. He talked about taking his own independent blood test after he was released from jail, just in case he needed it to prove his innocence. He discussed how even his own teammates and individuals within the organization didn’t believe that he was being truthful about the events of that evening. He explained how angry he was that the NFL forced him into the drug abuse program, even though he was innocent. Josh Reed from WIVB asked the most surprising and brazen question of the entire 17-minute interview.
“Let’s ask the question that everyone wants to know. Does this play out differently if you were a white guy?”
Oliver’s answer was that he was not sure. He explains how the law works in the county where he was arrested and that anyone can be arrested if there is suspicion of intoxication, regardless if you passed a sobriety test or if alcohol or drugs are found in your system. But he also alluded to the fact that perhaps his race may have been a factor.
For White and Oliver, I’m not sure if we get these type of honest answers if the interview settings were how they were in the past. I’m not sure if Josh Reed asks that question, either.
I can only imagine how difficult it must be for players to answer questions while in the locker room, with nothing on but a towel, and reporters huddled around them with microphones and cameras. I’m sure it’s challenging for reporters to ask questions in this environment as well. Even for seasoned vets who are experienced with giving these type of interviews, I’m sure it must be easier to answer questions in your own comfort zone, in a controlled environment, instead of how we normally see the interviews being conducted.
As we approach the start of real football, it will be interesting to see if we see more virtual interviews, and if the level of honesty and openness will continue to be exhibited.