No one knows who’ll win the Super Bowl. Or what crazy stunt may take place at halftime. Or whether CBS Sports’s 62 cameras will catch every angle of a game-turning play.
Yet one aspect of Super Bowl XLVII appears a safe bet: The crew that announces and analyzes the game for CBS Sports will be looking patriotic, with shiny lapel pins of the U.S. flag. They’re as intrinsic a part of CBS footballcasts as platitudes about line play and turnover differentials. From studio hosts such as James Brown to commentators such as Bill Cowher and Dan Marino to such in-game announcers as Phil Simms — they all sport the symbol, which is not official CBS policy.
The practice of flying the flag started with Sept. 11, according to CBS Sports spokesman Gerard Caraccioli. That translates into 12 years of lapel-adorning, a distinction that places CBS in a crowd of its own when it comes to on-air displays of patriotism. ESPN, which covers its share of NFL contests, puts a great deal of pin-free announcers before its viewers. “[A]s a company we did not establish a program for our commentators to wear American flags,” notes ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz. NBC Sports, likewise, goes light on pins.
How U.S. news organizations choose to celebrate their homeland is a topic prone to public outrage. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, ABC News enforced an existing policy against on-air talent sporting outward affiliations, even when such affiliations were to Uncle Sam. Said a network spokesman to The Post’s Howard Kurtz at the time, “Especially in a time of national crisis, the most patriotic thing journalists can do is to remain as objective as possible. That does not mean journalists are not patriots. All of us are at a time like this. But we cannot signal how we feel about a cause, even a justified and just cause, through some sort of outward symbol.” Many at the time showed little appreciation that journalistic commitment to neutrality fits with American patriotism.
Spencer Tillman, the lead studio analyst for CBS Sports’s “College Football Today,” has deep thoughts about why he suits up with the flag lapel pins. “I have been immersed in this study of where we are as a nation,” says Tillman, noting that he’s speaking for himself and not the network. “Nations, institutions move from greater concentrations of what makes them great to lesser concentrations,” he argues. “America needs to remain rich and strong in the core values that make it great to begin with.” Tillman, a standout running back at Oklahoma and a star for the San Francisco 49ers, says he has spotted a diminution of American flags in his neighborhood in Texas. “Ever single year, the number of American flags reduces,” he says.
As for wearing the flag for each broadcast, Tillman calls it an “honor.” “From the people that I work with, we have more than symbolism. We have substance about what makes this country great. Everybody on that set are team-oriented. We know what it’s like to be part of something more significant than yourself,” he says.
There’s no questioning Tillman’s commitment to his country, his employer and his colleagues. And his support for the suit-borne pins jibes with what CBS Sports says about the matter. Though the uniformity of pin-wearing among CBS Sports footballers makes the symbols appear to be a matter of corporate policy, Caraccioli says it’s not. “We leave it to the discretion of the individual,” he says.
Have any sportscasters opted out of the pins? “None have,” responds the CBS Sports spokesman. Remarkable: Outwardly patriotic Americans from all kinds of professions — politics, media, sports — scaled back their pin usage in the months and years following Sept. 11, the better to deploy them again for an occasion that demanded another show of force. No one on CBS Sports’s football team felt the same compulsion?
The flag-waving from the studio surely meshes with the flag-waving on the field. The NFL has made a strong move toward branding itself through patriotism. Rich Eisen of the NFL Network said in a segment on military flyovers at NFL games, “It is in this network’s logo and the shield of the National Football League — the colors red, white and blue. And that is not by mistake: Nothing is more patriotic than a big-time National Football League game.”
CBS Sports hasn’t addressed the possibility of ending the lapel pins, says Caraccioli. Perhaps that’s because the network has placed itself in a pickle. What started out as a symbolic gesture in light of a national crisis has ground into a humdrum exercise that attempts to attach patriotic feeling to NFL Week 5. With each display of the pins, a decision to return to normalcy, a decision to preserve the symbolism, becomes harder to make. And just what would the broadcasters do if we suffer another attack like Sept. 11?
The patriotism and good intentions of the people at CBS Sports are matters of longstanding record. They just happen to be confronting a law of physics: Overexposure blunts impact. If these sportscasters are so intent on wearing lapel pins, why not try out the Fox Sports model? Howie, Jimmy, Troy et al. routinely put pins on their lapels — pins that honor charities associated with Fox Sports Supports, a network philanthropic undertaking. This past season, the pins represented the Children’s Organ Transplant Association (COTA).
“It has been a tremendous benefit for us,” says Rick Lofgren, the association’s president. “We’re having conversations with people that otherwise would have walked past us, and they’re saying they saw that pin on the TV last weekend.” COTA’s donations rose last year by 30 percent, to more than $5 million, a “significant part” of which Lofgren attributes to the help of Fox Sports. Patriotism at work.