By Leonard Shapiro
Friday, November 20, 2009
Not long after John Riggins retired from football following the 1985 season, I asked a network sports television executive why a colorful, quote machine of a player I'd covered since the day he came to town in 1976 hadn't been signed up immediately by a single broadcasting entity televising pro football. After all, he was smart, telegenic, funny and opinionated, everything and more you'd look for in the booth or in a studio every NFL Sunday.
The short answer, and almost 25 years later I'm paraphrasing here, was that the network suits were scared of a possible runaway Diesel, if only because you never knew what he might say next.
Riggins clearly lived up to that billing during his controversial appearance on Showtime's lively "Inside the NFL" show two weeks ago, describing Redskins owner Daniel Snyder as a "bad guy" whose "heart is dark." Riggins never fully explained precisely what made him draw those conclusions, and has continued to hammer the owner, describing him as a "bully" and a "narcissist" on subsequent appearances on WTOP radio, which now employs him to talk about the Redskins three times a week during the season, with several one-hour "Ask Riggo" specials also part of his deal.
I have no problem with Riggins offering his opinion on Snyder and the Redskins on or off the air. And there are plenty of people out there who probably agree with his harsh depiction of the team's owner, who also owns WTEM, the all-sports radio station that once employed Riggins. WTOP management also has no problem with him either.
"There's a place for news and there's a place for commentary," said Mike McMearty, WTOP's news director. "John has strong opinions and we encourage him to express them."
McMearty added that Riggins is no different than conservative commentator Cal Thomas or political analyst Mark Plotkin, who are both regular WTOP contributors. "That's why they're there," he said.
McMearty said WTOP makes an effort to offer the standard disclaimer that Riggins's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the station. He also said WTOP has sent a letter to the Redskins inviting Snyder and/or Vinny Cerrato, the team's vice president for football operations and a frequent Riggins target, to come on with Riggins. "We have reiterated that invitation to be on our air anytime. They have declined," he said.
Riggins keeps plowing straight ahead, just as he did over his memorable Hall of Fame career as a Redskins running back. One of the most popular athletes in Washington sports history also is zig-zagging in other directions these days, embracing the concept of using new media to spread his words and his images, with remarkable success.
"I'm an old dog learning new tricks," Riggins said this week of his recent adventures using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to get his message out. "It's actually a hell of a lot of fun. It's almost immediate gratification. You put the information out there, and you don't have to wait for any news cycle. If you're looking at the future, this is definitely the way to go."
His business partner these days is Tod Castleberry, a longtime Washington radio executive who also worked for Snyder's Red Zebra radio division as director of operations while Riggins hosted his own talk show on the station.
After Riggins's contract was not renewed by Red Zebra last summer, Castleberry began talks with a number of local and regional media outlets about a new gig for his client. They turned down several offers, he said, because "they just weren't the right fit," but all along the way it became obvious that any deal also likely would have a digital component to it.
"With the season just about to start, we thought we could do some of this new media on our own, so we decided to build on that," Castleberry said. "It's taken off beyond our wildest expectations."
Riggins forays into YouTube, where he appears on a weekly (and unpaid) basis, have drawn the most attention. Over the last month, there have been 240,000 views of Riggins's YouTube productions, including 166,000 alone on one commentary entitled "Riggo says it's time for Linus to lose the blanket."
Sitting outside, dressed in a warm-up suit with a woodpile as a backdrop, Riggins described Cerrato as Snyder's "blanket" and recommended he resign and go work on radio and television, his real "passion." In the same clip, he said Jim Zorn would be far better off coaching high school or in a kids' league, and there have been equally withering attacks on Snyder, Cerrato and the coaching staff ever since.
Riggins offers no apologies, says he's taking nothing back and continues to insist that none of this is in any way personal payback to Snyder after his Red Zebra contract was not renewed. In fact, Riggins said, he was becoming increasingly uncomfortable working there anyway, even if he kept getting extremely positive feedback from station management.
"I look back on it now, and you're kind of in awkward place," Riggins said. "On the one hand, you want to be working. I liked doing what I was doing. On the other hand, working there and how the contract was structured and the affiliation it had with the team, I think you had some fear of speaking out, biting the hand that feeds you so to speak.
"It's a business. As they got further down into it, they were losing money and I was making good money. Then they bought [WTEM] and they had a glut of talent, and somebody had to go. So I felt like it was a business decision. I'm kind of glad it did work out the way it did. You know what they say. Where there's chaos, there's also opportunity."
After speaking with Riggins over the course of several telephone conversations this week, I honestly don't believe his attacks on Snyder have much to do with his contract not being renewed. Riggins once again said he did not want to go into any specific reasons for throwing all those verbal haymakers. But other sources familiar with the situation say this relationship clearly had gone sour a number of years ago, and Riggins is hardly alone among a number of former Redskins players and coaches in their disdain for the current ownership.
"I've said all I want to say about it," Riggins said. "There's nothing left to tell. I can tell you I've had a lot of people in high places in the broadcasting business call and congratulate me for speaking out. So I guess I must be doing something right. . . . That's my role. I'm a critic. I can criticize and I can also give you a pat on the back, too. I'm not just a grumpy old man. This is what I do now."