ESPN announcer Brian Griese provided the color commentary for the network’s broadcast of the Florida Gators’ 29-21 win over the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday, and his call — alongside longtime SportsCenter anchor Steve Levy, who has lately been transitioning into play-by-play for sports other than his longtime beat of hockey, with mixed results — was, to put it mildly, not one roundly applauded by Florida fans.
But while the Levy and Griese booth’s call in general may have seemed slanted or inadequate to some, there was one moment’s turn of phrase by Griese that really stuck in Florida fans’ craw: His commentary on Feleipe Franks, post-injury, in which he said that Franks has “made mistakes on and off the field” in his Florida career.
Whatever mistakes Franks has made on the field — and he’s made plenty, many of them memorable, while also being demonstrative in celebrations in ways that have drawn criticism — are well-known, and obviously fair game for Griese to criticize.
But Franks making “mistakes” “off the field” would be news to most Florida fans and those who have covered him for years, as he’s not been suspended or arrested and is considered a good teammate and leader both by coaches and his own teammates. Conflating Franks getting flack for celebrations with “off the field issues,” the well-known code for misdeeds of personal behavior beyond the field, was at minimum an error of commission, and it was no wonder that those comments spurred calls for Griese to apologize.
In response, Griese issued two tweets on Sunday:
Feel terrible for Feleipe Franks. After the injury, was documenting his journey & the hurdles he’s had to overcome, one of which is dealing with “off the field” noise from doubters. This is what I was referencing. Definitely could have articulated that better.— Brian Griese (@briangriese) September 15, 2019
I’m pulling hard for a speedy recovery for Feleipe and look forward to him being back at full strength and playing ball again ASAP!— Brian Griese (@briangriese) September 15, 2019
Griese is right that he could have articulated that he was mentioning Franks facing “off the field noise from doubters” better — especially because, again, his verbatim quote was that Franks “made mistakes on and off the field.”
But he was also perpetuating a streamlined narrative — if one that, to be fair, Franks himself has propagated — when it comes to Franks facing “adversity” in the form of fans booing him, one that is significantly more complex than could probably be disentangled during a game broadcast, while also using code (“off the field”) that is widely accepted to connote the performance of nefarious acts well beyond anything Franks is alleged to have done.
In a variety of different ways, Griese could have articulated himself better; he could also have attempted to do more than “document (Franks’s) journey” by explaining it on an elementary level. Some of that is on him, some of it is simply attributable to the limitations of a live broadcast, and some of it has to do with greater societal constraints on how we talk about people in the public eye. And it would seem that Griese understands he should do better going forward, though granting him that requires some benefit of the doubt.
What is conspicuously absent from Griese’s tweets, though, is any sort of apology to Franks, whom it now seems that he slandered (if inadvertently and unintentionally) on a widely-viewed ESPN broadcast by presenting a falsehood (“made mistakes ... off the field”) about him, or to the viewing public that he misled in the process.
Feeling terrible for Franks in the wake of a significant injury and pulling hard for Franks to recover is what should be expected — at a bare minimum, really — of a broadcaster whose job depends on players like Franks risking their bodies to produce a product that those broadcasters can then opine on.
Not slandering a subject of one’s coverage should also be a baseline requirement for any reporter or journalist, even in an era when journalism and objectivity are often less related than ever — including at this very blog! Presenting the truth about anything is the core mission of journalism, and not presenting the truth is the cardinal sin for anyone related to a journalistic operation.
Griese did so, however, and still has not apologized for it. And he certainly cannot claim that he did not have enough time to choose his words carefully and articulate his thoughts properly prior to issuing his two-tweet statement.
So Florida — perhaps in the voice of athletic director Scott Stricklin and coach Dan Mullen — should respond in turn, and demand that Griese and ESPN issue an actual apology for his erroneous comments about Franks, that Griese not work another Florida game during the course of his employment by ESPN, or both.
That would be a powerful, useful stand in defense of one of the most prominent student-athletes on Florida’s campus at the moment, and for the ideal of truth-seeking.
And though I have no high hopes that it will happen, it should.