Thom Brennaman uttered an unforgivable word fourteen months ago and he’s suffering the steepest of punishments, the loss of his coveted career.
When it comes to sports voices, be they in the studio or play-by-players, there are no codes or guidelines covering punitive measures, disciplinary action or penalties. Apparently, the only group that sets the rules is the perceived court of public opinion and the compliant bosses who respond on a whim, and hastily so, out of fear.
Through the years, voices have been cited for engaging hookers, drinking and driving, sexual assault, sexual harassment, insensitive racial comments, a fist fight in the booth, a fist fight out of the booth, eating a paper napkin in a restaurant while sitting at a table alone, mimicking an Asian player, arriving in the booth drunk, saying all lives matter, noting that a woman sideliner was dressed in a skimpy outfit, unknowingly expressing a controversial remark on a hot-mic and other offensive nuttiness.
Other than morals clauses that are generally included in most talent contracts, harsh public incidents are rarely judged equally. There’s the PC mob, a gang of cancel-culture activists and those who say little for concerns over repercussions.
May I suggest a little conclave among the bosses who function sub-rosa. How about establishing a table of codes? Perhaps it will save a career or two, instead of jumping to draconian conclusions? More importantly, justice can be served somewhat fairly. Remember the words of NBA commissioner, Adam Silver. Judge people on their body of work.
How about this? Before assuming how the public will react to controversial comments of any sort, be your own decision maker. Ask yourselves what did the culprits say and to whom? Is it the first time? Is a pattern developing? Was a law broken? Many of the names I’m thinking of were let go without even being heard. Sadly, these fired announcers are often never heard from again. All of us have only one reputation which if marred is often impossible to repair. So please don’t run out immediately and stone broadcasters without thinking it through completely.
Unfortunately, announcers who misspoke are thrown into an imaginary dungeon! They’re forced to crawl in darkness 24/7 with no light to end the misery. Verbal transgressions, yes, they can be nasty. Still, decision makers should mull whether the wrongdoer is capable of reform or is he or she incorrigible? America is a country of second chances. Allow voices to get back into their broadcast lanes.
I can understand suspensions, fines, rehabilitative training, therapy and community service. But firings that clearly spell persona non grata? It’s excessive and unfairly harsh.
The inconsistencies of punishment are inexcusable. On the one hand, ESPN’s cavalier, Adrian (Woj) Wojnarowski elbowed his way onto center stage, with no concern for others, and had the audacity to tell a sitting senator through social media, f…you. Gutless ESPN management then responds by giving him a little tap on the wrist, instead of telling him to get his backside out of the building and not to return for six months.
Meanwhile, Brennaman was blackballed instantly and his life turned upside down in a matter of a few seconds. Face it, he was given an unwritten life sentence. No appeals and no parole. The umpires in the clouds issued their verdict and tiptoed back under their black robes. They’ll never be identified.
Thom’s career was destroyed with impunity and through a typical rush to judgment. Imagine. A death sentence for a first-time verbal offender!
Last summer, Brennaman, then a Fox Sports announcer and a likable television Voice of the Reds, wandered out of his baseball lane calling a Cincinnati-Kansas City game. While he was off-air and perhaps more focused filling in his scorecard, he used a rude comment, one hurtful to the LGBTQ community. It was a damning anti-gay slur with a reference to San Francisco. Thom owned up to it immediately.
It wasn’t on-air but hot mics pick up everything these days including chatter during commercial breaks or between games. No excuses, Brennaman badly regrets his remark. He and his family have gone through hell for it.
He’s spent most of the past fourteen months, befriending the gay community in his hometown of Cincinnati. Thom’s gotten to know a gay minister of an Episcopal Church and a gay top executive at Johnson & Johnson. While his friends and community have been supportive, his two high school children have had to deal with it publicly. While his children know they’ve not heard disparaging gay comments at home, you’d hope that the emotional experience might help them strengthen their characters earlier in life.
“I’ve become a board member for a children’s home here in the Cincinnati area that’s utilized primarily for kids thrown out of their homes because they’re gay,” Brennaman told me. “I’ve come to understand their predicaments. Let me make it clear. I’m not doing this to check off any boxes. For over a year, my interaction with the LGBTQ community has made me a better and more understanding person. If there’s a way to right my wrong, I’m doing it and will continue to.”
When’s it enough? Since his remark, Thom’s been fired by the Reds, not renewed by Fox Sports and lost endorsement deals with among others, Kroger. One bad word, after years of near impeccable work and he’s out, like a pariah. Announcers, especially play-by-players often have a limited window. Brennaman, 58, deserves to get back to work but he hasn’t had any offers. He continues to make amends.
In this day of standardized broadcasters, Thom Brennaman’s voice resonates and distinctively so. He’s got a bit of an edge to his broadcasts, much like his beloved dad, Hall of Famer, Marty Brennaman who built a large constituency of fans in the Ohio-Kentucky area. Marty graced the Reds radio booth for 46 years, from 1974-2019. He told it like he saw it.
While he’s known for his baseball, football and basketball nationally on Fox, the younger Brennaman has called baseball locally for the Cubs with Harry Caray, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Reds.
While he suffers in purgatory, Brennaman is keeping busy calling high school football games in Cincinnati with local star Tony Pike. Brennaman says, “He’s an emerging star in our business.” Thom tells me that the fun is back. “I love prepping for games. The enthusiasm equals the great days of working with Troy Aikman in Dallas.” Thom hopes to grow the high school business, expanding the concept of streaming games in neighboring markets like Indianapolis, Cleveland and even beyond.
Thom and I had a chance to talk about this unexpected experience and other matters, both related and unrelated to broadcasting.
First, how are you holding up?
I’m a man of faith, I never get down on myself. I said to myself right away, this will be the start of better things for me. Yes, there are times I wish I was at the ballpark but you can’t agonize over it. If you do, you’re wasting your time.
How are you being treated in your hometown of Cincinnati?
If I’m in the grocery or getting a cup of coffee at the local convenient shop, 99% of those I bump into, I’ll hear, ‘We wish you were back, we miss you!’ Let’s say it’s even 90%. Are execs going to make a decision to appease the 10%? Wouldn’t you listen to the massive 90%?
Moving on, Black representation among play-by-play broadcasters is alarmingly small. Only one of the 15 weekly NFL play-by-players is black. That’s a terrible under-representation. Whose fault is it?
We can all share the blame. There’s a need to build demand at a younger age. We’ve been involved with growing a communication department at our local high school here in the Cincinnati area. Let’s hope that it will attract more minorities into the business.
When I was working football for Fox, I was asked to work with Ron Pitts. The network was expecting new analysts and there was hope to move Ron to play-by-play. He did it for a while. But yes, there’s lots more work to be done so that play-by-play is more minority inclusive .
Football or baseball? Which do you miss more?
Football. I liked the broadcast team with which I worked. I loved Chris Spielman like my own brother.
Before we get into what you’re going through, let’s talk briefly about unrelated broadcast matters. We’ll start with remote broadcasts. You did your share last season before your suspension in August. What are your thoughts?
I didn’t miss not traveling, not an iota. Arriving in towns at 2:30 am, no. MLB does enough to share needed information. In our studio, I had access to clear camera angles. They were sufficient. Sometimes, it was difficult to gauge fly balls but we got accustomed to it.
I’ll say this. I don’t think baseball teams, except a team here or there, will ever go on the road again. Baseball is a business. Traveling is costly. In addition to the on-air teams there are TV trucks and technical crews.
You worked with Harry Caray in Chicago for six years and covered the Reds with your dad, Marty.
Fans loved listening to Harry and my dad, Marty, here in Cincinnati. They had personality and freely expressed their opinions. But they weren’t afraid to be critical of their hometown players. They’d call guys out for not hustling. I believe that they’d have trouble getting hired today. Today, teams want everything so homogenized.
Okay, please tell us about the sequence of events on August 19, 2020.
On the TV pre-game show, when I wasn’t aware that we on the air but when my mic was hot, I made a homophobic remark. Although it wasn’t on-air, the clip made its way to the internet and went viral from there. There’s no defending the word I used in any form or fashion. I’ve owned up to it every second since.
The moment it left my lips, I knew it was over. It was just a matter of time. I anticipated a suspension and lots of backlash.
It was a doubleheader. At the start of the second game, my partner, Chris Welsh, who was monitoring social media told me that it is bad. Then I got texts from friends across the country, asking how I’m doing. They were genuinely concerned for me.
We were broadcasting remotely. The game was in Kansas City. Leaving the studio in Cincinnati, I get a call from Bob Castellini, the owner of the Reds. He said, ‘Look, we know the kind of man you are. We have your back on this. Don’t worry about it. Everything will be okay.’
On my way home, I called my wife and told her that in a few hours Bob’s tenor on this may very well change as he’ll be inundated with the issue and that I would be fired. In a couple hours, I was suspended by the Reds .
How about Fox?
The morning after the incident I got a call from Brad Zager, Fox’ production chief. He tells me that I’ve been suspended. Before you knew it, I lost my Reds and Fox job, and as a spokesperson for Kroger. Everything tumbled into hell as quickly as it possibly can.
I immediately talked with Billy Bean who’s MLB’s Director of Inclusion and Social Responsibility. He offered to assist me and did.
I started a podcast, ‘Dial-in with Thom Brennaman.’ Network talents required the approvals of their bosses to come on the show. I had Urban Meyer, Joe Buck and Bob Costas on the show. Fox and CBS allowed their talent to guest on my podcast.
Who did you think would hire you first, the Reds or Fox?
I actually thought that Fox would be first. I explained to sports head Eric Shanks what I did, how I’ve cultivated relationships, how I’ve grown and more. But when my contract was up, Fox didn’t come through. It was about six months after the incident and Fox had an opportunity to make a statement. I reviewed what I’ve done and my accomplishments. But it didn’t work out.
Grant Napear of the Sacramento Kings got whacked too.
How do you justify it? What did he do? If we live in an environment that BLM matters, don’t all lives matter? That makes you a racist? How ludicrous is that? Napear is one of the great guys in our business.
Anyone special who has gone out of his or her way to be of help?
Let me say that I’ve heard from hundreds of broadcasters. The business is often a close knit family. Bob Costas has been off the charts. I first met Bob when I was seven years old. He broadcast for the Spirits of St. Louis when my dad did the Virginia Squires games of the ABA. Although I’ve met Bob several times since, I can’t say I know him well. But Costas has been amazingly helpful.
He’s told me that the crime doesn’t match the punishment.
When Les Kasper left Cubs television last fall, Bob picked up the phone and recommended me for the job. He gave me the name and phone number of Mike Santini at Marquee Sports and I called him.
Joe Buck has been so supportive, so many team broadcasters have been too.
All I can tell you is that I remain a good father and a good Christian.