OpEd: Deion Sanders and ESPN 30 for 30

I recently watched ESPN's 30 for 30 episode featuring Deion "Prime Time" Sanders. Now, I've known who Deion Sanders was as an athlete for many years. Back when Deion was playing both major league baseball and football in the NFL I was a fan of both sports. I had, and still have, cards in my collection of Deion from both sports from those years (and others). I remember some of the controversy around him playing both sports, somewhat akin to the controversy of Bo Jackson who also played both sports in that era, but as the teenager I was back in 1991, I didn't pay attention to a lot of the media press about it. I knew he played both sports. I knew he played in a game for both sports in the same day. I paid attention to the athletic aspect of the endeavor and not so much the media aspect of it because kids don't care about the news.

In the years since "Deion's Double Play", as ESPN called it, I really haven't given it much thought. As Deion started to make a new name for himself as a college football coach, his name came up in the media from time to time and I might reflect on Deion's professional careers in passing but nothing serious. But that started to change at the outset of this year's college football schedule.

Starting the 2023-2024 school year, Deion Sanders was now the head football coach at the University of Colorado, which happens to be where his two sons also play football. Deion's move to a major university as a head coach has stirred up a lot of chatter in the media. Couple that with Coach Sanders and the Colorado Buffaloes starting off 2-0 and it is easy to see why the media is so interested in Deion Sanders again.

And like most sporting events these days, there has been a lot of smack talk both before and after games. Coaches of teams the Buffs are scheduled to play later in the year have made some disparaging comments about Deion's approach to coaching and media interviews. Similarly, in pre-game speeches by coaches of the opposing teams have taken pot shots at Deion and the Buffs, one saying that they were only playing for "clicks" meaning media attention.

Seeing this constant barrage of Deion Sanders on my TV screen, computer monitors, radio talk shows, and more has increased my interest in Deion as a coach but also reminded me more of him as a player from back in the day. This meant that when I turned on my TV and the 30 for 30 episode was about him was on that I put my controller down and watched from start to finish.

And I don't know how much editing ESPN did to each interview so there may be more to this story than the episode eluded to but by the end of the episode I was pissed. But not pissed at Deion Sanders. I was pissed at Tim McCarver and his buddy that did an interview for the ESPN show (his name escapes me though).

For those who didn't watch the show, let me recap a few key points:

  • Deion's contract to play baseball with the Atlanta Braves expired July 31, 1992. After that day, Deion was no longer contractually obligated to play baseball for the Braves and was free to play NFL football for the Atlanta Falcons, to whom he was contractually obligated for the upcoming NFL season.
  • An unofficial closed door agreement was made between Deion and the Braves management that if the Braves made it to the post-season, i.e. play-offs and beyond, that Deion would play baseball with the Braves.
  • This agreement was never written down, never signed, and in no way legally binding. Nor did the verbal agreement between Deion and the Braves stipulate any specific terms of what Deion could or could not do during that MLB play-off duration. Allegedly, the word chosen in the discussion was that Deion would play baseball "full-time" but never was it discussed that it would require Deion to forego any and all commitments to his NFL contract. There was an assumption by all parties involved what the term "full-time" meant but at no point did any party express their interpretation of the term or verify with any other parties involved regarding their interpretations of it.
  • The Braves, the Falcons, and Deion's "team" (manager, publicist, etc.) worked out an understanding that if the Braves made the play-offs that Deion would be allowed the freedom under his NFL contract to participate in the MLB play-offs with the Braves. But similar to the "full-time" assumptions made in the unofficial agreement for Deion to play baseball after his contract with the Braves expired, none of the parties involved discussed or agreed to what, if any, limitations this agreement would have on Deion's ability to participate with the Falcons organization and games during this period.
  • In October of 1992 the Braves had made the play-offs and won enough post-season games to make it to the league conference championship series. The winner of this series would face off with the winner of the other league conference champion in the World Series.
  • Two games in the MLB conference series were played over the same weekend that the Falcons had a game in Miami.
  • Deion chose to play in MLB game on Saturday night, fly to Miami immediately following the conclusion of that game, play the NFL game on Sunday morning, fly back to were the baseball game was being held, and play in the next MLB game that Sunday night. It would have Deion Sanders playing in 3 professional games (2 MLB play-off games and 1 NFL regular season game) within a span of about 20 hours.
  • Braves management was unhappy with his decision but since Deion was not contractually obligated to the Braves knew they couldn't stop him.
  • A former MLB player turned broadcaster named Tim McCarver was calling the MLB games on national television as a network commentator and took it upon himself to slander Deion Sanders throughout the broadcasts for Deion's decision. At no point was it mentioned during the ESPN episode that aired recently that Tim McCarver ever sought to get Deion's thoughts on the subject but seemingly felt obliged to disparage Deion on national television simply because he did not agree with Deion's decision. McCarver even quipped during the broadcast that Deion's actions could be considered a "breach of contract" with the Braves, even though Deion's contact expired on July 31 and this was October.
  • After winning the conference championship and securing the Braves' path to the World Series, Deion, who was upset with McCarver's criticisms, doused the broadcaster with a bucket of ice water while MrCarver was in the Braves' locker room during their post-game celebration. McCarver took offense to Deion's actions and mocked Deion again.

So why does this piss me off?

First off, McCarver had no right to go out on national television and disparage Deion. Regardless of whether or not McCarver agreed with Deion's decision to attempt a historic feat, it did not give him the right to use his position as a sports broadcaster to essentially talk shit about a player on live television. I get it though, McCarver was a dedicated baseball player in his own time and loved the sport but his love for the game should not include trash talking a current player for being an exceptional athlete. Broadcasters can't go on their TV or radio broadcasts and talk about how a player is a piece of human garbage for smacking his wife around but that's the equivalent of what McCarver did with his hurtful comments about Deion being a two sport pro athlete, something McCarver could not claim to be.

If McCarver had just called the decision into question and be like, "Have you heard the news? Deion Sanders has chosen to play in tonight's NLCS game, fly to Miami to play in an NFL game tomorrow morning, and then fly back here to play in tomorrow night's NLCS game. I wonder how that is gonna work out for the Braves and what compelled Deion to make that decision now of all weekends?" And then followed up the events after it was done with an interview of Deion to get Deion's thoughts on the matter then I don't think Deion would have been upset and the whole ice water incident would never have occurred.

Secondly, during the ESPN interview of McCarver's friend, the friend justified McCarver's actions as McCarver was upset and felt that Deion's actions "besmirched" the sport of baseball. And he went on to say. "you can't tell someone else how to feel," as that were ample justification for someone to do something nasty to someone else. "I feel bad therefore I'm going to shoot you and it's okay because that's just how a feel" type sentiment is what I took from that comment and its delivery. In essence, McCarver's feelings on the subject meant that it was okay for him to go on national television and talk smack about a player who was down on the field playing the game and had no knowledge of what was being said about him or opportunity to defend himself against what was being said about him.

But what really got my gears grinding on this one was when that same friend of McCarver's talked about Deion's ice bath on McCarver he referred to it as "assault" and "cowardly". So it is okay for McCarver to be upset with Deion and use his microphone to talk bad about Deion's character to a nation of viewers and listeners but not okay for Deion to be upset with McCarver for talking shit about him and dump a tub of ice water on him while celebrating a major victory with his teammates. Understandably, Deion deliberately targeted McCarver with the tub of ice water because of what McCarver had said on the air about Deion so it certainly wasn't an innocent action in the excitement of the moment but rather a retaliation.

Still, if McCarver's actions are justified by his "feelings" then inherently the same applies to Deion. On top of that, Deion didn't wait until McCarver was unable to see Deion or defend himself against Deion as he did when he opted to talk about Deion on live TV when Deion was completely unaware of what was being said about him. Deion walked right up to McCarver and threw the water in his face. He didn't sucker punch the man. He didn't vandalize McCarver's property. He didn't talk shit behind McCarver's back. He walked up to McCarver who knowingly and willingly put himself in the Braves' locker room with Deion Sanders after publicly mocking Deion on national TV.

McCarver instigated that beef by publicly mocking a player for playing a game, only it wasn't the game McCarver wanted him to play. What's the phrase, "don't mess with the bull or you'll get the horns"? Well, in that scenario Deion was the big bad bull who played 2 professional sports at the same time (a feat very few others have ever accomplished) and McCarver waved that big red cape in Deion's face in the form of his trash talking during a national broadcast. I think McCarver should be considering himself lucky that something worse didn't befall him for his lack of professionalism as a broadcaster and his lack of respect as a former player who should understand and appreciate the dedication and commitment that has to be made to play a single sport at that level much less two sports at that level at the same time.

And thirdly, when later asked about the incident, McCarver went on record to say that it would take a public apology from Deion to quash any hard feelings on the matter. The ESPN 30 for 30 episode left its viewers with the sense that at no time did Tim McCarver accept any responsibility for his part in that fiasco. He apparently sees his derogatory comments about Deion as being fair game in the name of sports journalism while viewing Deion's reaction to his inflammatory comments as childish. Granted, as a parent, I have chastised my kids for retaliating against their siblings over something as simple and as stupid as words but as a grown man you shouldn't think that you can talk trash about another grown man on national television and there not be any consequences. On top of that, some of the comments I heard from that broadcast by McCarver about Deion's "contract" with the Braves only serves to illustrate McCarver's ignorance on the topic. Had he issued an apology in the form of a retraction to say that his understanding of Deion's contract at the time was wrong and that Deion had ZERO contractual obligations to be at either NLCS game that weekend but was still disappointed to see Deion potentially jeopardize his ability to play baseball by also playing football that weekend then I don't think the issue would have been as big as it was then or that I would upset about his 26 year old comments today. But the fact that Tim McCarver seemingly spoke out of his ass about something he knew nothing about on national television and never bothered to find the truth or own up to his mistake after learning the truth would seem to me that he is at least somewhat culpable in the events that unfolded as a direct response to his initial actions and that his refusal to acknowledge his part in those events is as equally "childish" and "cowardly" as Deion's bucket of ice water to McCarver's face.

Deion, on the other hand, has accepted his part in that drama. He even said that perhaps there was a better way to handle the situation but that just like Tim, Deion's actions were a result of his feelings, which apparently should make it okay according to Tim's broadcaster buddy. What's good for the goose is good for the gander, right? If that's the case, Deion should have nothing to apologize for since Tim has nothing to apologize for. While both men were in the wrong for their respective parts, at least Deion has been man enough to own up to the part he played in it whereas McCarver refused to be interviewed for the ESPN episode and went on talk shows at the time of the incident and squarely put all of the fault, blame, and responsibility at Deion's feet and never any at his own. He publicly demanded a public apology from Deion but at no point in his public appearances did he offer a public apology to Deion for the part he played in instigating the whole mess.

But at the end of the day, I both love and loathe that phrase, McCarver got angry with Deion because Deion chose to do something no other human had done before, or since. McCarver thought Deion should have skipped the NFL game to focus on the NLCS games and angrily voiced his thoughts, which included incorrect or false terms and phrases regarding Deion's contractual obligations to the Braves, on the matter to a captive audience without Deion's knowledge and without giving Deion the opportunity to explain or defend his decision. McCarver's disappointment over Deion's choice, as suggested by the ESPN episode, largely stemmed from McCarver's conversation with a member of the Braves' management team who was also unhappy with Deion's decision over their, meaning the Brave's and Deion, mutual misinterpretation of the term "full-time" in their behind-closed-doors, handshake agreement to have Deion play baseball in the post-season. McCarver, sensing a scoop once the media learned of Deion's historic attempt to play two pro sports in the same day, had the wherewithal to talk to the Braves' but not the wherewithal to speak with Deion at any point during the NLCS which lasted multiple games beyond the 2 games played that fateful October weekend.

And before anyone gets upset about the absurdity or arrogance of Deion attempting to play 3 professional games in 20 hours, MLB players play double-header games, i.e. 2 games back to back on the same day, with at least 1 additional game either being played the day before or the day after every season. This means that MLB players can and do play 3 professional games within a 20 hour span as part of their regular season schedule. It is an understood and accepted part of the game. Granted, double headers aren't typically played in the post season but still, such a feat isn't beyond the comprehension or capabilities of these professional athletes. The only thing about Deion doing it is the perceived audacity to play both football and baseball games back-to-back and the fact that it was done during the NLCS games for the Braves. Had Deion attempted this feat during the MLB regular season I don't think it would have blown up to such a grand scale.

But regardless of my opinions on Deion's sense of timing, I think to do that during the NLCS was wildly reckless on Deion's part, it did not then or now justify anyone going on national television while Deion was playing baseball and attempt to assassinate his character by making inflammatory and incorrect statements. I think the fact that McCarver brought a non-existent contract between Deion and the Braves to support his outrage undermined his authority as a sports broadcaster and significantly diminished any outrage he rightfully could have had, which really was none since McCarver wasn't a member of the Braves' organization to which Deion was defying with this decision. I could understand McCarver making comments along the line of "I don't agree with Deion on this" or "If I were Deion, I might have made the choice to do this earlier in the season and perhaps not now in the middle of the NLCS." But that isn't what McCarver chose to do. Like Deion, McCarver's decision was wildly reckless.

And in both cases, the decisions of both men had repercussions. Deion became significantly dehydrated during the game in Miami and required 2 IV bags of saline before he could hop a plane back to the NLCS games. That delay nearly cost him the ability the opportunity to play for the Braves that night and be triumphant in his attempt to be the first pro sports player to play 2 different pro sports games in the same day. His performance in either game is subjective and there have been those who suggested his stats would have been better in one game had he not made the decision to play in the other but in sports players can have good days and bad even when they are devoted to only a single sport so I think its impossible to say what impact, if any, Deion's decision truly had on any of his performances that weekend. For McCarver, his actions resulted in Deion dousing him with a big bucket of ice water as a "friendly", non-threatening, non-violent payback. Furthermore, both men suffered in the aftermath of it all with both of their reputations being somewhat smeared from the fallout of it all. McCarver continued to be a sports broadcaster and Deion continued to be a professional athlete but neither of them were ever able to fully move beyond the events of that now infamous October weekend in 1992.

One person interviewed for the ESPN series seemed to suggest that McCarver is still very angry about being splashed with water some 26 years later. If he is carrying that big of a grudge still after so many years then its doubtful to me that a simple "I'm sorry" from Deion would have put that matter to rest, contrary to McCarver's statements from the time. I mean, I get it. I don't like being splashed with water either but its not like Deion hurt him, damaged his property (this was before smartphones, tablets, iPods, etc.), or said anything in a public setting that could have damaged McCarver's future earnings potential... It takes a big person to admit when they're wrong. Deion publicly accepted his part in those events and expressed remorse during the ESPN episode, which shows he's being a big person and accepting his responsibility in what happened. However to date, it is my understanding that Tim McCarver has only publicly expressed his demands for Deion to apologize to him and has never accepted his responsibility in the events that played out that MLB post-season.

And that, folks, is what pisses me off. Deion didn't have to play in those NLCS games. He was under contract to play for the Falcon, not the Braves. He tried to play for both because he felt both teams needed him but he was torn. If he played for the Braves and not the Falcons he would have felt as if he was abandoning his NFL teammates while if he had skipped those NLCS games then he would felt as if he was abandoning his Braves teammates. It was a lose-lose situation for Deion and he did the one thing he felt he could do to avoid letting either group down and that was to play for both. And rather than understand Deion's predicament and commitment to each team as a former professional player, Tim McCarver lambasted Deion while spouting false claims on national TV and has never acknowledged his error on the subject. The Braves got angry with Deion because they wanted Deion to ignore his NFL obligations but didn't bother to spell out that expectation until Deion expressed his desire to play the game in Miami. Deion was there at the NLCS because he wanted to help the Braves, not because of any contract. Understandably, the Braves' management was unhappy with Deion's choice but they could have embraced that opportunity and handled it better, which might have inspired Tim McCarver to address it in his broadcast differently.

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