The Fall of Brent Musburger
By N.H.B. Chapman
Two decades ago, Brent Musburger stood atop the TV sports world. With a contract paying him $2 million a year, he was king of his domain, CBS Sports. He was the voice of the NBA when Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers battled it out with Larry Bird's Celtics in the halcyon days of the professional league at its finest. He was the man on NFL Today, good looking, charismatic and exciting with his time-tested delivery.
But like all success stories, he encountered a bump in the road and ever since that supreme locomotive has never been the same.
Now 67, one is tempted to explain away his virtual invisibility from the big stage as gradual retirement, but Musburger has been in the backseat for nearly 16 years now. Backseat, because since his firing by CBS Sports during the early morning hours of April Fool's Day in 1990, the major assignments in which he reveled have been denied him by ABC Sports, the network that hired him after CBS cut him.
Musburger's firing is an interesting story. He seemed convinced that he was the victim of a cabal. One report had it that in the 1990s a new regime had taken over and considered Musburger as too dominant a force in the network. Mention was made of his added duties of play-by-play for Major League Baseball.
For Musburger's part, he zeroed in on two men in particular, Neal Pilson, president of CBS Sports, and Ted Shaker, executive producer. Musburger was particularly infuriated and stunned by what he believed was Shaker's involvement in his firing, because of their long relationship. According to one source, Musburger said he regretted being instrumental in rescuing Shaker from the basement of CBS. Ironically, Shaker was also felled by Pilson's sword. Two years after Musburger was let go, Pilson replaced Shaker with Rick Gentile.
Of note during Musburger's contract years with ABC, Al Michaels, the top man there, could have been accused of overexposure, the very thing people hung on the former CBS top man. Like Musburger, Michaels did everything.
But certain figures get special treatment by media critics, especially in New York. I remember sometime in the late eighties, the New York Post TV critic Phil Mushnick raising hell about Musburger's inadequacy as a golf play-by-play man for one of the majors that year. He had a point because CBS had the young former University of Houston golf star Jim Nantz as part of their team covering that event and he would have been the ideal choice. Fast-forward to 2006 and I haven't heard a word out of Mushnick about Michael's sub-par efforts as ABC's lead play-by-play man for the NBA, before he had to surrender duties to Mike Breen following his defection to NBC Sports. And talk about greedy, Michaels was trying to eat his cake and still have it. He failed in his bid to let ABC allow him to see through the season of NBA coverage before switching networks.
Which brings me to another media darling, Marv Albert.
This is a guy, apparently, that can do no wrong.
I watched him do an Al Michaels and get away with it. He did Wimbledon, although having no clue at all, and got away with it. I always got the impression that Mushnick's constant persecution of Musburger was tied up with Albert's inability to dominate on the level of a Musburger, especially when it came to the NBA. When NBC got the NBA from CBS during the '90s, Albert, a long-time employee of NBC, at last got his wish. I haven't read or heard a word of criticism of Albert during more than a decade of that network's coverage of the NBA.
But perhaps the Albert sex scandal serves as the classic example of the protected media favorite.
In 1977, Albert was the center of a lurid and embarrassing sex scandal which threatened to end his career and put him behind bars. He had been accused of throwing his former girlfriend, Vanessa Perhach, on a bed in a Virginia hotel room in February of that year, biting her on the back more than a dozen times and forcing her to perform oral sex. Four days into the trial he pled guilty to misdemeanor assault charges as part of a plea bargain which resulted in a generous one-year probation and mandatory counseling. The plea bargain saved him from a prison sentence of five years to life.
Hours after he pled guilty, NBC fired him, ending a 20-year relationship. Hours later he resigned from the Madison Square Garden network where he had called Knicks games for 30 years.
Ten months later MSG said all is forgiven, welcome back!
"We consider Marv part of the family, and loyalty is important to us," crowed Dave Checketts, president of MSG. He said bringing Albert back was a business decision, and he had checked with MSG sponsors and shareholders to see what objections they would have, and they even spoke to Albert's therapist to see if he was ready. Apparently, it took Albert only 10 months to get over his problem.
Seven months later Turner Broadcasting came calling, and Albert was on TNT doing NBA games. It didn't take long for NBC to join the line of suitors. Exactly 21 months after they had fired Albert, NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol announced to the Associated Press that Albert will be his network's voice of the NBA for the 2000-01 season.
All through his reincarnation, Phil Mushnick and those that lived on Musburger's hide for decades, never raised a voice of objection or outrage.
I've been trying to find out if Musburger had been the subject of any indiscretions or scandals of the Albert kind. I found none that approached the scandal. In fact, I'd bet that had he been guilty of such he wouldn't have been seen or heard from again. Brent's brushes with scandal amounted to a fist-fight with the NFL Today betting analyst Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder in a Manhattan bar in late 1980; and being pulled over by cops in Lincoln, Nebraska, on September 20, 2005, for drinking beer from an open can of Budweiser in his car after a football game between Nebraska and Pittsburgh.
ESPN's Chris Berman summed up Musburger's reign at the top best when he listed his three goals on graduation from college:
"One -- Get on TV by age 25; I made at 24 when ESPN got me on overnights ...
"Two -- Announce San Francisco Giants games, which I've done for ESPN ...
"Three -- Be Brent."
"What red-blooded American didn't want to be Brent Musburger? He was Madonna, recognizable by first name. So groovy they parodied him on Saturday Night Live. He anchored/announced every sports spectacular on the No.1-rated network, in particular The NFL Today on CCCCBSSSS."
The Musburger situation has been a troubling one for quite a while, and it reached a point of outrage when ABC got the NBA from NBC and they passed over one of the premier voices in the history of the sport for an Al Michaels, who mercifully left for NBC. So much for Michael's loyalty to the network that made him, and accommodated his every whim and fancy.
My advice to Musburger is, if you don't need the money, quit with whatever shred of dignity you still have