They don’t consider themselves traditional media, and don’t necessarily want to be. But they’re at the forefront of its ever-evolving evolution.
Former NFL stars Ryan Clark, Fred Taylor and Channing Crowder – hosts of the rapidly growing and increasingly influential podcast “The Pivot” – bring a new dynamic to a sports media market desperately in need of it.
More frequently than ever, NFL players are being hired – usually at exorbitant salaries – to join networks as analysts and broadcasters immediately after retiring. Tony Romo went straight from the field to the booth and now in the midst of a 10-year, $180 million deal with CBS. Drew Brees, without any evidence he’d match his on-field acumen in front of the camera, signed a deal with NBC, but that partnership is now in flux after just one year, as reported by The Post’s Andrew Marchand, due to Brees’ unconvincing performance. Jason Witten went straight to “Monday Night Football,” but was axed after one season due to an extremely underwhelming reception. Tom Brady, despite still actively playing, signed a reported monster 10-year, $375 million contract to be Fox’s analyst once he retires.
“I know someone that’s better on TV than all of them,” Clark, when prompted with that premise, immediately suggested. Quickly, all three were in agreement: NFL Network’s Nate Burleson. The former 11-year receiver recently, for the second year in a row, won a sports Emmy for Outstanding Sports Personality/Studio Analyst.
But they were also all in agreement on a harsher reality, more at the root of what they hope to change. There was a glaring common denominator among the group.
“They didn’t throw [Burleson] into ‘Monday Night Football’ like they’re doing these quarterbacks,” Crowder said, as the three relaxed in an exclusive hour-long interview with The Post at Brasserie SAINT Marc in the East Village. “And Witten…It’s a race thing or something, Burleson had to grind, and now he’s known. RC [Clark] has to grind, now he’s known. Why do those guys get thrown into this [gestures low], before they had to prove that [gestures high]?”
Clark, who played his first two seasons with the Giants before starring for eight seasons – including starting 14 regular season games and all three playoff games during the team’s 2008 Super Bowl run – with the Steelers amid a 13-year career, had an answer. Currently an NFL analyst for ESPN in addition to the podcast, Clark has seen those decisions firsthand.
“I will say this, position matters. Quarterbacks are more important,” Clark said.” And we always have to remember, and I love all the people that work at ESPN and make these decisions, but these people are also fans. What you know is name, what you know is football accomplishments. The other thing you know is familiarity. The way I do TV, which has now become more common, because people have seen me do it, wasn’t the way people did TV at first. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not there and I’m using slang that people don’t understand. But there’s a million times I tell a joke or I use an analogy and I get a ton of tweets from African American people that say ‘I looked at the other three people on TV with you and nobody knew what the hell you were talking about but it was funny as hell.’ I think that’s different for people.”
The three are adjusting to wearing new hats, now on the other side of the athlete-media paradigm, even if they push back on the idea of having journalistic responsibility or reporting news. As their careers and lives have moved away from the hash marks, and toward this new environment and avenue, what is surrounding them has drastically changed.
“When you look at football fields, or you look at athletics that pertain to a heavy percentage of African Americans, every arena gets whiter and whiter the closer you get to executives,” Clark said. “If you look at a football field, there’s a possibility that at one time, there could be 22 African Americans on the field. That is actually not unfathomable or improbable. Or 20. Or 19. And then you get to the sidelines, and you realize, well, there’s a little more white people on that sideline. The head trainer is white, the head coach is white, the offensive coordinator is white. And then you get into the stands and you’re like ‘Oh wow, this is like really white.’ And then you get to the people that make the decisions, and you realize ‘Oh hell, it’s even whiter than I thought.’ I think the people that consume a lot of those things don’t look like us, don’t think like us, don’t talk like us, don’t feel like us. That’s the battle we get an opportunity to fight on our podcast.”
Their ambition goes far beyond that. Not only do they want to make sports media more representative of the athletes they cover, but “The Pivot” wants to facilitate discourse between different identities, different backgrounds, different points of view and opinions. They want to tackle the most intriguing stories, regardless of comfortability or familiarity.
Amid a wide variety of guests, their list already includes Shaquille O’Neal, Dana White, Antonio Brown, Caitlyn Jenner, Charles Barkley, Ric Flair, Plaxico Burress, and others. Their conversations have been as unique and diverse as the guests, leaving anything they want to talk about on the table. They share vastly different viewpoints and beliefs as some of these guests, they noted, but that doesn’t hinder their quest to bring new – and “enlightening” – conversations to the public stage.
“We’re not afraid to tackle any subject, and when I say subject, the guests,” Taylor, who had seven 1,000+-yard rushing seasons in a 13-year career with the Jaguars and Patriots, said. “Whether it be Caitlyn Jenner, or Shaquille O’Neal, or Michael Beasley, or whoever we had. They see the three of us and say, ‘you’re three black men.’ They think it’s a black podcast, but it’s not. We want to explore and we want to do right by everybody.”
“That’s what’s been super cool about what we’ve done, it’s to give us opportunities to show people that we are diverse, multi-faceted humans,” Clark said. “But for us to learn that about one another.”
To accomplish that exploration all three of them crave, it requires the setting and medium to do it justice. Although they label themselves a podcast, they primarily view themselves as a show, with all episodes, which usually run at least an hour, airing on camera on YouTube. They all occur in person, an emphasis and commitment they made to cultivate the necessary environment.
In being together in person – which requires frequent travel, logistics, and expenses to be with their guests – they’ve created an atmosphere they believe is absent elsewhere.
Before the show, they’ve often already spent time with their guest and gotten to know them on a personal level, providing a sense of familiarity that is absent when a guest logs into a Zoom or FaceTime only when it’s time to shoot, and that camaraderie often continues after the show. Being together allows for more natural reactions – Clark recalled a particularly engaging moment in their episode with Brown, when the controversial wide receiver was “talking pure foolishness,” the camera panned to him and the other hosts, visibly demonstrating their confusion in a way other mediums would not.
They often bond over drinks, Happy Dad hard seltzer being their beverage of choice. They go into each show with a singular question – the first one. Beyond that, they let the conversation breathe, allowing it to move in any direction it takes them.
And it’s working. In their shows, the sense of authenticity is palpable, and even off the air at lunch, their comfortability and easy-going embrace was felt.
“I think just the interactions with humans, the getting together, I’m an old-school, country-type dude,” Crowder, who played his entire six-year career with the Dolphins, said. “So I like the porch setting – sit around, talk trash, drink a beer, hang out, that’s something that I think is kinda lost in the new era, all the texting and tweeting and instagramming and DM-ing and stuff, people want to type, and they don’t want to have face-to-face conversations. So I think just the nostalgia for an older crowd, of seeing a grown-up conversation, sitting around. The reaction, on zoom I know I react differently than when I’m sitting here talking to you face to face, so I just think the dynamic of being in the same room, breaking bread, having a drink, I think that brings a new dynamic and a special dynamic to our podcast.”
Crowder and Taylor previously worked together with Brandon Marshall on the “I Am Athlete” podcast, which Marshall now does himself with SiriusXM. They came together as friends on the show, but the dynamic between them started to change. Despite enjoying early success, the business side endured conflict, and Taylor and Crowder felt as though Marshall was not valuing them fairly from a financial and legal standpoint. The podcast lost that cohesion between hosts, simply going through the motions on episodes.
Eventually, Taylor and Crowder left the show. Not soon after, they got started with their own.
“Number one, and I say this respectfully, we weren’t gonna tolerate disrespect,” Taylor said. “We weren’t gonna tolerate being undervalued, and really that was the determining factor in us leaving, not even knowing if we were gonna do another podcast.”
“It wasn’t even a ‘Let’s go prove to anybody, that we can do this ourselves, or whatever,” Crowder added. “It just started out as ‘Hey man, s– ain’t right. What you gonna do Freddie? What you gonna do Chann?’ And then we ended up pivoting, and we got ‘The Pivot.’ Simple as that.”
“The Pivot” was not complete, however, until they found their “point guard” in Clark, a pairing that happened largely by chance.
Neither Crowder nor Taylor knew Clark on a personal level. But while they were in Florida to shoot an episode, “it worked itself out,” as has become Crowder’s mantra.
“It was an honor, because it wasn’t a space that I was in, and so I think that was huge for me, for them to call me,” Clark said. “And also it lets me know that, no encounter happens by chance, and every day is an interview. I obviously knew of them playing ball, and I met them, but we weren’t friends. I’ll be honest, we weren’t friends. I was down in Florida, doing some training, I met them at a pro day. And then I got a call one day, Dwyane Wade was gonna do their show, but Chad Ochocinco wasn’t gonna be there. I get a call like ‘hey, we want you to come do the show.’ I was busy as hell. The show was popping at the time, I was like ‘you don’t get opportunities like this.’ And I also knew that I wasn’t necessarily, at least in my estimation, a big enough name to be the guest that did the show. And so I was like somebody’s not there, I’ll do it, it’ll be good to be out there. And I thought it would be good for people to not see me in a suit and all those things.
“And we ended up doing like one-and-a-half shows, because Lavonte David pops up. I ain’t gonna lie, I was like a bottle-and-a-half deep on Dwyane Wade’s wine by then. It was excellent. After you have three glasses though, everything is excellent. So we’re doing Lavonte David, and I ended up watching it, and like I forgot I wasn’t an actual part of the crew, because I was drunk. And then I watched it, we just had fun and it was a good time.”
After that, Clark became the permanent third host, and their ever-evolving journey began.