Opinion: CBS has responsibility to set a progressive tone with its Super Bowl 55 coverage

Jarrett Bell

TAMPA, Fla. — As he prepared to oversee the production of another big event — the primo Super Bowl 55 showdown headlined by Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes — Harold Bryant took a moment to reflect back a few months.

CBS Sports, poised to broadcast a record 21st Super Bowl on Sunday, had the distinction in June of airing the first live major sporting event during the pandemic with its coverage of the PGA Tour’s Colonial tournament, now known as the Charles Schwab Challenge. Never mind the golf. The defining moment to me was the manner in which the legendary Jim Nantz set the tone with a powerful opening monologue in the aftermath of the heinous George Floyd killing, as protests raged across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nantz spoke about the need for equality, expressed a sensitivity for Black Americans and even quoted Nelson Mandela.

“Jim really spoke from the heart,” Bryant, the executive producer and highest-ranking Black executive at CBS Sports, recalled for USA TODAY Sports. “I know he tapped into friends and colleagues about it. And it was a tremendous job.”

COVID SCARE:Chiefs forced to halt team haircuts after barber's positive test

LEGACY IN THE BALANCE:Antonio Brown wants to fix his legacy, but he needs to look within to start the process

What does that have to do with now? Well, even with a classic football matchup on tap, there’s still angst about a lot of things — weeks after the U.S. Capitol was stormed as a residual of a bitter presidential election defeat, months into the so-called "racial reckoning” in America that escalated after Floyd’s death, nearly a year into the pandemic that has cost more than 400,000 American lives and millions more globally — to put the Super Bowl in context with a bigger picture.

CBS Sports won't ignore social justice issues that were part of the national conversation in 2020.

It’s no wonder that Sean McManus, chairman of CBS Sports, maintained that America “needs the Super Bowl” as he hailed the game’s potential as not only a thrilling competition but also as a “unifying moment” for the nation.

“It’s all about tone,” McManus said during a Zoom conference call last week. “Listen, are we going to get excited if Brady or Mahomes throws a 60-yard touchdown or if Tyreek Hill goes crazy? We’re going to get excited to forget our troubles for awhile. But the tone, I think, is going to be a bit different this year.

"I think the existence of the healthcare workers (the NFL provided 7,500 with tickets to the game at Raymond James Stadium), the overhang of the pandemic, I think it’s all going to make our tone a little bit different. We’re not going to be somber, we’re not going to be depressing. But I think we’re going to put everything in perspective.”

It’s unclear exactly what that means in terms of how Nantz, joined in the booth by analyst Tony Romo, will set the stage for the biggest TV audience of the year, likely in excess of 100 million viewers. Bryant said all elements of the broadcast haven’t been finalized. USA TODAY Sports reached out to CBS Sports, but Nantz was not available to comment. Of course, the flow of the game will dictate much of the content for the better part of the broadcast.

KAEPERNICK MURAL:Colin Kaepernick has presence at Super Bowl 55 after all

THE COMMERCIALS!:Watch all the commercials for Super Bowl 2021 as they are released

Here’s to hoping CBS Sports doesn’t stumble the way Fox Sports did last year, when one-time 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s name wasn’t ever mentioned — as though it were off-limits — even as his former team played against the Chiefs. Shoot, even O.J. Simpson’s name was included on a graphic during the pregame coverage last year. 

“We’re here to entertain and put the game into context,” Bryant said. “People are tuning in to hear the analysis. The game itself, we are there to call a game and tell the story about the game. We’re not going to dive into politics and the other issues, if it’s not relevant to the game. We’re not going to go off on a tangent to bring this into the game.

"The focus is to document this great moment. It’s the greatest quarterback of all-time and possibly the future greatest quarterback of all-time. It’s an incredible matchup.”

Still, this game’s context also includes the presence of four Black coordinators — more than ever in a Super Bowl — against the backdrop of the NFL’s sorry track record for hiring minorities as head coaches. Memo to Nantz and Romo: Don’t ignore or minimize the contributions of Eric Bieniemy, Todd Bowles, Byron Leftwich and Keith Armstrong and their history. No, Steve Spagnuolo or Dave Toub shouldn’t be minimized, either.

Yet it’s not a stretch to suspect that patterns of bias that dismiss the contributions of Black coaches still exist.

“We have to make sure that there’s a proper balance,” said Bryant, who was one of the people Nantz spoke to before that opening monologue for The Colonial coverage.

Whether or not it’s on the air, it’s in the air. Maybe Romo, noted for his Nostradamus vibe that included his November projection of this 55 matchup, can predict which team will someday hire Bieniemy as a head coach.

Bryant, working his eighth Super Bowl for CBS Sports and fifth as executive producer, surely is keen on why such issues are on my radar, and viewers who look like me, particularly as the NFL culminates a season when it has increased its support for social justice causes, in line with more progression in corporate America at large. I mean, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell even declared on video that “Black lives matter.” Of course, that came after several high-profile players, including Mahomes, were featured on a powerful video in the aftermath of the Floyd killing.

During his rise at CBS, Bryant has gained a reputation as a behind-the-scenes champion of equality — not just for people of color, but gender equality, too — that has been reflected in opportunities and programming. During the summer, he was the engine behind a compilation of content that was a “celebration of Black stories” during an extended block of Sunday air time.  

Bryant can also draw from his background. His late father, Harold Sr., attended the March on Washington in 1963; his late mother, Bernice, grew up in Atlanta, where her brother was a friend and Morehouse University classmate of Martin Luther King Jr. 

“I’ve heard the stories,” Bryant said. “They have influenced me … (as) definitely a great foundation that I lean on today. And I’d say more so these past eight months, since the George Floyd killing.”

When he talks about setting the tone for the day, the view is expanded beyond the game. CBS will have seven hours of pregame coverage anchored by The Super Bowl Today. The extended block of programming will allow for a wide range of stories, with the typical Super Bowl history content augmented by serious, real-world topics, such as features on the front-line workers during the pandemic.

The pregame show will also feature commentary from venerable host James Brown that will accompany a piece on the late Kenny Washington, who broke the NFL’s color barrier as a Los Angeles Rams running back in 1946 -- a year before Jackie Robinson’s milestone with the Brooklyn Dodgers.       

“It’s an opportunity to tell these stories, to embrace the moment,” Bryant said. “It is part of the history of the NFL to show the evolution of what’s gone on. So it’s a responsibility and an opportunity. It’s definitely an important part of the story this year, with the league and players embracing Black Lives Matter and social justice reform, acknowledging all of those issues on such a big platform.”

CBS Sports can certainly set a tone with its Super Bowl coverage. And progressively.