by Alan Grant
August 23, 02012
Brett Favre deserves at least a share of the credit—an assist, a half a sack, or maybe even a full one. In January of 2002, with the Packers safely ahead of the Giants, Favre audibled to “belly weak.” He rolled out to Strahan’s side and fell at Strahan’s feet. This allowed Michael Strahan to set the single season sack record of 22 1/2.
By doing this, Favre broke a few rules, broke a code about how records should be attained. And he pissed off some people, too, like his Packers teammates and Warren Sapp, who was offended that such a sacred achievement was clouded in shame.
But Sapp didn’t seem too upset when he danced with the stars. And every Sunday, while seated in between Howie Long and Jimmy Johnson, Strahan is always in good spirits. It’s a refreshing change when large black men are afforded the opportunity to express themselves without yelling and screaming, don’t you think?
This fall, when Michael Strahan makes his way onto the set, flashes that gap- toothed grin and eases into the chair next to America’s favorite cherub, the underlying narrative will have nothing to do with athleticism or anger. To make significant change you have to break the rules. There’s no way around this.
There were once rules that governed social entanglements involving black men and white women. Actually those rules were usually called taboos and they were applied to romantic entanglements—even scripted ones.
In 1967, when Nancy Sinatra leaned in and allowed Sammy Davis Jr. to give her a friendly buss on the cheek, it garnered a few gasps. This took place on a variety special called “Movin’ With Nancy.” Prior to that moment, no black man had come within a boot heel’s length of a white woman’s person, at least not with the camera rolling.
Later that year when Captain James T. Kirk planted one on Lt. Uhura, the black female member of his crew, it also drew a few gasps. Years later, Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, recalled a conversation she had with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. Nichols had noticed the subject matter was getting more and more avant-garde. “I know what you’re doing,” said Nichols. “You’re writing morality plays.” Roddenberry responded by saying, “Shhh, the network hasn’t figured it out yet.”
In the early eighties it didn’t take long for either the network or the audience for the Today Show to determine that Bryant Gumbel had good chemistry with Jane Pauley, and even better chemistry with Katie Couric.
The Couric/Gumbel team was dynamic. Couric was so delightfully fresh and so deliciously petite, you could stick her in your lapel and pass her off as a carnation. Gumbel was more complicated. If NBC were to use a black anchor, they needed someone “safe.” Gumbel was certainly that, and more.
Legendary writer and music critic, Stanley Crouch says that “when white folks see a dark skinned black man, they see something aboriginal. But when they see a light skinned black man, they see themselves.” In Gumbel, America could see itself, and even hear itself, in a non-threatening nasally timbre.
Gumbel and Couric played beautifully off one another. Their seamless banter made the Today Show the king of morning television—a reign it enjoyed until recently. Gumbel and Couric were pioneers in a way. And like all pioneers their efforts weren’t really appreciated until after they were gone. Neither of them are dead, mind you, but their tenure at the Today Show seems the stuff of ancient history.
Our blatant disregard for history may have proven a boon for Strahan. In 2006, in Strahan’s first publicized tangle with a diminutive blonde, there was no clever banter.
After a Giants loss, Strahan questioned Giants receiver Plaxico Burress’ effort. In the days that followed, Espn reporter Kelly Naqi interviewed Strahan’s teammates about the mood in the locker room following Strahan’s comments.
When Strahan got wind of this, he stood at the pressroom podium and summoned Naqi. It was one of the more memorable, and bizarre showdowns in recent memory.
“Come here, I want to see your face when you ask this question,” said Strahan. “….Look a man in the eye before you try to kill him or make up something.”
I remember watching and thinking: “Don’t do it, Michael. They’ll kill you for this.”
As it stands, the rulebook was tossed aside that day. Strahan may have done himself a favor by treating Naqi the way he did. He tried to intimidate Naqi with his full withering glare. Naqi stood her ground and lived to fight another day, many days in fact. It’s what happened in the aftermath, or what didn’t happen, that brings us to today. Naqi’s superiors failed to paint Strahan as the big menacing brute, and for her part Naqi eschewed the label of delicate, white flower.
Naqi deserves at least half a sack.
So maybe Strahan’s appointment isn’t about race at all. Maybe it’s all about a radical departure from the past—not the distant past, but the most recent past.
Michael Strahan is a very large man and Regis Philbin is a very small one. While Regis is famously friends with television titan David Letterman, Strahan road trips with “every guy” Jay Glazer. Regis is a tightly wound coil of New York energy while Strahan is a relaxed, country cool.
This is about extremes. We speak in extremes these days. In fact it’s the most common language spoken and understood by the American consumer.
In extreme times, there are no hard and fast rules, I guess. You just make them up as you go.
Alan Grant was a four-year starter and all-conference player for Stanford University. He played five years in the National Football League with the Indianapolis Colts, San Francisco Forty Niners, Cincinnati Bengals, and Washington Redskins. He has written for ESPN the Magazine and The Postgame, and appears frequently on radio and television.