Following the conclusion of a sporting event, some fans usually choose to congregate outside of the venue with the hopes of snagging a picture or an autograph from their favorite players. One day after a Washington Bullets basketball game, there were many children aiming to greet their heroes. As one of the players emerged from the arena, he noticed a child extending a pen and paper in his direction, hoping for the stationery to be adorned with his coveted signature. Instead, the player knocked both items out of the child’s hand and kept walking to the team bus, an impudent act commentator James Brown watched as it unfolded from afar.
Visibly shaken and despondent, the young fan was suddenly greeted by Hall of Fame forward Wes Unseld, a traditionally affable and benevolent individual. Unseld, who had seen what occurred, sat the child on his knee and provided his autograph and gear while restoring the child’s confidence and morale. As he performed this act of magnanimity, he informed team officials that the team bus, which was sitting idle and preparing to depart, would need to remain as such and wait for as long as it took.
Being in the vicinity of this illustration of proper decorum prompted Brown to make a conscious reaffirmation related to his own self-efficacy and inherent values.
“I said, ‘If I ever am in a position to be an influence on somebody, I would want to be a positive influence like that,’” Brown said. “Again, to be real clear, as a man of faith, I try to do that as well too from a standpoint of unifying and finding the good in people to talk about those things.”
From the beginning of his career, Brown has tried to serve as an exemplary role model for industry professionals and sports fans. He has proven to be an adept commentator both in sports and news media, holding true to journalistic tenets amid a cyclonic content ecosystem, while also giving back to the community. For his work in both respects, Brown will be honored with the Distinguished Service Award from the National Association of Broadcasters, the organization’s highest honor, at Wednesday night’s NAB Marconi Radio Awards.
When Brown was informed that he would be this year’s honoree, he was incredulous and wanted to double-check that the message was not transmitted to him in error. Upon confirmation, he thought back on his journey to reach this point, a winding road of twists and turns that required adaptability, and how a common thread through it all was utilizing his platform for good.
During his formative years in the business, Brown decided to ask a colleague if he would be able to blend philanthropic elements within his platform if he became successful enough. In response, he was informed that he would likely not experience such fortune in his career, an assertion with potential to disquiet and fluster prospective rising stars. Instead of succumbing to the pessimistic melancholy foreboding suppositious failure, Brown adopted the opposite mindset and stayed true to the fundamentals of the craft.
“I felt in my heart it could be the case,” Brown said. “This is validation that it was because I would not have ever thought I would ever have been considered for something like this when I look at the people who have received this award.”
Throughout his career, which has spanned parts of five decades, Brown always possessed a keen interest in penetrating beyond the nuances of the game itself. Yet he never thought he would be on the sidelines covering the action, instead pursuing a career as a professional basketball player. Under the mentorship of Hall-of-Fame high school basketball coach Morgan Wootten, Brown became a two-time high school All-American and received 200 athletic scholarships from universities around the country.
Nonetheless, he chose to attend Harvard University to study government while continuing his career on the hardwood sans bursary. He assumed that the institutional erudition would better position him for long-term success and felt that when it was amalgamated with accolades as a basketball player, he could thrive as an entrepreneur.
Brown was drafted both in the NBA by the Atlanta Hawks but did not end up making the team. As a result, he began working as a sales manager at Xerox and had no thoughts about pursuing media until he was invited to a television show.
While there, Brown informed of a forthcoming opening as a color commentator on Washington Bullets games. After auditioning, he was granted the job for away contests, filling the role of Mike Riordan, and continued his work with Xerox in the process.
Most professionals in sports media are subject to criticism from viewers, colleagues, and competitors alike. With advances in mediated communication, filtering these critiques and cultivating a network of trusted sources can prove fundamental for maintaining stability and confidence. Brown, however, did not run away from these critiques; rather, he utilized them to improve as he continued broadcasting games and occasionally filled in on play-by-play announcing duties. After his first year with the Bullets, he had lunch with William Taaffe, a columnist for The Washington Star, and asked for uncensored, genuine feedback about his commentary.
“He said, ‘JB, you clearly know the game. You just need to eliminate the five-dollar words in your Harvard education and talk to everyday people in simple terms and explain what it is and have fun,’ and he was right,” Brown said. “It harkened back to a lesson my English teacher told me in high school which was essentially, ‘Keep it simple. Explain it in language that everybody could understand.’”
When CBS Sports snatched part of the television rights to the NCAA in a four-year deal with ABC, then-owned by American Broadcasting-Paramount Theatres, worth a collective $264 million, the network was looking for extra announcers. The company reached out to Brown after executives heard him commentate a game and informed him that he would need to expand his skillset if he wanted to work in media on a full-time basis.
While he was a skilled color commentator, CBS Sports executive producer Ted Shaker expressed that the superstar professional athletes would likely fill the analyst roles upon their retirement. As a result, he implored Brown to learn how to work as a play-by-play announcer, reporter, and studio host, and he subsequently gave him opportunities to hone his craft.
Brown had worked as a studio anchor for both WJLA-TV and WDVM-TV while continuing assignments with CBS Sports, including college basketball, NBA, and NFL games. As it pertained to the NFL on CBS, he called matchups with a variety of analysts starting in 1987, including Dan Jiggetts, Gary Fencik, Ken Stabler, and Randy Cross. Having emanated from the analyst role, he always worked with his partners to ensure they would be able to convey their firsthand, esoteric perspectives amid the presentation.
“[I had to] understand it well enough to be able to ask the intelligent questions to capitalize on the expertise that the analysts, being singular or plural with whom I was working, to elicit from them the best in preparing the audience for what they were about to see on TV,” Brown said, “and to watch it knowledgeably so as to, again, ask the right questions to make them shine.”
CBS ceased broadcasts of NFL games after NBC acquired the AFC rights and FOX snagged the NFC rights, transactions that totaled almost $2.5 billion. When FOX Sports acquired the property, the company was looking to establish credibility and signed CBS commentators John Madden, Pat Summerall, and Terry Bradshaw to lucrative contracts.
FOX Sports was originally going to have Bradshaw work as both an analyst and host for its studio coverage with Howie Long and Jimmy Johnson. Network chairman David Hill conceptualized the studio team discussing the game as if they were friends conversing at a sports bar. At the suggestion of division president Ed Goren, Hill hired Brown to host the show without an audition, and he stressed the importance of standing out and being distinct. The program, known as FOX NFL Sunday, would be a blend of information and entertainment, following the mantra of “sugarcoating the education pill.”
“I remember one time we started off our football show, and it was probably a little pedantic; a little bit mundane,” Brown recalled. “[Hill] came out of the control room in a huff and a puff. He stood in front of the desk of the four of us, and he looked at us and he simply said, ‘You’re boring me!,’ and he turned around and went back in the control room. We took it up another notch from that point forward in terms of the energy level and enthusiasm and the frivolity, which separated that broadcast from others, and we were back on track.”
Brown remained with FOX for 11 years, during which he expanded his responsibilities to include hosting NHL studio programming and occasionally filled in on the MLB pregame and postgame shows. In lieu of live game broadcasts, he also added hosting duties for The World’s Funniest!, a comedic reality show that showcased amusing clips for entertainment purposes. Moreover, he contributed to Real Sports on HBO, hosted news magazine program America’s Black Forum, and worked with The Sporting News to host his own radio show.
Brown had previously hosted a three-hour midday show on WTEM since the station’s inception in 1992, but the two sides parted ways as his network television responsibilities amplified. The audio platform kept him fluid in the parlance of other sports while also fostering professional relationships around the industry. Since his show was not solely football-focused, Brown was able to discuss a wide variety of sports and report on human interest stories, affording contextualization of occurrences on the field.
When CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus contacted Brown to see if he would be interested in returning to the network, he asked him to make contributions to the news side of the property as well. While he had a passion for storytelling in both formats, he asked to deliver excellence on the sports side first and would take on a role in news later if needed. As a result, he replaced Greg Gumbel on The NFL Today studio program, commuting to New York City to host the show with studio analysts including Bill Cowher and Boomer Esiason. A few years later, he added Inside the NFL to his slate of responsibilities and hosted the program until its recent move to The CW Network.
“My aim was to pull out of them the best of what they brought to the table and, where possible, to inject a little levity and humor without forcing it to make it extemporaneous so that it showed that we truly were just doing things organically, not trying to force it to copycat what they were doing over at FOX,” Brown said. “If we were journalistically sound, showing that we were a group that genuinely liked each other, and, oh yes, we could still have some fun, but present all of the basic information to set the stage; set the table for the audience to watch that game through the lens of these experts, then we’ve done our job.”
In hosting the studio program, Brown carries an unselfish attitude and recognizes that the show is about the team rather than one person. Although the cast has changed since his debut with the additions of Nate Burleson, Phil Simms, and J.J. Watt, he understands how to position his colleagues to adequately extrapolate their perspectives. There are times when he will eschew the 10-second lead-up to a commercial because he can discern one of the analysts trying to chime into the conversation, focusing on the quality of the discussion more than individual promulgation.
“I will defer to them to get that point in to let them know I’m mindful of this, and we are a team-oriented group, and therefore let me allow them the opportunity to get that significant nugget in, and I may only have three to five seconds to say, ‘We’ll be back with more of the State Farm Postgame Show after this,’” Brown explained. “That is an indication to them that I recognize their value; I’m willing to sacrifice so they can give something that hopefully is going to elevate the broadcast and separate us from the competition.”
Over the course of the game itself, it is up to the studio team to react to the action in real time and adapt as necessary. Outside of a sudden injury or change in status, unexpected news items that emerge before the games largely occur beforehand. Contrarily, all developments occur during the slate of game action once the opening kickoff takes place, requiring everyone to remain nimble and malleable at all times. The studio team regularly provides updates from the other action around the league, something that is partially in the purview of Brown.
“Before I used to do the highlights fully myself because you’ve only got eight to maybe 10 seconds to do that, but a way of keeping them engaged and in tune is to do it with the analyst,” Brown said. “My job then is to put a headline on that highlight that we’re about to shoot in to the various markets – a la the RedZone – to keep everyone abreast of what’s going on…. ‘A record in the making,’ and then boom, we’ll go into a lot with that.”
Prior to CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus retiring from the business in April 2024, the network will present the television broadcast for Super Bowl LVIII, marking the 22nd time it has televised “The Big Game” in its illustrious history. Brown is expected to host pregame coverage of the championship matchup coming off record multiplatform viewership of the game.
Even though the audience will likely be large, his approach will remain consistent in conveying information to the viewer in a genuine manner, highlighting the key storylines of the game without coming off as pompous or imperious. As he goes live in front of a legion of football fans, Brown will heed advice he received from John Madden while play-by-play announcing by making sure that he is duly prepared with a bucket full of information.
“We always wanted to rely on the game itself being competitive and exciting – that’s what the people are tuning in to see; that’s what we got the most fun out of,” Brown explained, “but in a blowout scenario; if the stadium was experiencing some kind of an electrical problem [or] weather-related delays, we had to have as much information as possible to prime the audience for the telecast.”
Brown’s current contract with CBS guarantees a set number of fill-in anchor responsibilities on the CBS Evening News throughout the year, allowing him to make contributions in both genres under the CBS brand. Throughout his second stint with the company, he has also had a chance to present stories for 60 Minutes, 48 Hours, and CBS Sunday Morning among other properties in the news division.
“Whenever we have our news Zooms to go over the stories for the day, etc., they’ll usually start off and ask me, ‘How do you do such and such?,’” Brown said. “Well, I am a substitute anchor there, but my attitude is still always one of, ‘You guys have got a well-oiled ship here. All I want to do is to make sure that I am complementing all of the work that you do by doing my job excellently on the air.’”
Although Brown has not studied the intricacies of the evolving sports media landscape, he feels that some parts of the industry are a microcosm for larger societal issues related to derision. Through his charity endeavors with organizations such as GENYOUth, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, and the Ron & Joy Paul Kidney Center at The George Washington University, Brown aims to bring people closer together and keeps the spirit of congeniality and altruism alive with every broadcast.
“I don’t care how trite it may sound but, ‘A house divided cannot stand,’” Brown said. “We ought to be looking for common ground and that which encourages each other. That is something that I absolutely speak about in the opportunities I’ve been given.”
As Brown prepares to take the stage in New York City on Wednesday night, he harkens back to advice bestowed on him from Morgan Wootten, his high school basketball coach. Before Brown was set to speak before a group of young people, he expressed a sentiment of fear and confusion about what he was going to say. In response, his coach communicated a message with the sanguinity and proficiency that guided his teams towards five national champions and 22 D.C. titles. Providing the assist to his longtime forward both in the game on the hardwood and in the game of life helped shape him into the person he is today, venerated and worthy of this acclaimed industry honor.
“He says, ‘JB, there is no such thing as new fundamentals. Fundamentals are tried and true – they’re basic. You can dress it up, but you make sure that they understand you need to master the fundamentals,’” Brown remembered being told. “Yes, bring your personality to it – don’t try to copy someone else. [It is an] old, tired expression, but it bears repeating, ‘If you try to be somebody else, you’re only going to be the second-best, but you’re going to be the first-best you.’ Be you and deliver it with excellence, remaining focused on the fundamentals.”