Sunday, October 5, 2008

Aikman Moves Up the TV Ranks

I'm the first one to admit that I wasn't a fan of Troy Aikman the football player. Where I grew up, less than a half hour from Washington, D.C., rooting for any member of the hated Cowboys was simply not an option.

I'll also be the first to admit that the day Lavar Arrington sprinted across the Texas Stadium turf and knocked Aikman into La-La Land for the umteenth - and final - time never ranked among my top 1,000 most disappointing moments in sports. And I'll also openly admit that for a long time I couldn't stand to hear Aikman's voice coming through my televeision speakers during an NFL game, particularly a contest involving the Redskins. After all, as someone who experienced the heated Skins-Cowboys rivalry firsthand as a player (an enemy player, no less), Aikman couldn't possibly be objective as a color analyst, could he? He certainly wouldn't give the Redskins a fair shake as far as I was concerned.

Well, I'm also willing to happily admit that Aikman has successfully overcome all of the negative connotations that go along with being a superstar-athlete-turned-broadcaster to become one of the best in the business - at least in my eyes. I'm not sure that I can say the same for Moose Johnston, Keyshawn Johnson, Phil Simms, Chris Collinsworth and some of the others, although I will give them another careful hearing in the near future based on Aikman's emergence.

I've had the pleasure of listening to Aikman as he called the last two Redskins games - last week against the Cowboys and this week vs. the Eagles - and I found him to be articulate, entertaining, affable, insightful and - most important - intelligent and impartial. He handed out more compliments to Jim Zorn, Jason Campbell and Clinton Portis - he actually called Portis one of his favorite players - than you would think possible coming from a former member of Jerry Jones' Cowboy compound. And, on the other hand, he was openly, but not unfairly critical of poor play on the field, poor judgment on the sidelines and the officiating when necessary.

It's hard for me to watch a televised game in any sport without getting angry about the commentating. It's amazing how many former athletes have been handed high-profile television jobs despite the fact that they clearly have difficulty formulating coherent thoughts without a script and rarely say anything insightful. The beauty of having these athletes on the air is that they have been there in the trenches slugging it out and should be able to provide information that 99 percent of the viewing public would never otherwise be able to access.

Unfortunately, the reality is that these athletes are either too ill-prepared on a weekly basis, too inexperienced or too over-coached to provide viewers with any real substance. These former jocks tend to fall into several categores: the flamboyant, flashy former star who is hired because of his reputation and either wants to be controversial or become the next John Madden; the company guy who observes all of the trained commentators and actually overprepares to the point that his real personality never surfaces and everything seems mechanical (this person spends too much time making ridiculous hand gestures and reciting meaningless facts and figures that start to sound like Charlie Brown's teacher after a while); and the nice guy with the good personality who you want to like, but who just never becomes polished (Emmit Smith would fit into this category.)

Most former athletes who try to make the transition strive to become someone they aren't and fail miserably. Or they can't overcome who they are and experience the same results. Aikman has done nothing but be himself, study the game inside and out and throw his inherent biases out the window. He gets technical without being boring; is able to laugh at himself; isn't afraid to call out players, coaches and officials for poor performance or bad jugment when justified; and has let go of his loyalties to Dallas - at least as appropriate when on the air.

In so doing, Aikman has forged an image as a likeable guy. I'm not sure that was the case when he played, since most fans either love or hate members of the Cowboys, and you never got to know who he really was. His personality just never really surfaced, which is why it was somehwat surprising when he decided to pursue a career in broadcasting.

Aikman has learned a lesson that is valualbe to current and former athletes alike: if you work hard at what you do and let your true personality come through, you are going to earn the respect of those around you - on and off the field - and people will gravitate to you. That type of respect and public awareness will lead to opportunities in the community and the business world that never otherwise would have presented themselves.

Although he isn't often mentioned as one of sports' elite color analysts, in my mind Aikman is rapidly moving up that list. In fact, I believe that he should already be near the top. What he has done is build a likeable, professional image that should translate into potentially lucrative opportunities that will allow him to maintain the quality of living to which he has become accustomed. A retired athlete can't ask for more than that.

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