In Defense of Brent Musburger

In the imbroglio over the ABC broadcaster's on-air revelation of a quarterback hand signal, it was USC that overstepped, not Musburger.

More so than in any other sport, the language of football borrows heavily from the language of war. For the most part, today’s references draw from wars past: linebackers blitz, linemen toil in the trenches. But occasionally, contemporary football analysts take a page right out of current events.

In today’s military climate, that means lashing out at the press for reporting on secret information.

Such was the case this week when officials at the University of Southern California (USC) publicly criticized ABC broadcaster Brent Musburger for revealing sensitive information about a top-secret financial monitoring program — er, make that a top-secret quarterback hand signal.

The alleged transgression took place over the weekend during the ABC broadcast of the USC-Nebraska game. In the fourth quarter, Musburger explained how USC quarterback John David Booty was using a particular hand signal to communicate with his wide receivers.

“John David told us that his signal when he finds one-on-one and they’re coming, it’s that ‘hang loose,’ that familiar sign you’ve seen surfers use,” said Musburger.

The Trojans went on to win the game handily. But afterward, USC officials were doing anything but hanging loose.

According to an interesting article on Tuesday by Larry Stewart in the Los Angeles Times, Musburger’s on-air reporting has certain USC officials fuming.

“USC, outraged over play-by-play veteran Brent Musburger’s revealing … what the Trojans contend was privileged information, fired off a complaint Monday to ESPN, which now oversees all sports programming on ABC,” Stewart wrote. “USC sports information director Tim Tessalone, on behalf of the university, sent a formal complaint to ESPN/ABC game producer Bill Bonnell and a copy to the Pacific 10 Conference office in Walnut Creek, Calif.”

The USC officials went on to claim that ABC had gained knowledge of the information during a de facto off-the-record media session. But Musburger explained to the Times the specific context in which ABC had learned about the hand signal.

“We’ve explained to USC that during our pre-game meeting we discussed how we used replays to illustrate a specific signal the week before in the Ohio State-Texas telecast,” said Musburger through a spokesperson. “In that context, we asked if USC has a similar way of communicating and the specific signal was offered.”

In either case, it seems to us that it’s USC that overstepped here. Not Musburger. What the ABC broadcaster did certainly wasn’t “unconscionable” or an “egregious breach of trust,” as USC’s director of sports information asserted. Rather, Musburger was sharing an interesting observation about an important strategic adjustment on the part of USC’s quarterback, which most viewers otherwise probably would have missed.

It’s exactly the type of analysis and reporting that is all too often missing from today’s football coverage, which tends to obsess over off-the-field features about players’ lifestyles at the expense of on-the-field analysis of tactics and strategy. In short, Musburger shouldn’t be lambasted for his reporting. He should be commended for enriching the game for his viewers.

Lashing out at Musburger makes even less sense when you consider that everything that takes place on a football field during a major collegiate game is not only filmed exhaustively but also subsequently pored over by opponents’ analysts and coaches. Typically, the only individuals watching the game who don’t get an opportunity to look over the film at such things as a quarterback’s hand signals are the fans.

In the meantime, the Times has done a nice job of putting the USC flaks’ outrage in context by quoting USC’s decidedly un-outraged offensive coordinator. “It’s not a big deal,” the coordinator told the Times. “I’m sure people would think it would be, but we change our signals a lot. They’re on film anyway.”

Somebody please get that information to the university’s director of sports information, pronto. Preferably before he has another audible seizure.

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.