With COVID-19 keeping fans out of the stands, many organizations turned to streaming to capture sporting events. One challenge, especially for high school events, is lack of control. (Photo by Joe Prior / Visionhaus / Getty Images)
PHOENIX – Just as athletes and fans had to navigate a new sports standard, so do announcers and play-by-play employees. And if there is a live microphone there is also a window that can be used to expose unprofessional and unethical behavior.
The advent of COVID-19 increased the popularity of live streaming sporting events, especially at the high school level. The talent that the competition exudes varies in experience, often with little control.
That reality became clear in March when a play-by-play announcer calling a girls basketball game in Norman, Oklahoma, made racially offensive comments on athletes kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice.
“Are you kneeling? (Expletively) them, ”said Matt Rowan. “I hope Norman gets a kick in the ass … (Expletive) (bow).”
Rowan, the announcer, is a former youth pastor and owner and operator of the streaming service OSPN. He was hired by Oklahoma’s governing body for athletics, the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association, to broadcast the game on the popular NFHS network.
He later blamed his diabetes in part for his tirade, saying it caused a sugar spike. He was then released.
The clip was recorded and posted on social media, sparking immediate backlash nationally, including in Arizona, where high school sports teams are increasingly using contract workers to call games while they are broadcast live during the pandemic.
“I condemn all hate speech. Period, ”said Mickey Dale, a California-based broadcaster that has been calling high school games in the Southwest for decades. “Anytime you’re near a microphone, keep it professional all the time. You never know when a microphone would be open. What he said was terrible and has no place in society. “
The NFHS network, the nation’s largest high school streaming platform, saw streaming events increase 44.6% in the 2020/21 school year, Forbes reported, and overall views increased 134.2%.
Seth Polansky, sports information coordinator for the Arizona Interscholastic Association, said comments like Rowan’s high school athletes do a disservice.
“Why would you want to broadcast a game when there can be such underlying prejudice?” Polansky said. “If you know this is happening to you (spikes of sugar causing inappropriate comments) why should you put yourself in a position where this could happen?” I have diabetics in my family and none of them have spoken racist slurs when spiked. “
Ron Rubio, a sports broadcaster who calls high school games in California and Arizona for Valley Sports Network, recorded the incident personally because Rowan had apologized for being diabetic.
“Two words come to mind when I heard his apology: cowardly and delusional,” said Rubio. “You should know better than to say things like that. And the reason he (Rowan) said such a thing is because he actually has these feelings about certain races and that’s absolutely wrong. He shouldn’t sit behind the microphone for long. “
Rubio said his mother was also diabetic and had never said a racial cheat if her sugar went up.
“My mom is acting more like a 16-year-old teenager than a racist like him (Rowan),” said Rubio.
In addition to broadcasting, Rubio is also a high school soccer coach and had thoughts about how he would have handled the situation if the announcer had told one of his players.
“Coaches forgive but they never forget,” said Rubio. “If this announcer had said something against my players, I wouldn’t want him to be associated with my players at all because these players are like my children. I see them as my family, and if you say such a thing against my family, I never want you with them again. “
Following the incident, the Norman community posted a video entitled “#ThisIsWhyWeKneel”. In it, teachers, school staff and community members tell the affected girls that they are proud of them and stand by them after Rowan’s insulting comments.
“I will say that I have type 1 diabetes and my sugar spiked during the game,” he said in a statement. “While I don’t apologize for my remarks, it’s not uncommon for my sugar to spike, become disoriented, and often say things that are inappropriate and non-hurtful.”
In a broader sense, these types of comments have occurred not only at the high school level but also at the national level.
In 2020, a hot microphone incident occurred during a game between the Cincinnati Reds and the Kansas City Royals when Reds spokesman Thom Brennaman was overheard with a homophobic bow.
Fox Sports Ohio executives were made aware of the comment and asked to remove Brennaman from the show. Brennaman left the show in the fifth inning but apologized before handing over play-by-play duties to Jim Day.
“I made a comment tonight that I believe was airborne, which I am deeply ashamed of,” Brennaman said. “I want to apologize for the people who sign my paychecks – the Reds, for Fox Sports Ohio, for the people I work with, for everyone I offended here tonight. I can’t tell you how sorry I am. That’s not me. It has never been like this before. And I would like to think that maybe I could have some people … that could help that. I am very, very sorry and ask for forgiveness. “
Brennaman resigned from Fox Sports Ohio and was unemployed behind the mic for some time. Now he’s broadcasting baseball again in Puerto Rico for the Roberto Clemente League.
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