On Sunday, Steve Czaban once again had permission to ask questions of Redskins types on the postgame show on Comcast SportsNet MidAtlantic. It had been three weeks since those privileges had been revoked by network management.
Czaban got booted out of his air chair for his performance on the Nov. 12 show, just after the Skins’ debacle in Philadelphia. The Skins had shown nothing good in a 27-3 loss, the team’s fourth in five games. Via satellite, from the Comcast studios in Bethesda, Czaban interviewed quarterback Mark Brunell, who was standing outside the Redskins’ locker room in the bowels of Lincoln Financial Field.
A transcript of the exchange, which attained instant-classic status in the burgundy-and-gold universe:
Czaban: “Hey, Mark, do you believe you’re the quarterback for this team next year, 2007?”
Brunell: “That’s certainly not a question for today, and obviously we’ve got a lot of depth, and Jason is very talented as everybody knows. He’s got a strong arm; he’s very athletic; he’s smart; and he’s going to get his opportunity, but that’s not a question for today.”
Czaban: “If eliminated, if you are from the playoffs, would you tell Gibbs, go ahead, play the kid, see what he can do?”
Brunell: “I don’t think I would do that; I’m kind of surprised you’d even ask that.”
Sensing Brunell’s discomfort, Czaban’s co-host that day, former Skins linebacker Ken Harvey, dove in with what he thought would be a lifeline for the quarterback. Instead of easing the interviewee’s pain, however, Harvey compounded it by asking, in effect, if Brunell’s body had given up on him.
Pretty much every Redskins fan had been calling for Brunell’s head for weeks before Czaban’s interview, but it seems the QB hadn’t heard such calls. By the end of his brief Comcast appearance, Brunell looked as if he’d been waterboarded by his interrogators.
Asked about that encounter, Czaban insists he meant no harm to Brunell.
“I was just wanting to probe Brunell: Was it anywhere in his mindset to ask [to be benched],” Czaban says. “I knew it was a long shot he’d admit to anything like that. I mean, this year was supposed to be their Super Bowl run, and here the season was over. I just wanted to see if he had a sense of organizational responsibility beyond himself. He’s the cagey old vet, who, as long as he plays, will delay the chance for the young guy that the franchise had put a ton into. I guess he was offended that I would even ask. Not only was he offended, but he decided, ‘I’m going to make sure that I have something done about it!’”
And something was done. The same sort of something, in fact, that was done to Ashleigh Banfield and Bill Maher and Peter Arnett after those TV types said things that folks in high places didn’t like.
Czaban received a letter from Comcast management informing him he’d been suspended for having “used the platform” of the postgame show “to confuse and embarrass a guest.”
Czaban says he didn’t agree with the punishment and stands by his line of questioning. He also says he does, however, understand Comcast’s decision to make an example out of him.
“I immediately offered to resign,” Czaban says. “I don’t want to be a liability for Comcast, and I told them if they have a relationship to protect—and around here to use Dan Snyder’s marque, and his precious name ‘Redskins,’ you have to have permission from the team, so Comcast has a relationship with the team—and if they didn’t like me, the last thing I’m there to do is to make their life difficult. The whole thing over what is appropriate to ask a player, in what form—is it a group press conference or face to face—well, I don’t know. I don’t know television.”
Radio is Czaban’s main gig. Every weekday morning he hosts both a nationally syndicated show on Fox and The Sports Reporters, a local program on WTEM-AM that he co-hosts with Andy Pollin.
As with all good sports-radio hosts, Czaban has a gift for making listeners love him or hate him. He does his homework, and he’s often joking and angry at the same time. Czaban has been in the Redskins’ doghouse before. In the 2004 season, he fell out of favor with Joe Gibbs while hosting the coach’s weekly radio show. Gibbs threatened to take the show to another station and even made appearances with Redskins employee Larry Michael on rival station WJFK-FM before bringing the program back to WTEM last season under the stipulation that Czaban and Pollin not be a part of the proceedings.
Throughout the 2006 football season, as the apathy of defeat has settled in on the Redskins community, and as Joe Gibbs has gone from God to Chris Webber—so out of it that he was calling timeouts against Atlanta that his team didn’t have—The Sports Reporters is the surest place in town to hear a loser called a loser. (Pollin’s comparison of the team’s comically overloaded coaching staff to the 14-topping pizza that was given away in a Dan Snyder–approved Papa John’s promotion last season was particularly brilliant.)
That’s the persona Czaban brings to the Comcast show. And, at least after the Philly game, he got hammered for it.
Washington Post columnist Mike Wise was hired by Comcast as a replacement for Czaban for one week. Wise says he sought and received Czaban’s blessing to take the gig. The regular host wasn’t the only thing missing from the show, however: After the Redskins flopped in Tampa Bay, the normal segment where the studio hosts interview Redskins players and coaches was off the docket.
Czaban says he has no proof that the team was behind his suspension, and network management declined to inform him of any pressure from Redskins Park.
But he adds that there is plenty of circumstantial evidence, particularly in the team’s failure to provide interview subjects to Comcast after the Brunell/Czaban bout, to indicate that Dan Snyder’s bunch didn’t just sit back.
He’s pretty sure he knows who led the charge, too.
“Clearly, if Mark Brunell had just stood tall, and said [during the interview], ‘Look, I’m not playing well. The team’s not playing well,’ and just walks off, even if he’s upset, that would have been fine. But, clearly, the fact that Brunell’s feelings were hurt set this in motion,” Czaban says. “I don’t blame Comcast; again, you’ve got to have a certain relationship. But, it’s more amusing that a team that was 3–7 at the time would have the resources to go after somebody for an interview. Then again, we’re talking about the owner that would shut down any road, cut down trees, or put people behind pillars. So, well…”
Chris Helein, vice president of public relations for the Redskins, says that he indeed complained to Comcast about the Czaban’s Brunell interview. Helein also says that he decided to suspend the studio interviews from the network’s postgame show as a result of the conversation.
“I communicated to Comcast that I thought the questions were unfair, as I would do in any situation like that,” says Helein, who was a VP of communications for Comcast before taking the Redskins job in June. “That’s my job. I won’t knowingly put my players in a position that I think is unfair. I took a couple weeks to sort of evaluate the situation.”
Comcast, which has 4.7 million subscribers in the mid-Atlantic region, won’t divulge what led to Czaban’s removal.
“It’s not our policy to talk about personnel matters,” says Stephanie Offen, communications coordinator for Comcast. “I can say that Steve is back on the air every Sunday, and we expect him to be here for the rest of the season.”
Czaban says nothing legitimized his Brunell interview so much as subsequent events.
“I asked questions that were tough but appropriate,” Czaban says. “Considering that Brunell was benched the next day, well, I think I had the story first. Maybe it was by luck or by accident, but I had it first.”
He doesn’t appear to be cowed by the suspension. After the Skins’ latest wreck against the Falcons, the team once again supplied interview fodder for the postgame show. Czaban used the opportunity to ask embattled defensive coach Gregg Williams, the Redskins’ equivalent of Donald Rumsfeld, if he’d find a place on the field for bonus-baby-gone-bad Adam Archuleta.