Analyze This: A chat with ‘College GameDay’ analyst Desmond Howard
The Super Bowl MVP on his journey to broadcasting, his one-on-one with Harry Edwards, and the importance of athlete activism
Analyze This is a daily Q&A with African-American college football broadcasters and analysts during The Undefeated’s Fall TV Week.
Desmond Howard won the Heisman Trophy as a junior wide receiver and return specialist at the University of Michigan — remember his Heisman pose? After that, the Washington Redskins selected him with the fourth overall pick in the 1991 NFL draft. Since 2005, Howard has been one of the faces of ESPN’s College GameDay (The Undefeated is a part of ESPN). Howard played 11 seasons in the NFL, highlighted by the 1996-97 season during which he was named first-team All-Pro and the MVP of Super Bowl XXXI as a member of the Green Bay Packers. Before week 1 of the 2016-17 college football season, Howard talked about “controlling the controllables,” the need for more black analysts, and the time he met sociologist Harry Edwards while in college.
If someone would have told you during college that you’d be on College GameDay, would you have believed it?
I would have said, ‘What the hell is College GameDay?!’ It didn’t exist back then. It’s like if you said I’d be on Dancing With the Stars, I’d be like, huh, what’s that? But I did major in communications at Michigan, so I knew I wanted to do something in either television or film.
While you were playing, were you conscious of what your life might be after football?
Definitely. When I was in Michigan, one of the best defensive players I ever played with [Tripp Welborne] blew his knee out. It looked like a routine play and I thought he’d be OK. Next thing I know, I’m up in the hospital room visiting because he had surgery. I was saddened by it because he was the player on our team. Easily a first-round draft pick. And to see him go down like that let me know that no matter how great and how talented you are, you can’t control everything that happens on that football field. But you can control what happens in the classroom and getting your degree and education. My mentor at the time, Greg Harden, he had a lot of sayings, and one of them was ‘control the controllables.’
What made you want to major in communications?
I wanted to do something in either television or film. So either an actor, or producer, or director. I was always fascinated by public speakers and wanted to delve into that, also. So there’s a lot involved in communications that intrigues me. And I do a lot of [public speaking] today. I used to listen to a guy named Les Brown … and I was always kind of amazed. Watching Greg Harden really impressed me. This is a guy speaking to student athletes, especially football players, and he was able to hold our attention for about an hour and 20 minutes and I would go in the lecture hall and a professor would struggle to hold the attention of students for a half-hour or 45 minutes.
From a sports broadcasting standpoint, who did you look up to growing up, and throughout your playing days?
The guys who I really paid attention to were the guys who did the sports I liked, which were boxing and professional football. Because I lived in Cleveland, Ohio, I was really cognizant of the Rose Bowl. And, of course, I was familiar with Keith Jackson.
Do broadcasters and analysts have to be former players?
No, no, not at all. What I’ve learned is, you have a guy doing the play-by-play, but you [also] want someone there who can take the audience where they have never been, but you have — and that’s the player. Many guys [color commentating] Wimbledon never actually picked up a tennis racket. But the analyst, who really describes the X’s and O’s, you want someone who has been there.
How would you assess the current state of black representation in sports broadcasting?
I think in a sport that blacks play a lot — I don’t know the numbers so I don’t want to misspeak — but the perception is that there is decent representation.
What about the representation in broadcasting college football games?
Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any black analysts who are part of a team who are doing big games, or games at all. So from that standpoint, it seems to be lacking. I know you got Gus Johnson at Fox, who I think is excellent. But he’s a play-by-play. [With regard to analysts], it seems to be woefully lacking.
What do you think of athletes using their platform to speak up on social issues?
It’s fantastic. I think more should do it, because this is the time to do it. They have unbelievable access now to a larger audience, so I believe it’s great. I think they should do it.
When you were a player, did you ever think about using your platform to speak up or was that something you were never really given a chance to do?
Yeah, for sure. I definitely did. I was very outspoken on certain things when I was at Michigan. I’ll put it to you like this — the people who were my heroes were people trying to bring about some sort of social justice for the disenfranchised and the oppressed. So you would come in my apartment and there would be pictures of Martin Luther King Jr., and there’d be pictures of Malcolm X, there’d be pictures of all sorts of people in the ’60s who fought for social change. There’d be a picture of Angela Davis, of Public Enemy.
As a redshirt freshman, I flew out to California to visit my older brother and told him he had to have one of his buddies drive me to Cal Berkeley so I could meet face to face with this sociology professor that spoke to [our] football team one day. I needed to have a conversation one-on-one with Dr. Harry Edwards. I went to the sociology department, didn’t know anything about Dr. Harry Edwards outside of what he told us. I didn’t even know if he was at work that day. But I went there anyway. I said, ‘Where’s his office?’ and a lady pointed me in the right direction. I sat outside his office door on the ground and this imposing black bald-headed figure with sunglasses was coming down the corridor. I told him my name, where I was from, who I was and what I was seeking. We must have talked for 45 minutes. He gave me his book [1980’s The Struggle that Must Be], he autographed it for me, and I read that book through the rest of my trip to California. I still have that book to this day. So yes, I’m all for athletes using their platforms to expose social injustices and to cry out for social change.