In 1995, I was a 23-year-old writer in The (Nashville) Tennessean’s features department. One of my closest friends was Sheila, the receptionist who sat one cubicle over. She was an absolutely lovely woman who had been at the paper for years and, in many ways, served as my mother away from home.
Sheila and I joked and laughed and chuckled all the time. We threw stuff. We talked trash. We gossiped. It was one of the greatest relationships I’d ever had … until one night, when I screwed everything up.
It was probably 9 pm, and as I was leaving work I noticed that Sheila had left her monitor on. With nobody looking, I walked over and typed “Fuck you” onto her screen. It was, I thought, funny. Just one person messing with another. Upon reporting to work the next morning, however, I was taken aback by a great hubbub. I asked Alan, another co-worker, what was going down. “Oh, Sheila’s had someone stalking her for a while. And last night it looks like he struck again.”
With tears in my eyes, I entered my boss’ office and explained everything. She chewed me out, then chewed me out again, then chewed me out a third time. I could have been fired. In some eyes (I’m guessing), I should have been fired. But I wasn’t. “Everyone makes mistakes,” my boss told me. “Even really dumb ones.”
Enter: Sean Salisbury.
Six years ago, Sean—one of ESPN’s top NFL analysts at the time—made a mistake. A really dumb one. Namely, he used his cell phone to take a photograph of his penis, then showed it to people at a bar. Word got out, jokes were made, Deadspin went to town … and, inevitably, ESPN opted to let Salisbury’s contract expire (meanwhile, Jerry Rice has a gig. Explain that one to me).
And that was that. TV career—seemingly over
In the ensuing years, Sean has, well, struggled. Work has been hard to find. Respect has been even harder to find. He lost his father, lost his income, lost his confidence and lost his mojo. He is a genuinely good person looking for a second shot, yet second shots seem in short supply (unless you kill a bunch of dogs; or drive drunk; or rape women; or …).
Here, Sean Salisbury talks about the impact of a single mistake; of fighting to regain a lost career; of why he desperately wants to return to TV ASAP. He Tweets regularly here.
I, for one, believe he is more than deserving.
Sean Salisbury, welcome to The Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Are you angry?
SEAN SALISBURY: To be honest with you, I’m a battler and not an excuse maker. But I’m as baffled by this as anything in my 48 years of life. And quite devastated, to be honest with you. I still don’t understand it. The word ‘blackballed’ has come down the road to me a few times, and I don’t get it. Because I’ve never, ever harmed anyone. I didn’t hurt anyone—it was a stupid, few-seconds, guy, dumb, drinking joke with a few guys. Somebody heard wind of it, and first time in my life I’d ever been in a human resources meeting. To this day, honest to God, I’ll take a slap on the hand. I didn’t throw anyone else under the bus. That’s not the way I operate. But a sophomoric 10-second mistake has completely … the collateral damage it’s done to my life and my family … I’ve lost everything, man. I’ve hit rock bottom. Not an excuse, I don’t look for pity. But I’ve never understood as I look around at people on the air … I’ll put it this way. If I were ever told I was no good at my job, that’s no problem. If I’d beaten someone up or got some boss’ daughter or wife pregnant. Anything. But it was a stupid sophomoric guy thing for a few seconds.
I’ve never said anything. But when I went into human resources that day, they called me in. If you recall Harold Reynolds was suing them at the time. And when they called me in there and they told me, I said, ‘You’re serious, right?’ There was never harassment, nothing. And you’re the first I’ve told this to. And they said, ‘Well, it’s a bad example from one of our lead football analysts.’ And I said, ‘I get that. You know what—sophomoric stupid guy joke. The typical dick joke guys laugh about.’ But I looked them in the face and I said, ‘Would I be here if Harold Reynolds wasn’t suing this network?’ And a person looked me square in the face and said, ‘No, probably not.’ And I promise you that, as I sit here now. And I walked out and I took a suspension. I don’t pooh pooh it away. But I’ve done far worse in my life than some stupid picture on my own cell. But I said, ‘You know what, I’ll take my punishment no problem. But it shouldn’t be talked about, shouldn’t leave this building, because of the laws of human resources.’ OK, no problem. And I went back to work, this was 2006, and my dad was dying of cancer at this time—asbestos. Went back to work and two years later my contract was up on March 3. People think I was fired on the spot. I wasn’t. I took my suspension and thought it’d go away. Well, to this day, trying to get a network to take me on has been … I … I … nobody has ever told me it’s not because I’m any good. I don’t get it. And I don’t mean this as arrogant. I’m not an arrogant guy. I’m confident and I like to have fun, but I don’t throw anybody under the bus. I’m opinionated just like you are, and that’s why I like you. But I don’t know why people didn’t rally and say, ‘He made a stupid mistake.’ It will be six years this fall. Six years! I mean, it’s as if I put a bullet in somebody’s mouth, went to jail, came out, and they said I shot, raped, stole and he’s awful at his job. No offense—I’m not apologizing for it anymore. I’m apologized out. And I’m not … I just wanna go back to work. It’s like, it was a 180-degree spin. I went from being on TV more than Regis Philbin to, ooh, the guy had a cell phone picture of his own … as a joke. Not harassing. I didn’t sexually harass anybody. I’m the only guy who suffered thought it. But I thought, ‘OK, I’ll get back in.’ I haven’t gotten a national sniff since I walked off ESPN’s campus on March 3, 2008. And when I say not a sniff, I haven’t even been called in for an audition since then.
S.S.: My agent has called every network on the planet 40 times. And I have a new agent since. One guy says, ‘I love him,’ then they run it up and it’s, boom, ‘No, we’re not interested.’ And no offense, but the work I see, some of these analysts sitting on the fence, you and I could do it in our sleep better than they’re doing it. And look at some of the people who have been in trouble, who everyone will make an excuse for. I guess if I were a Hall of Famer as an athlete, I guess I’d be back on the air. Maybe, I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t take anything from anybody else, but I damn well know I earned the respect and earned the right to be on TV. That I can promise you.
J.P.: So what have you done for the past few years? What are you doing for your career?
S.S.: Well, for three years I was reclusive. Other than seeing my kids I stayed in my place 24 hours a day. I didn’t leave my house. Other than to go grocery shopping or to go to a movie by myself. I’m a dad first and always have been, but I was three years reclusive. I’d wear a hat when I went out, I didn’t talk, I stayed in touch with a few people, but I disappeared. Because I was embarrassed, devastated—and still am. Probably last spring I started to come out of it, because I have to earn a living. I train quarterbacks all over the country and I work in the fall for Total College Sports Network, and I’m so grateful that somebody decided, ‘Sean deserves it.’ It’s not on TV, it’s the Internet. But it’s a great gig for me to get back on the camera. And they didn’t give a hoot about it … they said it’s ridiculous. And almost laughed at it, which I appreciated. Just that it’s ridiculous, and I served my time. And I’ve worked for Fox here doing the Cowboys pre-game show on Fox, local, for two years. Yet even those things … I can’t even get in front of an executive to tell him, ‘Just judge me by this, not some stupid, irrelevant cell phone picture of six years ago that didn’t harm anyone.’
S.S.: Egregious is a great word. I don’t want anyone to think what I did was smart. A buddy of mine did that in college as a joke. It was a joke. It’s not like I walked around with my pants down in the newsroom. I’d been there 12 years … I would never. Had I done what the Internet and people suggested on the surface suggested I did, I would have been airlifted out on the spot. I know now why, after I walked out of that human resources meeting, why I got suspended. Because in truth, when you see what people do and they get a slap on the wrist, I don’t understand why mine was a felony and everyone else was a misdemeanor. I’m not making excuses, but the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. When you’ve lost what I’ve lost, salary … it’s not like I don’t want to work. They called me the “Hardest Working Man in the Business” because I wanted to be a worker. And I went through a very difficult dark time when my dad was dying. It all hit me at once. I didn’t handle it well, by going reclusive and not wanting to talk about it. I love how Charles Barkley handles everything. When he went through the difficult time with the DUI he stood up and said, ‘I screwed up.’ He’ll text me once in a while, he’s one of those guys, he’s always there. “Forget it, man. Who cares?” He’s great about that, and I should have done what he did. Jeff, I’d never been through anything like it in my life. It’s like trying to take on a geometry problem when you’re a 3-year old. How the heck do I handle this? I don’t know. I didn’t realize it was that big of a deal. My biggest problem at the time was … the old stuff we do in the locker room. Sometimes you have to realize you can’t take locker room stuff into the bar. But it’s not like I came walking out of the bar bathroom with my pants down. I didn’t do anything like that. If people could really sit down and understand what happened, ‘they’d look at it and say ‘Are you kidding?’ I’ll put my work up against anybody, and I’ll put my character and integrity up against anybody. I made—mine was turned into a felony, while people who have done far worse … they pick and choose who they decide to pound. And that’s OK, I’ll take my punishment. One thing I’ve learned over the past six years is I can take a punch. But I don’t know why it won’t go away. I don’t get it. I’ve tried to clear the deck and say it was a mistake; a sophomoric error. Can I please get back to work? Because once I’m back on TV … people will still make wise-ass comments, but I’ll do a good job. Call the people I’ve worked with. I mean, maybe not ESPN, because it’s almost as if I’ve become taboo—you’re not allowed to talk to Sean. Oh my goodness, he had a picture in his cell phone.
I kept a journal for 12 years while I was there. I’ve got a best-selling book in my lap if I ever wanted to do it. You know? I’ve got it sitting right in my back pocket if I ever wanted to. To I’m not into taking guys’ wives and families away. I’m not into getting guys suspended and taking their careers away.
S.S.: No. No. I mean when I say ‘OK,’ I get by. But I was an undrafted free agent who carved out 10 years. But I have a family; I was going through a divorce before this. She’s a good woman but when you grow apart … I have family, my dad was dying of cancer. And you go four years without the salary you were making, you’ve got to scramble around. So when I say I hit rock bottom, I hot rock bottom.
J.P.: So how did you survive? I don’t only mean financially—this long spell of feeling like absolute crap. How did you not … I don’t mean suicide, but how did you lift yourself out of it?
S.S.: I hit rock bottom. Now I don’t know what that feeling is, and I never will—that feeling like they have come to the end. First of all I’m a dad of three and I’d take a bullet to protect my kids. I would never commit suicide. I think it’s a selfish act. I feel terrible for people who feel so desperate that that’s the final alternative. But I can tell you this—while I’ve never considered suicide, whatever that feeling of helplessness is; of ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve lost this and can’t get it back” … devastation. Whatever the level is … because I wouldn’t kill myself even were I living under a bridge. That’s not me, and I feel bad for those who it is. But put it this way—there are times … I’ve spent more time in tears, and I like to consider myself a tough guy. But I’ve spent more time in tears the last four years than I have in my entire life.
And I keep looking back. You go through every single emotion you can. Did my self-esteem suffer? Absolutely. Did I go through bouts of depression, when I didn’t know what depression was? I used to be like the Energizer Bunny on crack, and I’d never done a drug in my life. But I was always energetic. This completely paralyzed me. I don’t take meds, but I know that feeling of, ‘Oh, my God, how did I go from there—the top—to falling down the ladder’? I take care of myself, am in shape, eat right. Forget the financial part—my personality changed 180 degrees. I went from an outgoing, love to be around everybody to an introverted recluse.
J.P.: How much do you blame Deadspin?
S.S.: You know, I know that had a lot to do with it. But I’m no longer angry. About 1½ months ago they did a roast of A.J. because he left the top spot. And I was reluctant to do it because I thought I was being set up again. But I went through it, talked to him. It got, like, 20,000 views. I buried the hatchet. I’m no longer angry. I don’t hate Deadspin anymore. While I don’t agree with what they did, and there’s no question the publicity from Deadspin in 2008 had everything to do with me leaving ESPN. Because it was a relentless barrage. And I think A.J. would tell you they did everything they could to ruin me. I got an e-mail from him after the roast, thanking me for what he said. And I wished him well on his new venture. I don’t hold a grudge. For a long time I did. I was devastated. I was angry. When I got into that e-mail back and forth I had just had back surgery a few days before. I was on Percocet. It was a back and forth … a stupid thing. Juvenile. And when you’re doing that there’s no win. And it turns into an embarrassing situation because you’re angry. And I have no doubt in my mind that’s a huge reason I’m still sitting on my couch. But I don’t have a bad relationship with them anymore. I don’t have a hatred. I did. I went through every emotion. But I wish them well. I’m not mad. I wish they’d champion my cause as much to get back as they did to get out. That would be great. But I’m not angry at that anymore and I’m not mad at angry. I’m being sincere—I’m not. I’m probably more hurt by my former company not rallying and squelching all the at-work crap. That hurt me. But I’m not even bitter at them—they gave me 12 of the best years of my life working. I still wish I was there. I wish they’d call me up on the phone and say, ‘Sean, you made a mistake.’ I mean, to be hired back would be great. I’m not angry with them any more. I was probably more hurt. And tough guys aren’t supposed to admit those type of things. But I was hurt. I was hurt, I handled it poorly and I damn well know … I just want to go back to work. No excuses. I’ve been beat up way longer than you should have.
J.P.: What was your degree at USC in, Sean?
S.S.: Broadcast journalism. I was a TV guy.
J.P.: OK, so I almost think a part of you would be like, ‘You know what, the hell with friggin’ TV. I’m gonna go become a stock broker.’ Or something.
S.S.: Jeff, over the weekend I asked myself whether I should quit the business. I’ve asked myself a million times. But I don’t know … here’s what my career has been on my resume—I’ve been a football player, I got a degree, I’ve done public speaking and motivational speaking and I’ve been in TV and radio. Now other people might say, ‘That’s great,’ but how, as a 48-year-old, do I try and be an executive at Honeywell or Johnson & Johnson. I don’t know who’s interested in that. When you hear people say, ‘You’ve been blackballed,’ you still think, ‘I’m in the prime of my career. Do I really walk away from this and start from scratch?’ Yeah—I question it every day. I’m in a quandary right now. People keep saying, ‘Don’t do it, Sean.’ You’re about to break out and make an epic comeback.’ Well, how much longer can you have people tell you that? You get to a point where … man. Nobody has ever asked me that question. And, yeah, I question it. Believe me, I’m looking for work. And I had one gig, in the financial business two years ago. I’d tested out high for a company, and at the eleventh hour the higher-ups squelched it. And I know damn well it’s because they Googled my name. A cell phone picture has defined me the last six years. I can guarantee you if I went and applied at a company with HR, they Google your name and the first thing they’ll see is the incident, and I’ll be removed from the job list. So I’m scared to death. Do you realize I haven’t Googled my name is six years? I won’t do it. Because I know what’ll show up.
There has to come a time when one TV executive says, ‘This is nonsense.’ And what I want to ask—what I dream of asking—is, to a room of TV executives, ‘If I open up your computer or phone, what will I see?’ I have one executive I sat down with a friend, and we talked about this. This was last fall. And I said, ‘This incident is over.’ And he said, ‘No doubt.’ But he broached it, and it irritated me. I said, ‘What’s in your phone?’ And he said, ‘Sean, if you knew what was in my phone it wouldn’t even compare to what’s in your phone. It’s that bad.’ That was his quote. And he is an executive at a network. There you have it. Because of one prank with a buddy—not something sent via company e-mail … here I am. I’m sorry I embarrassed my family, myself and the network. Because I was never a guy who went through controversy.
J.P.: I remember when I wrote the John Rocker piece for SI. And one of the people who told me how big of a jerk Rocker was was a kid I knew in college—who was an insanely large racist. And I think it’s interesting how … who hasn’t done something they’re embarrassed of? Yet it seems like we judge others on a different level than we judge ourselves.
S.S.: Oh, there’s absolutely no question. The same person that may have sent a picture to his girlfriend is the same person who will judge you the most and ‘How can you do this?’ But I’ve also had plenty say, ‘Who cares?’ Put it that way—had I known I’d gone through this, I would have gotten my money worth. Had I known this would detour my life … not just my career, but my life … I would have gotten my money’s worth. Good gracious. At least I would have had a helluva sex session with an executive’s wife. I’m obviously kidding here, but your point is right—we do judge. And I should have been judged. And I should have been kicked in the teeth. My old man, had he not been dying of cancer, would have put his foot up my rear end. I get that. And to have to explain to your kids … when your son comes home from school and you have to explain this. Now that’s hard. But I’ve always been forthright with my kids, and I told them exactly what happened. I’ll take my punishment, but how much longer do I have to take it before I get to work?
I’m afraid to even have a beer in public, because someone turns one beer into being an alcoholic. I’m not a big drinker anyhow, but … man. I would never walk into a bar holding a girl’s hand, because all of a sudden you’re having a foursome. I’m so paranoid that when someone looks at me different I think they’re talking about the incident that happened six years ago. As if I was a football player who got drunk and drove and drove through an intersection and killed someone … and was playing eight games later. If I had been in a porn movie I’d be back at work right now.
My dad dying was the most devastating thing to happen in my life. I’ve had kids get sick, knee surgery, injuries. I’ve never been more devastated—outside of my father dying.
J.P.: How old was Richard, your father?
S.S.: My dad was 66 when he attracted cancer. Blue-collar guy, worked around asbestos his whole life. A month and a half before he attracted asbestos, he won five gold medals in the Senior Games in Las Vegas. My dad could leg press 650 pounds. He did 60 push-ups or sit-ups in 60 seconds. He could bench press 325 15 times. He threw an 11-pound shot almost 50 feet. He won golds in five different events. He was my world. A month and a half later I get a call at work … he was a dad who wouldn’t miss an NFL Live or SportsCenter. He was training for more events, and he called me one day at work and asked what I was doing. I told him I was getting ready for a show. I asked him how he was. And, Jeff, since I was born my dad never missed a day at work. And he called me on the phone and he said, ‘I’m having trouble catching my breath today after I worked out. So I didn’t get to finish.’ And this is the truth—my dad never missed a day of some sort of pumping that iron. He was in the 82nd Airborne in the Army. He always did something, and always wanted you doing something. And he called me that day and he said that—I didn’t think anything of it. He won five gold medals two months ago. He was my family’s world. He and my mom were married almost 50 years. He calls me and a couple of days later my mom calls and she says, ‘We’re going to have your dad tested. He’s having trouble catching his breath.’ And I started to worry a little bit. Dad was 66. Then I get a call from my mom, and she says, ‘He may have cancer.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ Then I talked to my dad again and he said, ‘Son, I had to come home from work for the first time in my life.’ And then I knew something was wrong. It dropped me to my knees in the newsroom when my mom told me he has Stage IV cancer and he’s going to die. And we took him to the hospital in Houston and nine months later he was dead. And the saddest thing for me is while I was going through all this controversy I was still working at ESPN but getting hammed on the Internet. I’ll never forget my dad dying on his deathbed, telling me, ‘Son, it’s going to be OK. You’re going to come back and it’s going to be OK.’ And that’s the last memory of him. I know his kids were his life. It was me, my sister and my two brothers, and all he cared about was being a dad and a husband. He was the most honorable man ever. And he was dying as I was going through this difficulty, and he cared more about that than he cared about himself. I still struggle with that today. I’m devastated by it. Because he died knowing that I was suffering. I apologize for the emotions. There are three things I think about every day, and this is the truth, Jeff. Only three things. One, my father. Two, my three kids. And three, the incident. I haven’t had a day at peace since it happened.
S.S.: I like to think I’m a well-rounded guy, and I try to be. But when you’ve worked at something so long, and you’ve worked so hard at it, first job I had at ESPN when I quit playing football … I was a sideline reporter making $1,000 a game. And I promised myself I’d turn that into something special. And in six months I was on a studio show, NFL Tonight, and the rest is history. I was not a Hall of Fame quarterback where they put you in the chair because you were a good player. Which they do with every star—stick them in a chair and put a mic in their face. I wasn’t that guy. I had to actually be a sideline reporter and earn it and do it the hard way. I didn’t get the job because I was a great football player. I loved the job because I worked so hard to be great at it. And when sports are all you know, your self-worth gets tied up in it. My identity was, there was one thing you could count on was me going on TV and giving good information. That became me. And probably cost me a marriage. She’s a great woman and a wonderful mom. But it got to the point where it was my kids and my career; and how to deal with my career—and then her.
J.P.: Do you regret that?
S.S.: Of course I do. Of course I do. And we had a chance to fix it and we didn’t. sometimes when things get left behind and you hurt somebody’s feelings it’s hard to repair. Of course I regret that. Here’s the only quote I can go by with that—‘If you have no success in the home you don’t have success.’ A marriage failed after 17 years because I became a roommate, because I was more devoted to other things. And that’s not right, not fair to her. But I’m a successful dad, so I got half of it right.
J.P.: And what about Inside Sports Unleashed?
S.S.: We went down and shot a pilot. The lighting didn’t work, and they didn’t pay to shoot it again. They had a blackout at the studio that night. Now talk about bad luck. It was a great idea—taking what Jon Stewart does and making it in sports. But when stuff like this happens, and falls through, you wonder if the clouds will ever clear. You just do.
• Five greatest players you ever had as teammates: In no particular order—Steve Largent, Marcus Allen, Junior Seau, Eric Dickerson, Randall McDaniel, Warren moon, Gary Zimmerman. I had to do seven.
• Rich Gannon and you were the Vikings quarterbacks when nobody knew Rich Gannon had an ounce of skill. Was it clear to you he’d be someone? Or did he just seem so-so?: Rich was always a great athlete with unreal feet. I always knew he was good but never expected him to become the league MVP. But then he became an awesome student and passer. I saw one of the great transitions in a quarterback career. I’m very proud of him.
• You won a Gray Cup with Winnipeg in 1988. Had that team been in the NFL, what would its record have been?: We were explosive in Winnipeg. Had we been in the NFL we would have won some games and scored points but we would never have made the NFL playoffs. We’d be 3-13, maybe. The NFL has too much depth for a CFL team, and it’s too physical.
• Best and worst coaches you ever played for?: The best—Chuck Knox, Denny Green, Tom Moore, Mike Reilly, Brian Billick, Bobby Ross. All for different reasons. The worst? I made ‘em all look bad.
• Are you at all surprised by the bounty scandal? And should jobs be lost?: I’m not surprised at all. It’s not the first or the last time. Jobs lost ? No. Heavy fines and the biggest punishment ever for an NFL team—oh, yes. The message must be sent. Treat this like a college probation. Strip draft picks, etc.
• Who, in your opinion, are the Top 5 NFL analysts working right now?: Game analysts currently working—Troy Aikman, Michael Strahan, Cris Collinsworth, Jon Gruden. Moose Johnston. Studio Analysts currently working—Howie Long, Tom Jackson, Boomer Esiason, Rodney Harrison. And I believe I belong in this group. Not to be arrogant. Just the truth.
• Would you rather spend 10-straight weeks watching The Complete QB Works of Browning Nagle or officially change your name to Whitney Elizabeth Houston?: I will take Nagle. I like watching quarterbacks play. And I also liked Whitney and her music. But I may be a tad big and too manly to take on her name as mine. And I don’t look like a Whitney—God rest her soul.
• You were very harsh on Rush Limbaugh after he called the Georgetown student a “slut.” Why did that resonate with you so strongly?: I don’t care which side of politics a person sits on. Limbaugh is smarter than that. I think. And no person, man or woman, deserves to be called that based on their affiliation or because their opinion may vary. We all deserve more respect than that. Criticism is one thing but personal attacks are out of bounds. He robbed Peter, now he’s paying Paul.
• Rank in order, best to worst—Celine Dion, Tupac, Egg McMuffin, Santonio Holmes, Tom Hanks, Mitt Romney, the USFL, M&Ms, your feet: My feet. M&Ms, Tom Hanks, Celine Dion, Mitt Romney, Tupac Shakur, the McMuffin, the USFL, Holmes.
• Denny Green once offered you a gig as the Arizona Cardinals’ QB coach. Why’d you turn it down?: I regret turning it down. But at the time I was in a great position at ESPN. It was my toughest career choice. I love Denny. Coaching is my passion. I would love a shot again. It was timing and timing only. I do train quarterbacks privately all over country still. I love it.