Sports Nut

Idiots on the Field Are the Forbidden Fruit of Sports TV

Why don’t networks show them?

49ers fan William Navarrete streaks on field during season opener at  Levi's Stadium on Sept. 12, 2016
49ers fan William Navarrete feels on-field glory during the game between San Francisco and the Los Angeles Rams at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, Sept. 12, 2016.

“Hey, somebody’s run out on the field,” Westwood One’s Kevin Harlan told a national radio audience tuning in for the Rams-49ers season opener on Sept. 12. “Some goofball in a hat and a red shirt. Now he takes off the shirt,” Harlan continued, his voice rising. “He’s running down the middle by the 50! He’s at the 30! He’s bare-chested, banging his chest!” The call went on from there—“the guy is drunk, but there he goes!”—with Harlan’s voice ebbing and flowing as the fan, later identified as a 16-year-old who was not in fact drunk, dodged and weaved across the turf at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California.

Though Harlan’s words painted a vivid picture of teenage idiocy, fans watching Monday Night Football on ESPN saw and heard nothing of the sort. The video above, made by a YouTube user named Nick Ramos, was constructed by syncing Harlan’s radio call with still photos and cellphone footage. So why didn’t ESPN show the “idiot on the field”?

“We’re not looking to glorify someone running onto the field,” says Tim Corrigan, who produced the West Coast Monday Night Football opener for ESPN. “We want to make sure we show what the fans care about, and that’s the game.”

On account of what a snooze the 49ers-Rams contest was, and given that Harlan’s call immediately went viral, it’s hard to agree with Corrigan’s assessment that fans didn’t want to see the goofball in the red shirt. For viewers at home, a pitch invader is forbidden fruit—an object of interest precisely because broadcasters don’t want us to see it.

The general refusal to televise on-field interruptions isn’t the result of some dictum from sports leagues or a written rule enforced by network executives. It’s more of an “unwritten policy everywhere,” says Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer of NBC’s Sunday Night Football. When it comes to field crashers, Gaudelli says, “Why give them what they’re looking for when all they’re doing is creating an unwanted interruption?” Neal Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports, concurs with his NBC counterpart: “The decisions are made individually by the TV carriers but all seem to have come to the same conclusion: Don’t show it.”

That’s not the case everywhere in the world. A few minutes after Justin Timberlake exposed Janet Jackson’s right breast during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, a British streaker named Matt Roberts snuck onto the field in a referee’s uniform and dropped trou. The announcers calling the game on Danish television were delighted by Roberts’ naked form as well as Patriots linebacker Matt Chatham’s impressive tackle.

On American TV, CBS’s Greg Gumbel drolly noted that “the halftime entertainment apparently never stops.” Phil Simms added, “It’s a bad body and there’s too much of it being shown.” But CBS didn’t show any of that bad body, instead focusing on Tedy Bruschi’s game face.

For broadcasters, the biggest problem with pitch invaders is their unpredictability. A producer like Corrigan or Gaudelli doesn’t know if the proverbial idiot on the field is going to run around harmlessly, strip naked, or attack a player. During Euro 2016, a fan ran on to the pitch to take a selfie with Cristiano Ronaldo in what turned out to be a harmless tête-à-tête.

The same thing happened to a not-at-all-pleased Roger Federer at the 2015 French Open.

Again, the fan did no harm, but it was an unwelcome reminder of the horrific incident in which Monica Seles was attacked on the court by a deranged man in 1993.

A few months after the Federer court-storming, a soccer player for England’s Derby County got shoved by a fan who’d crashed the pitch. And just last week, a security guard at San Francisco’s AT&T Park broke his leg in two places tackling a pitch invader during a baseball game between the Giants and St. Louis Cardinals. Warning: The video below is pretty gross.

Thanks to cellphones and social media, mainstream broadcasters don’t need to show anything for a gatecrasher to go viral. The fan in a “Harambe 69” jersey who charged out of the stands and on to the grass at Fenway Park got his moment of glory on Instagram.

On American television, there is at least one exception to the no-pitch-invaders rule. A few hours before the hat-wearing goofball took the field in Santa Clara, protesters stormed the stage during Ryan Lochte’s performance on the season premiere of Dancing With the Stars.

ABC chose not to air that stunt live, opting to break to commercial. DWTS did feature it, though, in the opening to the next week’s show.

The Lochte-storming was a legitimate news event, one ABC had to cover. It also didn’t hurt the ratings to show the star of the new season in (mild) peril. But the choice made by ABC’s entertainment division won’t affect how sports producers and broadcasters treat pitch invaders going forward. In an interview with Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch, Harlan said he never would’ve made his now-famous call if he’d been calling the game on television, because “the cameras would not have been on the guy.” Despite being inundated with congratulatory texts and interview requests, Harlan told Deitsch he’s not about to test the football media gods again: “I feel like it’s been done and the worst thing would be to do it again.”