By Adam Zielonka
For the Povich Center
Longtime Sports Illustrated football writer Peter King filed his Wednesday article about NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s contract extension from the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism.
It delayed King’s speaking engagement for the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism by about 15 minutes, but as Povich Center director George Solomon said, “at least we’re late for a journalistic reason.”
King was the Povich Center’s guest speaker Wednesday afternoon at the Eaton Theater in Knight Hall. The MMQB founder addressed a variety of topics about America’s true pastime and the sport he has covered the most during his 37-year journalism career.
King and Solomon were joined on the panel by Callie Caplan, a 2017 Merrill College graduate who covers high school sports for The Washington Post, and Jake Brodsky, a Merrill College senior and editor for The Left Bench.
Perhaps the strongest opinion King delivered during the panel had to do with football’s violent nature and the increasing issues around player safety. King thinks it’s in the NFL’s best interest for players to wait until they are 16 years old to play tackle football.
“I believe the NFL should come out right now and institute an edict that basically says that we do not support tackle football before a person’s 16th birthday,” he said.
When Solomon noted Bob Costas’ comment at November’s Povich Symposium that “this game destroys people’s brains,” which made national headlines, King asked, “How do you argue with him? You can’t argue.”
Caplan first brought up player safety when she asked King how much the Monday Night Football game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals this week hurt the league’s stance on safety.
Players on both teams were injured in that — two players received suspensions for illegal hits and Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier was carted off with a back injury.
“What really hurts [the league] in my opinion is Ben Roethlisberger saying to [ESPN reporter] Lisa Salters, ‘This is AFC North football,’” King said. “Well, then the AFC North should secede from the union. That was a disgrace.”
King also discussed his reporting about Goodell’s contract extension. Several weeks ago, when it was reported that Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was organizing formal opposition to Goodell receiving an extension, King got in contact with Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, the chairman of the owners’ compensation committee.
Blank told King there really wasn’t as much organized opposition as Jones made it sound.
“The one kind of journalism lesson for this is every time I ended up talking to Arthur Blank I said ‘Hey, we need to keep in touch about this,’” King said.
King also was cognizant of his role as one of a handful of respected football reporters working for national publications.
“This will happen to you. It’s a great example of about how, in my opinion, owners and big influencers are going to try to use people at the highest parts of their profession,” King said. “It’s a very, very interesting kind of dance when you try to figure out, after every conversation, ‘what is this person actually trying to do with me, and how much of what I was just told do I trust implicitly and how much do I have to check out?’”
King has worked for Sports Illustrated since 1989, but in 2013 the magazine gave him a budget to launch his own football-only vertical website, the MMQB. King wanted to hire “people who were extremely young and did not think like I thought,” and one of his first hires was Merrill College graduate Robert Klemko.
Klemko worked for USA Today and was covering the Baltimore Ravens on their path to winning Super Bowl XLVII in 2013. After one playoff game, King saw Ray Lewis get “nose to nose” with Klemko for pursuing a line of questioning Lewis didn’t like, having to do with the linebacker’s 2000 murder trial. Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in that case.
The way Klemko “hung in there” stood out to King, who soon hired him for his MMQB staff.
“There had to be a couple of PR guys who had to separate them,” King remembered. “And I just said, ‘I’m impressed with him.’”
King likes working with writers with different visions and who aren’t afraid to disagree with him, he said, because he is “not the god of editing or the god of journalism.”
“We’re not going to do what’s best for somebody’s ego,” he said. “We’re going to do what’s best for the story.”
King also discussed his opinions on everything from Colin Kaepernick’s lack of an NFL job to the possibility of a lockout or strike at the league’s next collective bargaining agreement negotiations. Football likely will go on “uninterrupted,” King said, partly because players might not want to lose a year of their careers to strike.
King bookended the football talk with two key pieces of advice for budding journalists. In his opening comments, he advised young reporters to “do everything,” to be more flexible than he said he was upon graduating from Ohio University in 1979.
“There was a dividing line between radio and TV people and the newspaper people,” he said. “Now when I talk to students, the one thing I say is ‘do everything, because you never know.’”
And King closed the event by recalling how he never worried about money in the early stages of his career, advising journalists to do the same.
As a general assignment sports reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer in the 1980s, “I covered Xavier basketball. I was the backup guy on the Reds. I covered a high school football game every night in the fall,” King said. “I covered whatever came up, whatever needed to be covered.
“I just thought ‘man, this is incredible. They’re paying me $13,000 a year to do this? This is awesome, man.’”