Marcellus Wiley Embodies New Style Commentator

The practice of using former players as analysts and/or studio commentators is now an old one, and it remains a hit or miss proposition. There are some ex-athletes who not only have the gift of gab, but are also able to operate in the concise time frames dictated by television. They are articulate, able to speak quickly, and offer descriptions and opinions that truly reveal more insight and knowledge of whatever sport they’re discussing than something that would come from the usual fan. There are others who do little except speak in cliches, sometimes badly fracturing the language, and bringing absolutely zero to whatever broadcast features them.

Former Columbia University and NFL player Marcellus Wiley has proven a lot better than many, even though he’s not operated as a game analyst, nor worked on any of the highlight studio shows. Instead his path to prominence has been on various ESPN and later Fox Sports discussion programs. Wiley is part of the “hot take” culture that’s emerged not  only on ESPN, but all sports channels. 

It’’s an endless cycle that features various commentators engaged in point/counterpoint arguments on various sports topics. These men and women offer high volume, rapid fire arguments with minimum factual accuracy and little substantive value, but they do provide those who enjoy hearing people shouting at each other a modicum of entertainment. Plus, ratings show there’s a growing audience for this type of sports theater, which is really a televised extension of what happens online, and Wiley’s proven an able force within this universe.

His new book “The Life, Opinions, and Unexpected Adventures of an NFL Outlier: Never Shut Up” (Dutton/Penquin) is well worth reading on several levels. Wiley overcame a difficult background growing up in Compton. The chronicles made famous by the rap group N.W.A. were part of his daily life. He regularly encountered gangs and violence, and dealt with a fractured family situation, though there were always supportive people around him. But it became clear early he ha physical and mental gifts beyond either the norm or expected. He eventually became a good enough football player to be pursued by major schools, and a smart enough scholar to be a math major.

Wiley chose to defy the odds athletically and academically. He went to Columbia, which was then not only a doormat even in the Ivy League, but a place that didn’t give athletic scholarships and was in the midst of setting a league record for consecutive losses. Wiley not only became a star there, he attracted enough attention from NFL scouts to eventually be drafted. He would enjoy a pro career that lasted roughly three times as long as the average player (10 years). He also was a real student at Columbia, and describes in vivid detail his struggles with such courses as advanced calculus. Not only did he graduate with honors, but later ended up playing alongside one of the NFL’s all-time greatest defensive linemen, Buffalo’s Bruce Smith.

Wiley’s descriptions of life in the pro football trenches is entertaining and revealing. He provides a laundry list of things that are wrong with football. They range from his nearly developing an addiction to painkillers to undergoing  multiple surgeries, Wiley graphically outlines the physical toll football takes on even the most gifted athletes.  He doesn’t do it to discourage others from participating in the sport, or warn anyone away from it, but just to illustrate the price NFL players pay every day.

He also discusses awakening to the realization it was important to be more than just another football player. Wiley remains involved in various community activities and social justice movements, and feels every pro athlete should, but acknowledges it is their choice whether or not to do so. He is equally candid about the minefield of broadcasting and pitfalls of being a media type. It’s a status that can lead to scorn and ridicule from players who now feel you’ve become one of the enemy, or don’t expect a former colleague to offer candid, specific criticism of their performance.

There are many engrossing and captivating stories in “Never Shut Up.” Wiley has irritated his share of fans and players with his no-holds barred attitude about many things. But he displays a serious and thoughtful side here on several occasions. This volume may win him some fans among those who previously disregarded him as just another loudmouth. “Never Shut Up” reveals someone who’s experienced a lot, and has many insightful and important things to say about sports and life.

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