For many younger football fans, the name “Joe Namath” doesn’t conjure memories of Broadway Joe or Super Bowl III but a drunken pass at ESPN sideline reporter Suzy Kolber during a December 2003 edition of Sunday Night Football. His “I wanna kiss you” moment became the stuff of TV legend, even making its way into an epic auto-tune mash-up from D.J. Steve Porter, who coincidentally now crafts similar projects for the four-letter network.
In an HBO documentary on Namath’s life, which debuted at 9:00 p.m. ET on Saturday, Kolber addresses the incident for the first time. Without saying “don’t blame us, we didn’t know Joe was drunk,” she seems to try a little too hard to offer up not-so-subtle excuses for not knowing Joe was drunk, even though perhaps everyone involved should have known, or at least suspected, that Joe was drunk.
Especially once he started talking.
“Joe was escorted onto the field by a number of Jets personnel,” Kolber says of the subject of her eventual interview. “And what I recall is that he and I never really had a chance to chat, because he wouldn’t stand still.”
Kolber creates the impression that she didn’t have any opportunity to observe his behavior (Namath admits that he’d been drinking all day and night) until the interview started. “When we were really getting to close to when our producer wanted to have him on, I took his arm because I just didn’t want him to walk away,” Kolber says.
And even when the interview began, Kolber explains (with her trademark perky nonchalance) that no one thought anything was amiss as he gave a stumbling, incomprehensible answer to the first question: “What impresses you about Chad [Pennington]?”
“I believe that anything anyone else has watched Chad play impresses me the same thing impresses them,” Namath said at the time, clumsily and awkwardly.
She attributed his off-kilter behavior to, yes, the weather. “When we first started talking and he was slow and deliberate in his speech,” Kolber says, “what was going through my head was, ‘Maybe it’s just really cold.'”
But here’s the kicker from Kolber, the thing that made me think for the first time that ESPN adroitly has been able to avoid for more than eight years the question of how they put him on the air in the first place, and why they didn’t kill the interview after his initial rambling response. “None of the executives in the truck were alarmed either, because nobody said, ‘Stop,'” Kolber says. “The direction in my ear was, ‘Keep going.'”
None of this changes the fact that Namath was at fault for drinking too much and agreeing to go on camera and then acting like a jerk by saying “I wanna kiss you,” not once but twice. But I’ve been involved in the TV side of this business long enough now to realize that there are (or at least should be) layers of folks who when trouble pops up can make good decisions in the blink of an eye, or even faster. Still, until seeing Kolber’s roundabout effort to help ESPN continue to sidestep shrapnel for allowing the “I wanna kiss you” moment to happen by not ending the interview (or by never doing it in the first place), I never made the connection. Joe was always the bad guy, and ESPN and Kolber were always without blame of any kind.
After hearing Kolber’s explanation, I’m starting to think that maybe a few tougher questions should have been asked back in late 2003. It’ll be interesting to see if any of those questions are asked now.