"Say something, please!" Mike Francesa shouted out to the audience.
It was a little after 7 p.m. on Monday night, and Francesa didn't like just how quiet the room was. He was on the 10th floor of New York University's Kimmel Center to speak on a panel about sports, ethics, and integrity along with a dozen other people. When Francesa, along with his fellow panelists and a moderator, made their way into the room, it quieted down just a bit, mostly out of politeness. Francesa didn't like it.
"Somebody!" he pleaded.
Everyone kept quiet and Francesa took his seat, behind a place card that spelled his name "Francesca." His signature Diet Coke was waiting for him, as was a microphone, which he would of course later pull from its stand in a fit of excitement.
Francesa's had an incredible week. This event was two days before Francesa landed the scoop of the month with the in-studio A-Rod interview. The Daily News came after him, saying he was too cozy with A-Rod. His longtime buddy, Chris Russo, did the same. "I can't understand. Mike is smarter than this, to be duped by A-Rod and fall into this trap," the Mad Dog said. Francesa's been under siege lately. When that happens, he comes out punching.
"Is this the largest panel you've ever seen?" said star legal scholar Arthur Miller, the panel's moderator. "Well, we figured we put this number of people together, there's got to be some sort of interesting idea here."
There was, and it centered around Francesa. What would it be like to see Mike in the wild? Ever since Russo bolted for satellite radio, Francesa's afternoon radio show has been a solitary affair occasionally interrupted by screaming matches with visitors. Put Francesa on a dais with 12 other people—including Mets owner Fred Wilpon, MLB chief operating officer Rob Manfred, NHL vice-president Brendan Shanahan, Lesley Visser and Harry Carson—and in a room with 250 guests, and anything could happen. Mike has a robust radio audience, but how would he do with a room of, you know, actual people?
The answer: Mike completely and totally stole the show—a little incoherently, to the frustration of many, and with absolute brute force.
At first, Miller played the role of roving Socratic professor, a cuddlier John Houseman. He walked around; he leaned on the long table; he called on the panelists at random; he said the evening would follow a rough outline where he'd introduce three hypotheticals, three "vignettes," the sort of exercises law professors in the movies love. He had total control of the room, starting things off with a question to Steve Greenberg, a sports media power broker.
"Here's vignette number one. Steve. You have a son," Miller said. "You have a son. He's a little leaguer. Hmmm. In deference to Fred [Wilpon], and his great friendship with Sandy Koufax, we'll call your son Sandy. He's young, he's young. But he shows promise. The problem is he's, at the moment, small for his age. He lacks a certain amount of confidence. So you think it's best to sign him up for the 10 to 12 category. You think that's where he should play. Let him gain some confidence, gain some experience. The issue you face is that he became 13 last month. Are you gonna sign him up?"
That sort of stuff. Vaguely thought-provoking. Almost interesting. Unfortunately, the next 10 minutes of conversation turned into a set of predictable variations on a single theme: You must follow the law.
"Not a chance," Greenberg said of the possibility of sneaking the hypothetical 13-year-old in to play with the 10-year-olds.
"Rules matter," intoned Cammy Myler, a lawyer and former Olympian.
"One of the things sports teaches is fairness and integrity," former Nets and Nuggets general manager Kiki VanDeweghe offered.
It was a dull start, and as former high school sports administrator Garland Allen spoke, Francesa had his hand pressed up against his face. He was quiet for nearly 15 minutes, allowing the others to have their bland back and forth. For him, though, the hypothetical wouldn't do. Time to change the subject. Time to pounce.
"The problem with youth sports is that the parents are the problem," said Francesa, unprompted. The mood of the room changed. A guy behind me said, in forceful agreement, "Yup!"
"When we were kids, or anyone older than I am, and I'm 59, we were allowed to be kids and play sports by ourselves," he continued. "And now parents are unfortunately—and I have two little boys—are unfortunately involved in every step a kid takes every day and they can't get out of the way so kids can't be kids anymore and now it's about how the parents want to see their kids play and want to experience the success their kids have. It's their failures now, it's not the kids' failures. So kids aren't kids anymore. They're little extensions of their parents and that's why sports in youth America is an absolute disgrace and it's a mess."
An absolute disgrace and it's a mess.
"I have an 8-year-old and a 6-year-old and I don't even let them play yet, I tell them to go out in the backyard and go climb a tree. And I got a big backyard, so they can go out and play sports too. But youth sports is a joke."
I got a big backyard. A joke.
Miller enjoyed this bit (at least at first). Finally, someone here to shake something up!
"What do you make of your fellow panelists who are holier than thou?" he asked Francesa.
"They're just doing that cause they're here," he said. The room erupted into laughter.
"It's a joke, the whole thing is a farce, it's a complete mess, that's what it is," he continued.
A joke, a farce, a mess.
Then the 250 or so folks in attendance there broke into applause. Francesa apparently liked the momentum. He took it to weird places.
"When I was a kid, I would be out all day, my mother didn't even know where I was," he continued. "Now you can't really let your kid leave the property anymore. That's unfortunately the way the world is."
Miller politely tried to move things along. He called on Harry Carson, who talked about how teenagers are saddled with too much pressure, and then asked the former Giants linebacker what he thought about Mike describing youth sports as a "mess." Francesa interrupted to answer the question himself. He said he talks to parents all the time who tell him their son will be the next Wayne Gretzky.
"I say he's got better chance of being struck by lightning than he does being Wayne Gretzky!" said Francesa.
This quickly began a battle for who could shout loudest in which no one really competed save for Mike. And certainly no one said anything over the course of the next 30 minutes without Mike butting in. Greenberg, for example, made an anodyne point about how parents are obsessive about everything, not just sports—beauty pageants, singing lessons, school work.
"Every parent I know who has school-aged kids spends all night doing their homework with the kids. That's changed too," said Greenberg.
"Not me!" said Francesa, unprompted.
"Except for Mike," offered Greenberg, patiently.
"I must be the worst parent in the world, you know that?" Francesa said, the crowd laughing. "I make my kids do their own homework, I'm terrible!"
Fred Wilpon had had enough of this and tried to steer the kiddie sports conversation into the bigger, broader topic of how colleges fail student athletes. Francesa cut him off mid-speech, and this is where everything officially went off the rails.
"Fred, what are they there for?" Francesa asked, in the same exasperated tone he's used just before triumphantly swatting down a thousand arguments from Vinnys in Bay Ridge, or Sals on the Island.
"Yeah," Lesley Visser cut in, for some reason, "there are two things—"
"They're there to win!" declaimed Francesa. "That's why they're there, who cares if they graduate?"
Here, Miller seemed to realize that his plans for the evening were for naught, and that he had been hijacked. We started with a simple vignette about a Little Leaguer, he seemed to want to ask, and now we're talking about college football coaches?
"Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait," he said.
"They're not there to learn!" said Francesa demonstratively.
"Just wait. Just wait," said Miller.
"You think the coach cares if they learn? What, are you serious?" said Francesa. It was unclear if he recognized that Miller existed.
"Mike," said Miller, "hang on, hang on, hang on, hang on."
Miller took a breath. Order was about to be restored.
"Before we go to college, before we go to college, let's take a few minutes and go to high school," he said. Let's go back to the original game plan!
Francesa had no intention of doing anything of the sort. He wanted to talk college. He was on a roll.
"Let's be real though! OK?" he continued. "Coaches get paid millions of dollars. What are they gonna do? They're gonna recruit players that win. They don't get fired because they don't graduate their players, they get fired if they lose and don't fill their building."
A few minutes later, Greenberg said, resignedly, "This conversation has devolved from where it began," before offering his own point on college athletics. Everyone on the panel made dejected attempts to address Francesa.
Cammy Myler, a luger who competed in four Olympics, pointed out that Francesa seemed to be only talking about male athletes. Is she serious? he must have thought. This is the real world, lady! This is Mike's world.
"I'm not getting into female athletes 'cause I don't really spend much time with them," he said. "I'm just talking about major college sports now. And I'm not insulting—I'm talking about the sports, big time college football and big time college basketball, that's what I'm talking about."
A little later, Francesa said—contradicting, it should be noted, what academics who have looked into the matter say—that paying college athletes wouldn't solve a damn thing, thanks to the ladies.
"You can't do that," he said. "Because as mentioned, Title IX is the law of the land. You can't do that. You have to pay them all."
Myler later mentioned, with justifiable frustration, that she was proud to be an athlete in college. Miller, who had his back turned to Francesa during yet-another interruption, took longer than usual to turn around and acknowledge that he was speaking yet again.
Elsewhere on the dais was Rob Manfred, the commissioner's longtime caporegime, a leader in central baseball's crusade to get A-Rod. Francesa, somewhat unaccountably, has lately been harshly critical of MLB in general, and Manfred specifically. No matter that this was the second most powerful man in baseball, though; tonight, the entire conversation orbited around Francesa.
"This is hard for me, but I'm going to agree with Mike," said Manfred, at one point. "I do think that for elite college programs you're never going to change the way that they operate. But for me, I don't go to the next step to, 'You gotta pay them.'"
"I don't either," said Francesa.
"See, we're two for two there," said Manfred.
"No one's mentioned A-Rod yet," said Francesa.
(Brendan Shanahan, if you're wondering, didn't even get to say a word for an hour.)
Kiki VanDeweghe tried to offer up something vague about how this is a problem for "society," not just college sports. Francesa bulldozed through that one, too. Forget you, Kiki! This is a two-way conversation between Mike and his own mind.
"You can't fix it," he said. "Because it's big money. It's big. It's never gonna change. It's not gonna change. It cannot be fixed. There's no way to fix it."
That was the theme. This is reality, it can't be fixed. It got a little exhausting for everyone. Miller called on Robert Sack, a U.S. Appeals Court judge. Despite all the problems with college sports, does he watch the big games? Yes, said Sack, who made an analogy suggesting that the big money coming into college sports is part of a broader issue and added, "I know it's Monday night, I hope we're getting out of here. I don't much care how they got there but I want to see Monday Night Football," said Sack.
"Bingo!" Francesa blurted out. "Bingo"
That was his kind of panel.