Shannon Sharpe’s controversial TV interview with Julio Jones has ignited a “massive stink bomb,” said a source, putting a strain on the billion-dollar relationship between Fox Sports and the NFL.
The Atlanta Falcons were blindsided, the same source told Front Office Sports, when Sharpe aired a phone call with Jones on Monday’s “Undisputed” and the star wide receiver all but declared he was done with the team.
It’s unclear whether the 32-year-old Jones, who has been the subject of trade rumors since the 2020 season ended, knew he was live on the air with Sharpe and co-star Skip Bayless.
The Falcons, according to sources, believe the interview — where Jones told Sharpe “I’m out of there, man” about Atlanta while also dismissing the Dallas Cowboys as a possible destination — undercut their negotiating position as they try to trade the All-Pro wide receiver to another NFL club.
The team had no advance knowledge or input into the interview.
Sources said Jones’ reps at Creative Artists Agency have reached out to Fox about the situation.
“It’s become a huge deal,” said one source.
During an interview on NBC Sports’ PFT Live, Chris Simms told Mike Florio he heard Jones was blindsided too.
“From what I know, from people I know in the NFL, he had no idea he was on the air yesterday,” said Simms. “I found that out from somebody in the know here. Yes, he and his agent were very disappointed after. If that is the case, yes, that’s kind of messed-up by Shannon Sharpe. Listen, I like Shannon Sharpe. He’s got a big mouth like me and all those types of things. But that was not the exactly coolest thing he’s ever done if that’s the way it went down.”
But during a slow news period for the league, former NFL front office executive Mike Lombardi said he believes the media coverage could actually strengthen the negotiating position of Atlanta, which finished last place in the NFC South with a 4-12 record in 2020.
The Falcons, who haven’t made a playoff appearance since the 2017 season, also fired GM Thomas Dimitroff and head coach Dan Quinn following an 0-5 start last year.
“The thing that makes trades great for the team is to have interest. And there’s interest in Julio,” said Lombardi, co-host of “The GM Shuffle” podcast. “As long as you have competitive interest, they’ll maximize the deal.”
Andrew Brandt, the former Green Bay Packers vice president who now writes the “Sunday Seven” newsletter, said he can’t blame the Falcons for being frustrated.
“The Falcons are not going to be happy with this — and they will express their angst to the NFL,” Brandt said. “Payback’s too strong a word. But they will hope for some kind of stroke down the road.”
The Falcons declined to comment on the record Tuesday. Fox, CAA and the NFL did not return messages left by FOS.
Jones seemingly saying goodbye to the Falcons comes at a crucial inflection point for the team. Only one quarter of NFL teams have the cap space to assume his guaranteed $15.3 million salary, according to CBSSports.com.
Jones signed a three-year, $66 million extension prior to the 2019 season — and $64 million of that guaranteed.
One prominent NFL agent not affiliated with CAA told FOS that Atlanta is now “boxed into a corner” as result of Monday’s segment.
“He’s a world-class talent regardless of age, health, and contract,” the agent said. “If I’m a team like Green Bay, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Buffalo, Tennessee, Baltimore or Seattle, I’m sending whatever picks I have to Atlanta to get him.”
The fallout could just be starting for Fox, which recently agreed to pay over $2 billion a year for 11 seasons to retain its Sunday afternoon NFL TV package.
Among potential consequences for Fox:
Blowback: The NFL has its ways of handling its TV partners. The Falcons could quietly seek an on-air apology or some other redress from Fox. If not forthcoming, Fox could end up in the doghouse among the league’s TV partners, which include NBC, CBS, and ESPN.
That could mean less access and cooperation from the team and other NFL clubs. Or, the worst case scenario for an NFL TV partner, the bad blood could lead to poor game matchups.
The New York Times reported in 2013 the NFL “voiced its displeasure” with ESPN’s involvement with PBS’ “Frontline” special on concussions days before the network dropped out of the project. Then-ESPN president John Skipper and the NFL denied the league applied pressure over the production.
Even though ESPN then paid the most among the league’s NFL TV at $2 billion a year, “MNF” annually got the worst game matchups. It took new ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro and executive vice president Burke Magnus years to repair the frayed relationship.
Legal jeopardy: FS1’s “Undisputed” is produced out of Fox Sports’ studios in Los Angeles. California is a two-party consent state when it comes to capturing a phone conversation like what aired Monday.
That means both Jones and Sharpe would have to have knowledge the call was being aired/recorded.
Sharpe could face a misdemeanor charge for violation of California Penal Code Sec. 632, although there’d have to be a complaint filed. This particular misdemeanor carries up to a $2,000 fine and/or a year in jail.
“It meets every criteria under the penal code,” California-based criminal defense attorney Dod Ghassemkhani said. “It will come down to if Jones wants to pursue it. I doubt he will.”
A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Police Department told FOS Tuesday that no complaint had been filed.
Fox Fallout?: Publicity-wise, Sharpe’s Jones get was a triumph for “Undisputed,” generating massive free media coverage. Even rival ESPN credited “Undisputed” for the Jones scoop on Stephen A. Smith’s “First Take” Tuesday.
Sharpe’s been in negotiations for a contract extension. The interview highlighted his influence and access to today’s stars. Bayless spiked the ball Tuesday, calling “Undisputed” the “hottest” sports show on TV. “You never know what might happen,” crowed Bayless on Twitter.
But the controversial incident also raises questions how and why Fox producers let Sharpe conduct an interview that could not only put the network in hot water with their most important business partner but legal jeopardy as well.
“It was creative and organic. But it was unprofessional as well,” said another source. “You have to tell someone they’re on TV. And not just at the end of the segment to cover your ass.”
The interview follows the embarrassment in April where NBA superstar Kevin Durant called out Sharpe for repeating a fake quote on-air from Twitter that he never actually said.
“This is on the production team. The producers have to do their job,” said a source. “Their job is to protect Shannon and Skip. When something like this happens, you go to a commercial and figure it out — before they get in trouble.”