While Dan Graziano (COL ’94) himself was never a professional or collegiate athlete, he has dedicated his career to following some of sports’ greatest success stories. His career in sports journalism began during his sophomore year of college when the senior sports editor of The Hoya asked him to cover the lacrosse beat. A lifelong sports fan, Graziano obliged and joined The Hoya’s sports section. He later went on to become the senior sports editor, which led Graziano to continue pursuing sports journalism professionally as he began covering baseball for The Palm Beach Post following graduation, including covering the Florida Marlins during their first World Series victory in 1997.
For the last nine years, Graziano contributed to ESPN as an NFC East blogger, New York Giants reporter, NFL insider, writer, reporter, studio host and analyst. He frequently appears on-air as a contributor for shows such as “NFL Insiders,” “NFL Live” and “SportsCenter.” He currently resides in Fairfield, Conn., with his family and commutes to ESPN’s studios in Bristol, Conn., and New York. The Hoya spoke with Graziano on the phone about Georgetown University, his career in sports journalism and his perceptions about the NFL going into this fall. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you choose to attend Georgetown?
I always liked Washington, D.C., and I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I got together with my high school guidance counselor and was putting a list together in terms of schools to see, and I was basically looking at liberal arts colleges around that size, basically East Coast. … We did the campus tour of Georgetown, and I’ll never forget it. We were standing there, overlooking the football field, and my dad asked me at the end of the tour, “What do you think?” And I said, “This really changes the first-choice question pretty drastically.” I felt like that day, that was my spot. And so I became obsessed with it. I applied early, got deferred and then got accepted. It was the first acceptance I got in March. I also got into the University of Virginia, and I was going to visit both campuses and decide, but I went to Georgetown first. It was one of those campus visits where incoming freshmen stay in a freshman dorm. I went for a night and stayed with freshmen, I think it was in Harbin. I got back and we were supposed to go to Virginia the next weekend for the same kind of thing, and I just told my parents, “I really have to go to Georgetown.” It really was just a love at first sight kind of thing.
Were you a Georgetown basketball fan as a student? What’s your favorite memory of watching Georgetown basketball?
Freshman year, Dikembe Mutombo (SLL ’91) and Alonzo Mourning (COL ’92) were both on the team. That was fun, and the memory that stands out is early that year, like in November or December, Duke came in and we actually beat them. It was incredible. I remember because my brother who was down visiting who would actually go to Duke and was obsessed with Duke, I was able to get in his face about that for a while. That was kind of a high point because Mourning got hurt in that game and didn’t play again until the Big East tournament. At that point the seeding was all messed up and they ended up being an eighth seed [in the NCAA Tournament], had to play UNLV in the second round, and the next year was kind of disappointing as well. Junior year, after Mourning was gone, we actually missed the tournament for the first time in like 16 or 18 years. One of the first games I went to was the Duke game freshman year, and it turned out to be the high point of Georgetown basketball while I was there. I was not there during any kind of glory days for sure.
What would you think about bringing basketball to campus?
I mean, it would be great. I remember 45-minute bus rides to get to a home game, and then the 45-minute bus ride back. When they lost, it was depressing, so I’m sure it’s better now. It’s easier to get to and quicker to get to from where they are now, so in comparison to when I was joining it would seem great. But yeah, obviously, if you could play on campus, you could roll out of your dorm and walk down there. I don’t know where they would put it — there’s a lot of construction happening over there by McDonough [Arena].
You overlapped with Mourning and Mutombo, some of Georgetown’s best players. Is there anything you think Georgetown could do to return to their glory days?
I feel like it’s almost blasphemy to say, but I feel like it’s still too tied to the John Thompson Jr. days. I feel like every coach since him has been sort of him. First, his successor was Craig Esherick (GSB ’78, LAW ’82), who was on his staff, and then it was his son [John Thompson III], who did a great job and got to a Final Four, but ended up not being able to win large games anymore. And then they go to Patrick Ewing (CAS ’85), who is a great Hoya, but to me it almost seems like you need a reboot, and kind of a program where it’s not necessarily rooted in what was great 35 years ago. That’s my feeling. When Ewing got hired, I was lukewarm, and no offense to him, but it felt like Big John is picking the coach again, and that doesn’t seem to get us where we want to go. I’ve kind of been a disaffected Hoya fan for a while. The year that they lost in the second round to the Florida school with all the dunks, it was Florida Gulf Coast, and I swore it off. I said, “They’re never going to hurt me again, I’m not going to watch, I’m not going to care.” I’ve sort of stuck with it. I watch from a distance, and I don’t put the games on. It was too many stupid first- and second-round losses that were just avoidable, and it just got me down. I didn’t watch the rest of that tournament, which got really bad. I think Syracuse went to the Final Four. I don’t know what would drag me back to it, but nothing that’s happened since has.
Why did you decide to become a sports journalist?
I was double majoring in English and government. I always liked writing. I always liked sports, but I wasn’t a great athlete. I got involved with The Hoya sophomore year, I think, maybe wrote something for them freshman year but got back seriously with them sophomore year. They put me on the lacrosse beat, and I knew nothing about lacrosse, but I went to games, learned about the games a little bit, so you just kind of started writing whatever they needed for sports. … It seemed like a fun thing to do, but we were self-taught. We didn’t have a faculty adviser. We were putting the paper together and driving out to the printing press, and you can’t even imagine. We would actually print out the articles and the headlines and put them through a machine that put wax on the back, and then cut them out with X-Acto knives to put them on the page, and then bring the physical broadsheet pages to a printing press. This is how we put the paper together in the early ’90s. It was a real crash course in how to make a newspaper like a physical thing. That was fun, and I just kind of got hooked. I like going to events. I like writing things out. I was covering basketball teams by the time I got to be a junior, senior. I was the sports editor senior year. Still didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I thought I’d try to get a job writing sports somewhere, but those are hard to get. The one acceptance letter I did get was from a place in St. Petersburg, Fla., called the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. … On the tail end of that, they had an interview day where editors from newspapers in Florida came in and put us through an interview practice so we could go out and interview for jobs. And one of the editors that came was with the city editor from The Palm Beach Post, which is in West Palm Beach, Fla. He and I hit it off really well. But he was the city editor, and he was like, “Look, most of your clips are sports. It seems like that’s what you want to do. I’ll give your resume and clips to our sports editor, and who knows.” So I go back home, I lived with my parents, I’m covering high school sports for some weekly newspapers in Central New Jersey and I get a phone call in December 1994, so I graduated in May 1994, and it’s the sports editor from The Palm Beach Post. And he says, “I got your resume and your clips, it looks good. Why don’t you come down here for a four-month paid internship, and then, no promises, we’ll see what happens.” I’m looking out my window, it’s snowing, he’s telling me to come to West Palm Beach and work for a real newspaper, so I said yes. I packed my car and I went down there, did the internship, which was incredible, because The Palm Beach Post covers everything that the Miami Herald and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel cover sportswise, but they do it with less staff. So as an intern, you were the second or third or fourth person on anything. You’d go to the Miami Dolphins — all the spring training games that go on down there. They’d ask you to do anything and everything down there, including work nights putting the paper together, editing stories, et cetera. It was another crash course in how a real newspaper is put out, and they hired me. I spent five years there, and that’s how it all got started.
How did you end up getting the job at ESPN?
After five years at Palm Beach, I was the beat writer for the Florida Marlins, so I covered baseball and a little bit of football at the beginning. I was kind of the backup on the Marlins beat and the Dolphins beat. They both opened up and I was a baseball fan growing up, and so I picked the Marlins, which was a lot fun. They won the World Series in ’97, which was my first year on the beat. Things got bad for them. They traded everybody away, sold the team, so you’re still covering baseball, but not very exciting. The World Series in ’99 [New York Yankees vs. Atlanta Braves], a friend of mine had worked for the Star Legend in Newark, New Jersey, came up to me in the press box and asked if I would be interested in applying for their Yankees beat job. … I applied for and got that job. I moved back to New York City in 2000. I worked at that paper for nine years. While I was there covering baseball, I started doing a little bit of TV work for SNY, which is the Mets’ TV network based in New York, and also I got a little bit of traction with ESPN on the show “First Take,” which at the time is not what it is now. It used to be like a morning sports variety show where they get a bunch of different stuff. There was a segment called MLB Double Header where they had two baseball reporters. They had a rotating cast but every day it was two different ones, and you’d get your notes from around the league — here’s what I found in my notes from around the league. I got involved in doing that and made some friends and some contacts at ESPN from that. … A couple months later I got a job with AOL Fanhouse, starting up a site where they were going to cover sports and hire experienced sportswriters, and all this. … I also continued to get some training in the NFL, and that lasted two years before AOL pulled the plug on it. By that point, I had spent some time in Bristol at ESPN, gotten to know some people. I was kind of an annoying guy that walked around the building and knocked on doors and introduced myself. … When we found out AOL was going to lay us all off because they’re not going to do this project anymore, I reached out to some people I knew at ESPN, including a guy named Rob King, who at the time was overseeing all of ESPN.com. We had a conversation, and he expressed some interest…And a couple months later, true to his word, I got a call from the NFL editor at ESPN.com wanting to interview me to be NFC East blogger. They used to have a blogger for each of the NFL divisions. And that was the opening. I got that job, and that’s how it started. A couple years later, they started using me on TV, on a show called “NFL Insiders,” which lasted four years and we don’t do anymore. But by that point, I was kind of in the mix, to the point where other shows were using me, and I kind of devolved into the role I’m in now, covering the league and doing it for the website and also for TV. When I was a senior at Georgetown, we had a night where Michael Wilbon, who was at The Washington Post at that time, came and talked to us about sports journalism as a career. That really stuck with me, that was a big moment for me, the idea that I could do this for a living. That was an on-campus visit from him, he’s well-known at the time as a columnist at the Post. He’s become a big name on ESPN.
What does a typical week at work look like?
Depends on the time of year. If it’s in season, during an NFL season, my week is on Sunday nights. They’ll tell me what game I’m covering next Sunday. I will probably have a day or two during the week where I’ll have studio appearances, either in New York or in Bristol for “SportsCenter” and “NFL Live” and all these other shows — that day can be different every week. Some weeks it’ll be a Tuesday. Some weeks it’ll be a Thursday. Some weeks there will be two of them. I build around those. In the meantime, I’m constantly making phone calls and texts to basically get information. Covering the league means finding out what’s going on, getting up on what’s going on around the league…By about Thursday or Friday, I will have reached out to the two teams that are playing in the game I’m covering Sunday and try to get some players and coaches on the phone to talk to them about what’s going on with their teams so that when I’m standing on the field Sunday and no one’s at the stadium yet and I have to give a report on what’s going to happen for this game, I’ve got some information…That’s the end of my week usually, Thursday or Friday is spent getting those notes together, Saturday I travel to wherever the game is, Sunday I get up and go to the stadium and do those reports for the various Sunday morning pregame shows and then I sit and watch the game. And then after the game, I go and gather more information for that night’s “SportsCenter” and the shows that are on after the games, and then I fly home on Monday and the whole thing repeats itself. In the offseason, it’s mostly working from home, except when I have to go into one of the studios, Bristol or New York, to do shows. … The offseason on a normal offseason, there are places I would go, like the scouting and combine in Indianapolis in February, the owners’ meetings, somewhere warm usually in March. I would usually go on a training camp trip in July and August where I would visit teams training camps, six or eight or 10 different teams — doesn’t sound like I’ll be doing that this year for obvious reasons. My job has a lot of variety to it. There isn’t a lot of set routine. During the season there’s some routine, but like I said, certain weeks might have more studio time than others. Traveling every Saturday and Monday keeps it interesting too.
What are some of the greatest challenges that come with your job?
Trying to get people to tell you things they’re not supposed to be telling you, finding out what’s going on behind the scenes as opposed to the obvious and what they want you to know. The trickiest part is getting information, unearthing information, knowing it before anyone else does. That’s a constant churn of work, relationship-building, conversations that aren’t necessarily directed at any piece of information. You call an agent or a general manager or a coach just to talk, just saying hi, checking in on their family. We talk some football stuff, sure, but a lot of it is just making sure you have relationships with people so that when you need to know something, you can call them and trust them to help you, or when they have something they might want to get out there or they found interesting they might think of me. Building and maintaining those relationships to a point where they result in the ability to get and deliver information, that’s the real work of the job. Writing is work, but I’ve always liked doing it. Being on-air is a rush, and as long as you’ve got your reporting done and your preparation done, you tend to speak with confidence about your topic. The challenge is the reporting, the unearthing information, and as I said at the beginning, trying to get people to tell you stuff you’re not supposed to know.
What do you anticipate seeing from the Washington, D.C. NFL team this fall?
During the season, I was doing shows with Jack Del Rio, who’s now their defensive coordinator, so he left us to go back into coaching, that’s where he ended up. I think their defense will be good, I think they have a lot of talented guys up front on the defensive line and linebacking, and I think they should be a tougher team to play against. Offensively, I wonder, because the quarterback is young and relatively inexperienced, so I don’t really know. A lot depends on how he develops and how quickly he develops and what they can put around him. I think they have a few holes on offense. It’s hard for me to see them as a contender this year. There’s always a team or two that’s better than you think they’re going to be — that could be anybody. They’re probably still building some things on offense, but I like the new coach.
A lot of newspapers will no longer use the team mascot name for the Washington, D.C. NFL team. What is your opinion on the use of the word, as it is a slur?
We’ve been told we don’t have to use it if we don’t want to, but there’s not a company policy saying don’t. I have no idea whether that will change — that’s way above my pay grade. I remember years ago, they told us we don’t have to use the name if we don’t want to, and I haven’t. I haven’t used it for nine or 10 years. Sometimes you slip and you say it out loud on the air, but I do tend to avoid it. I think it’s changing. They can get people to come out and say, “Oh, we don’t see it as a slur, but there are other people who do see it as a slur,” and to me the fact of the matter is it was at one time used as a slur, therefore I think it’s the wrong thing to put on your shirt and scream and cheer for on a Sunday afternoon. I think they should change it. I think if you were to start a sports team right now in 2020, a high school or college or professional sports team, you would be in a lot of trouble. They wouldn’t let you do that. If one of my kids called someone that name in school, I’d get a call from the principal. To me, it seems very stubborn of them to insist on it, especially when you look at what’s happened in the last couple of months and the significant changes that have happened in our country as a result of the attention being paid to racist history and racist images and statues. I think at this time it seems like the right time for them to engage in it if they’re ever going to.
The NFL has had a lot of controversy in recent years surrounding racial justice, particularly the firing of Colin Kaepernick in 2016 and controversy around standing for the playing of the national anthem. Do you think there will be any different actions by the league this year surrounding activism?
That’s been a big focus of what we’ve been working on for the last few weeks. The league has said it would come out and make this a priority, and I think last week there was an owners meeting where they talked about a new voter registration initiative they want to set up in the league. The commissioner said this was something that came up in his conversations with players. The league has been going to players and saying, “What are the issues that are important to you, and how can we help with them?” He comes back and says one of the things they want help with is voting. Register voters — LeBron James is doing something and Patrick Mahomes has jumped in on it. The league is now establishing a voter registration initiative to get everyone in the league registered and everyone outside the league registered. That’s an example of it, and they say they’ll be doing more, but in terms of Kaepernick and the protests and people taking a knee during the national anthem, it sounds like as of right now they’re planning to do that. When they do this year, it’ll be received differently by the league. The league and the owners and the commissioner’s office all recognize that we’re in kind of a different place with this stuff. I don’t think it’ll be the pushback from owners they got last time. Last time, the owners passed a rule in May of 2018 that said players either had to stand for the national anthem or stay in the locker room until it was over. They never enforced that rule because the players union came and said, “Let’s talk about this and come to some kind of agreement.” That rule still technically exists, but has never been enforced, and I don’t think they’ll start enforcing it this year. I think people realize to a greater extent what Kaepernick was talking about, and when I say people I’m talking about the institution of the NFL. I think they have a better understanding of what he and the other players were protesting when they took the knee the first time, and I think at this point they would not come down hard on players who did it.
What changes do you anticipate to the NFL this fall, in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic?
I think, first of all, I don’t think anybody can have any degree of certainty about what will happen with the NFL or much of anything. The virus is new. We don’t know how it’s going to act. At this point, we thought things would be on an improving trend, and in a lot of places, it’s the opposite. That goes to show that we really can’t know what will happen over the next few months. If they have a season, people have to be prepared for it to be a strange one where there are probably bigger rosters that are built to accommodate the possibility of positive tests, come in on the weekend and guys can’t play. I think there will be stadiums where there are no fans, maybe all of them, but there’s also a possibility that fans will be allowed in some places but not others. And the likelihood that if fans are allowed in stadiums that the stadiums are not filled to capacity because of distancing rules. You might say, “We’re going to sell 25% of our tickets or 50% of our tickets, and everyone who comes in, we’re going to tape off seats so you can’t sit right next to each other.” At this point, the players union and the league are still talking about the rules they want to put in place that govern health and safety as it pertains to the virus and the testing program, just a million different things they’re all working on to see if they can have a season at all — a lot of stuff that hasn’t been finalized yet as you and I are talking. Once it is, then the next step is can they all get to training camp? Can they have a season? What’s going to happen if people start testing positive, if people start getting sick, if the virus comes back in the fall and the winter? So I think there’s a lot of unknowns. I think they’re planning to have a season, they’re optimistic they can have a season. I don’t think anyone is 100 percent confident they can have a season. Doing the reporting, I can understand what the challenges are and why it might not be able to happen, but they’re watching other leagues get back to it and hoping they can learn something from those returns. And if they go smoothly, they should be in a position to follow suit.