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When pop star M.I.A. flipped the bird during the halftime show at Super Bowl XLVI, it was a Saranac Lake native who took the lead on the National Football League’s response.
“In this instance, we believed we were putting on a show that would be appropriate for a massive, diverse audience,” said Brian McCarthy, the NFL’s vice president of communications.
The M.I.A. controversy paled in comparison to the notorious Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction of Super Bowl XXXVIII, but it was McCarthy’s job to respond nonetheless.
“We’d been to the rehearsals where they ran through the shows multiple times,” he said. “There was no indication something like this was going to happen. When we concluded the halftime show on Super Bowl Sunday, many of us had no idea that there was a small incident that took place. It was the third quarter when we realized we had an issue on our hands. We got with NBC, looked at what happened, and we knew we had to take responsibility.”
But McCarthy says his work goes well beyond responding to controversy.
McCarthy graduated from Saranac Lake High School in 1986 and went on to receive an English degree from St. Lawrence University.
He worked for several newspapers before getting into communications. In his youth, McCarthy interned at the Adirondack Daily Enterprise and dug graves at the Pine Ridge Cemetery.
In his capacity as the NFL’s vice president of communications, McCarthy’s job is to promote the league’s best practices and policies.
“I deal with publicizing many of our initiatives, if it relates to player health and safety, rules changes, some of our marketing and business initiatives, so I’m on a daily basis talking to the media, ranging from ESPN to the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times, every media outlet in the world,” he said.
Coming off another wildly successful Super Bowl, McCarthy says league officials took all of one hour to celebrate the season’s success.
“And then it was back to work. We’re already having meetings about next year’s Super Bowl in New Orleans,” he said. “We’re very driven. How can we improve? The other motto here is ‘Believe in Better,’ just because we’re America’s favorite sport does mean we will always be.”
But McCarthy also gets time to be a fan. He recalls that before the coin toss leading up to the showdown between the New York Giants and New England Patriots, he got to soak in what he described as an electric atmosphere.
“And with the coin toss, we’ll escort media out and there’s about a three-minute lag from the singing of the national anthem to the actual coin toss,” McCarthy said. “So I’ll be standing on the 50-yard line for about three minutes. You know you’re alive when you’re standing there, about to kick off the Super Bowl. It does hit you at that moment.”
McCarthy says that despite working alongside big personalities like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, it’s the opportunity to connect with communities and youth football that make his job so rewarding.
In 2010, Saranac Lake’s varsity football team squared off against Bronxville in the state semifinals. McCarthy made the trip to Kingston to cheer on his Red Storm. His boss, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, was also there, cheering on his Broncos.
“He still lives in that town, and he drove up with his wife and young daughters to that game. He was on the Bronxville side,” McCarthy said. “I was able to go up with my son and sat on the Saranac Lake side. Unfortunately the wrong team won, but later on the commissioner and I had a good chat about the game. It just goes to show the level of commitment we all have to the game of football.”
McCarthy says it’s that commitment to the game that’s caused the NFL to take the lead on addressing player safety issues at all age levels.
“We look at it as an opportunity to help improve helmet safety for not just football, but for a wide variety of sports, if it’s lacrosse, or hockey or even educating young people about the need to sit out if there is a potential concussed player,” McCarthy said. “We too have sons and daughters who play sports.”