CLEVELAND, Ohio — Less than two weeks into his new ESPN Radio show, Keyshawn Johnson says he’s starting to hit his groove.
“I’m enjoying it,” the former New York Jets great says. “These six shows have been unlike anything ESPN Radio has ever seen in the mornings.”
“Keyshawn, JWill & Zubin,” which Johnson hosts with Duke basketball legend Jay Williams and “SportsCenter” host Zubin Mehenti, airs weekday mornings from 6-9 a.m. on ESPN Cleveland 850 WKNR in the time slot previously occupied by Cleveland native Mike Golic, first alongside Mike Greenberg and then Trey Wingo.
“We certainly respect that Mike Golic was on the air for 20-some years in his hometown,” Johnson says. “I get it. We understand that, we respect it. But we’re going to be different.”
cleveland.com caught up with Johnson to talk about the new show and upcoming NFL season.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: You say the show is going to be different. How so?
A: We’re going to talk sports and more sports on top of sports. But we’re also going to talk about the community and the well-being of communities. We’re going to talk about the unrest, the lost lives in the black community, and the lost lives in all communities. We’re not going to shy away from those things. I think in too many sections of the country, people run from that because they don’t want to hear it. So, they try to tell us to stick to sports and don’t talk about real-life issues. That’s not who we are going to be. We’re going to have fun, joke, mess around and be upbeat as you drive into work. It’s not going to be depressing, but when things come up that matter, we’re going to discuss it because we can. We’ve got three guys from three different backgrounds and walks of life. It’s just a different show.
Q: How does having three diverse voices shape the show?
A: It sends a different message to different listeners, so we can touch everybody. I don’t have a [specific] demographic and I don’t believe that’s the case with Jay or Zubin either. I think people really enjoy fun and informal co-hosts who give people information and keep them on their toes at the same time. There’s room for everybody in this space given that sports talk radio in the mornings traditionally has been reserved for white males. ESPN, for whatever reason, made a major decision to allow me, Jay and Zubin to take over a very high-stakes, high-priority property and to expand it. I applaud them for that.
Q: In the past, ESPN has encouraged its hosts to stick to sports. Have they given you the green light to speak freely?
A: No one is putting a muzzle on us. It’s “talk about the passionate conversations and be passionate about what you believe in.” We’re not going to play political games. I don’t need to mention the president’s name. That’s not who I am anyway. I don’t need to target the president of the United States, the governor of Ohio or the mayor of Cleveland. My voice will speak for itself. I just want to put on a good show for the fans to enjoy and if something comes up within our communities that need to be touched upon, we’re going to do that. I think ESPN understands that.
Q: Let’s talk about the NFL. Commissioner Roger Goodell has changed his position on player protests and it looks like we’re going to be seeing more of that this season. Do you think that is going to hurt the game at all?
A: I don’t think it hurts the game. People like football. When you go back to 2016, that message was hijacked. That young man [Colin Kaepernick] was never talking about the military or the American flag. He never once mentioned that. But because people are delusional and hear what they want to hear, they tried to turn it into something. And on top of that, politicians used their powers to spook people to create this feeling of American betrayal by Kaepernick… It basically ruined his career, but it also made the people in power who kept him out of the NFL look silly at the end of the day. So, Roger, watching George Floyd with a knee on his neck and murdered in front of our own eyes or Jacob Blake gunned down like a dog in the streets, it wakes him up and makes him realize, “You know what? I’m probably shouldn’t be running and hiding behind the shield. I need to step up because our league is made up of a very high number of African Americans. Even if the owners don’t want to say anything, I’m going to do because it’s time for me to look at change and finally say enough is enough.”
Q: How do you think the NFL is handling the pandemic? Do you think they’ll be able to get through the season without any major hiccups?
A: As long as they don’t get false positives, I think they’re going to be fine. They just have to figure out what’s going on at those labs. But I think they’ll be able to play a season. They’re doing a tremendous job at keeping the numbers down and keeping everybody as safe as possible.
Q: The PAC-12 isn’t playing this fall. If you were still at USC, would you play?
A: I don’t know that I would play. I keep getting that question because I was the No. 1 overall pick [in 1996]. I’d have to look at the safety and the well-being and health of me and my family. Then, what am I getting out of playing? There’s no guarantee playing is going to increase my draft status.
Q: You’ve been critical of Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield in the past. But with Kevin Stefanski replacing Freddie Kitchens, what are your expectations for Mayfield this year?
A: I’ve been more critical of Freddie Kitchens than Baker Mayfield, though I wanted Baker to pipe down some of the antics and just play the position. I certainly understand the young man trying to position himself a certain way. I get it, I was once there before. But my play spoke for myself, so I could do and say what I wanted. I think he has an opportunity to work out pretty well with Kevin Stefanski. But one thing I would say to the head coach is, “I need you to call the plays.” He got hired because he was a good play-caller. Why would you give that up? But I think Baker has a good situation right now. He’s just got to seize the moment, not get caught up in the hype and play football. That’s something I know he can do.
Q: Odell Beckham Jr. didn’t have a typical OBJ season last year. Do you think he’ll rebound?
A: Injuries, bad coaching, bad quarterback play, bad team. It all contributes to not having a good year. You can’t throw it to yourself, you can’t call your own plays as a receiver. You need the entire offense plus the coordinator to help you do your job.
Q: Last year, some people were predicting playoffs, maybe even Super Bowl for the Browns…
A: Not me!
Q: What are realistic expectations for them this season?
A: Better than last year. Then from there, let’s see what happens with Baltimore and Pittsburgh. If you’re the Cleveland Browns, just be better than a year ago. If they can do that, they might have a chance to do something and make some noise.
Q: It’s been difficult to get a good read on the season because of no preseason, but do you have any bold predictions?
A: Somebody wins the Super Bowl that you had no idea was even in the running, maybe a team like the Oakland Raiders or Jacksonville Jaguars.
“Keyshawn, JWill & Zubin” airs live weekday mornings from 6-9 a.m. on ESPN Cleveland 850 WKNR and simulcast on cable from 6-10 a.m on ESPN2 and ESPNEWS.
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