I fully expected Jamal Spencer to decline to talk about Oct. 17, 2015.
It would have been easy enough for Spencer to say “no” politely or otherwise turn down my interview request.
As media members, we’re supposed to be the storytellers, not the story. But Spencer became a story last October in the aftermath of Michigan State’s miraculous 27-23 comeback win against Michigan. He became a modern-day tale of how circumstances, a mistake that snowballs and the Internet can combine in the worst sort of way.
“This is a perfect storm,” said Spencer about a most-imperfect scenario.
Jamal Spencer is the sports director at WZZM-TV, the ABC affiliate in Grand Rapids. Last Oct. 17, as Michigan State was celebrating its victory after Jalen Watts-Jackson’s 38-yard return of a mishandled punt snap for a touchdown with no time remaining, Spencer was reporting live on air from outside Michigan Stadium that the Wolverines had won, 23-21.
It was a mistake that didn’t start with Spencer, but he became its face, a face that soon landed on the front page of Deadspin and was trending on Twitter and Facebook.
Spencer has gone through a range of emotions as well as personal and professional development the past year as he’s put the day and the notoriety it brought behind him. As players and coaches have said once or twice in interviews, “We have to forget it and move forward.”
That’s what Spencer has done.
“My journalistic reputation took a hit that I didn’t think was going to be fixed,” Spencer said this week when we sat down prior to Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio’s news conference. “It took a couple of months for me to start feeling better about that. People will still make a joke here or there. People will still bring it up. It’s one of those things that I know is going to be around for a long time, but it was an unfortunate series of events.”
These were those unfortunate events:
- WZZM has a news broadcast scheduled for 7 p.m. ET on Saturdays, or after the 3:30 p.m. ABC college football game ends. There was good reason to believe that the Michigan State-Michigan game, pitting the No. 7 vs. No. 12 teams in the nation would be on the station, allowing Spencer to do his live shot at the top of the newscast.
- ABC instead chooses to show the Kansas State-Oklahoma game in that time slot and broadcast Michigan State-Michigan on ESPN. Oklahoma beats Kansas State, 55-0, and the game ends on time to start the news at 7 p.m. Watts-Jackson’s winning touchdown comes 21 minutes later just as Spencer is due to begin his live shot.
- Sports anchor Eric Lloyd opens his segment telling viewers that Michigan has won, 23-21. There is a graphic with that score on the screen. Lloyd attempted to get the final score through a phone app but the final score came up after he began the segment.
- People in the station’s control room realize that is incorrect but they can’t get the information to Spencer.
- Spencer takes his cue from Lloyd’s initial report. He had two scripts ready depending on which team wins, although he was 99 percent sure he’ll be using the one that tells of a Michigan victory.
When Spencer finishes his spot, and Lloyd comes back on screen, his first words are that of an apology.
“Actually, Jamal, that was our mistake,” Lloyd says. “That was our mistake. We thought we’d seen the game was over. We will correct that in the 11 (p.m. newscast).”
Spencer was stunned.
“I’m like, ‘Wait, what just happened?’ My friends made this GIF of my face when I find out that Michigan State won,” Spencer said. “I unplug and run down the hill from where I was and I’m asking fans what happened? What happened? And they go ‘Michigan State blocked a punt and our punter threw it to the fastest guy on the team and he scored a touchdown.’ I’m thinking ‘wow.’
“So I run inside and I do the postgame. I didn’t think anything of it. I think ‘Okay, I made a mistake’ but again, I’m like no one’s watching us. Everyone’s watching the game so this one might fly under the radar.”
The radar quickly found the report.
Not the first time I’ve made a mistake in my career and it won’t be the last. Gotta take the bad with the good https://t.co/N4vxwJRgyM
— Jamal Spencer (@JamalWZZM13) October 18, 2015
“We do the postgame. My phone is blowing up by 9. By 9 o’clock I’m getting texts. I’m getting tweets. We’re on the drive back to Grand Rapids after we’ve done all our postgame, and I see that Deadspin has tweeted ‘local anchor messes up sports’,” recalls Spencer. “I don’t watch the link. I was there. I know what I said. I’m under the assumption that what they sent out has the anchor’s report in it, my report in it and the anchor’s report, so I send a tweet out that, ‘Hey we made a mistake.’ It’s not the first time, it won’t be the last.”
What most people see, however, isn’t the full report. They see the report beginning with Spencer live outside of the stadium. That’s how it was edited by Deadspin.
“It doesn’t bother me that people haven’t seen it because I understand why,” said Spencer. “It bothers me that that’s where Deadspin starts their edit, as if I made that up.”
The station issued an apology admitting it had made a mistake, but it didn’t single out any absolution for Spencer or note that he had only been following the information he had been given.
Spencer says he was in a funk for the next couple of months over the report but has worked through it. When he found out ABC wouldn’t be showing Michigan State-Michigan, he says he asked his manager if a live shot should still be planned given the uncertainty of the game being over. The decision was made to stick with the live shot.
“In my career, I’ve always been a team player,” Spencer said. “I will always do what I’m asked, but now that I’ve been in that unfortunate position, I have a little more of a backbone to go ‘You know what? That’s not a good idea, and we’re not going to do that.’ But it’s definitely made me a better journalist in the sense that I will never be in a rush to be first or be toward the front of the line. I just want to make sure everything is 100-percent right.”
Spencer is a Detroit native and a Michigan State student. Yes, he’s still a student. You won’t see too many journalists and broadcasters who get a chance to leave early for the pros – that’s usually reserved for the players they cover – but Spencer got a job offer from Fox Sports Detroit in 2009 before he completed all his course work that “was too good to pass up.” That job led to a position in Fargo, N.D., before he returned to Michigan two years ago.
He’s working on completing his final four credit hours this semester and will earn his degree in December. It includes one lesson no class could fully cover.
On Saturday, Jamal Spencer will be at Spartan Stadium covering this year’s Michigan State-Michigan game.
Last Oct. 17 was a long time ago.
Kevin Goheen covers Michigan State for Landof10.com. Follow him on Twitter at @CincyGoGo