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‘Wild Card’ Wants You to Know Craig Carton Has Changed

He was once the king of loudmouth New York sports talk radio. Then he went to prison. A slick new HBO documentary feels like part of his carefully orchestrated rehabilitation project.

It’s always the same story: Sure, he acts like a gigantic asshole on the air, but that’s all for show — in real life, he’s a total sweetheart. The sports world is filled with Loud Talking Men — guys who yell their scorching hot takes on TV and radio, the stupider and more incendiary the better — and we reluctantly enter into some weird social contract with them, accepting that it’s all an act. You see, you shouldn’t take their rants and obnoxious demeanor seriously — it’s entertainment, folks. 

I have zero patience for a Stephen A. Smith or Mike Francesa — I’ve got enough morons in my regular life, so who needs one during my downtime? — so I confess that I wasn’t that familiar with Craig Carton, who was once one of the gods of New York sports talk radio. As a result, I had no opinion of the man (other than an allergy to his profession) going into Wild Card, the new HBO Sports documentary about his rise and fall. Subtitled The Downfall of a Radio Loudmouth, the film invites us to relish the bad behavior that made him rich and famous, which is merely a preamble to a professional implosion brought on by his hyped-up personality. (In Carton’s case, the Achilles’ heel was a gambling addiction, which resulted in his imprisonment for, among other things, fraud.) 

But for all its professional polish and pleasingly familiar fall-from-grace narrative, this sub-30 for 30 overview left me struggling to care as much about Carton as the film thinks I should. As viewers will learn, Carton is a good family man who suffered horrible trauma in his childhood. But Wild Card ends up feeling a little too slick — a little too programmed to be a rehabilitation campaign — to fully satisfy. Carton got famous doing a performance. This comeback vehicle feels like another kind.

Directed by Martin Dunn and Marie McGovern, the documentary is narrated by Carton, who speaks straight to camera about his upbringing, his immersion in the sports-radio world and his eventual team-up with former Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason on their hit morning show Boomer and Carton. With shades of Howard Stern, this “shock jock” (as he was often described) was the program’s wild-and-crazy flamethrower, with Esiason as his calm, composed, beleaguered straight man. The mixture of unpredictable and measured made them a winning combination, and Carton quickly discovered that shooting off his mouth — insulting call-in listeners, joking about his turn-ons — was great theater. Even those in Carton’s corner lovingly refer to him as an asshole. We hear from several people in Wild Card — including a freakish amount of former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a close Carton friend — who all tell the same story: Love him or hate him, you had to keep listening to hear what he’d say next. And the louder he was, the better the ratings were.

Of course, volume was hardly the only weapon in his arsenal. Every big city has its share of sports-shouters, and none of them had the reach of Carton. So what was his secret? Wild Card doesn’t have much in the way of answers, but hearing him talk about his life in the documentary, what comes through clearest is his natural ability to connect with an audience. Growing up in New Rochelle, Carton (who turns 52 in January) possesses a classic New Yorker’s gift for gab — a bit of edge, a slightly adrenalized demeanor, a love for busting your balls — that’s personable, if also exhausting. In Wild Card, he’s a perfectly enjoyable tour guide, but I confess I found myself looking forward to the “downfall” part of the story. 

Wild Card runs about 75 minutes, so you don’t have to wait long for it to come. From childhood, Carton had loved blackjack — he’d organize games with the local kids — and once he became successful on radio, he started making bigger and bigger bets, with the possibility of millions of dollars being won and lost over the course of an evening. Gambing was always a component of Boomer and Carton, with Carton often advising listeners how to bet in relation to the point-spread. But at the blackjack table, he wasn’t quite so exuberant. One of Wild Card’s few revealing moments comes from Natasha Dow Schüll, a cultural anthropologist and the author of Addiction by Design, who explains that gambling addiction is less about chasing some thrill than it is a way for the person to escape the anxiety and uncertainty of real life. 

This was certainly true of Carton, who had good reason to seek an escape: He was repeatedly sexually assaulted at a summer camp when he was 11, a crime he didn’t discuss with anyone. In the documentary, Esiason says he never knew about it, even though they’d worked together for a decade. And Carton claims that when he wrote his 2013 book Loudmouth, he included a segment about being molested, but his editors urged him to take it out since it was far heavier than the otherwise lighthearted content. Rather than opening up publicly about what he’d experienced as a boy, he shut down. “I was never living a full life, emotionally, because I had this secret which gnawed at me,” Carton tells us.

For many years, Carton was convinced he was an expert blackjack player, but his inability to walk away from the table when he was ahead eventually doomed him. The losses mounted, and when, out of desperation, he took money from investors and then used it to pay off his gambling debts, law enforcement intervened. In 2019, he was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for conspiracy, wire fraud and securities fraud. Wild Card’s least-persuasive segments involve him reading from the diary he kept while incarcerated, his somber, earnest delivery feeling mostly like an attempt to convince the world that he’s not that same loudmouth anymore.

It’s hard to square the bygone hotshot radio personality with the humbler man we see in Wild Card. (In June, he was released early from prison.) There’s no question that Carton experienced something horrible in his youth, and his shame and anguish around that assault scarred him for years to come. The documentary shows how the 2011 Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State prompted an angrier, more sincere version of his on-air self when he discussed the monstrousness of those crimes — and head coach Joe Paterno’s unforgivable decision to cover them up. It was a rare reminder that the real Craig Carton wasn’t the guy we normally heard on the radio. 

But while sympathizing with what he’s gone though, I nonetheless found Wild Card emblematic of a culture that has a high tolerance for willful provocateurs who are rewarded if they bring in ratings. That might seem hypocritical to say since I’ve long been a fan of Howard Stern, the king of this approach, but at least with him there was something genuinely groundbreaking. By comparison, guys like Carton got rich yelling at you about how much the Jets suck.

When Carton was sentenced in 2019, the judge noted that she would sometimes listen to his show. “I knew you could be fun to listen to,” she told him. “I also knew you could be a jerk.” That moment isn’t included in Wild Card, but it’s a perfect summation of Carton’s appeal and limitations. The documentary wants you to believe this jerk has changed. I hope the pain he’s carried since childhood has been lessened somewhat now that he’s more outspoken about it. But I wish the filmmakers didn’t work so hard trying to turn my sympathy into a well-manicured comeback strategy. The whole point of Wild Card is to let us see the real Craig Carton. But the aggressive PR packaging gets in the way.