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Don’t Be Derailed By A Failure Of Imagination

“Leach failed to use his imagination to understand what his intended joke might look like. This is a valuable lesson for sports radio hosts. It isn’t just what you say or post. It’s how others might interpret it.”

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Former Mississippi State defensive tackle Fabien Lovett announced on Monday that he would be transferring to Florida State. Lovett’s father, Abdual Lovett, told the Clarion Ledger, “I thought better of Mississippi State and I thought they would’ve handled this situation a little bit better than how they have handled it,” Lovett told the newspaper. “I’m disappointed for even pushing my son to go there and for this to happen.” Abdual decided his son should leave the program. 20-year-old Fabien agreed.

What happened prior to this decision? Mississippi State head football coach Mike Leach messed up. On April 1, Leach tweeted a meme featuring an elderly woman knitting a noose with the caption, “After two weeks of quarantine with her husband, Gertrude decided to knit him a scarf.” The post was meant to be a joke about a married couple getting on each other’s nerves. The meme didn’t generate many belly laughs though due to the image of a noose, which sparked a much different reaction.

Mississippi State coach Mike Leach deletes tweet of knitted noose

Leach issued an apology on Twitter the following day. “I sincerely regret if my choice of images in my tweets were found offensive. I had no intention of offending anyone,” Leach wrote. The statements kept flowing as Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen was up next, “No matter the context, for many Americans the image of a noose is never appropriate and that’s particularly true in the South and in Mississippi,” Cohen said in a statement last week.

There is an important concept to understand here. In the movie Mile 22, various events were written on a whiteboard — Pearl Harbor, 9/11, Paris, London Subway — while an executive tells the class, “Every one of these events occurred as a result of failure of imagination. Your job is to prevent the end of tomorrow by using your brains and imagination.” This is where Leach screwed up. He didn’t use his imagination to anticipate the reaction.

Let’s take Leach at his word that he had no intention of offending anyone. It’s a reasonable position. I highly doubt that Leach woke up on April 1 and thought, “Hey, you know what would be a ton of fun today? If I royally ticked off a bunch of black people including some of the players on my new team.” Leach failed to use his imagination to understand what his intended joke might look like. This is a valuable lesson for sports radio hosts. It isn’t just what you say or post. It’s how others might interpret it.

Sometimes a great way to gain knowledge is to shut up and listen. I reached out to a couple of my friends and colleagues to pick their brains. My tone was like, “Hey man, we have different backgrounds and different life experiences, so I’m curious how you view this Leach story.” The first person I talked to was Rob Parker, host of FOX Sports Radio’s The Odd Couple.

Parker said that Leach’s post was terribly insensitive and that references to hanging should be avoided. He compared the meme to sports writers in the past getting in trouble for equating things to Hitler. It just doesn’t work. Parker also brought up the story of baseball manager Ozzie Guillen saying in 2010 that he loved former Cuban president Fidel Castro. That played a key role in Guillen being fired as Miami Marlins manager at season’s end as attendance sunk. Cubans were incensed by Guillen’s comments.

I reached out to Nigel Burton as well who is a host at 620 Rip City Radio in Portland. He was also the head football coach at Portland State for five seasons. Burton said that Leach will have to re-recruit his current players to stay at Mississippi State because there is nothing keeping them there. He also said that if you talk to any comedian the number one rule is to know your audience. It’s an outstanding point when you consider how diverse “the audience” is for head coaches and radio hosts.

Nigel Burton hypes Utah's legendary football program on 'The Pitch ...

Burton mentioned something else about Leach that really caught my attention — “Mike Leach has a long history of not just having a hard time seeing things from other people’s point of view, but refusing to see anything from anybody’s point of view other than his own.” Instead of debating whether that assessment is deadly accurate or not, it matters that Leach has provide ammunition for anybody to think that about him in the first place. I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t want to provide reasons for anybody to say similar things about me. 

I don’t want to paint the picture that every comment from a host is like constantly trying to disarm a bomb. I once had an Australian Shepherd named Amigo. He was awesome. For a short period of time ‘Migo’s paws were bothering him. He would walk gingerly across the grass ever so carefully while timing out each one of his steps. Sports radio hosts don’t need to do the equivalent with each statement they make during a show. There is, however, real value in being aware of how comments or social media posts can still be hurtful even if they aren’t intended to be offensive.

FOX Sports NFL Insider Jay Glazer is the founder of the charitable organization MVP (Merging Vets & Players), which matches former combat veterans with former athletes. The goal is to ease the transition into their new lives away from the playing field or battlefield. Before signing a deal with the Dallas Cowboys at the beginning of April, defensive end Aldon Smith was out of football and a regular at MVP. Glazer wrote in his recent mailbag for The Athletic that Smith opened up to 80 to 100 total strangers about his sobriety issues and has been extremely vulnerable about it. “Vulnerability is real strength, not the muscles on the outside,” Glazer wrote.

We often don’t think of vulnerability as being manly, but it is. We often don’t think of sensitivity as being manly, but it is. It’s humane to be aware of the pain that other people have experienced. NBA star Karl-Anthony Towns lost his mother, Jacqueline Cruz-Towns, this week due to complications from the coronavirus. How do you think a meme with an attempt to make light of the pandemic would make him feel? Compare that to Leach’s tweet. It’s best to be sensitive toward that deep pain rather than attempt to make light of it.

Timberwolves Center Karl-Anthony Towns' Mother Passes Away From ...

Some will argue that Leach’s intentions should be taken into account more. I say the end result is what matters most. If I intend to paint your house white, but instead paint it green are you focused on my intentions or the end result? It’d be funny if sports radio only focused on intentions — “Hey, lay off of Bill Buckner. He didn’t intend for that ground ball to go between his legs.” Leach intended to make a joke, but the end result was a lot of people being offended because of a painful history that Leach failed to consider.

“Try to see it once my way” isn’t just a cool line from an Alice In Chains song, it’s the right approach to gaining understanding and perspective in life. If many of your ancestors died as a result of hanging, would you be laughing at the meme Leach posted? I highly doubt it. It’s best to learn a lesson from Leach’s post instead of bickering about what the reaction is or should be. Leach failed to see the big picture by showcasing a failure of imagination. If he avoided that miscue, he also would’ve avoided the giant mess he now has to clean up.

BSM Writers

Grant Cohn’s Trolling of Players is Unacceptable

After an altercation between Javon Kinlaw of the San Francisco 49ers and Grant Cohn, it became clear that Kinlaw was being trolled by a member of the media.

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grant cohn

Grant Cohn is a media member who writes for the FanNation 49ers blog on SI.com. He also talks about the team on his YouTube channel, which has over 48,000 subscribers as of noon Thursday. His father, Lowell, was a longtime columnist in the Bay Area.

Javon Kinlaw is a defensive lineman, whom the San Francisco 49ers drafted in the first round despite concerns about the durability of his knee. He played four games last season, his second in the league.

The two were involved in two confrontations this week. The first one occurred off to the side of the 49ers’ practice field. Kinlaw apparently cursed at Cohn and knocked his hat from atop his head. Later in the day, Kinlaw again swore at Cohn, this time after joining a live stream on Cohn’s YouTube channel. (Side note: I have never felt so freaking old as I did while typing that previous sentence.)

OK. That’s my attempt at an absolutely straightforward and objective summary of a situation that scares the hell out of me. Not because a player was mad at a member of the media. I’ve had it happen to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s my opinion that this has been happening for as long as human beings have scrutinized the athletic efforts of other human beings.

What scared me was that I was seeing some version of the future of sports media. A future in which media members behaved like YouTube trolls, acting purposely ridiculous or antagonistic to initiate conflicts that could be turned into more conflicts that would could be gleefully recounted as content for the audience. I thought that because that’s pretty much what Cohn did:https://youtu.be/4Hf9sjBttFY

Cohn essentially bragged about the number of different things he said that may have prompted Kinlaw’s reaction, and you know what? It worked. Kinlaw got mad. He confronted Cohn. Twice. TMZ published a story about it. So did SFGate.com.

This is troll behavior. You know, the online pests who say or do something intended to provoke a reaction, and once they get that reaction, they recount and scrutinize that reaction with an eye toward triggering another reaction. Lather, rinse repeat. Increasingly, entire online media ecosystems consist of nothing more than people who don’t like each other talking about how much they don’t like one another.

I’m not going to pretend this is entirely new in sports media. Sports columnists have been known to make reputations with their willingness to be critical of the home team. A huge part of Skip Bayless’ brand is his unwavering insistence on highlighting Lebron James’ perceived flaws. Stephen A. Smith has engaged in public feuds with players, namely Kevin Durant.

I do see a difference between this and what Cohn did, though. The reaction Bayless and Smith are primarily concerned with is from their audience, not their subjects. The subjects may get mad, but that’s not the primary goal. At least I hope it’s not.

What happens if that is the primary goal? What if someone is offering opinions not because it’s what they really think, but because they want to provoke a response from the subject? Media careers have been built on less.

I don’t know if that’s the case with Cohn. I’ve never talked to him in my life, and even if I had, it’s impossible to know someone’s true intent. But in listening to everything he said AFTER the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, I’m not willing to assume that Cohn was operating in good faith. Here’s how Cohn described the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, which occurred as practice was beginning.

“In the training room, I saw Javon Kinlaw, who is the king of the training room,” Cohn said. “He’s usually in the training room.”

Cohn said the two locked eyes, but were separated by about 70 yards at the time. Kinlaw then walked across the field to where the reporters were gathered. He stood directly behind Cohn.

“So I turn, and I say, ‘Wassup, Mook Dawg?’ “ Cohn said, referencing the nickname on Kinlaw’s Instagram account. “And he doesn’t say anything. And I say, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Javon?’ “

“And then he said, ‘What are you going to do about it you bitch-ass,’ and then he said one more word that I can’t say,” Cohn said. “And then I turned to face him, and I said, ‘Oh, it’s like that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s like that.’ And then he knocked the hat off my head.”

OK. Pause. In my experience, when your job is to publicly describe and critique the performance and attitudes of professional athletes, there will be times in which the athletes do not care for your description or your critique. Some of those who are displeased will make their objections known to you.

However, there are two things that are unusual here: First, the fact Kinlaw knocked the hat off Cohn’s head, which is unacceptable. Second, Cohn then posted a video on  YouTube to not only talk about what had happened, but state he had been so critical of Kinlaw for so long he wasn’t sure what specifically sparked Kinlaw’s anger.

“Javon, what are you upset about?” Cohn asked toward the end of  his video. “Is it the fact that I said you have an 80-year-old knee? Is it the fact that I said that you’re a terrible pass rusher and you’re just a two-down player? Is it the fact that I said the Niners shouldn’t have drafted you and should have taken Tristan Wirfs instead. Is it the fact that I said that you’re unprofessional and immature.

“It escapes me, which of the hundred negative things I’ve said about Javon Kinlaw the last couple of years, moved him to approach me in such a way, but you know what, I applaud Javon Kinlaw for coming to speak to me directly, and I ask you, what do you think Javon Kinlaw is mad about.”

Cohn was trolling Kinlaw. No other word for it.

That night, Cohn was conducting a live stream on YouTube, which Kinlaw joined, while apparently eating dinner, to make declarative statements about the size of Cohn’s genitalia — among other things.

Neither one looked particularly impressive. Not Kinlaw, who was profane and combative with a member of the media, at one point making a not-so-subtle threat. Not Cohn, who asked Kinlaw, “Do you think I’m scared of you, Javon?” He also said, “I don’t even know why you’re mad, Javon.”

I think Kinlaw would have been better off ignoring Cohn. If I was Kinlaw’s employer, I would probably prefer he not log into video livestreams to make testicular comparisons. But honestly, I don’t care about what Kinlaw did. At all. He’s not on a team I root for. He didn’t physically harm anyone. He used some bad words in public.

I am bothered not just by Cohn’s actions, but by some of the reactions to them because of what I think this type of behavior will do to an industry I have worked in for 25 years. Credentialed media members who behave like Cohn did this week make it harder for other media members who are acting in good faith. Preserving access for people like him diminishes what that access will provide for those who aren’t trying to use criticism to create conflict that will become content.

I think Cohn knew what he was doing. In his livestream, before Kinlaw joined, Cohn stated he was not scared because he knew — by virtue of his father’s history in the business — that if Kinlaw had touched him he would potentially be entitled monetary compensation.

By now, it should be pretty apparent how problematic this whole thing is and yet on Thursday, a number of 49ers fans online were sticking up for Cohn as just doing his job. Dieter Kurtenbach, a Bay Area columnist, Tweeted: “Javon Kinlaw does not know that @GrantCohn was built for this.” Built for what? Winning Internet fights? Kurtenbach also deleted a Tweet in which he called Kinlaw “soft.”

Cohn’s father, Lowell, is a former columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. He promoted the first video his son made on Tuesday:

Sorry, I don’t find it funny because it’s another step down a path in which media members seek reactions at the expense of information. Where they look to make fun of players instead of learning about them. They’ll stop acting like journalists and start acting like the trolls who make their money by instigating a conflict, which they then film: “Jake Paul, reporting live from 49ers practice …”

If that’s the case, thank God I’m about to age out of this business, entirely. I’m 47 years old and I can’t believe there’s anyone in our industry who thinks what Cohn did this week is acceptable.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 75

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A new episode of Media Noise is all about reaction. Demetri reacts to the ManningCast’s big win at the Sports Emmys. Danny O’Neil reacts to people reacting to Colin Kaepernick’s workout in Las Vegas and Andy Masur reacts to John Skipper’s comments about Charles Barkley.

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BSM Writers

Bron Heussenstamm Blends Bleav Podcasts Advertising with SiriusXM

Bron Heussenstamm, the CEO of the Bleav Podcast Network says blending podcasting advertising with satellite radio’s reach is a victory for both sides.

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Last week, the Bleav (pronounced believe) Podcast Network announced a deal with SiriusXM to make all 32 NFL team-specific Bleav pods available on the SXM app. SXM can also air Bleav content on any of its sports channels. Each NFL Bleav show pairs a former player with a host to discuss team issues. Eric Davis, Lorenzo Neal, and Pac-Man Jones are amongst the former players Bleav has signed as talent.

I have hosted a Bleav podcast about Boise State football -the Kingdom of POD. I am usually provided 1-3 advertisers per episode by the network and get paid by the download. My subject matter is regional, so my take-home pay is usually under four figures. I have enjoyed the technical assistance and cross-promotion I receive and I enjoyed meeting Bleav CEO Bron Heussenstamm. Bron is Los Angeles-based, a USC graduate, and founded Bleav in 2018. We discussed the SXM deal, podcast advertising, and the future. 

Will the podcast advertisers be carried on the SXM distribution platform?

Yes, Bleav baked-in advertisements and hosts read ads are distributed across all platforms. This enables the host to do their show once through, making it as easy as possible for the hosts and consistent for the advertisers.

Bron Heussenstamm, CEO Bleav Podcast Network

How is advertising on Bleav different? 

We want to be more than a ‘host read ad’ or a ‘digital insert’ with our advertising partners. When companies work with Bleav shows and talent, those companies can receive our omnichannel of distribution points—podcast platforms, YouTube, socials, streamers, TV, radio, and more. This allows for consistent branding across all platforms: great talent presenting great companies to fans and consumers no matter where they consume content. 

What is the growth pattern for podcasts that you see? 

The industry trades have presented 400%-800% percent growth over the next ten years. Once the COVID fog lifted, we really saw these gains. Sports are always going to be at the forefront of culture. The increases in all sports sectors have certainly carried into the digital space. 

SXM has started with NFL shows but can also air more Bleav content – what does that look like? 

We’ve started with our NFL network of 32 team shows hosted by a former player. We’ve kept the door open for our NCAAB, NCAAF, MLB, NHL, Basketball, and Soccer networks. We’re happy for our hosts to be part of such a tremendous company and platform. SiriusXM can continue to amplify its voice and give fans the access and insight only a player can provide. 

The Interactive Advertising Bureau-IAB- says podcast revenue grew 72% last year to $1.4B and is expected to grow to $2B this year and double to $4B by 2024. Have you seen similar growth? What is driving the industry now, and what will be the primary cause of growth by 2024?  

There is a myriad of reasons for the growth. I‘ll lean into a couple. 

At Bleav, we launch and maximize the digital arm of industry leaders. The technology upgrades to allow hosts to have a world-class show — simulcast in both audio and video – from their home has led to an explosion of content. With this, the level of content creators has risen. Having a YouTube, RSS feed, podcast, and more is now part of the brand, right alongside Twitter and Instagram. 

If a company wants to advertise on Bleav in Chargers, we know exactly how many people heard Lorenzo Neal endorse their product. We can also safely assume they like the Chargers. The tracking of demo specifics for companies is huge. It’s a fantastic medium to present products to the right fans and consumers.

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