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It’s Time For Michael Jordan To Tell The Truth

“Having covered Michael Jordan’s prime years in Chicago, Jay Mariotti says it’s time for MJ to come clean in ‘The Last Dance’ docuseries.”

Jay Mariotti

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What I experienced for eight years cannot be crammed into 500 minutes. Let’s hope the 10-part documentary series, “The Last Dance,’’ is remembered for more than the usual retro rehash: Michael Jordan’s merciless appetite to conquer flesh and blood, an angle that merely brushes the marrow of the most exhilarating and elaborate sports story ever told. The magnitude and scope of his reign remain immense even now, still hard to wrap the mind around, as if Shakespeare, Scorsese and Fellini collaborated to inject every conceivable dramatic element, with sprinkles of Spike Lee, Dick Ebersol and Bugs Bunny.

Competitive rage. Global overload. Gambling. Murder. In-house treachery. A pop-culture explosion. Celebrity fawning. Corporate exploitation. Political aloofness. Sneaker frenzy. A mysterious baseball interlude. And characters as diverse as ‘90s life itself: a brooding sidekick, a free-love coach, a feather-boa-wearing freak, a grumpy general manager who poisoned the joy instead of embracing it, and an insufferable owner who was stingy with well-deserved financial rewards and couldn’t wait to launch his own dynasty, which has become a travesty. Even a filmmaker as skilled as Jason Hehir wishes he had a wayback machine to tackle a monstrous challenge: The Jordan spectacle, with all its triumphs and tensions and scandals, was best lived and consumed each day to allow for an exact chronicling of grandeur and wildness.

Nor can a film about Jordan and the Bulls dynasty serve any therapeutic purpose, for a country mired in a stupefying medical lockdown, if it dabbles in the worst two words in the ongoing political lexicon: fake news. This narrative always has lacked a complete filling of all the blanks, revelations that make the story whole. Thus, “The Last Dance’’ is thrust as a moratorium on getting at the truth of a man who somehow remains mysterious after a generation of tongue-wagging and slam-dunking through our consciousness. Some would compare Jordan, in a context of baggy shorts and $200 sneakers, to Donald Trump, and just as Americans demand transparency from the President of the United States, particularly during a pandemic, they would appreciate clarity from the most significant basketball player and sports cultural figure ever.

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The audience will be the judge, over the next five weekends, on whether Jordan strikes a more authentic bond beyond his extraordinary legacy. At 57, still mourning the death of his younger friend and disciple Kobe Bryant, he is losing chances to resonate with the masses. He will make progress in “The Last Dance,’’ but likely not enough to lift him from the realm of the enigmatic.

Never has the world hosted an athlete so heavenly and simultaneously devil-like — and if that seems a stretch, consider Jordan won six championships and six Most Valuable Player awards in his six NBA Finals … 666. His genius was his fury, his compulsive need to control every human being and circumstance around him, and that is what fascinates me about the docu-series. As a general rule since his playing career ended, Jordan has been largely reclusive as owner of the nondescript Charlotte Hornets, reticent to reconstruct the Bulls years, an era I covered as a Chicago Sun-Times columnist. He has controlled his image by simply not discussing it and staying out of the mainstream and Twitterverse. That has led to social-media mockery (see: Crying Jordan meme), but isolation served him long before he was advised to shelter at home like the rest of us.

So why come out now, Mike? Why consent to a massive project that drops Sunday night on ESPN and Netflix? Is the renowned control freak just playing us again?

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Or, some 22 years after pushing off Bryon Russell (he did) and delivering his famous final fling with an exquisitely flexed extension of the right wrist, is Jordan finally ready to drop the veneer and tell the entirety of his tale? If so, it would include a dissection of the following subjects, heretofore off-limits: his troubling gambling habits, the unanswered questions about his father’s grisly 1993 murder, his abrupt decision to play minor-league baseball and whether it was attached to an NBA suspension, his well-known loathing of Bulls general manager Jerry Krause and its toxic spread throughout the organization and league, his rebuke of team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf for siding with Krause in his feud with coach Phil Jackson, Jordan’s disgust that ownership dismantled the dynasty before its expiration date, a public sexual affair and the end of his first marriage, his relationship with his children, and an array of friendships that have run the social gamut, from Barack Obama, Tiger Woods and Kobe to the shadowy likes of Richard Esquinas, Slim Bouler and Eddie Dow, a North Carolina bail bondsman found dead with three of Jordan’s checks in his briefcase.

Obviously, not all of those talking points will be in the show. But the opening episode does include a scene that confirms Jordan’s heartless contempt for Krause. Described as “maniacal’’ by the Washington Post, Jordan approaches the roundish Krause after practice and says, “Are those the pills to keep you short? Or are those diet pills?’’ It’s a symbolic snapshot of the wicked strife between management and the team’s cornerstones — Jordan, Jackson and Scottie Pippen — that led to the tragicomic breakup of a powerhouse capable of winning one or two more titles. It took the presence of rare footage from the final 1997-98 season, christened “The Last Dance’’ by a turmoil-weary Jackson, for the NBA’s entertainment division to kickstart a project centered around the farewell tour, with breakout profiles of the human sides of Jackson, Pippen and Dennis Rodman, assuming Rodman has a human side.

The question to ask throughout the eight-plus hours of air time: Is any new ground being broken? Just because Hehir raves about Jordan’s willingness to answer the most sensitive questions — including those about gambling and his father’s murder — doesn’t mean we’re getting absolute answers from Jordan that settle all doubts.

ESPN - The Last Dance Trailer II on Vimeo

“He never once censored us. He never once policed us. He never once said that any topic was off-limits, so he was a perfect partner for this project,’’’ said Hehir, who sat down with Jordan for three lengthy sessions. “He went pretty deep on the gambling allegations against him in the ‘90s. He went pretty deep about what happened to his father and how that affected him on the court. … He never instructed us to take anything out, and from Day One, he told me that there wasn’t a question I would ask that he would not answer truthfully.’’

Of course, it’s one thing for a director to raise sensitive topics in a one-on-one interview setting — and quite another to pursue penetrating follow-ups, explore the topic with other people and edit the film with an independence that lets the viewers decide. Didn’t Hehir, who grew up mesmerized by the Jordan mystique like the rest of his generation, fear the wrath of Basketball Jesus? Evidently not. Hehir asked the tough questions, and Jordan provided firm responses, but if this is an Oscar-caliber film, it must be balanced and explore all sides of the explosive issues. Watch closely, with a checklist and pen, to see if “The Last Dance’’ is more about presenting Jordan in a favorable light or at last revealing the real-real, regardless of optics. Which delicate topics are confronted and which are short-shrifted, downplayed and ignored? Gambling, for one, is pervasive throughout the series; the NBA camera crew repeatedly shows Jordan making wagers on anything and everything during the final season. Given Hehir’s exhaustive research and interviews with dozens of subjects, the director had the leverage to attack as he chooses. The wealth of material provides an opportunity for an all-time cinematic work, one befitting his stature. Both blessed and haunted, through triumph and tragedy, Jordan deserves an epic Hollywood deep-dive that captures his historical footprint.

But that would happen only with unvarnished truth. And the control freak in Jordan wouldn’t allow total disclosure. Does he reveal how many wagering millions he blew? If he was suspended by the NBA? If he sees a direct link between his gambling and his father’s murder? No, he does not.

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The credits suggest Jordan took typical liberties to protect his portrayal. His Jump 23 enterprise is a principal producer, along with ESPN Films, NBA Entertainment and Mandalay Sports Media, which is chaired by a league owner, the Golden State Warriors’ Peter Guber. Meaning, Jordan and his longtime business representatives, Estee Portnoy and Curtis Polk, have had the entire production of “The Last Dance’’ under their dictatorial thumbs, with Portnoy and Polk listed as executive producers alongside industry veteran Mike Tollin. Team Jordan also is fully supported by a league far more interested in legacy promotion than any raw, damaging truths, as well as a sports network grateful to have something substantial to fill dead air during a pandemic. If he wanted it — and my experiences with him say he would demand it — Jordan is armed with the power to control content as a creative overlord. As Polk told The Athletic, that power was wielded during early moments in the project, perhaps making it more difficult to address the most jarring and sensitive components of Jordan’s joyride with definitive, full-blast treatment.

No doubt “The Last Dance,’’ at its core, succeeds in presenting the Jordan panorama in a 2020 prism: the unprecedented glorification, the rock-star traveling circus, the endless highlight reel, the cut from his high-school team that fueled his inner rage, the title-winning jumper for North Carolina, The Shot, the 63-point game, his personal rivalries and accompanying trash-talking, the postseason dramas that weren’t as easy as they seemed, failures and eventual conquests against the Detroit Bad Boys, the Knicks wars, the legendary “Sick Game,’’ the near-crash against Indiana in the 1998 Eastern Conference finals and, of course, the final shot in Utah that should have been the perfect ending for the perfect career. The docu-series will serve as indisputable evidence to hush stubborn millennials and Gen Zers who insist, with recency bias and ignorance, that LeBron James is the greatest of all, forgetting that Bryant came closest to approaching Jordan’s body of work and pulling off the grand impersonation.

Just how far does the documentary dare to reach? I’d like to know if the late David Stern, who presided as NBA commissioner during the Jordan era, fully investigated the relentless flurry of his gambling. Didn’t the league have much to lose if Stern publicly benched his Golden Goose? Jordan didn’t even try to hide his itch for the action — an off-night trip to Atlantic City during a playoff series in New York, his massive golfing losses to an opportunist (and book author) such as Esquinas, his Las Vegas rampages with Woods and Charles Barkley. Was it merely coincidence that Jordan escaped to baseball and missed almost two NBA seasons? We don’t get those answers. During that period, I wrote a column explaining why Jordan was exposing himself to potential extortion — say, a scumbag on an 18th green asking him to fix an over-under in a Bulls game. The Sun-Times’ managing editor, who didn’t last in the job much longer, warned me, “This is the most important column you’ll ever write.’’ The piece ran in some form, but not before an editing workover that seemed to involve outside meddling. Such was the influence of Jordan.

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In the doc, Jordan does pile on Krause, whose 2017 death makes the scene look worse. He won’t be so cruel to Reinsdorf, now a fellow NBA team owner and a man Jordan fears to some degree. “The Last Dance’’ should include the all-encompassing quote of the final season, when Krause, already settled on Iowa State’s Tim Floyd as the next coach of a so-called new Bulls dynasty, sat down with Jackson and said, “You can go 82 and (bleeping) oh and you’re not coming back. This is it for you and the Chicago Bulls’’ — prompting Jackson and the players to declare war on the front office. Also worthy of pitiful detail: the subsequent two-decade implosion of the Bulls. Now an abysmal franchise that wasted the most potent resource in sports history — the pomp and glory of Jordan — the Bulls allowed the very icon they’ve immortalized with a United Center statue to finish his career with the Washington Wizards, all because Jordan was seething about how Chicago ended and needed to control the last scene, sad and dubious as it was in D.C.

No Jordan series is complete without Reinsdorf, now 84 yet still a power player in sports, and how he extracted mega-fortunes for himself and Bulls investors yet never rushed to reward Jordan, Jackson and Pippen. Reinsdorf demanded Jordan play out an eight-year, $24-million contract that became laughably obsolete, particularly after Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Patrick Ewing received new, fatter deals amid an NBA boom. Jackson would win title after title, then be insulted each summer with a Scrooge offer that led him to sign one-year deals — the breaking point in his rift with management. Pippen was grossly underpaid for years, demanded a trade and had to leave in free agency to hit a jackpot commensurate with his Hall of Fame credentials. Reinsdorf, as he has done once or twice, could make that story line vanish in the ESPN project with one call to the Disney Co. hierarchy.

There was the anger of Jim Brown and other black activists who called Jordan a coward for his social indifference, such as his flip comment that “Republicans buy sneakers, too,’’ which Jordan says was taken out of context. And don’t forget how Jordan and Pippen turned the 1992 Barcelona Olympics into the humiliation of Krause’s Euro-pet, Croatia’s Toni Kukoc. In an NBA documentary about the Dream Team, Jordan said, “We weren’t playing against Toni Kukoc. We were playing against Jerry Krause in a Croatia uniform.” Does he now think the stance was a bit petty? Especially after Kukoc famously bailed out PIppen by hitting a game-winning playoff shot after Pippen pulled himself from the game, upset Jackson didn’t draw up the play for him. Pippen should be painted as an agitated soul during Jordan’s baseball escape, not dealing well with lead-dog pressure and referring to Chicago fans as racist around the time a gun was found in his vehicle outside a restaurant. How about the 1993 NBA Finals, won in Phoenix by John Paxson’s dagger and lost when Barkley spent too many off-nights partying at an Irish pub in Scottsdale? And what of Jordan’s faltering relationship with Barkley? Speaking of alcohol, Jordan threatened to ruin Rodman’s life when the party animal routinely showed up hungover at practice, a necessary form of pressure that sobered up Rodman long enough to contribute to three titles and cement his Hall of Fame induction. The bullying side of Jordan is front and center — the haymaker he threw at a feisty Steve Kerr in practice and his ruthless criticism of end-of-the-roster patsies, if only to toughen them for the postseason grind. I once saw Jordan try to gouge Reggie Miller’s eyeball, and he wasn’t apologetic, telling a magazine, “Playing Reggie drives me nuts. It’s like chicken-fighting with a woman.’’

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Say what? Jordan should thank the lords, every day, that he played before social media and TMZ. That goes for all facets of a life that would be 10 times crazier and more scandalous had he had born in 1993, not 1963.

Said Hehir: “He went very deep into how he is perceived, how his intensity is perceived, how his competitiveness is perceived and his ambivalence about that. He has a certain pride in how competitive he is and how he’s a win-at-all-costs kind of guy, but also he’s a human being.’’ But the Jordan-rage angle is well-worn, because everyone was subjected to his wrath at some point, myself included. There was the day he warned, “I keep your articles on my refrigerator door,’’ and the time he tossed an ice cube toward my head — missing like, well, a batter whiffing on a curveball — when I stopped by a golf course to ask about the gambling probe. I remember arriving in Memphis to see his oldest son, Jeff, play one of his first AAU games, only to have the coach instruct me which questions to ask — as ordered by Jordan over the phone. When the Sun-Times displayed the column on the front page, with a large photo of Jeff, Jordan was outraged, even as I explained I don’t make placement decisions. And when he couldn’t personally scold and admonish, his tentacles were deep. Broadcaster Ahmad Rashad, his friend and media protector, would take personal shots. And Jordan’s father, not long before he was murdered, engaged me and other media people in a spirited discussion, concluding that his son’s gambling urges were the product of “a competition problem.’’

For years, I navigated Jordan’s attempts to control the media.

Now, in 2020, Jordan is part of the media.

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It’s vital to ESPN’s editorial integrity that “The Last Dance’’ not be a puff piece. Buried until further notice in a coronavirus black hole, the network desperately needs oxygen without live sports, which has caused considerable ratings slippage and revenue bleeding along with continued cord-cutting that is killing the cable industry. With journalism in Bristol giving way to business relationships with leagues and athletes, ESPN cannot afford watered-down storytelling for “The Last Dance’’ — the one story that should be maximized and dramatized for full effect.

The clamor for an unconditional, consummate Jordan documentary has been intense for years, increasing amid America’s collective quarantine. LeBron himself tweeted, like a schoolboy: “April 19th can’t come fast enough. I CAN NOT WAIT!!’’ We will be entertained and educated, occasionally gobsmacked and slack-jawed, and that is cool, because I no longer can binge on “Ozark’’ without wanting to body-slam Marty Byrde. But if you’re looking for long-lost revelations that will rock the world, well, remember the operative rule about Michael Jordan: No matter the game, he is in control.

Always.

Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of “Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Podbean, etc.). He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. He appears Wednesday nights on The Dino Costa Show, a segment billed as “The Rawest Hour in Sports Broadcasting.’’

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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