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Who Ever Thought There Could Be a Football Season?

“When a line of scrimmage and locker room are petri dishes for COVID-19 outbreaks, it’s immoral for the NFL and major college programs to launch seasons fraught with enormous health risks for players.”

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Three months, 36 columns and countless radio shows ago, including an ESPN appearance that ended a Kremlin cold war, I wrote an introductory piece titled, “Stop The Delusion: Sports As We Know It Is Finished.’’

Was I wrong? A freaky baseball season is doomed to starts, stops, opt-outs and testing debacles involving a converted PED lab. The NBA’s Disney World bubble is one J.R. Smith after-hours sneakout from mass infection. Hockey is wise to flee the U.S. virus jungle, yet Canada won’t stop players from spraying particles and Brad Marchand from spitting on opponents.

And football? Who ever thought there could be a football season?

The last few hours finally brought an awakening, or a reckoning, that America should find something else to do in the fall. The words dreaded by millions — “We are running out of time …’’ — were uttered by none other than Greg Sankey, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, from the very sector of a mask-politicized nation that still thinks COVID-19 is the flu and football is bigger than God and disease. What’s happening now is an incremental series of heads-up acknowledgments, soon to include the chiefs of all five power conferences, that college football likely won’t be played in 2020. After months of denial, even the truthers realize that people do get sick from the virus, and do die, and that athletes aren’t the only ones testing positive; Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill and Pac-12 boss Larry Scott are among the infected. This sweeping reality eventually will be adopted by various NFL megalomaniacs, from Jerry Jones to Roger Goodell to Tom Brady to broadcast executives, once they recognize that they, too, stand no collective chance against the virus.

Hard to believe, I know, but true.

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Never mind the 136,000 deaths, the 5,000 fatalities over the last week, the record U.S. caseloads, the numb fact that many more people on this earth will be saying goodbye before the pandemic does. Football had to wobble for reality to kick in — and America is not handling it well, AT ALL. Baseball? It’s background noise when Sonos isn’t working and Alexa has laryngitis. The NBA? It’s a social media opiate, less sport than glitz-and-snark entertainment. Golf is a joy with Tiger Woods, meh without him, and soccer and auto racing are niche itches. The American soul would be dented without them, hardly totaled.

But an autumn without football? To hear the anguish, the absence of pro and college games would prompt the masses to run into the nearest body of water and never come back. I don’t get it. For the life of me — and life is intended literally, being in a pandemic and all — it’s baffling why reasonable people can’t grasp the obvious: To play football without a vaccine is to invite the coronavirus to blitz unblocked from the blindside, an opportunity for massive outbreaks and spreads in a country already bombarded by enough of them.

The line of scrimmage might as well be renamed “the petri dish,’’ with sweating, panting, bleeding and call-shouting men within inches of each other before the ball is snapped, followed by maniacal blocking, grunting, running, tackling and trash-talking. Then they head to the confined spaces of locker rooms — indoors, mind you — where COVID-19 will pitch tents in stadiums for months throughout the land. Other than rugby, UFC (a lost cause) and the Kiss Cam, no sporting endeavor is less conducive to safety and wellness, and it’s unconscionable to think the powers-that-be would ask players to assume such dangers. As Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay put it, while publicizing an HBO “Hard Knocks’’ series also on the endangered list, “I mean, we’re going to social distance but we play football? It’s really hard for me to understand all this.”

Denial sweeps the nation anyway. Fans need their controlled violence, their beloved teams and schools, their fantasy teams, their more serious gambling action. And broadcast networks? They don’t seem to care how many people fall ill in a trigger effect of playing football, petrified by the devastating financial consequences if a $15-billion NFL season and a $4-billion college season are lost. Would Fox Sports pull the plug on ailing FS1? How many of those daily ESPN shows would be shelved? Without football, what would those networks air? Remember, America thrives on football like no other show business genre, including Hollywood, Broadway and music. Even amid the cord-cutting and fragmentation of the television industry, 41 of the top 50 telecasts in the U.S. last year were NFL-related.

Tom Brady: Buccaneers release first photos of QB in new uniform

That appetite hasn’t waned during the lockdowns and isolation of a paralyzing health crisis. It only has become more ravenous. The NFL news cycle has thundered on as if the pandemic doesn’t exist: Brady, joined by Rob Gronkowski, thumbing his nose at Bill Belichick from Tampa Bay and believing the TB12 lifestyle is bigger than the virus; Cam Newton, on the cheap, seeking revenge in New England until Belichick orders him to stop the postgame fashion show; Patrick Mahomes, young enough to be Brady’s kid, already the King of Sports and NFL compensation before his 25th birthday. Turn on any sports talk station, and the hosts aren’t focusing on the pandemic or the new round of social activism, though they should be. They’re talking NFL and Power Five, baby.

The rationale is this: If football can get through a concussion crisis, a barrage of off-the-field conduct problems and a Colin Kaepernick protest movement about to return with a furious vengeance — and rightfully so — why can’t it plow through during a pandemic? And it’s not just the fans and media networks embracing that mindset, but football men on the pro and college levels, ego-driven warriors who believe it’s their life mission and duty to take on an infectious disease and beat it down.

Well, I have a news flash for all of the aforementioned.

COVID-19 is invincible, shakeable only by a vaccine. It can wipe out a position group, a locker room, a community, a league. And if football isn’t careful, it might not recover from the resulting massacre. You have to love Richard Sherman, who quickly pointed out the absurd hypocrisy of the NFL’s new post-game policy: Players are banned from swapping jerseys and interacting within six feet of each other. “This is a perfect example of NFL thinking in a nutshell,’’ tweeted the veteran union rabble-rouser. “Players can go engage in a full contact game and do it safely. However, it is deemed unsafe for them to exchange jerseys after said game.’’

He followed with three laughing emojis, but he knows nothing is funny here. The NFL is treating players like pieces of meat. Risk your lives for three hours on a field, then get your asses straight home afterward so you can risk your lives the next week. Which is why the season is jeopardized not only by COVID-19 but the league’s arrogant proposal to hold 35 percent of player salaries in escrow. If it mirrors the strategy of Major League Baseball owners who actually cried poor during their public huff with the Players Association, brace for another round of depressing labor talks. At the very least, the NFL should provide daily virus tests, given the proximity issues inherent to the sport. Nope — the league wants testing every other day, though it will provide face shields to minimize spread during games, which J.J. Watt — among many uncommitted to playing — says could lead to breathing and glare/fog problems. “Huge outstanding issues are still unresolved,’’ said Sherman, the San Francisco 49ers cornerback and NFLPA executive committee member.

So, why play?

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The answer — and the wrong one, the corrupt one — is money. The powers-that-be are so blinded by the horror of lost billions that they’ve de-prioritized health risks for players. College football has tried to hold on as long as possible, riding the indifference and politics surrounding the virus in certain geographical pockets. But common sense and human decency finally are prevailing. Seasons cannot proceed when fraught with health risks, especially for a college player who receives a humble stipend, room and board but otherwise isn’t paid. Imagine the potential for spread when players, in daily close contact during games and practices, venture onto campuses that do allow student bodies. Also consider the alarming rise of COVID-19 cases in fraternity houses, where players might be partying. This explains why Southern states, filled with people inclined to view the virus as a hoax, are being required to wear masks — ohmygod, masks! — amid the rising death toll.

And why Sankey, in an ESPN Radio interview, said his level of concern is “high to very high’’ about a season ever starting. Said Sankey, who meets Monday with SEC athletic directors: “We put a medical advisory group together in early April with the question, `What do we have to do to get back to activity?’ and they’ve been a big part of the conversation. But the direct reality is not good and the notion that we’ve politicized medical guidance of distancing, breathing masks and hand sanitization, ventilation of being outside, being careful where you are in buildings. There’s some very clear advice about — you can’t mitigate and eliminate every risk, but how do you minimize the risk? … We are running out of time to correct and get things right, and as a society we owe it to each other to be as healthy as we can be.”

He wouldn’t come out and say it, so I will: The COVID-iots who haven’t worn masks have sabotaged football.

At least NFL players would be paid for their roulette game. But if the MLB season is vulnerable to players opting out, Goodell should prepare for a mass exodus, assuming many show up at all. One skeptic is Donovan Smith, who, as the starting left tackle of the Buccaneers, is responsible for Brady’s blind side.

Tampa Bay Lineman Donovan Smith Questions Football During COVID-19 ...

“The unfortunate events of the COVID-19 pandemic have put a halt to a lot of things. Football is not one. To continue discussing the many UNKNOWNS do not give me the comfort,” Smith wrote on Instagram. “Risking my health as well as my family’s health does not seem like a risk worth taking. With my first child due in 3 weeks, I can’t help but think about how will I be able to go to work and take proper precautions around 80+ people everyday to then go home to be with my newborn daughter.

“How can a sport that requires physical contact on every snap and transferal of all types of bodily fluid EVERY SINGLE PLAY practice safe social distancing? How can I make sure that I don’t bring COVID-19 back to my household? Yes, we can get tested every day, but if it takes 24 hours to get my results, how can I know each day that I am not spreading this virus or contracting it?’’

Amen. Yet for every thoughtful commentary, there is lunacy from the likes of college coaching legend Lou Holtz, who emerged from cobwebs with a curious plea: Play the season, risks be damned. Said Holtz: “The way it is right now, they just don’t want to have sports and there’s no way in this world you can do anything in this world without a risk. People stormed Normandy. They knew there was going to be casualties, they knew there was going to be risk, but it was a way of life.”

Until a way of life becomes a way of death.

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 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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