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Sports vs. The Virus: As Games Resume, Pandemic Rages

Defying medical logic, MLB is returning (and paying Mookie Betts) along with other prominent leagues, yet with months of virus tests determining the fate of seasons, COVID-19 remains a heavy favorite.

Jay Mariotti

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I am staring at two websites. The lead page on ESPN.com has a banner blasting the arrival of “OPENING NIGHT 2020,’’ with logos of the Yankees and Nationals, alongside these editorial offerings: a monster $365 million deal for Mookie Betts, expert MLB predictions, highlights from the first team scrimmages in the NBA Bubble, a synopsis of Patrick Mahomes’ MVP chances, a match race between Terrell Owens and Tyreek Hill (T.O. lost), pitchers plunking Astros batters, the Best of UFC and a live lacrosse game between teams with which I’m not familiar.

And here is the top headline on a New York Times lead page saved just hours earlier: “Trump Says Virus Will Probably `Get Worse Before It Gets Better.’ ‘’ Followed by: “C.D.C. Says Cases Could Be 2 to 13 Times Higher Than Reported in Parts of U.S.’’ And later: “Rise in Coronavirus Cases Far Outpaces Growth in Testing.’’

This is more than a parallel universe. This is a disconnect of defiance, a wedge between the continuing devastation of a raging pandemic and a sports bulldozer that insists on plowing through the carnage — death tolls, record infection numbers, lengthy waits for test results, mask-less masses — so live games can resume in North America while leagues and broadcast networks recoup billions. I don’t apologize in admitting I remain torn by it all, if not baffled like never before in my years on Planet Earth.

Yes, there is the human need to celebrate uplifting visuals we thought might be lost forever: games, athletes, competition, the sporting aesthetic. But there also is the personal responsibility of hearing a resistant president finally acknowledge the truth concerning COVID-19 — “Get a mask,’’ Trump actually said — and to keep being real until a vaccine or cure emerges.

And what’s real, in sports, is that we have no real.

If you profess to know what will happen in the months ahead, your first name is Pinocchio and your last name is Ponzi.

Mookie Betts, Dodgers reportedly 'closing in' on contract extension - True  Blue LA

The mixed messages are stupefying. The La La Land Dodgers, oblivious to a pandemic that threatens a sport already in deep existential doo-doo, are in life-pretend mode in finalizing a deal with Betts. In one sense, it’s about time this cash-cow behemoth starts paying up for superstars, especially when the recipient is Betts, an African American sensation in a sport mired in a racial crisis. In another sense, who extends any player for 12 years when the world could be headed toward long-term disarray? And when White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, still a power player, openly doubts there will be a 2021 season? The Dodgers march on anyway, even as California surpasses New York as the state with the most COVID-19 cases.

And even as Pittsburgh, making medical sense, rejects the Blue Jays as temporary tenants after the Canadian government refused to allow U.S. teams to play in Toronto. “In recent weeks, we have seen a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in southwestern Pennsylvania,” said the state’s health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine. “To add travelers to this region for any reason, including for professional sports events, risks residents, visitors and members of both teams. We know that this virus does not discriminate and can even make professional athletes very sick.’’

Might every U.S. city reject the Blue Jays, in a political tit-for-tat with Canada? If so, how can MLB play a legitimate season without all 30 clubs?

And how, in good conscience, do leagues continue to hoard testing kits when so many Americans need tests to stay alive? “U.S. Labs Buckle Amid Testing Surge,’’ says the Associated Press.

Look, nothing would make this seen-it-all columnist happier, for the sake of humanity and sanity, than the completion of all sports seasons and events with a minimum of contagion havoc. Baseball would avoid outbreaks from players vulnerable to transmissions in public settings. The NBA would keep hundreds of players occupied enough with cornhole events, DJ sets, golf, legal recreational drugs and a basketball postseason to avoid late-night Bubble defections requiring snitch-line calls. The NHL would do the same in Canada, where the coronavirus has been widely contained and players will be confined to restricted zones in Toronto and Edmonton (each should be called The Igloo). And football players, NFL and college, would just grunt and pound their way through the inherent risks of a close-contact sport with no chance of social distancing. Sports Euphoria would converge in the fall — the Masters, tennis majors and the Kentucky Derby joining the party — and all the corporate S.O.B.s would make back their money as fans and gamblers rejoice.

NFL to create COVID-19 classification for players | Yardbarker

In this ideal world, sports would serve as a beacon for society to beat down the virus, as the NFL’s chief medical officer is suggesting. Said Dr. Allen Sills: “I think this is important not just for the NFL and professional sports, but I think what we’re trying to do — find a way to mitigate risk and to co-exist with this virus — this is really key information for schools, businesses and all segments of society. I think we have a unique opportunity but also a responsibility to use the platform and resources of the NFL to study and learn and take that knowledge and apply it for the benefit of the other segments of society. That is what we plan to do.”

He is planning a miracle, then. Because the likelihood of all that taking place, the perfect rollout described above, carries the same approximate odds as Johnny Depp and Amber Heard kissing and making up in a London courtroom. ESPN and other sports-dependent media can bombard us with brainwashing campaigns — “Give Us Baseball’’ … “NBA Is Back’’ …  Zion Williamson as a multi-sport star in a new Gatorade ad when he already has left the Bubble for a family medical matter — and my cable company can demand an extra monthly $5 for a “sports upgrade’’ when it provided no refunds for mostly abysmal sports programming since March. No matter the spin, sports is venturing into the murky and scary unknown, and much as I don’t want to be called “a Negative Nancy’’ as one reader did — isn’t that sexist, bro? — it’s more important to be genuine in unprecedented, ultra-surreal times.

We do have hopeful signs that weren’t anticipated so soon. None of the 346 NBA players swabbed last week tested positive for the coronavirus, an indication that the isolation campus hatched by commissioner Adam Silver and Disney Company boss Bob Iger remains the one experiment that just might succeed. “Everything has gone the way it’s supposed to since we’ve been here, and it’s given me no indication why it won’t continue,” James said in Orlando. “If something happens or a spike happens, which we don’t believe it is, we’ll adjust and go forward from there. I don’t wake up in the morning saying, `OK this may not work.’ I don’t approach it that way. I woke up this morning thinking about my family, one, and then thinking about how I was going to impact practice today and help us get better.

“Everyone keeps asking, ‘How is the bubble?’ or, `How is it going?’ And I just say, `It’s 2020.’ Nothing is normal in 2020. Nothing seems as is, and who knows if it will ever go back to the way it was. You make adjustments and you figure it out along the way. That’s what life is all about.”

But the more optimistic news I absorb about positive tests — only six negatives from 10,548 MLB swabs in the latest weekly audit, and only two negatives from 2,618 NHL-gathered samples  — the louder my b.s meter beeps like those social-distance sensors in the NBA Bubble. With so much at stake financially, and privacy laws protecting testees from the public release of test results if they so opt, is full transparency a pipedream? How do we know MLB, a league known for deception and scandal, won’t lie about an outbreak to avoid rebellion among players and public hysteria?There already is proof that delays in test results from what now are two  official labs, in Utah and New Jersey, could sabotage a team or an entire season. I hear no one in baseball expressing James’ confidence, and when a prominent member of the cheating Astros publicly fears a testing snafu, you know baseball is ripe for a virus spread.

Astros' Justin Verlander will donate MLB paychecks to a different nonprofit  each week

“It’s really inexcusable in-season for a player that can help you win a game to miss said game because test results didn’t get back quickly enough when we were told that they would be,” Justin Verlander said. “What would happen if my test results didn’t come back on time and I’m the starting pitcher that day?”

And what about catchers, who will have difficulty maintaining a required distance from batters and umpires behind home plate? “It’s been a little weird. Just from being back there for so long, you get used to having people around,’’ Diamondbacks catcher Carson Kelly said. “But now you get some second thoughts: `Oh wait, should I be this close to this guy?’ We’ve got a job to do, but at the same time, we need to be safe.’’

No one is safe. Maybe people are SAFER on the NBA’s $170 million hoops campus, but protocols are made to be broken by players unaccustomed to being cooped up without freedom and multi-millionaire perks. All it takes is one COVID-iot such as, oh, Dwight Howard, who doubled down on not wearing a mask in the Bubble when he said on Instagram Live, “I didn’t know that the coronavirus be flying through the air looking for people.’’

Should we laugh? Or cry? Put Howard in a locked room with Gregg Popovich, who, at 71, is susceptible to the virus more than most in the Bubble. “I don’t want to die. I wear my mask all the time,’’ said the coaching legend, who won’t be around Orlando long with a lagging Spurs team. “If you have half a brain, you have to take this seriously.’’

Said Wizards coach Scott Brooks, who once coached Howard: “Without getting too political, it’s somewhat embarrassing that people are fighting over a mask. If it helps your neighbor out, to me it’s obvious; you do it. We’re all in this together. Obviously, the virus is not red or blue. It’s out to get everybody and we have to keep everybody as safe as possible. It makes no sense that we’re arguing, we’re fighting over masks.’’

Nets' GM Marks shoots down Popovich head coaching rumors | WOAI

I’m surprised Popovich, always seeking justice, isn’t on the warpath about the tens of thousands of tests already being used by MLB, the NBA, the NHL, the PGA Tour, NASCAR and Major League Soccer — or hundreds of thousands if the NFL and college football play seasons. Athletes are being tested daily or frequently and, for the most part, they are informed of the results within a day or two. Juxtapose those easy procedures against the plight of common folk who need tests — often having to wait in long lines — and aren’t getting results for a week or two … or longer.

But those same people are thrilled to see the restart of sports. Or are they? if you believe a poll of 1,003 fans (18 or older) by ESPN, which has a self-serving agenda, 78 percent want sports to return even without bodies in the stands. But a Harris Poll shows just the opposite, with 71 percent of Americans concerned about health risks assumed by athletes and only 44 percent thinking the resumption of games is wise.

Of course, none of this is wise. But rather than wait reasonably until 2021, sports must channel its inner superhero and try to topple a beast. Vegas hasn’t changed its view: COVID-19 remains a prohibitive favorite.

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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