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Through Political and Cultural Wars, Whither Sports?

“A grand jury’s decision not to charge officers in Breonna Taylor’s death made sports superfluous again, with the NBA reeling and leagues such as MLB — remember baseball? — fighting for any attention.”

Jay Mariotti

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It’s useless looking beyond tomorrow in sports, much less next week or next month or next year. For all we know, more game boycotts await after officers in Kentucky weren’t charged in the death of Breonna Taylor, who has been the focus of outcry in the NBA Bubble and throughout a racially torn America. All it takes is one LeBron James rage tweet, followed by a storm of protests in his league and others, for activism to shut down the games that ring hollow and trivial.

This is America in late September 2020. Forty days and nights before a hostile presidential election nothing short of unreal, sports is superfluous except when it is political. When the news arrived that only officer Brett Hankison would be charged by a grand jury — on three counts of wanton endangerment after shooting into the homes of Taylor’s neighbors — the NBA’s conference finals shrunk to an afterthought.

Black Lives Matter.

Until they don’t, at least in Louisville.

The verdict led to violence, with two Louisville police officers shot during demonstrations and hospitalized with non-life-threatening injuries. The reaction is what James didn’t want, but he’ll be blamed anyway as his influence in the ongoing conflict grows more significant. Nearing his fourth NBA title, surely the most bizarre and challenging championship any sports legend has won, James sent the Taylor news to his Lakers teammates via a group text. Then he tweeted from his hotel on a campus he can’t leave, which has limited his platform for social change to Zoom interviews and social media posts. He first needed only four words — “JUST SAY HER NAME’’ — along with a video of Aja Monet reciting the original poem of the same title. Then he unleashed a torrent: “I’ve been lost for words today! I’m devastated, hurt, sad, mad! We want Justice for Breonna yet justice was met for her neighbors apartment walls and not her beautiful life. Was I surprised at the verdict. Absolutely not but damnit I was & still am hurt and heavy hearted! I send my love to Breonna mother, family and friends! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!!’’

This came hours after James, who had called for the officers “who committed that crime’’ to be arrested, said he condemns all violence, including retaliatory attacks against police. “I’ve never in my 35 years ever condoned violence. I do not condone violence towards anyone,’’ he said. “That’s not gonna make this world or America where we want it to be.”

Said teammate Danny Green: “We feel like we’ve taken a step back, that we haven’t made the progress we were seeking. Our voices aren’t being heard loud enough. But we’re not going to stop.’’

It wasn’t what NBA players had in mind when they agreed to play at Disney World. They thought social messages, painted on courts and worn on jerseys and shoes, could help lead to systemic change. But only a trip to Louisville, en masse, would work at this point. And restrictive confinement doesn’t allow for day passes, not when NBA commissioner Adam Silver is hellbent to complete his postseason without a coronavirus outbreak.

“Sadly, there was no justice today for Breonna Taylor,” said Michele Roberts, executive director of the Players Association. “Her killing was the result of a string of callous and careless decisions made with a lack of regard for humanity, ultimately resulting in the death of an innocent and beautiful woman with her entire life ahead of her.’’

Said Warriors coach Steve Kerr, a frequent critic of President Trump and modern-day American life: “It’s just so demoralizing. It’s so discouraging. I just keep thinking about the generation of American kids, of any color, is this the way we want to raise them? Is this the country we want to live in?”

For now, the various quests for championships chug along, financial formalities more than joyful pursuits. The NBA and NHL have remarkably avoided virus disruptions in their respective Bubbles and are trying to award trophies and sneak out before Covid notices. In the NFL, mindless bravado continues to be revealed as naked stupidity, starting with head coaches who don’t wear masks on the sidelines, thinking play calls are more important than the wellness of other human beings. College football keeps force-feeding a disjointed season, oblivious to campuses rocked by Covid. Then we have Major League Baseball. Remember baseball?

The guinea pig sees daylight. It has been a grim and brutal experiment, muddled by dozens of game postponements and many more positive Covid tests than the powers-that-be dare to disclose. But in a few days, somehow, MLB will start its postseason and collect nearly $1 billion from broadcast partners in a distasteful money grab that prioritized — all together now — industry wealth over the health of those in uniform.

It’s no reach to say this is the most important October in the sport’s history. Even before the pandemic, MLB was plunging toward a crippling labor impasse next year, with the warring owners and players doomed to rub each other out. Now, there’s no assurance fans will return to ballparks anytime soon, which will paralyze free agency this winter and create more ill will. The games never been been slower, all foul balls and strikeouts with a home run mixed in to curb yawning, and the human element that made the game real has been algorithmed-out by tech nerds. A shotgun regular season has been a cluster of chaos and attrition, with the abnormal and creepy leading to uncertainty and fatigue, to the point Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash made a startling confession to ESPN.

“This isn’t fun,’’ said Cash, whose team only has the American League’s best record.

Meaning, the postseason had better be spectacular. Because baseball, largely ignored in autumn as it is, faces competition like never before: renewed tensions over racial injustice and police brutality, news shows focused on a hostile presidential election, an NBA Finals likely to include James and, of course, Covid.

You’d be a fool to assume MLB, or sports in general, has conquered the coronavirus. This remains a silent, stealth antagonist that could strike at any time, in as many waves as it wants, and shut down every pro league and college conference in the land. In a story Trump must love, Jon Gruden and Sean Payton were among five more head coaches fined for violating the league’s policy — and please don’t argue that both men have had Corona and, thus, are immune for the long term. You don’t know that. They don’t know that. Tony Fauci doesn’t know that.

“I’ve had the virus. I’m doing my best. I’m very sensitive about it,’’ Gruden said. “I’m calling plays. I just want to communicate in these situations, and if I get fined, I’ll have to pay the fine.’’

In that his 2-0 Raiders are based in Las Vegas, anyone want to bet Gruden doesn’t wear the mask in Week 3? Being fined $100,000 won’t stop these tunnel-visioned loons in the heat of the moment. Being fined an added $250,000 won’t make their owners blink. Just expectorate, baby. Never mind the message it sends to millions. And never mind that the team doctor issuing Covid advice might be a quack, such as the Chargers’ physician who accidentally punctured Tyrod Taylor’s lung while giving the quarterback a pain-killer injection for cracked ribs.

Then there’s college football. If Touchdown Jesus, the Four Horsemen and the Gipper can’t stop a breakout, I’m not sure why four of the Power Five conferences — please don’t join them, Pac-12 — persist in staging a disjointed season when campuses are bombarded by Covid cases. At least Notre Dame is being responsible in postponing a game until December after 13 players were isolated; if only ruthless factories such as Clemson and LSU were as accountable, with Dabo Swinney and Ed Orgeron remaining oblivious to anything but TV riches and their competitive egos.

But when Silver said he’s “clearly learning a lot from other sports’’ when pondering his league’s uncertain future, which likely won’t involve a Bubble that remarkably has remained Covid-proof, he’s primarily referring to MLB. The chaos of the summer months — outbreaks that sidelined the Marlins and Cardinals, positive tests seemingly every day — has given way to hope that a World Series actually can be completed in late October. Of course, as long as Rob Manfred is commissioner, any plan could go sideways or ass-backwards. But the playoff Bubble once thought beyond Manfred’s acumen is about to happen. Teams that have qualified or remain in contention are in quarantine this week, restricted to an indefinite hotel life until they are eliminated or reach the Series, which starts Oct. 20 in that hallowed baseball hotbed of Arlington, Texas. Even when teams play at home ballparks in the first round, they can’t return to their actual places of residence or wander the streets.

Finally, baseball has figured out what the NBA, NHL, WNBA and Major League Soccer knew long ago: The Bubble life is the only safe and effective sports life during a pandemic, regardless of what the NFL is claiming after just two weeks of a season vulnerable to Covid until February. It doesn’t mean the postseason will finish, especially as Manfred insists on having fans in the stands in Arlington for the National League championship series — yes, an American League ballpark is hosting the NLCS — and at the World Series. Isn’t the commish defeating the purpose of the Bubble by inviting fans into a Texas Bubble? Manfred doesn’t care. He’s an army general now, thinking he has won the battle.

“We are pressing ahead to have fans in Texas,” he told USA Today. “One of the most important things to our game is the presence of fans. Starting down the path of having fans in stadiums, and in a safe and risk-free environment, is very, very important to our game.”

Again, he is prioritizing money over safety. Isn’t there also a competitive issue if, say, many more Dodgers fans travel to Globe Life Field for a World Series than Rays fans? Or many more Dodgers fans than Braves fans in a hypothetical NLCS? The AL playoffs will have no such issues because of California’s restrictions banning large gatherings, assuring more fan-less scenes for the divisional series in San Diego and Los Angeles and the ALCS in San Diego. Isn’t this all a bit, um, uneven? Manfred still doesn’t care. He’s a rebel without a clue, talking like a conquering hero. “The best way to say it is that 2020 presented some really, really difficult challenges for the sport, and I never worked harder to try to meet those challenges,’’ he said. “I do take pride that we’re just a few days away from finishing the (regular) season, an important milestone for the industry.’’

As in, cha-ching!

Not that anyone is concerned about the players who have had Covid or the various spreads to family members and others they’ve infected. We’ve heard nothing about spread data because, hey, the owners are recouping some of their TV money. That has been the only end-game. But first, there is a postseason to get through and protocols to heed in a season with too much evidence of irresponsible behavior by several teams. “It’s 2020. I think the sacrifices will have to continue, and this is a big part of it,’’ said Cardinals reliever and Players Association committee member Andrew Miller, referring to the Bubble. “Players certainly have an appreciation for making sure we do everything we can to have a successful playoff run. That is a big part of what we’re doing this year — get to the playoffs and call it what it is: Get that TV money. Hope that money gets into the game, and we find a way to survive this year that is obviously tough financially.”

If a new playoff system has too many qualifiers — 16, also part of the money grab — at least we have refreshing stories for a change. With the Yankees trying to legally fend off the public release of a 2017 document that allegedly confirms them as electronic sign-stealing cheaters (and why isn’t anyone talking about it?), I’m imagining Fernando Tatis Jr. in the World Series. Or the White Sox, with Jose Abreu and Tim Anderson, winning only their second Fall Classic since throwing one in 1919. You tired of the Yankees, Dodgers, Astros, Cubs and Indians? Me, too.

We’re in the weirdest year of our lives. Why not think weird? I actually might watch weird, such as a World Series between … the Marlins and Rays? After 18 Miami players were infected by a July outbreak, there was thought of sending the Marlins home until next year. After all, weren’t they a minor-league operation anyway? The outbreak led to a shocking breakout and a likely playoff berth. They aren’t getting past the NL’s first round, of course, and they aren’t America’s Team. But they are Pandemic’s Team.

More than ever, it’s important to have fun with sports, or at least try. When we’re actually counting down the days to Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, the air might be too heavy to keep enjoying ballgames. But barring boycotts, the games are going on whether we care or not, background noise for an American maelstrom.

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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