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Olympics On, Phil Swarmed, NBA Parties — Don’t Be Stupid, Sports

Be it staging the Summer Games in virus-ravaged Japan, allowing a dangerous scene for Mickelson’s coronation or NBA players clubbing as big crowds attend games, the industry must be careful in rushing toward normalcy.

Jay Mariotti

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David J. Phillips

It happens every weeknight newscast. Proud as a pimpin’ peacock, NBC has a disembodied voice praise the network as America’s most trusted information source. You almost want to bear-hug anchor Lester Holt when he warmly signs off, “Please take care of yourself … and each other.”

Yet, only recently, NBCUniversal hosted a public function and completely ignored the state of emergency in Japan. There, less than three percent of the population has been fully vaccinated for COVID-19, hospitals are overwhelmed, infection and death rates remain high and, according to a survey, 83 percent of residents — some demonstrating in the streets — want the Tokyo Olympics to be canceled. Why the abrupt disconnect in news-gathering integrity? Seems the corporate suits at NBCUniversal were smooth-selling advertisers during a virtual “upfronts” presentation, gleefully detailing extensive plans to broadcast the Summer Games beginning July 23 — even if the event looms as a potential health catastrophe in a host nation that can’t afford more tragedy.

Tokyo Olympics Should Be Cancelled, Doctors Association Says : Coronavirus  Updates : NPR
Courtesy: AP

Not long ago, Japan was ravaged by an earthquake and tsunami. It numbs the mind to think the Games could cause more pain and suffering, but, in 2021, the “Network Of The Olympics” has no conscience.

“NBC will be bringing it all to America,” proclaimed host Mike Tirico, who every year becomes less a journalist and more a puppet.

This as the State Department warns Americans to avoid all Japan travel, citing virus variants that make even double-vaccinated people vulnerable to infections. Only eight weeks from the scheduled opening ceremony, wouldn’t the advisory unnerve U.S. athletes already debating the point of competing in the most abnormal Olympiad ever staged? The Games are intended as a global festival uniting thousands in the spirit of sport. Tokyo will be the antithesis of that mission statement, with athletes required to reduce time in Japan to an isolated minimum while spectators from all other nations are banned and no one is certain if Japanese bodies will occupy any seats.

The competition will be diluted. The atmosphere will be lifeless. More than 11,000 athletes, only 60 percent vaccinated to date, will be vulnerable to virus outbreaks that could impact tens of thousands of officials, coaches, support staffers and media. Hell, not one karaoke bar is open. But Tirico tells us the Games must go on, and so does NBC’s partner in pandemic crime, the always-trustworthy International Olympic Committee, which ignores travel warnings and simple common sense — how many people might die? — in declaring these Olympics “absolutely” will proceed. With Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on record that all Games decisions are made by the IOC, it means Japan basically will be governed this summer by Thomas Bach, the governing body’s president, and Steve Burke, chairman of NBC Universal.

They have billions to protect, you see. Japan is spending more than $25 billion to organize the Games. The IOC depends largely on NBC to fund $4.2 billion in broadcast revenues every four years, which is 75 percent of Bach’s budget. The dominos cannot afford to fall. They’d rather have people die and athletes get sick than lose their windfall, with insurance covering only $3 billion for the government in the event of cancellation.

“The athletes definitely can make their Olympic dreams come true. We have to make some sacrifices to make this possible,” said Bach, coldly referring to Japanese citizens who thought the Games would symbolize a recovery. His comment is juxtaposed against an anti-Games petition signed by more than 300,000 residents, who ask, en masse, “Are we still going to hold the Tokyo Olympics, even if it puts lives and jobs in danger?”

The money grab is profoundly rude, insensitive and greedy. Rejecting every morsel of medical logic, including the pleas of 6,000 primary-care doctors to cancel the Games, the alphabet-soup boys are pushing their business-as-usual mandate as if the competition is more important than possible casualties. Said IOC vice president John Coates: “I know from my own athletes in Australia how appreciative they are of the efforts of the Japanese people to give them the opportunity to live their dream, despite the current situation.”

At least in the U.S., we can take some comfort that 40 percent of Americans have been fully vaccinated and 49 percent have had at least one dose. But herd immunity isn’t happening in our divided land — no longer “one nation, under God, indivisible” — and as long as race and religion forge waves of anti-vaccine pockets, the coronavirus will linger as a national threat. You think Memorial Day weekend is the ultimate re-opening of life? Wait until the new case figures next week.

That’s why I was stunned by the lack of security Sunday at Kiawah Island. PGA Championship organizers were more interested in a classic TV moment — lubed-up loons in the thousands, swallowing Phil Mickelson in his 18th-fairway coronation — than protecting Mickelson, Brooks Koepka and the swarming mobs themselves from injuries and superspreads. Couldn’t officials have waited a year before continuing the tradition of collapsing galleries for monumental golfing moments? At 50, Mickelson became the oldest player to win a major, yet they could have killed him in the process, with a fan seen grabbing him above his shoulders.

“I’ve never had something like that,” said Mickelson, who admitted to being “unnerved” and actually pushed the fan away.

Said Koepka: “It would have been cool if I didn’t have a knee injury and got dinged a few times in the knee in that crowd, because no one gave a shit. But if I was fine, yeah, it would have been cool.”

South Carolina stupidity aside, last weekend felt like the grand reopening of sports in America. Stands are filling again at NBA playoff games, including the 15,000 fans who gathered without masks in Madison Square Garden to support the revived Knicks and heckle Atlanta star Trae Young, who had the last laugh. We still haven’t reached the point of Anything Goes at a sporting event, but to see and hear actual crowd noise in arenas — after the dystopian loneliness of the Bubble — was pulsating and reassuring in a sense. In Philadelphia, where 11,000 watched the 76ers, coach Doc Rivers said, “It felt like 30,000.”

In another sense, the NBA’s mad rush to normalcy was disturbing. Paying customers are expected to be responsible, but LeBron James and Kristaps Porzingis ruined the mood by flouting league rules. As it is, James has been negligent in refusing to say if he is vaccinated, which hurts commissioner Adam Silver’s efforts to achieve herd immunity in his league and the nation’s efforts to convince the African-American community to get shots. If James hasn’t had his two arm jabs, why would he attend a promotional event in Los Angeles for a tequila brand he is sponsoring?

He has yet to explain, but the league did cite him for a violation. If he hasn’t been vaccinated, shouldn’t the violation have led to a 10-to-14 day quarantine for James — which would have sunk the Lakers in a Phoenix series they might lose anyway? The NBA added to the confusion by adding this in a statement: “Vaccinated players are permitted to engage in outside activities.” So is LeBron vaccinated? Say something, Mr. Social Crusader.

“I’ll be ready for Game 2,” he said, when asked.

LeBron James has refused to divulge whether or not he has received COVID-19 vaccine.
Courtesy: AP

There was no doubt about Porzingis, fined $50,000 for attending an L.A. strip club last weekend and ignoring an edict prohibiting players from entering “any bar, club, lounge or similar establishment, regardless of the player’s vaccination status.” Yet the league didn’t force him to quarantine, either, saying his club appearance didn’t rise to the level of a spread risk. Why do I gather no NBA player, except maybe the last man on a bench, will miss playoff time for any COVID-related reason? It’s all a smokescreen, like so much else.

I trust the sports industry even less, moving forward, than I did in 2020. I’m not even sure I trust Lester Holt. When he says, “Please take care of yourself … and each other,” do you know where he ripped off the line?

From Jerry Springer. He said it first.

BSM Writers

NBC Must Develop a Real No. 2 NFL Crew for Playoffs

Is the network’s only other option Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett?

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Several years ago, the NFL objected to NBC wanting to employ Mike Tirico as the lead play-by-play voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts. The league preferred Al Michaels because he was NBC’s No. 1 NFL play-by-play announcer and wanted the TNF telecasts to carry the same prestige as Sunday Night Football.

Following the network’s heavily-criticized broadcast of Saturday’s Wild Card playoff game between the Los Angeles Chargers and Jacksonville Jaguars, the NFL may want to impose its authority again and insist that a top-tier broadcast team call the action of an important postseason game.

The consensus among fans and media watching Saturday’s broadcast was that Michaels and analyst Tony Dungy were surprisingly low-energy for an NFL playoff game, let alone one that became so exciting with Jacksonville rallying from a 27-0 deficit for a 31-30 victory on a last-second field goal.

Such a lackluster broadcast led to questions of whether or not Michaels was now past his prime after a season of calling subpar TNF games for Amazon and what initially appeared to be another snoozer when the Jaguars fell behind by 27 points. Pairing him with Dungy, who was a studio analyst all season, certainly didn’t help.

Dungy was as basic as a game analyst could be, typically narrating replays viewers could see for themselves while adding little insight. Worst of all, he demonstrated no enthusiasm for the action, leaving Michaels to fill most of the airtime. The veteran broadcaster showed that he can no longer carry a broadcast by himself. He needs the energy and back-and-forth that Cris Collinsworth or Kirk Herbstreit provide.

So how did NBC get here?

Most football fans know that the network’s top broadcast team is Tirico on play-by-play alongside analyst Cris Collinsworth. But they had their own assignment during Super Wild Card Weekend, calling Sunday night’s Ravens-Bengals match-up. With the postseason field expanding from 12 to 14 teams, resulting in six games being played on Wild Card weekend, NBC was awarded one of the additional playoff broadcasts.

Thus, another broadcast team was needed for that second Wild Card game. Fortunately, NBC had a renowned play-by-play man already in place. Michaels finished out his final season as SNF‘s lead voice by calling Super Bowl LVI, part of a powerful one-two combination for NBC Sports coming toward the end of its 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics coverage.

Ending his legendary career with a Super Bowl broadcast would’ve been a wonderful final note for Michaels. That appeared to be a natural path when Tirico moved from ESPN to NBC in 2016. Network executives admitted that a succession plan was in mind for Tirico to take over SNF eventually. At the time, Michaels also likely thought he would retire by then.

But when confronted with the possibility of retirement, Michaels realized he wasn’t interested. He was still enjoying broadcasting the NFL. His skills were still sharp. And perhaps most importantly, he was in demand. Amazon wanted Michaels as the lead voice for its Thursday Night Football broadcasts, bringing instant credibility to a streaming venture that drew some skepticism. ESPN considered him as its Monday Night Football play-by-play man.

As it turned out, ESPN made a bold move for MNF, swiping Fox’s No. 1 NFL crew of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman. That left Amazon for Michaels, and the streaming giant paid him a commensurate salary with the top broadcasters in the industry as part of his three-year contract.

Yet Michaels wasn’t done with NBC either. After his agreement with Amazon became official, NBC announced that its relationship with Michaels would continue in an “emeritus” role allowing him to broadcast the network’s Olympics coverage and that additional Wild Card playoff telecast.

NBC can’t have been happy that most of the social media chatter afterward focused on the broadcast, rather than the game result. Especially when the discussion centered on how poorly Michaels and Dungy performed in what turned out to be a thrilling playoff game. That’s a pairing that the NFL probably doesn’t want to see again.

Michaels will likely call at least one more Wild Card playoff game for NBC since he intends to work on the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics. He’s also under contract with Amazon for another two seasons unless he decides to retire before that deal expires. So perhaps the simple solution is keeping Dungy out of the broadcast booth and giving Michaels a better partner.

But can NBC drop in another analyst who hasn’t worked with Michaels all season? Anyone would arguably be an improvement over Dungy. Is it at all possible for Herbstreit to be hired on for a one-off playoff broadcast, thus ensuring that the broadcast team will have some on-air familiarity and chemistry?

Otherwise, NBC’s only other option may be its Notre Dame broadcast team of Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett. (The network tried that last season with Tirico and Drew Brees, only for Brees to wilt under the harsher NFL playoff spotlight.)

The pair also called USFL broadcasts for the network, so at least there would be familiarity rather than trying to figure each other out during a telecast. Yet Collinsworth and Garrett aren’t terribly popular with viewers. And as with Brees, that crew will face intense scrutiny with a larger playoff audience.

Unfortunately, NBC appears to be stuck here. Unless the new Big Ten broadcast team of Noah Eagle and Todd Blackledge gets a shot. That might be the best option! Other than Notre Dame or USFL games, where are the other opportunities for NBC to develop a No. 2 NFL broadcast team? No one wants to put Al Michaels through Chris Simms in the broadcast booth, right?

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BSM Writers

Al Michaels Has Options But He Has To Make a Choice

“It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.”

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I don’t ask much out of game announcers; get excited when appropriate, get the simple information correct, don’t get so caught up in your shtick you put yourself above the game. Al Michaels has been doing all those things well for the better part of half a century and few would argue that he’s not one of the best to ever do it. That doesn’t mean he can’t lose his fastball.

Before you read any longer, I am not here to say Al Michaels has lost his fastball. What I am here to say is Michaels has all too often this season seemed upset with and disinterested in the game he is calling. That isn’t entirely surprising when you consider some of the Thursday night action he called on Amazon Prime where the average margin of victory was almost nine points per game.

On top of that, the Amazon schedule had a dreadful two week stretch with Colts 12-9 win over the Broncos in Week Five and the Commanders 12-7 win over the Bears the next Thursday. It was in that Broncos-Colts game Michaels asked Herbstreit if a game “can be so bad it is good?” Herbstreit’s answer was “No”, by the way. It was the full 15 game schedule that Michaels told The Athletic’s media critic Richard Deitsch was like trying to sell a used car.

All of that is fine, the inaugural Amazon Prime season was not a smashing success. The streaming giant missed audience projections and will lose advertising revenue because of it. The lackluster schedule did not help that. But Michaels was given a second life; he was the NBC play-by-play announcer for the Saturday Night Wildcard Playoff game between the Chargers and Jaguars. It initially looked like Michaels might be the problem as five first half Jags turnovers had them in a 27-0 hole. But the home team staged a nearly unprecedented comeback for the win.

It was the performance by Michaels and, to a lesser degree, his analyst Tony Dungy that has led to criticism. Criticism might be too soft of a word, Michaels was roundly dragged for his lack of enthusiasm during the comeback and specifically on his call of the Jacksonville game winning field goal. The enthusiasm of the call of the game winner had a mid-3rd quarter of week four feel to it.

Me telling Al Michaels how to do play-by-play of an NFL game would be the equivalent of me telling a physicist how to split an atom. So, this isn’t just a Michaels criticism, few things bother me more than hearing a game announcer complain about the length or quality of a game as if he’d rather be anywhere else. It does all of us in the sports industry well to remember 99% of our audience would gladly trade places with us.

How many NFL viewers would sit in the seat Michaels, or any NFL announcer occupies, for free? They’d feel like they won the lottery if they also were getting the money those announcers are getting paid to be there. The guy that works a 12-hour Thursday construction shift just to get home and crack a beer for the NFL game probably doesn’t want to hear how tough that game is to announce.

On top of all of that, Michaels was given the gift of one of the wildest NFL Playoff comebacks you’ll ever see and, at times, sounded as if he was completely disinterested in being there. Pro tip: the best NFL announcer in those moments is Kevin Harlan (see: Miami at Baltimore from earlier this season. That has nothing to do with my lifelong Dolphins fandom). Michaels’ lack of enthusiasm was compounded by the exact opposite from Mike Tirico on the very same network for the Bengals-Ravens Wildcard game Sunday night. 

Tirico, like Michaels, has a sterling resume of play-by-play accomplishments. The difference is Tirico sounded like he was having the time of his life on Sunday night. 

To be fair, their two styles are different. Michaels has a very old school, Pat Summerall approach. Summerall, Vin Scully and Dick Enberg came along at a time when announcers were far more likely to let the pictures tell the story. More new school guys like Harlan and Tirico approach it differently.

Look, Al Michaels helped us believe in miracles. His place in the Sports Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame has long since been cemented. Being a hall of fame inductee doesn’t mean your style will forever be accepted by the masses. That leaves you with a few options; you can continue your style and accept or ignore the criticism or you can ride off into the sunset and enjoy the fruits of your decades of labor.

Al Michaels has what we all want; great options. He can choose any of them and be a winner in the game of life. It doesn’t matter if he enthusiastically embraces them, or not. 

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BSM Writers

Bernie Kosar Was the Victim of a Policy That Doesn’t Work Anymore

“The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.”

Demetri Ravanos

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One week ago, Bernie Kosar lost his job on the Browns Radio Network for placing the first legal sports bet in the state of Ohio. Kosar, just like Jets coach Miles Austin weeks earlier and Calvin Ridley last year, violated a league policy that forbids team employees from placing a bet on any NFL game.

The integrity of the games still matters. The belief that what we are all seeing is being fairly contested is what gives those of us that like to have a little vested interest in the outcome the desire to lay our money down in the first place. I get the league’s discomfort with a coach on the staff of a team in the middle of the playoff hunt making bets. I get its fear of the message it sends to have players making bets.

Roger Goodell and the 32 team owners are well within their rights to object to men that can potentially control the outcome of a game or postseason seeding doing anything that even appears to jeopardize its fairness. Even perceived impropriety can compromise the league’s tremendous value.

But Bernie Kosar doesn’t have that kind of influence on the outcome of a game. He is just a broadcaster and not even a game analyst. He is part of studio coverage.

I am far from the first to point this out, but in 2023, the NFL has three official sports betting partners. Just last week, it approved the first ever in-stadium sportsbook, which Fanatics is set to open inside of FedEx Field. If the NFL is comfortable enough with the reality that its fans like to bet to make those things a reality, then Kosar losing his gig is absurd. It is the result of nothing other than “well, that’s the way we’ve always done it” thinking.

Maybe Kosar was terrible on the radio and the team was looking for a reason to move on. I don’t live in Cleveland and I am not a Browns fan, so I have no idea.

How many times have we heard that NFL owners hired Goodell to “protect the shield”? I’m not even really sure what it means or when it applies anymore. If I had a vested interest in the public perception of the league, I know that I would want someone to do the PR math on this situation.

Bernie Kosar isn’t an addict that can’t watch a game without the high of winning or the emotional distress of losing everything at stake, at least not as far as we know. This was a bet made through an advertising partner, to benefit charity. He even said on his podcast this week that the purpose of making the bet was to generate some money for former players in need of help.

This is like Disney threatening daycare centers with lawsuits for painting Mickey Mouse on a classroom wall. The NFL has bigger fish to fry than Bernie Kosar. Hell, it has more pressing issues in Cleveland alone.

Surely you have seen Garrett Bush’s impassioned rant on the Ultimate Cleveland Sports Show about the obstacles facing Damar Hamlin because of how many hoops the NFL makes former players jump through in order to get some kind of pension.

On January 2, we were all united in our concern for a guy that hadn’t even completed his second full NFL season. We didn’t know if he was going to live, but if he did, we all knew that the NFL had done everything it needed to in order to protect itself from ever having to pay a dime for his medical care. Less than a week later, Bernie Kosar was fired for what amounted to a charity stunt that was meant to raise money and attention to very similar issues.

At both the league level and the team level, there was incompetence that lead to a man unnecessarily losing a gig and to the Browns and the NFL looking horribly out of touch with reality.

Are we acknowledging that people gamble or not? Are we acknowledging there are responsible ways to bet on football and are interested in generating revenue off of it or not? Because it doesn’t seem to me that the same league that just gave the thumbs up to open a sportsbook inside of a stadium is really that concerned with people that cannot affect the outcome of games betting on those games.

Has the NFL come out and said that it is going to cover every medical bill for everyone that has ever played the game? We know that this is a brutal game that leaves a physical and physiological impact on the men that played it. Why would we make it harder for someone that knows that pain to help others do something about it?

I feel awful for Bernie Kosar. Whether he needs the money or not, it is embarassing to be at the center of a controversy like this, particularly because in the NFL in 2023, there is no reason for a controversy like this to exist.

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