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Five Who Get It, Five Who Don’t

A weekly analysis of the best and worst in sports media from a multimedia content prince — thousands of columns, TV debates, radio shows, podcasts — who receives angry DMs from media burner accounts

Jay Mariotti

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THEY GET IT

Tom Coughlin, guest essayist — Forget all images of the authoritarian curmudgeon whose style worked in the NFL until it didn’t. Nothing you read in 2021 will be as soul-torturing as Coughlin’s tribute to his wife, Judy, who is dying of an incurable brain disorder. The coach, who won two Super Bowls with the Giants, wrote in the New York Times: “For the past year, I’ve been torn between protecting my wife’s dignity and privacy and sharing some deeply personal and sad news. It’s only after some reflection that I’ve come to the conclusion that what my family and I are experiencing may be helpful for others to read. As so many of you are gearing up for another NFL season, I will be sitting far from the sidelines, at the bedside and holding the hand of my biggest supporter, my beloved wife, the mother of our children and a grandmother to our grandchildren.” The life lesson: Beneath even the thickest of crusts, a shattered heart always weeps.

National Football League — This won’t win me any friends in the industry, but the league is right to ban independent media representatives from locker rooms this season. It would be more prudent of the NFL to make sure mask mandates are enforced in Los Angeles at SoFi Stadium — where spectators largely are ignoring the county edict, as I wrote this week — but it’s a given that reporters can’t be in locker rooms when franchises are having enough difficulty convincing the likes of Cam Newton and Cole Beasley to vax up. If you’re a conspiracy theorist who thinks the league is capitalizing on the pandemic to permanently relegate independent media to Zoom calls, hey, it’s no conspiracy. But I can’t blame commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners for protecting their $16 billion baby.

The Mike Richards crushers — Hail to Sony Pictures Television, which canceled its messy choice of Richards as “Jeopardy!’’ host and reopened delicious possibilities. They should include Aaron Rodgers, who told CBS’ Adam Schein that he “definitely would have’’ accepted the gig if his football schedule could be accommodated. My latest brainstorm as face of the show is the vanguard of versatility, Bob Costas. But when I reached out, he said he rejected a guest-hosting invitation last year for COVID-19 reasons and isn’t interested in a long-term role succeeding the late Alex Trebek. “Would have been fun as a one time experience, but I never saw myself as the right person for the job,’’ Costas texted. “Whoever winds up doing it, I think he or she should be in their forties or early fifties. That seems like the best fit. I know Alex was around 80, but he had the eternal equity with the audience and could have continued as long as he was able.’’ Costas is 69 going on 49. He should re-consider, though he’s quite busy with his new HBO show and TBS hosting duties for the National League championship series.

Tim Tebow, ESPN — Unless he tries rugby — please, no — the illusion of a professional sports career is over for America’s God-fearing lightning rod. I expect him to expand his role as a college football analyst, the smart call, as he figures out a future that should include, yes, evangelism. I, for one, never have understood Tebow Hate, respecting that his humanitarian contributions overwhelm any me-me-me defects. In a country where people don’t work because they can take government payouts, he set a never-quit example — on minor-league bus rides through the hinterlands — even in the face of social-media ridicule and talk-show overkill. Tebow is a good man at a time when good men are needed, and not a minute after he was waived by Urban Meyer in Jacksonville, he landed a deal with Clean Juice as national brand ambassador. “Tim Tebow’s natural authenticity, inspiring reputation, commitment to healthy living and unwavering faith is a perfect embodiment of the personal and professional values we hold dear at Clean Juice,” CEO Landon Eckles said. Somehow, thanks to Tebow, clean living still sells. ESPN could use a little clean living itself.

Jackie MacMullan, renaissance journalist — To call her a female pioneer is to undersell her extensive impact. As she retires from ESPN, Jackie Mac should be remembered as the rare media badass, regardless of gender, who performed all functions well. She coaxed reluctant sports figures to bare souls. She delivered blistering commentaries in print and on TV. She broke stories, mostly on the NBA beat. In what generally was a farts-and-giggles “Showdown’’ segment on our “Around the Horn’’ episodes, I always braced for fierce, airtight arguments from MacMullan. She is leaving much too soon, but as usual, her reasoning is sensible: “Sometimes, you just know when you’re ready to dial it back, and this is the right time.’’

Ethan Strauss, Substack — This rabble-rouser is the latest to join me and other media freedom-seekers at the independent writing site, joining recent departures at The Athletic. This is the best take I’ve seen in ages on the sleazy intersection of ESPN, sports and Beverly Hills agencies. Just read and swallow hard: “Even if I don’t take it as seriously as malfeasance in our politics or financial institutions, sports corruption still has an impact on coverage, and I dislike how much of the game behind the game is shielded from readers. For example, Creative Artists Agency (CAA) happens to represent key media personalities at ESPN NBA, which was by design, and accomplished with the subtlety and tact of the Red Wedding. When you combine that nugget with knowledge of CAA’s influence over the New York Knicks (GM Leon Rose is a former CAA superagent, coach Tom Thibodeau is a CAA client), ESPN’s reports of Zion Williamson (CAA client) having an interest in joining the Knicks gets put in a different light. The way it’s presented to the consumer is the mere reporting on a rising star in New Orleans wanting to play in New York. You’re not supposed to know that ESPN wants this to happen because ESPN is CAA and CAA is ESPN, which means that CAA is the Knicks, meaning that the Knicks are ESPN. You’re not supposed to know that this factors heavily into why New Orleans is shit out of luck, gumbo and jazz music be damned. In many ways, the agencies run the NBA. The media that they use to execute their messaging is making the principals seem peripheral. So often, the story of a trade or free agency signing is told absent mention of its true author.’’ Preach, baby, preach, as Strauss qualifies as a sixth “They Get It’’ item.

Chicago sports voices — I had the utter misfortune, during my 17 years in the city, to experience the hillbilly homerism of Hawk Harrelson. Chicago was unique that way, filled with broadcasters compelled to shamelessly root for the home teams, sometimes to the point of inebriated parody (R.I.P. Harry Caray). So I’m pleasantly surprised — shocked, actually — to see some of the industry’s best young voices bringing high professionalism to the No. 3 market, namely Jason Benetti and Adam Amin. Both are coveted by the national networks, making it incumbent upon the White Sox and Bulls to keep them well-compensated and happy. Mercy, did I just write something nice about the Reinsdorf Empire? Gobsmacked, I’m calling this item No. 7.

THEY DON’T GET IT

Stephen A. Smith, ESPN — He is appearing so often in the “Don’t Get It” lane, I might have to retire the award and inscribe his name. Body language and long staredowns told us that Smith never was fond of Max Kellerman as a sparring partner, but Kellerman’s removal from “First Take’’ — without a firm replacement — suggests Smith is a tyrant. Will he ever be happy without his close buddy and partner-in-multiple-million-dollar crime, Skip Bayless? Smith should realize that his viewership success doesn’t require Bayless, who is under contract at Fox into 2025, when he’ll be pushing 73. The secret to the longer-running “Pardon The Interruption’’ is natural chemistry, dating back decades, between co-hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. But Smith prefers to argue with an assortment of debate foes including another loudmouth, Michael Irvin, which will hinder the continuity of familiarity — how’s that for self-invented TV jargon? Whatever Smith wants at ESPN, he gets. This is a dangerous game for his bosses, who suffered through the Shohei Ohtani slur and other Stephen A. disasters and might be in for worse if they don’t rein in his control freakdom. Kellerman is moving to morning network radio and will have a new TV show, but it won’t be front and center. He effectively has been Stephen A’d.

Draymond Green and Kevin Durant, b.s. artists — If they want post-NBA careers in media, they must stop with self-serving revisionist history that dents their credibility. On Green’s new Bleacher Report series, “Chips,’’ the two former teammates/combatants don’t blame themselves for the on-court altercation that led to Durant’s departure. Nope, three years later, both are pointing fingers at general manager Bob Myers and coach Steve Kerr for how they handled the viral fireworks. Yep, blame the honchos when you guys were the ones squabbling. Said Green: “I told them, ‘I’ll talk to (Durant), but ya’ll aren’t going to tell what I need to say.’’ Next day, Myers and Kerr asked Green to apologize publicly, and he blew a gasket: “I told them then and there, ‘ya’ll are about to f—k this up. The only (people) that can make this right are me and (Durant). There’s nothing ya’ll can do, and ya’ll are going to f–k this up.’ And in my opinion, they f—-d it up.” To which Durant chimed in: “It wasn’t the argument. It was the way that everybody — Steve Kerr — acted like it didn’t happen. Myers tried to discipline you and think that would put the mask over everything.’’ Welcome to the age of athlete empowerment. They simply can reinvent their mess and expect us to believe it.

Associated Press Sports Editors — I realize this ilk is a dying breed, but sports editors shouldn’t completely abandon ethics. There should have been only one conclusion when APSE hosted a panel discussion titled, “Best Practices For Covering Sports Gambling.’’ That would be: Investigate, don’t participate. But the panelists represented pro-gambling interests, including VSiN’s Brent Musburger and ESPN’s Doug Kezirian, and I have no faith that traditional newspaper sites — who aren’t financially attached to the legal gambling world like broadcast and wagering sites — will launch probes into inevitable scandals. “It was so exciting,’’ wrote VSiN’s Dave Tuley, “to see and hear so many sports editors from around the country interested in devoting staff to sports betting coverage in their states.’’ When in doubt, sports editors usually cover their butts rather than advance journalism.

ESPN — Some people, usually with a Bristol area code, think I hold a professional grudge against ESPN. In truth, after eight years of drawing paychecks on Mickey Mouse paper, I own an advantage unlike any other sports media critic: I have the freedom to expose how the place operates without harboring any interest in working there again. The network has a five-year, $1.5 billion contract to stream and broadcast UFC fights, but to be  a legitimate news organization, ESPN must separate from UFC goon Dana White. It failed miserably on its website by posting a business manifesto titled, “Inside the UFC’s Plans to Expand Its Global Stronghold.’’ How about investigating how many UFC fighters suffer brain damage in a life-and-death sport, how many are underpaid and how many were infected by COVID-19? Nah. White would call ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, throw a fit and threaten to take his rights to Fox. So, the manifesto trumps all.

Double-standard practitioners — The legal case of Rick Telander was only scantly covered in Chicago, probably because local sports columnists aren’t relevant anymore, certainly not as they were 10, 20 and 30 years ago. But a question of fairness comes to mind. If a sports figure is arrested for DUI and charged with five related offenses, he generally is put through a ringer with media investigations and frequent updates. Almost a month passed before Telander’s case was dropped by a Cook County Circuit Court judge, who said he viewed a police video, heard testimony from witnesses and ruled there were no “reasonable grounds to believe (the) defendant was intoxicated.’’ The story probably wouldn’t have ended there for an athlete, who might have faced further media probes. A double standard? I’d say so — and the media who cover sports should be subjected to the same intense coverage of their legal issues, regardless of income and station in life. As I said in a previous column, Telander deserved the presumption of innocence. But so do sports people.

Fox Sports — In a country divided by politics and vaccines, one safe and sacred place should be college football. But Fox insists on leaning right and turning loose Clay Travis — yes, he’s back — as a COVID-is-a-myth, Trump-loving activist on its pregame shows. Riding a bus like John Madden back in the day, he’ll only be appearing in the Deep South, thank goodness, in states such as Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida and Georgia. I assume Fox is trying to attack ESPN’s SEC stranglehold, but now more than ever, America needs a football season as an escape, not another reason to vent. And what’s with the promotional depiction of Travis as some steroids-bulging freakoid with tats? Is anything real anymore? Again, it’s a sixth entry, and again, I can’t help myself.

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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