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The NBA Bubble: Again, Why Are They Doing This?

“It will take a Disney miracle for the NBA’s Orlando plan to succeed amid pandemic fears, soaring positive tests in Florida, the Black Lives Matter crusade and players filled with anxiety.”

Jay Mariotti

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Vegas is laying the wrong odds. Rather than establishing the Lakers, Bucks and Clippers as NBA title favorites, sportsbooks should emphasize the real action: What is the likelihood that the league’s military lockdown camp — er, bubble — will collapse in a shambles of coronavirus outbreaks, Black Lives Matter concerns and star defections that leads to a shutdown of the Adam Silver Salvation Tour and exposes this Disney World fairy tale as an all-time disaster?

Again, why are they doing this?

The NBA is moving forward, of course, because its very future depends on it. Silver is trying to recoup more than $1 billion in potential losses and keep the league on an unsteady track toward the 2020-21 season, which presumably would be played without spectators and a 40 percent windfall of game-night revenues. Broadcast partner Disney is trying to resuscitate ESPN, which is suffering from abysmal ratings not seen since its tractor-pull days of the early ‘80s. And players want to make money, especially if owners eventually use the force majeure clause — the most painful sports phrase since androstenedione — to terminate the collective bargaining agreement and impose … deep breaths … a lockout.

The sports world could deal with baseball going away for a long time. The NBA, across key demographics, would be a devastating loss. “Either way, I think it’s going to happen, whether the players play or not,’’ said NBA great Paul Pierce, dropping the L-word on ESPN, not exactly the media synergy that Silver and Disney boss Bob Iger want. Thus, there is the frenzied urgency to send 22 teams of up to 374 players to Florida and resume the season late next month, so everyone can get theirs.

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Yet even after the league released a 113-page manual, detailing health and safety protocols on its “campus,’’ the chances of the bubble bursting appear far greater than any awarding of the Larry O’Brien trophy in mid-October. You want me to be positive, upbeat, stop wearing a mask. Sorry, when lives are at risk, realism is the operative mission. And the world is much too complex and fraught now to think a vast majority of players — including the big names necessary to maintain competitive credibility — will remain committed to quarantined living for weeks and months.

As a pandemic continues to wreak deadly consequences, Black Lives Matter is a massive, historic crusade that only has swelled since George Floyd’s murder. Together, the elements are planting doubts among players who’ve been preparing to play in the bubble, muffling Silver’s hopes for a Hoops Kumbaya. “We have an obligation to the NBA community to try. The alternative is staying on the sidelines, and that is giving in to this virus,’’ the commissioner said. “For us, we feel this is what we do. We put on NBA basketball. For the country, it will be a respite from enormous difficulties people are dealing with. And for social justice issues, it’s an opportunity for NBA players to draw attention to these issues because the world’s attention will be on the NBA and Orlando. if we can pull this off. It’s a unique opportunity to respond to George Floyd’s death.’’

Or another reason to stay home, keep your loved ones safe and not let basketball distract America from Black Lives Matter activism.

Do not understate the importance of next Wednesday. That’s when the entirety of NBA players must inform teams if they intend to participate. In and of itself, covid-19 remains enough of a threat, for the players and their families, to scare everyone away regardless of uncollected salaries. They see reports that the rate of positive tests is rising in central Florida. No matter how elaborate the testing procedures, the league acknowledges that a relentlessly contagious virus will lead to positive tests, actually putting it in writing: “the occurrence of a small or otherwise expected number of covid-19 cases will not require a decision to suspend or cancel the resumption” of the season. So what this becomes is a virus watch first and a basketball season second, not a comforting thought when playing a close-contact, sweat-dripping indoor activity. Remember, at least 10 NBA players and one head coach, Denver’s Michael Malone, have been infected.

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How many more will test positive — as numerous athletes have in other leagues, including the NFL’s Zeke Elliott — upon reporting to the bubble? When they arrive, players must self-isolate in hotel rooms, for as long as 48 hours, until two negative tests are delivered. If a superstar is on the first list of positives, another asterisk immediately will be affixed to an already tainted season. Vegas wouldn’t be so cruel to set odds on which players are infected, would it? Hey, the casinos are desperate, too. Even Michele Roberts, paid to protect a membership as executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, is bent on accepting the risks. “No one is suggesting that this is going to be an infection-free, guaranteed environment,” Roberts told the Associated Press. “I guess, unless we go to … well, where would we go? What state has the lowest rate? There’s just no way of finding a sterile environment probably on this planet, but certainly, not in this country.”

Again, why are they doing this?

Players will be tested “regularly,’’ not daily, and the games will go on regardless of positive tests. But if a prominent player is determined to be infected, say, during the postseason, his team is effectively screwed as he quarantines in “isolation housing’’ and sits out at least 14 days. I’ve found Silver to be much more trustworthy than the Major League Baseball dopes, but transparency is of the essence. Will the NBA report all positive tests — or, in the interest of preventing hysteria, not be as forthcoming in the cases of elite players? It’s a fair question, given the financial stakes.

All of which is complicated by the possibility — no, probability — that certain young millionaires unaccustomed to hearing “no’’ will defy the league’s wishes and leave campus. “The expectation is that players and team staff will not leave,’’ reads the protocol, but “expectation’’ is code for sneaking away for a night on the town, which, in otherwise sleepy Orlando, might mean strip clubs. Face it, the league can ramp up all the campus amenities imaginable — luxury hotels, golf courses, swimming pools, players-only lounges, DJ sets, 24-hour room service, yoga, biking trails, bowling, fishing — and not stop some players from bucking the system and going out. The league seems serious about enforcement, asking players and team personnel to be watchdogs and snitches, even supplying an anonymous hotline to blow whistles. If someone is caught leaving the bubble without prior approval (such as for a family emergency), he’ll face 10 days in quarantine and undergo the hellish procedure of deep-swab nasal testing. There also could be “a warning, fine, suspension and/or removal from campus’’ by the league.

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But at that point, if a player is rebellious enough, will he care about a fine or sabotaging his team? Throughout America, people in their 20s believe the pandemic is over and a fun summer has begun. Think NBA guys are any different? Perhaps LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo would reel in their teammates and remind them of the championship mission. But most bubble teams have only minimal title chances and might have antsy players who want to party. Or, players who decide to bail and go home, which would further bastardize the season. As it is, they’ll be living apart from family members, playing without fans in the stands, required to dress and take showers in their rooms and invited to wear “a proximity alarm’’ that will sound for those not following social distancing guidelines. At what point does a player crack in this isolated environment? And when the final eight teams, after the first playoff round, are allowed to reserve one separate hotel room for each player’s “guests,’’ how will that perilize the quest to sterilize? It’s no wonder the league is suggesting each team have a mental health professional on site if “any player experiences feelings of anxiety and stress upon transitioning to the campus and being away from household family members.’’

This might explain why the league, curiously, has abandoned policy and won’t be testing for recreational drugs the rest of the season. The manual reminds players that marijuana is illegal in Florida and banned at Disney World, but apparently, no one officially will be monitoring use. Was that an intentional perk? Might weed save the NBA? In this league, weed trumps any assurance, straight from the bubble manual, that Disney World will be cleaning “spaces and surfaces before and after use by different teams with Ecolab Peroxide Multi-Surface Cleaner & Disinfectant and Oxivir Tb disinfectant and wipes.’’

Still, not even the ability to get high will influence players who’ve seen progress in a purpose far beyond basketball — racial injustice — and don’t want games deterring from Black Lives Matter protests. Kyrie Irving, an elected vice president in the National Basketball Players Association, has been the loudest voice opposing a restart, but it’s uncertain whether his strong statements of last week have gained momentum in numbers. “I’m not with the systemic racism and the bull(bleep),’’ said Irving, per The Athletic. “Something smells a little fishy. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are targeted as black men every day we wake up.’’

To which ESPN analyst and ex-NBA center Kendrick Perkins replied: “No one is listening to Kyrie. The NBA is going to continue. All he’s doing is causing unnecessary drama between the NBA brothers that we don’t need right now.’’

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A player who prioritizes Black Lives Matter and declines to play will not be seen as violating his contract, Silver said. Given the league’s healthy social conscience, the commissioner would prefer players use the bubble as a platform, allowing that network telecasts might include “a series of speakers in police reform and why covid-19 has a disparate impact on people of color.’’ He never stops thinking, Adam Silver, who might want to rescue MLB and help the NFL if he somehow pulls off this miracle.

“Not surprisingly, there’s not a uniformed view among those players,’’ he said. “(The campus) may not be for everyone. It will entail enormous sacrifice on behalf of those players and for everyone involved. Listen, it’s not an ideal situation. We’re trying to find a way to our normal in the middle of a pandemic and recession, or worse, with 40 million unemployed and now with enormous social unrest in the country. As we work through these issues, I understand that for some players, this is not for them. It may be for family reasons, health reasons, or it may be that they feel their time is best spent elsewhere.’’

If enough players enter the bubble and stay the course, the new NBA normal would no doubt fascinate viewers. The strangest postseason in sports history will be contested in three boxy gyms with a smattering of spectators, one public-address announcer, time-out music bouncing off empty walls and assorted TV cameras trying to be innovative.

I do want to believe in the uplifting Disney ending, I really do. I want the trademark Happily Ever After, the When You Wish Upon A Star vibe.

But this being 2020, I fear we’re about to get the scene where Mickey Mouse goes to the hospital.

BSM Writers

Who Handled the Tua Concussion Discussion Best?

Rex Ryan, Rodney Harrison, and Boomer Esiason stood out with their commentary on the Tagovailoa story.

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The major story going into the bulk of Week 4’s NFL action on Sunday was the concussion suffered by Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in Thursday’s game versus the Cincinnati Bengals.

Amazon’s Thursday Night Football telecast, particularly its halftime show, faced heavy criticism for neglecting to mention that Tagovailoa had been tested for a concussion in his previous game just four days earlier. Additionally, the NFL Players Association called for an investigation into whether or not the league’s concussion protocols were followed properly in evaluating Tagovailoa.

In light of that, how would the Sunday NFL pregame shows address the Tagovailoa concussion situation? Would they better inform viewers by covering the full story, including the Week 3 controversy over whether or not proper protocols were followed?

We watched each of the four prominent pregame shows — ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown, Fox NFL Sunday, CBS’s The NFL Today, and NBC’s Football Night in America — to compare how the Tagovailoa story was covered. With the benefit of two extra days to research and report, did the Sunday shows do a better job of informing and engaging viewers?

Here’s how the pregame studio crews performed with what could be the most important NFL story of the year:

Sunday NFL Countdown – ESPN

ESPN’s pregame show is the first to hit the air each Sunday, broadcasting at 10 a.m. ET. So the Sunday NFL Countdown crew had the opportunity to lead the conversation for the day. With a longer, three-hour show and more resources to utilize in covering a story like this, ESPN took full advantage of its position.

The show did not lead off with the Tagovailoa story, opting to lay out Sunday’s schedule, which included an early game in London between the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints. But the Countdown crew eventually got to issue on everyone’s minds approximately 28 minutes into the program.

Insider Adam Schefter provided the latest on the NFL and NFLPA’s investigation into the matter, particularly the “gross motor instability” Tagovailoa displayed in stumbling on the field and how the Dolphins initially announced that the quarterback had suffered a head injury, but later changed his condition to a back injury.

Schefter added that the NFL and NFLPA were expected to interview Tagovailoa and pass new guidelines for concussion protocols, including that no player displaying “gross motor instability” will be allowed to play. Those new rules could go into effect as early as Week 5.

“This is an epic fail by the NFL,” said Matt Hasselbeck to begin the commentary. “This is an epic fail by the medical staff, epic fail by everybody! Let’s learn from it!”

Perhaps the strongest remarks came from Rex Ryan, who said coaches sometimes need to protect players from themselves.

“I had a simple philosophy as a coach: I treated every player like my son,” Ryan said. “Would you put your son back in that game after you saw that?

“Forget this ‘back and ankle’ BS that we heard about! This is clearly from head trauma! That’s it. I know what it looks like. We all know what it looks like.”

Where Sunday NFL Countdown‘s coverage may have stood out the most was by bringing injury analyst Stephania Bell into the discussion. Bell took a wider view of the story, explaining that concussions had to be treated in the long-term and short-term. Science needs to advance; a definitive diagnostic tool for brain injury doesn’t currently exist. Until then, a more conservative approach has to be taken, holding players out of action more often.

Grade: A. Countdown covered the story thoroughly. But to be fair, it had the most time.

The NFL Today – CBS

CBS’s pregame show led off with the Tagovailoa story, going right to insider Jonathan Jones to report. He cited the key phrase “gross motor instability” as a significant indication of a concussion.

Jones also clarified that the unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant who helped evaluate Tagovailoa made “several mistakes” in consulting with the Dolphins’ team doctor, leading to his dismissal by the NFL and NFLPA.

The most pointed remarks came from Boomer Esiason, who said any insinuation that the Dolphins, head coach Mike McDaniel, or the team medical staff put Tagovailoa back in the game in order to win was “off-base.” Phil Simms added that the concussion experts he spoke with indicated that Tagovailoa could miss four to six weeks with this injury.

Grade: B-. The opinions from the analysts were largely bland. Jones’s reporting stood out.

Fox NFL Sunday

The Fox NFL pregame show also led off with the Tagovailoa story, reviewing the questions surrounding how the quarterback was treated in Week 3 before recapping his injury during Week 4’s game.

Jay Glazer reported on the NFL’s investigation, focusing on whether or not Tagovailoa suffered a concussion in Week 3. And if he did, why was he allowed to play in Week 4? Glazer noted that Tagovailoa could seek a second, maybe a third medical opinion on his injury.

Jimmy Johnson provided the most compelling commentary, sharing his perspective from the coaching side of the situation. He pointed out that when an injured player comes off the field, the coach has no contact with him. The medical team provides an update on whether or not the player can return. In Johnson’s view, Mike McDaniel did nothing wrong in his handling of the matter. He has to trust his medical staff.

Grade: B. Each of the analysts shared stronger opinions, particularly in saying a player failing “the eyeball test” with concussion symptoms should be treated seriously.

Football Night in America – NBC

Sunday Night Football was in a different setting than the other pregame shows, with Maria Taylor, Tony Dungy, and Rodney Harrison broadcasting on-site from Tampa Bay. With that, the show led off by covering the aftermath of Hurricane Ian, its effects on the Tampa area, and how the Buccaneers dealt with the situation during the week.

But after 20 minutes, the show got into the Tagovailoa story with Mike Florio reporting what his peers told viewers earlier in the day regarding pending changes to the NFL’s concussion protocol and “gross motor instability” being used as a major indicator.

Florio emphasized that the NFLPA would ask how Tagovailoa was examined and treated. Was he actually examined for a back injury in Week 3? And if he indeed suffered a back injury, why was he still allowed to play?

When the conversation went back to the on-site crew, Dungy admitted that playing Thursday night games always concerned him when he was a coach. He disclosed that teams playing a Thursday game needed to have a bye the previous week so they didn’t have to deal with a quick, four-day turnaround. That scheduling needs to be addressed for player safety.

But Harrison had the most engaging reaction to the story, coming from his experience as a player. He admitted telling doctors that he was fine when suffering concussion symptoms because he wanted to get back in the game. Knowing that was wrong, Harrison pleaded with current players to stay on the sidelines when hurt because “CTE takes you to a dark place.”

“It’s not worth it. Please take care of yourself,” said Harrison. “Don’t depend on the NFL. Don’t depend on anybody. If something’s wrong with your head, report it.”

Grade: B+. Dungy and Harrison’s views of the matter from their perspective as a coach and player were very compelling.

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BSM Writers

Jason Barrett Podcast – Terry Dugan & Adam Delevitt, BetRivers

Jason Barrett

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Sportsbooks are creating their own media now, and no company is doing that using more guys that have made their names on sports radio than BetRivers. Terry Dugan & Adam Delevitt talk about the strategy behind that decision for today and for the future.

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BSM Writers

Joe Rogan Betting Admission Reveals Gray Area

Rogan’s admission raises a question as to just how ethical it is to place bets with insider information, and whether it should be legal or not.

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Joe Rogan

For nearly a decade, I’ve been fortunate enough to cover the football and basketball programs for the University of Kentucky in some form or fashion. Whether writing for blogs or working with ESPN Louisville as co-host of the post-game show, I’ve gotten to know people around the program I grew up supporting, and other individuals in the media doing the same. I’ve made some terrific friendships and cultivated quite a few relationships that provide me with “inside information” about the teams.

As an avid sports bettor, that information has sometimes put me into some difficult personal situations. There have been times when I’ve been alerted to player news that wasn’t public, such as a player dealing with an injury or suspension. It’s often been told to me off-the-record, and I’ve never put that information out publicly or given it to others.

I wish I could also say I’ve never placed a wager based on that information, but that would be a lie. While it’s been a long time since I’ve done so, I’ve ventured into that ethical gray area of betting on a team that I’m covering. I’ve long felt uncomfortable doing so, and I’d say it’s been a few years since I last did it.

At least I know I’m not alone. On his latest episode of The Joe Rogan Experience, Rogan told guest Bert Kreischer that earlier in his UFC broadcasting career he regularly bet on fights. He claims to have won nearly 85% of the time (which I highly doubt but that’s another discussion for another time), either via bets he made or ones he gave to a business partner to place on his behalf.

From his comments, Rogan doesn’t seem to have been using sensitive information to gain an edge with the books, but he also didn’t state that he didn’t. He indicates that much of his success stemmed from knowing quite a bit more about fighters coming from overseas, and he said he “knew who they were and I would gamble on them.”

But Rogan undoubtedly has long been in a position where he knows which fighters might be dealing with a slight injury, or who are struggling in camp with a specific fighting style. It’s unavoidable for someone whose job puts him into contact with individuals who tell him things off-the-record and divulge details without perhaps even realizing it.

But let’s say Rogan did get that information, and did use it, and was still doing so today. The fact is…there’s nothing illegal about it, not in the United States at least. While it’s against the rules of some entities — the NFL, for example, has stated they could suspend or ban for life individuals who use inside information or provide it to others — it’s not against any established legal doctrine. Unlike playing the stock market, insider betting is not regulated by any central body or by the government.

However, Rogan’s admission raises a question as to just how ethical it is to place bets with insider information, and whether it should be legal or not. Many of the after-the-fact actions that have been taken in the realm of legalized sports betting in this country, or those being discussed currently (such as advertising limitations), fall in line with changes made in Great Britain following their legalization.

One of their big changes was making it illegal to utilize insider information, with very specific definitions about the “misuse of information” and what steps the Gambling Commission may take. It lays out what information can be used, the punishments that may be levied, and at what point it might venture into criminality.

Sportsbooks do have recourse in some instances to recoup money on insider betting, but not many. If they can prove that a wage was influenced, they can cancel the bet or sue for the money. The most well-known instance is the individual who bet $50,000 at +750 odds that someone would streak on the field during Super Bowl LV –which he did– and then was denied the payout when he bragged about his exploits. But unless someone foolishly tells the books that they’ve taken them with information that the public wasn’t privy to, they have little to no chance of doing anything about it.

There are ramifications to insider betting that raise truly ethical dilemmas. Just like stock trading, information can be immeasurably valuable to those with stakes large enough to change prices. If I’m placing a $20 prop bet with the knowledge that a team’s starting running back might be out for a game, or dealing with an ankle injury, I’m not going to harm anybody else playing that line. But if I give that information to a shark, who places a $20,000 wager on that same line, I’ve now enabled someone to move a line and impact other bettors.

Online sports betting in this country continues to grow, and every day we are reminded that there are still aspects of the space that can feel like the wild west. As individuals in the media, we have to decide personally what our ethical stances are in situations like this. We also have to keep in mind the impact that betting can have on our biases–especially if we’ve bet using inside information. A prime example is Kirk Herbstreit, who won’t even make a pick on College Gameday for games he is going to be doing color commentary for lest he possibly appears biased on the call.

At one end of the spectrum, you have someone like Herbstreit, and on the other end, you have folks like Rogan who, while he no longer does so, was more than happy to not only wager on fights himself but gave the information to others. And in the middle, you have hundreds of people in similar situations, who might lean one way or another or who, like me, may have found themselves on either side of that ethical line.

There is no black or white answer here, nor am I saying there’s necessarily a right or wrong stance for anybody in the sports media industry to take. I would say that each person has to take stock of what they’re comfortable doing, and how they feel about insider information being used. Rogan didn’t break any rules or laws by gambling on the UFC, but his admission to doing so might be the catalyst towards it no longer being accepted.

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