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Who Ever Thought There Could Be a Football Season?

“When a line of scrimmage and locker room are petri dishes for COVID-19 outbreaks, it’s immoral for the NFL and major college programs to launch seasons fraught with enormous health risks for players.”

Jay Mariotti

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Three months, 36 columns and countless radio shows ago, including an ESPN appearance that ended a Kremlin cold war, I wrote an introductory piece titled, “Stop The Delusion: Sports As We Know It Is Finished.’’

Was I wrong? A freaky baseball season is doomed to starts, stops, opt-outs and testing debacles involving a converted PED lab. The NBA’s Disney World bubble is one J.R. Smith after-hours sneakout from mass infection. Hockey is wise to flee the U.S. virus jungle, yet Canada won’t stop players from spraying particles and Brad Marchand from spitting on opponents.

And football? Who ever thought there could be a football season?

The last few hours finally brought an awakening, or a reckoning, that America should find something else to do in the fall. The words dreaded by millions — “We are running out of time …’’ — were uttered by none other than Greg Sankey, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, from the very sector of a mask-politicized nation that still thinks COVID-19 is the flu and football is bigger than God and disease. What’s happening now is an incremental series of heads-up acknowledgments, soon to include the chiefs of all five power conferences, that college football likely won’t be played in 2020. After months of denial, even the truthers realize that people do get sick from the virus, and do die, and that athletes aren’t the only ones testing positive; Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill and Pac-12 boss Larry Scott are among the infected. This sweeping reality eventually will be adopted by various NFL megalomaniacs, from Jerry Jones to Roger Goodell to Tom Brady to broadcast executives, once they recognize that they, too, stand no collective chance against the virus.

Hard to believe, I know, but true.

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Never mind the 136,000 deaths, the 5,000 fatalities over the last week, the record U.S. caseloads, the numb fact that many more people on this earth will be saying goodbye before the pandemic does. Football had to wobble for reality to kick in — and America is not handling it well, AT ALL. Baseball? It’s background noise when Sonos isn’t working and Alexa has laryngitis. The NBA? It’s a social media opiate, less sport than glitz-and-snark entertainment. Golf is a joy with Tiger Woods, meh without him, and soccer and auto racing are niche itches. The American soul would be dented without them, hardly totaled.

But an autumn without football? To hear the anguish, the absence of pro and college games would prompt the masses to run into the nearest body of water and never come back. I don’t get it. For the life of me — and life is intended literally, being in a pandemic and all — it’s baffling why reasonable people can’t grasp the obvious: To play football without a vaccine is to invite the coronavirus to blitz unblocked from the blindside, an opportunity for massive outbreaks and spreads in a country already bombarded by enough of them.

The line of scrimmage might as well be renamed “the petri dish,’’ with sweating, panting, bleeding and call-shouting men within inches of each other before the ball is snapped, followed by maniacal blocking, grunting, running, tackling and trash-talking. Then they head to the confined spaces of locker rooms — indoors, mind you — where COVID-19 will pitch tents in stadiums for months throughout the land. Other than rugby, UFC (a lost cause) and the Kiss Cam, no sporting endeavor is less conducive to safety and wellness, and it’s unconscionable to think the powers-that-be would ask players to assume such dangers. As Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay put it, while publicizing an HBO “Hard Knocks’’ series also on the endangered list, “I mean, we’re going to social distance but we play football? It’s really hard for me to understand all this.”

Denial sweeps the nation anyway. Fans need their controlled violence, their beloved teams and schools, their fantasy teams, their more serious gambling action. And broadcast networks? They don’t seem to care how many people fall ill in a trigger effect of playing football, petrified by the devastating financial consequences if a $15-billion NFL season and a $4-billion college season are lost. Would Fox Sports pull the plug on ailing FS1? How many of those daily ESPN shows would be shelved? Without football, what would those networks air? Remember, America thrives on football like no other show business genre, including Hollywood, Broadway and music. Even amid the cord-cutting and fragmentation of the television industry, 41 of the top 50 telecasts in the U.S. last year were NFL-related.

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That appetite hasn’t waned during the lockdowns and isolation of a paralyzing health crisis. It only has become more ravenous. The NFL news cycle has thundered on as if the pandemic doesn’t exist: Brady, joined by Rob Gronkowski, thumbing his nose at Bill Belichick from Tampa Bay and believing the TB12 lifestyle is bigger than the virus; Cam Newton, on the cheap, seeking revenge in New England until Belichick orders him to stop the postgame fashion show; Patrick Mahomes, young enough to be Brady’s kid, already the King of Sports and NFL compensation before his 25th birthday. Turn on any sports talk station, and the hosts aren’t focusing on the pandemic or the new round of social activism, though they should be. They’re talking NFL and Power Five, baby.

The rationale is this: If football can get through a concussion crisis, a barrage of off-the-field conduct problems and a Colin Kaepernick protest movement about to return with a furious vengeance — and rightfully so — why can’t it plow through during a pandemic? And it’s not just the fans and media networks embracing that mindset, but football men on the pro and college levels, ego-driven warriors who believe it’s their life mission and duty to take on an infectious disease and beat it down.

Well, I have a news flash for all of the aforementioned.

COVID-19 is invincible, shakeable only by a vaccine. It can wipe out a position group, a locker room, a community, a league. And if football isn’t careful, it might not recover from the resulting massacre. You have to love Richard Sherman, who quickly pointed out the absurd hypocrisy of the NFL’s new post-game policy: Players are banned from swapping jerseys and interacting within six feet of each other. “This is a perfect example of NFL thinking in a nutshell,’’ tweeted the veteran union rabble-rouser. “Players can go engage in a full contact game and do it safely. However, it is deemed unsafe for them to exchange jerseys after said game.’’

He followed with three laughing emojis, but he knows nothing is funny here. The NFL is treating players like pieces of meat. Risk your lives for three hours on a field, then get your asses straight home afterward so you can risk your lives the next week. Which is why the season is jeopardized not only by COVID-19 but the league’s arrogant proposal to hold 35 percent of player salaries in escrow. If it mirrors the strategy of Major League Baseball owners who actually cried poor during their public huff with the Players Association, brace for another round of depressing labor talks. At the very least, the NFL should provide daily virus tests, given the proximity issues inherent to the sport. Nope — the league wants testing every other day, though it will provide face shields to minimize spread during games, which J.J. Watt — among many uncommitted to playing — says could lead to breathing and glare/fog problems. “Huge outstanding issues are still unresolved,’’ said Sherman, the San Francisco 49ers cornerback and NFLPA executive committee member.

So, why play?

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The answer — and the wrong one, the corrupt one — is money. The powers-that-be are so blinded by the horror of lost billions that they’ve de-prioritized health risks for players. College football has tried to hold on as long as possible, riding the indifference and politics surrounding the virus in certain geographical pockets. But common sense and human decency finally are prevailing. Seasons cannot proceed when fraught with health risks, especially for a college player who receives a humble stipend, room and board but otherwise isn’t paid. Imagine the potential for spread when players, in daily close contact during games and practices, venture onto campuses that do allow student bodies. Also consider the alarming rise of COVID-19 cases in fraternity houses, where players might be partying. This explains why Southern states, filled with people inclined to view the virus as a hoax, are being required to wear masks — ohmygod, masks! — amid the rising death toll.

And why Sankey, in an ESPN Radio interview, said his level of concern is “high to very high’’ about a season ever starting. Said Sankey, who meets Monday with SEC athletic directors: “We put a medical advisory group together in early April with the question, `What do we have to do to get back to activity?’ and they’ve been a big part of the conversation. But the direct reality is not good and the notion that we’ve politicized medical guidance of distancing, breathing masks and hand sanitization, ventilation of being outside, being careful where you are in buildings. There’s some very clear advice about — you can’t mitigate and eliminate every risk, but how do you minimize the risk? … We are running out of time to correct and get things right, and as a society we owe it to each other to be as healthy as we can be.”

He wouldn’t come out and say it, so I will: The COVID-iots who haven’t worn masks have sabotaged football.

At least NFL players would be paid for their roulette game. But if the MLB season is vulnerable to players opting out, Goodell should prepare for a mass exodus, assuming many show up at all. One skeptic is Donovan Smith, who, as the starting left tackle of the Buccaneers, is responsible for Brady’s blind side.

Tampa Bay Lineman Donovan Smith Questions Football During COVID-19 ...

“The unfortunate events of the COVID-19 pandemic have put a halt to a lot of things. Football is not one. To continue discussing the many UNKNOWNS do not give me the comfort,” Smith wrote on Instagram. “Risking my health as well as my family’s health does not seem like a risk worth taking. With my first child due in 3 weeks, I can’t help but think about how will I be able to go to work and take proper precautions around 80+ people everyday to then go home to be with my newborn daughter.

“How can a sport that requires physical contact on every snap and transferal of all types of bodily fluid EVERY SINGLE PLAY practice safe social distancing? How can I make sure that I don’t bring COVID-19 back to my household? Yes, we can get tested every day, but if it takes 24 hours to get my results, how can I know each day that I am not spreading this virus or contracting it?’’

Amen. Yet for every thoughtful commentary, there is lunacy from the likes of college coaching legend Lou Holtz, who emerged from cobwebs with a curious plea: Play the season, risks be damned. Said Holtz: “The way it is right now, they just don’t want to have sports and there’s no way in this world you can do anything in this world without a risk. People stormed Normandy. They knew there was going to be casualties, they knew there was going to be risk, but it was a way of life.”

Until a way of life becomes a way of death.

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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