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Chicago Media Enjoys The Last Dance As Much As You Do

“Covering the Bulls in the ’90s provided a full buffet of stories for sportswriters. Drama, conflict, triumph…never a dull moment.”

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I can’t get enough. I need more and I need it now. Forget that, WE need more and WE need it now.

ESPN’s The Last Dance has been a savior during this COVID-19 pandemic. I’m craving sports and action, and the 10-part documentary directed by Jason Hehir is delivering big time. It’s been a ratings winner for the network (last week’s episodes averaged 5.9 million viewers in the time slot) and its certainly been filling a void, left by the suspension of live sports. 

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For me, growing up in Chicago and actually covering parts (back up reporter for a Chicago radio station) of the last 3 Bulls Championships, it’s been a fun trip down memory lane. I’m into it. I was on my couch last Sunday yelling things at the TV, when the director took us back to the Bulls/Pistons Eastern Conference Finals in 1991. I can’t tell you exactly what I was screaming, but suffice it to say, it felt like I was watching this event live for the second time.

The behind the scenes access is unprecedented. Michael Jordan dealing with Dennis Rodman’s request for an in-season vacation was priceless in the moment and after the fact. All the subplots to that entire era of Bulls basketball are covered. It’s a sports fan’s dream to be taken behind that curtain to experience what those that were there experienced first-hand. 

Fortunately for me, I’ve remained friends with many of those TV, radio and newspaper reporters and thought, I wondered what they think of all of this. Is it accurate? Is it fun to look back? Just what was the circus like? 

To answer the latter, I posed that question to 3 guys that were there for every bounce of the ball and every media scrum. David Schuster, a Chicago sports veteran, was working for ESPN at the time of what Phil Jackson dubbed “the Last Dance.”

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“It was crazy for sure but I loved every minute of it.  How could you not? We were on the front lines of some of the best sports history ever”, says Schuster. “Being a basketball junkie only made it that much better. I said it then and have said it ever since that Michael Jordan is the greatest athlete I’ll ever hope to be around and I saw him from the best seat in the house almost every game.” 

Fred Mitchell is a fixture in Chicago media as well, working for the Chicago Tribune for decades. He sums it all up pretty simply. “Covering the Bulls in the ’90s provided a full buffet of stories for sportswriters. Drama, conflict, triumph…never a dull moment.”

Chris Boden is another veteran of the Chicago sports scene, having worked in radio and television at the time. He was there, representing CBS Radio and TV. He marveled at the sheer size of the media gatherings each and every night in 1997-98.

“Covering the team was nuts. You see a wide shot of Michael’s postgame scrums at home.  That’s what it was like for EVERY home game, several years leading up to that particular season,” says Boden. “I believe it’d take him 30-45 minutes after every game to get treatment, shower, & fully, impeccably dressed. His locker was just outside the door to the shower/training area, so with the mass of humanity crowded into that space, positioning was key.  You had to be ready to attach the mic to a pole if you weren’t within arm’s reach.  Practices weren’t quite that busy, but you’d occasionally have to jockey for position.”

I remember at times literally hanging out in the empty locker to one side of Jordan to have one hand on my microphone and one on the clothes rod in the empty stall. Occasionally, I’d get that look from him. I’m sure I looked a bit foolish, but I had to get the audio. I wish I knew what he was actually thinking. 

Sometimes documentaries don’t exactly live up to the advanced hype. Once in a while the outcome of the video is arranged in a way that the point is missed. This is not the case with The Last Dance.

“I think the documentary has been fantastic and has become must watch television. I envision numerous Emmy’s on the horizon”, says Schuster. “As one who was on the front lines of the entire Bulls dynasty it is so much fun to re-live it again but also nice to see some footage of things that we were not privy to at the time.” 

Boden agrees, “I’ve been really impressed. They’ve circled back to some of the details in the bigger storylines I’d completely forgotten about.” Boden continued, “though I and other sports media may be familiar with the ‘back stories’ they flash back & flash forward to, at times I’m looking for them to get on with the main story since we’ve heard it before.”

Boden thinks this documentary will serve a young crowd well. “I have to remind myself that there’s an entire generation that never saw Michael during his playing career, and the highlights prove to those 20-and-unders that he’d be just as great in today’s game.”

Chris Boden (sports reporter) - Wikipedia

All three members of my media panel agree, that the director is portraying things correctly. 

“To my best recollection, the documentary is accurately portraying facts and sentiments of that time period,” says Mitchell.

Boden is on board too, “I think it’s an accurate portrayal.  I don’t remember this all-access, behind-the-scenes, season-long filming going on for this eventual purpose,” he said. “The fact that the footage is proof and they got EVERYONE to talk confirms it’s an accurate portrayal.”

It got me wondering when Boden mentioned how the ESPN crew got everyone to talk, if this was the “norm” for everyday on the Bulls beat.  Mitchell may have summed it up best: “Michael Jordan was perhaps the most accessible superstar athlete I encountered during my 41-year career at the Chicago Tribune.”

Schuster echoed the sentiment, “I thought he was a super star both on and off the court. He would be available to the media after every game for a ridiculous amount of time. Wave after wave of reporters would ask the same questions and he would answer them all. Pippen was also pretty good but didn’t go through as much as Jordan.” 

Dennis Rodman presented his own challenges to the media covering the team. “Interviewing Dennis Rodman usually meant walking briskly alongside him with a horde of other reporters as he headed out of the United Center en route to a night on the town,” recalled Mitchell.

Tribune sportswriter Fred Mitchell ending 'terrific run'

Schuster remembers that walk down the hallway, “The reporters would have to walk backwards and try and keep up with his pace. I felt like Michael Jackson doing the moon walk”.

Boden felt bad for the cameramen trying to get to Rodman for the newscasts. “It required cameramen to walk backwards if you wanted to see his face, and while some were better at it than others, there would be an occasional tumble.”

Sometimes in sports, you get too close to the situation to actually appreciate what you are experiencing. It is a job after all. With the magnitude of what the Bulls did in the 90’s I wondered if my media panel is enjoying the look back through the lens of the ESPN documentary. 

“At times, so many games, athletes and events become a blur in the moment. Given the benefit of time and perspective,” waxed Mitchell.  “This documentary neatly packages those memories in an organized video scrapbook.” 

Schuster is enjoying the look back. “It’s great fun and I constantly am looking to see if I can find myself in one of the reporter’s scrums or sitting at court side but mostly it’s just fun to re-live the greatest sports dynasty I’ll ever witness personally.”

Boden appreciates the comfortable seat in which he’s watching the documentary from, after being in the epicenter of the live drama. “It’s almost like an ‘I Survived The Last Dance Circus.’  There was never a shortage of storylines but being & staying on top of it all, covering all the bases as best as you could (especially when it came to Rodman), was a grind,” he says. “But at the same time, you realized you were covering Jordan, the bid for a second three-peat, and that’s what you want to do when you sign up for this career.  And amidst whatever frustration you might feel from time to time, you know there are thousands of others in the business who’d love to be in your shoes.”

It was a special time to be covering a special team for these media veterans. By all accounts the folks behind The Last Dance are getting the job done, telling the stories within the stories to shed some new light on the team.

The Last Dance' Episodes 3 and 4: The Jazz show up, Rodman goes ...

I keep asking, is it Sunday yet? I can’t wait for Episodes 5 and 6. 

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

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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.

iTunes: https://buff.ly/3nTJC5K 

Spotify: https://buff.ly/3z9hErM

iHeart: https://buff.ly/3oyi0U0

Google: https://buff.ly/3vh7Tqu

Amazon: https://buff.ly/3w9hqAh

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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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