We’ve entered the infection phase of this ill-advised, money-grabbing, Ghostbusters-like battle to resume sports amid a pandemic, as a familiar soundtrack hums ominously: “I ain’t afraid of no COVID.’’ I wasn’t shocked to hear from an agent friend confirming that one of his NBA players had tested positive for the coronavirus, which, I assumed, would prompt the league or the player’s team to immediately test the agent and any family members and friends who’d been in close contact.
I assumed wrongly.
“Those of us who have been around him haven’t been tested yet,’’ he texted Thursday, saying it was difficult “to get in anywhere’’ in a virus-pounded state.
A day passed. “Still haven’t been tested yet,’’ he wrote.
Another day passed. Finally, he decided to proceed urgently without the team’s help. “Pulled up to (a public testing site) and got lucky. 30-minute wait. (The team) was taking too long,’’ he wrote, adding that the player’s girlfriend and others also were tested and nervously awaiting results.
My thoughts turned to Adam Silver, the NBA commissioner. He’s the one league boss positioned to be remembered as a miracle-worker … or the madman who oversaw a colossal disaster in his Let’s Save Society Bubble at Disney World. Unlike Major League Baseball, the NFL and college football — whose seasons are imperiled by too much human interaction with the outside world — Silver has created an isolated environment that seemingly gives his league a chance to complete its postseason in early October. Yet already, before players arrive in the Orlando area, there is a crack in the plan, concurrent with a 65 percent rise in U.S. coronavirus cases over the last two weeks.
Why couldn’t the NBA or the team secure tests for an infected player’s inner circle? According to league protocol, a player who tests positive “will remain in self isolation until he satisfie(s) public health protocols for discontinuing isolation and has been cleared by a physician.’’ Understood. But what about loved ones, their health and the health of those with whom they’ve been in contact? It’s disturbing they had to wait days before finding their own pathway to tests, increasing their risk of spreading COVID-19 to others.
As it is, the $200 billion sports industry is hoarding medical resources — including tens of thousands of tests — as surges overwhelm hospitals, strain laboratories and force desperate test-seekers in hard-hit Florida, Arizona, Texas and other states to wait for hours in chaotic car lines, often to no avail. The ongoing fear is that the country’s health-care systems will implode, and, in an ideal world, sports would set aside its zeal to recoup lost fortunes and use its influence to help America get well. But hey, the commissioners keep telling us, the White House has urged sports to play on, never mind that some of those leagues — hello, NBA — have excoriated President Trump for years. For that matter, consider the protests of Texas Rangers employees who say they fear for their health — “We are terrified for our safety,’’ one told ESPN — and feel pressured to report to work at new Globe Life Field in an organization blitzed by the virus.
Those are glaring examples of how a fraught, delusional venture into the unknown represents a daunting whack-a-mole game for sports, a dam that could burst at any moment in coming weeks. In what feels like only Round 2 of a 15-round brawl, these houses of cards depend entirely on testing protocols that will determine whether seasons are miraculously finished or collapse in an avalanche of infections and spreads. Yet with preseason training set to begin, the NBA and MLB appear to be viewing coronavirus infections — which can cause victims to become violently ill or die; have the potential to spread wildly through teams, leagues and communities; and do particular damage statistically within Black America — as no less severe on a diagnosis scale than a sprained ankle.
Test positive, self-quarantine for at least seven days and no longer than 14 days, then return to your NBA team.
Test positive, self-quarantine, produce two negative tests at least 24 hours apart, show no symptoms for 72 hours, then return to your MLB club.
Suck it up, get your ass back out there and risk your life because — to paraphrase the immortal Mike Gundy — we need to run money through the leagues and broadcast networks.
Sports reflects a divided America, split politically and geographically about the dangers of the pandemic, with leagues bullrushing back to a desired new normalcy. Are the owners and commissioners any different than the Mask Truthers who create the cultural disconnect? “It appears America isn’t just dealing with a deadly strain of coronavirus — it’s also dealing with a deadly strain of stupidity,’’ said the social commentator, Trevor Noah. It’s still difficult to wrap my brain around the lunacy that baseball and basketball seasons are starting, soon to be joined by football camps, while infection numbers are exploding, states are backtracking on reopenings and people continue to die in large numbers.
In one corner, we have Malcolm Jenkins, the activist and NFL Players Association committeeman, speaking the truth: “Until we get to the point where we have protocols in place, and until we get to a place as a country where we all feel safe doing it, we have to understand that football is a nonessential business. And so we don’t need to do it. And so the risk has to be really eliminated before … I would feel comfortable with going back.” In the opposite corner is Tom Brady, idolized by millions as the greatest quarterback ever, recklessly disregarding virus-related orders in ravaged Florida by continuing to hold workouts in public settings with Tampa Bay Buccaneers teammates. Apparently believing that his TB12 wellness plan is bigger than All Things COVID-19, Brady — now a month from his 43rd birthday — used Instagram to post a photo of himself drinking water beside a quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “Only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’’
Tell that to the families of at least 123,000 dead Americans, who might want the NFL to call out Brady and another COVIDiot, Russell Wilson. It was good to see DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, strike first. “They’re not in the best interest of protecting our players heading into training camp, and I don’t think they are in the best interest of us getting through an entire season,” Smith told USA Today.
It’s one thing to test perilous waters, quite another to attack COVID-19 as some sort of heroic war mission. If so, the leagues are kamikaze pilots venturing into a harrowing air raid. Emboldened by business and athletic egos that have pushed them to become massive successes, the leaders of this resumption movement are striving to somehow be larger than the health crisis of our time, as if they’re action figures trying to take down Godzilla, King King and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. They actually think they can pull off the historic upset, in the tradition of major sports upsets such as Miracle On Ice, which suggests their audacity to proceed with live games involves more than financial interests. Never mind that competitive integrity will be shredded. The traditional purpose of sports — crowning a champion — has been blown out by the overriding goal of finishing a season, making back lost money and conquering the virus.
In Silver’s case, legacy is largely at play. Aware that he was the first commissioner to shut down a league, after Rudy Gobert’s positive test on March 11, Silver and his messengers aren’t afraid to send a bold message: The NBA’s plan is too big to fail, which sounds much like, “I ain’t afraid of no COVID.’’ But when they say that, are they aware Gobert says he hasn’t fully recovered? The Utah Jazz center told the French sports publication L’Equipe, “The taste has returned, but the smell is still not 100 percent. I can smell the smells, but not from afar. I spoke to specialists, who told me that it could take up to a year.’’
A year, he said. How is that newsflash going to fly among teammates — including Donovan Mitchell, who still thinks he caught the virus from Gobert — and opposing players inside Silver’s Magic Kingdom? And how about rumors that LeBron James and Los Angeles Lakers players have been secretly scrimmaging at a billionaire’s Bel-Air mansion? If athletes can be so dismissive of a government quarantine, do we really expect hundreds of players and support staff members — most in the category of millennials and Gen Zers who don’t grasp COVID-19’s inherent seriousness — to faithfully stay in the bubble for weeks and months? Should I bring up abstinence, the implausibility of NBA players not having sex for extended periods? When family members are allowed in the bubble after the first playoff round, will they follow orders? And what about Disney employees, those who cook and clean and maintain the bubble, who currently aren’t required to test in the bubble? If this pipedream has any chance in hell of working, every detail must be airtight. Isn’t that impossible, when human behavior can’t be controlled?
I’m just being real. Silver prefers to think hopefully.
“We believe we’ve developed a safe and responsible way to restart the season,” he said on a media conference call. “We are left with no choice but to learn to live with this virus. No options are risk-free right now. We can’t sit on the sidelines indefinitely. We must adapt. We’re coming back because sports matter in a society. They bring people together when we need it the most.”
His thoughts are echoed by MLB, which wrote this to union members in a 101-page operations manual concerning health and safety: “This is a challenging time, but we will meet the challenge by continuing to work together. Adherence to the health and safety protocols described in this manual will increase our likelihood of being successful. We hope that resuming baseball will, in its own small way, return a sense of normalcy and aid in recovery.”
Sports doesn’t matter to society any more than Hollywood matters, Broadway matters, music matters. So why have those entertainment industries shut down for the calendar year while sports marches on? Why have Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Guns N’ Roses and all other musical acts canceled 2020 events at new SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles — where one construction worker died in a fall and 18 others have tested positive for COVID-19 — while two NFL exhibition games remain on schedule for Aug. 14-15? Because sports is powered by television and the assumption that game-starved fans will watch in record numbers, even in buildings without spectators, regardless of predictable obstacles: coronavirus victims, defections by athletes who decide they don’t trust the risks, injuries caused by long layoffs and short preseasons, and the lack of energy without fans whose importance to the live sports experience is taken for granted.
The anticipated TV ratings, backed by advertisers also anxious to energize their brands, is why the risks are worthwhile for leagues. Silver knows a crash is possible, which would leave a permanent stain on the league and how he is remembered. Already, several prominent players — Nikola Jokic, Malcolm Brogdon, Derrick Jones Jr. — are among the most recent roll call of 16 who tested positive, meaning at least 30 players have been infected and probably many more. Which poses another problem: Will leagues be transparent about who tests positive during the season, such as if a superstar is infected? Face it, if James or Giannis Anteteokounmpo failed a test, it would create a public outcry to shut down the NBA. Same goes for the other leagues. Wouldn’t it be convenient for everyone involved — including ESPN, which has abandoned all pretenses of independent journalism concerning its business partners — to call the injury an ankle sprain? If so, Silver and other commissioners better be watchful of the gaming industry they’ve been eagerly courting. If you want gamblers to bet on games during a pandemic, you’d better be honest with them about COVID-19. Or else, you’re committing consumer fraud.
Privacy laws might protect leagues and teams when they decline to identify names. So they want fans to watch and gamble — and, technically, pay for TV sports packages — without knowing who has tested positive. Is that ethical? No. Said Andrew Friedman, baseball operations president of the Los Angeles Dodgers: “We’ve had some people in our organization test positive, none that have resulted in symptoms that have been problematic. It’s very much a personal thing that if any want to share, it’s up to them.”
It’s another reason to pause and wonder: Why are they doing this?
Allow the imagination to wander. Just as there are billions of reasons for leagues and networks to resume, there are billions of reasons why the plan might not succeed. At least Silver knows that, saying, “If we were to have significant spread of coronavirus throughout the community, that ultimately might lead us to stopping. We’re not saying full steam ahead no matter what happens, but we feel very comfortable right now with where we are. We’re working closely with the Players Association, Disney and public health officials in Florida as to what that line should be. It hasn’t been precisely designed. I think we want to get down on the ground and start to see how our test is working and how protocols are working, and then we’ll make decisions as we go.’’
When examining the four major sports leagues and college football, the NBA does have the best shot. There is no faith that MLB boss Rob Manfred, who has failed at labor talks and game pace and sign-stealing justice and pretty much everything else, will pull off a 60-game regular season and postseason without disruptions and an eventual crash. Tests are being administered only every other day, unlike the NBA’s every-day procedure, further jeopardizing players and support staff as virus carriers who will be in contact with family members after long days at local ballparks, not to mention road trips and hotels. Baseball players, by nature, are the least likely to abide by protocols. “What happens when we all get it?’’ tweeted Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Brett Anderson, speaking for many.
The NFL has the advantage of a regular season that doesn’t begin until early September, allowing commissioner Roger Goodell to take notes and adapt. But football, as a collision sport played by sweating and breathing warriors, is the riskiest of all coronavirus challenges. “The NBA is a lot different than the NFL because they can actually quarantine all of their players or whoever is going to participate. We have over 2,000 players, even more coaches and staff. We can’t do that,” Jenkins said. “So we’ll end up being on this trust system, the honor system, where we just have to hope that guys are social distancing and things like that. And that puts all of us at risk, not only us as players and who’s in the building, but when you go home to your families. You know, I have parents that I don’t want to get sick.’’ In that vein, college football has zero chance as long as reckless young people jam into bars and spread the virus among themselves and fellow students, with an elite program, Clemson, shaming itself with 37 coronavirus cases. Hockey, like basketball and football, is defined by non-stop contact and in-your-face proximity, giving commissioner Gary Bettman time to study the NBA bubble. And golf? We’d have thought the one socially distanced sport would have few problems, but the COVID-19 dramas build by the day, with Brooks Koepka among players dropping out of the Travelers Championship after caddies tested positive.
“It’s pretty clear this virus isn’t going anywhere,’’ said PGA Tour boss Jay Monahan, warning of “serious repercussions’’ for those not obeying policies. That didn’t stop CBS analyst Nick Faldo, who should know better, from mocking Koepka’s absence. Faldo, ticked off about Koepka’s remark that golf announcers should “shut up and listen’’ in his opposition toward networks placing live microphones on players, said this on the broadcast: “I was looking forward to hearing some more fascinating stuff from him, but unfortunately he wasn’t around this week. I know he’s watching at home, because he loves listening to we analysts and our scintillating insights. He’s probably poolside in his thong, you know, enjoying himself.’’
No, that animal would be tennis king Novak Djokovic, throwing a dance party and infecting himself and others. Koepka actually was taking the responsible approach.
All of which makes me ask once more: Does someone have to die before sports is shut down? Actually, the baseball and football seasons could be canceled by one statewide order in, say California, where five MLB clubs and three NFL teams would have to scramble — to where? — to play home games. If governor Gavin Newsom was forced to close bars in Los Angeles County this past weekend, why would he open stadiums for even spectator-less games? The public health chief in Houston, Dr. David Persse, says he won’t hesitate to shut down Minute Maid Park, which would put the cheating Astros out of their misery. Here is where Silver has another edge: No way Florida governor Ron DeSantis, father of America’s second coronavirus wave, would cancel the NBA season.
Even when it reaches the point where he should, to save lives.
Grant Cohn’s Trolling of Players is Unacceptable
After an altercation between Javon Kinlaw of the San Francisco 49ers and Grant Cohn, it became clear that Kinlaw was being trolled by a member of the media.
Grant Cohn is a media member who writes for the FanNation 49ers blog on SI.com. He also talks about the team on his YouTube channel, which has over 48,000 subscribers as of noon Thursday. His father, Lowell, was a longtime columnist in the Bay Area.
Javon Kinlaw is a defensive lineman, whom the San Francisco 49ers drafted in the first round despite concerns about the durability of his knee. He played four games last season, his second in the league.
The two were involved in two confrontations this week. The first one occurred off to the side of the 49ers’ practice field. Kinlaw apparently cursed at Cohn and knocked his hat from atop his head. Later in the day, Kinlaw again swore at Cohn, this time after joining a live stream on Cohn’s YouTube channel. (Side note: I have never felt so freaking old as I did while typing that previous sentence.)
OK. That’s my attempt at an absolutely straightforward and objective summary of a situation that scares the hell out of me. Not because a player was mad at a member of the media. I’ve had it happen to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s my opinion that this has been happening for as long as human beings have scrutinized the athletic efforts of other human beings.
What scared me was that I was seeing some version of the future of sports media. A future in which media members behaved like YouTube trolls, acting purposely ridiculous or antagonistic to initiate conflicts that could be turned into more conflicts that would could be gleefully recounted as content for the audience. I thought that because that’s pretty much what Cohn did:https://youtu.be/4Hf9sjBttFY
Cohn essentially bragged about the number of different things he said that may have prompted Kinlaw’s reaction, and you know what? It worked. Kinlaw got mad. He confronted Cohn. Twice. TMZ published a story about it. So did SFGate.com.
This is troll behavior. You know, the online pests who say or do something intended to provoke a reaction, and once they get that reaction, they recount and scrutinize that reaction with an eye toward triggering another reaction. Lather, rinse repeat. Increasingly, entire online media ecosystems consist of nothing more than people who don’t like each other talking about how much they don’t like one another.
I’m not going to pretend this is entirely new in sports media. Sports columnists have been known to make reputations with their willingness to be critical of the home team. A huge part of Skip Bayless’ brand is his unwavering insistence on highlighting Lebron James’ perceived flaws. Stephen A. Smith has engaged in public feuds with players, namely Kevin Durant.
I do see a difference between this and what Cohn did, though. The reaction Bayless and Smith are primarily concerned with is from their audience, not their subjects. The subjects may get mad, but that’s not the primary goal. At least I hope it’s not.
What happens if that is the primary goal? What if someone is offering opinions not because it’s what they really think, but because they want to provoke a response from the subject? Media careers have been built on less.
I don’t know if that’s the case with Cohn. I’ve never talked to him in my life, and even if I had, it’s impossible to know someone’s true intent. But in listening to everything he said AFTER the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, I’m not willing to assume that Cohn was operating in good faith. Here’s how Cohn described the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, which occurred as practice was beginning.
“In the training room, I saw Javon Kinlaw, who is the king of the training room,” Cohn said. “He’s usually in the training room.”
Cohn said the two locked eyes, but were separated by about 70 yards at the time. Kinlaw then walked across the field to where the reporters were gathered. He stood directly behind Cohn.
“So I turn, and I say, ‘Wassup, Mook Dawg?’ “ Cohn said, referencing the nickname on Kinlaw’s Instagram account. “And he doesn’t say anything. And I say, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Javon?’ “
“And then he said, ‘What are you going to do about it you bitch-ass,’ and then he said one more word that I can’t say,” Cohn said. “And then I turned to face him, and I said, ‘Oh, it’s like that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s like that.’ And then he knocked the hat off my head.”
OK. Pause. In my experience, when your job is to publicly describe and critique the performance and attitudes of professional athletes, there will be times in which the athletes do not care for your description or your critique. Some of those who are displeased will make their objections known to you.
However, there are two things that are unusual here: First, the fact Kinlaw knocked the hat off Cohn’s head, which is unacceptable. Second, Cohn then posted a video on YouTube to not only talk about what had happened, but state he had been so critical of Kinlaw for so long he wasn’t sure what specifically sparked Kinlaw’s anger.
“Javon, what are you upset about?” Cohn asked toward the end of his video. “Is it the fact that I said you have an 80-year-old knee? Is it the fact that I said that you’re a terrible pass rusher and you’re just a two-down player? Is it the fact that I said the Niners shouldn’t have drafted you and should have taken Tristan Wirfs instead. Is it the fact that I said that you’re unprofessional and immature.
“It escapes me, which of the hundred negative things I’ve said about Javon Kinlaw the last couple of years, moved him to approach me in such a way, but you know what, I applaud Javon Kinlaw for coming to speak to me directly, and I ask you, what do you think Javon Kinlaw is mad about.”
Cohn was trolling Kinlaw. No other word for it.
That night, Cohn was conducting a live stream on YouTube, which Kinlaw joined, while apparently eating dinner, to make declarative statements about the size of Cohn’s genitalia — among other things.
Neither one looked particularly impressive. Not Kinlaw, who was profane and combative with a member of the media, at one point making a not-so-subtle threat. Not Cohn, who asked Kinlaw, “Do you think I’m scared of you, Javon?” He also said, “I don’t even know why you’re mad, Javon.”
I think Kinlaw would have been better off ignoring Cohn. If I was Kinlaw’s employer, I would probably prefer he not log into video livestreams to make testicular comparisons. But honestly, I don’t care about what Kinlaw did. At all. He’s not on a team I root for. He didn’t physically harm anyone. He used some bad words in public.
I am bothered not just by Cohn’s actions, but by some of the reactions to them because of what I think this type of behavior will do to an industry I have worked in for 25 years. Credentialed media members who behave like Cohn did this week make it harder for other media members who are acting in good faith. Preserving access for people like him diminishes what that access will provide for those who aren’t trying to use criticism to create conflict that will become content.
I think Cohn knew what he was doing. In his livestream, before Kinlaw joined, Cohn stated he was not scared because he knew — by virtue of his father’s history in the business — that if Kinlaw had touched him he would potentially be entitled monetary compensation.
By now, it should be pretty apparent how problematic this whole thing is and yet on Thursday, a number of 49ers fans online were sticking up for Cohn as just doing his job. Dieter Kurtenbach, a Bay Area columnist, Tweeted: “Javon Kinlaw does not know that @GrantCohn was built for this.” Built for what? Winning Internet fights? Kurtenbach also deleted a Tweet in which he called Kinlaw “soft.”
Cohn’s father, Lowell, is a former columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. He promoted the first video his son made on Tuesday:
Sorry, I don’t find it funny because it’s another step down a path in which media members seek reactions at the expense of information. Where they look to make fun of players instead of learning about them. They’ll stop acting like journalists and start acting like the trolls who make their money by instigating a conflict, which they then film: “Jake Paul, reporting live from 49ers practice …”
If that’s the case, thank God I’m about to age out of this business, entirely. I’m 47 years old and I can’t believe there’s anyone in our industry who thinks what Cohn did this week is acceptable.
Media Noise – Episode 75
A new episode of Media Noise is all about reaction. Demetri reacts to the ManningCast’s big win at the Sports Emmys. Danny O’Neil reacts to people reacting to Colin Kaepernick’s workout in Las Vegas and Andy Masur reacts to John Skipper’s comments about Charles Barkley.
Bron Heussenstamm Blends Bleav Podcasts Advertising with SiriusXM
Bron Heussenstamm, the CEO of the Bleav Podcast Network says blending podcasting advertising with satellite radio’s reach is a victory for both sides.
Last week, the Bleav (pronounced believe) Podcast Network announced a deal with SiriusXM to make all 32 NFL team-specific Bleav pods available on the SXM app. SXM can also air Bleav content on any of its sports channels. Each NFL Bleav show pairs a former player with a host to discuss team issues. Eric Davis, Lorenzo Neal, and Pac-Man Jones are amongst the former players Bleav has signed as talent.
I have hosted a Bleav podcast about Boise State football -the Kingdom of POD. I am usually provided 1-3 advertisers per episode by the network and get paid by the download. My subject matter is regional, so my take-home pay is usually under four figures. I have enjoyed the technical assistance and cross-promotion I receive and I enjoyed meeting Bleav CEO Bron Heussenstamm. Bron is Los Angeles-based, a USC graduate, and founded Bleav in 2018. We discussed the SXM deal, podcast advertising, and the future.
Will the podcast advertisers be carried on the SXM distribution platform?
Yes, Bleav baked-in advertisements and hosts read ads are distributed across all platforms. This enables the host to do their show once through, making it as easy as possible for the hosts and consistent for the advertisers.
How is advertising on Bleav different?
We want to be more than a ‘host read ad’ or a ‘digital insert’ with our advertising partners. When companies work with Bleav shows and talent, those companies can receive our omnichannel of distribution points—podcast platforms, YouTube, socials, streamers, TV, radio, and more. This allows for consistent branding across all platforms: great talent presenting great companies to fans and consumers no matter where they consume content.
What is the growth pattern for podcasts that you see?
The industry trades have presented 400%-800% percent growth over the next ten years. Once the COVID fog lifted, we really saw these gains. Sports are always going to be at the forefront of culture. The increases in all sports sectors have certainly carried into the digital space.
SXM has started with NFL shows but can also air more Bleav content – what does that look like?
We’ve started with our NFL network of 32 team shows hosted by a former player. We’ve kept the door open for our NCAAB, NCAAF, MLB, NHL, Basketball, and Soccer networks. We’re happy for our hosts to be part of such a tremendous company and platform. SiriusXM can continue to amplify its voice and give fans the access and insight only a player can provide.
The Interactive Advertising Bureau-IAB- says podcast revenue grew 72% last year to $1.4B and is expected to grow to $2B this year and double to $4B by 2024. Have you seen similar growth? What is driving the industry now, and what will be the primary cause of growth by 2024?
There is a myriad of reasons for the growth. I‘ll lean into a couple.
At Bleav, we launch and maximize the digital arm of industry leaders. The technology upgrades to allow hosts to have a world-class show — simulcast in both audio and video – from their home has led to an explosion of content. With this, the level of content creators has risen. Having a YouTube, RSS feed, podcast, and more is now part of the brand, right alongside Twitter and Instagram.
If a company wants to advertise on Bleav in Chargers, we know exactly how many people heard Lorenzo Neal endorse their product. We can also safely assume they like the Chargers. The tracking of demo specifics for companies is huge. It’s a fantastic medium to present products to the right fans and consumers.