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Serena’s Only Option: Surrender To Queen Naomi

With Osaka firmly established as tennis’ reigning one-name icon, it’s important Williams not overstay her welcome at 39 in pursuit of a daunting 24th Grand Slam title.

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Let’s not misinterpret why Serena Williams was crying. It wasn’t because reporters were pushing her toward retirement with cold questions as she sat glumly, four years since her last Grand Slam title, wearing a diamond necklace that recognized her as “QUEEN.”

No, she was breaking down and abruptly leaving the news conference in Melbourne because she no longer can be QUEEN.

Image result for queen serena williams tears

It’s only a winnable game, this business of going out on one’s own terms, if obstacles aren’t clogging the legacy train. Tom Brady still hasn’t encountered an impediment to winning Super Bowls, but Williams, nearing 40, is trapped in an unfulfilling end game dominated by a younger and, somehow, potentially better version of herself. The new badass of women’s tennis, Naomi Osaka, already is 4-for-4 in major finals at just 23 after winning the Australian Open — which happens to be the number of Slam titles that Williams has been stuck on forever, one shy of the sport’s all-time record. Eerily, 23 also was the uniform number of Michael Jordan, another legend who didn’t realize it was time to go before it was too late.

“If I ever say farewell,” she said, “I wouldn’t tell anyone.”

She won’t have to say a word. It’s already clear how this story ends, the succession to her throne already established.

We needn’t prosecute Williams if she wants to march on in her one-legged catsuit, in awkward pursuit of one or two more trophies. It’s her life, not ours. But the tears provide evidence of her pain, a burden that is harder to watch as Osaka assumes control with an impenetrable perspective for one so young. Have you listened to her speak? She exudes traces of Zen, having overcome her own tears when she crumbled emotionally two years ago at Wimbledon, no longer having fun after ascending to No. 1 in the world. Tennis is known for breaking phenoms, and Osaka could have cracked following the moment that changed the sport forever, when she won her first U.S. Open amid boos as Williams infamously melted down in warfare with a chair ump doing his job. Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Haitian father, Osaka grew up on Long Island and in Florida, yet she was treated like an outsider that day by boorish New Yorkers. Who was she to disrupt Queen Serena?

“Honestly, for me, when everything happened in New York, I got really scared, because I felt like it put me into this light that I’ve never been in before,” she said.

Instead of fading away, Osaka found peace — and, after two coaching changes and 12 subsequent losses, a keeper in Wim Fissette, who devised a plan that refined her pulverizing serve and groundstrokes. She also matured into womanhood and embraced the lessons of 2020, the horrors of COVID-19 mixed with racial unrest, wearing seven different masks with names of Black police brutality victims during her U.S. Open matches. When she arrived in Australia and had to quarantine in a hotel with other contestants, she didn’t complain like the planet’s top male player, the insufferable Novak Djokovic. She simply stayed in her room and tried not to binge-eat while plotting how to use the pandemic to her advantage.

The greats have done precisely that.

Brady. LeBron. Naomi.

“I think the thing that I’m most proud of is now how mentally strong I’ve become,” Osaka said. “I used to be really up and down. For me, I had a lot of doubts in myself. But I think the quarantine process and seeing everything that’s going on in the world — for me, it put a lot into perspective. I used to weigh my entire existence on if I won or lost a tennis match. That’s just not how I feel anymore.”

She sounds like she’s on a couch with a therapist. Except, Osaka is winning the inner conflict with her soul. “What I’ve learned on and off the court is it’s OK to not be sure about yourself,” she said. “For me, I feel like I’ve always forced myself to, like, be `strong’ or whatever. I think if you’re not feeling OK, it’s OK to not feel OK. You have to sort of go within yourself and figure things out in a way.”

But as long as she’s out there on a court — whipping forehands and making endorsement fortunes like no one since, well, Serena — Osaka sees no point in wasting time. “I have this mentality that people don’t remember the runners-up,” she said. “You might, but the winner’s name is the one that’s engraved.” If that approach sounds familiar, she reminded us of her muse by wearing a Kobe Bryant jersey to a news conference, as she does in other defining moments. “I truly think it gives me strength,” she said.

Image result for osaka kobe jersey

So how is Williams supposed to overcome this hurricane? She can’t. Despite claims of being lighter on her feet after an offseason of training, she simply couldn’t move at times as Osaka’s strokemaking ran her from side to side. With her unforced errors climbing toward 24, she lost focus and faith, screaming after a missed forehand, “Make a shot!” We forget, in witnessing her machine-like grip on her craft for two decades, that Williams experienced what she called life-threatening complications during her 2017 pregnancy, and that she left the tour to gather herself. When she returned, there was Osaka, who had idolized Serena and aspired to become the same force.

Now, it’s a matter of when Williams realizes she can’t get to 24 as Osaka is collecting all the Slams. She is a human being who has suffered injuries for three years — knees, a left Achilles, a pectoral muscle, circulation issues in her legs and feet — and while Osaka has slipped up on the Wimbledon grass and Roland Garros clay, there’s a sense Serena no longer can seize a flaw. Having achieved so much, she understandably prefers not to end her career just shy of a goal. Djokovic, who now has 18 Slam titles and is chasing his own history (the 20 of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal), put it best when he said of himself and Williams, “When you’re chasing big things that are related to the history of the sport, obviously it has a lot of weight, a lot of pressure. And regardless of the amount of years you have played on the tour and the experience that you have, you still feel it on your shoulders.”

Yet isn’t 24 just a number when Williams long has been validated as the greatest ever in her sport? The holder of the record, Margaret Court, won the Australian Open 11 times in her native country back when elite players didn’t venture Down Under for the event. Her place atop the leaderboard is diluted, further muddled by her public anti-LGBTQ opinions — “the work of the devil,” Court has said — that have made her a detestable figure in some tennis circles. Is it possible Williams, as an advocate of gender equality, is driven to topple Court for social reasons?

Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, says Williams doesn’t think she needs 24 as career validation. Just the other day, Serena herself said, “My life is way more than a trophy.” But another recent glimpse shows her in Miami, giving a video tour of her new home to Architectural Digest. When she reaches the trophy room, she spots a piece of runner-up hardware and says, “We’ll put that one in the trash. We don’t keep second place.”

In Melbourne, Williams didn’t even finish second. Another young American, Jennifer Brady, lost the final to Osaka in straight sets. So much was made of how Williams greeted Osaka at the end of their semifinal, with her hand over her heart, as if saying goodbye to Australia and hello to her successor’s reign. Osaka has made it clear she doesn’t want to see Williams go, owing so much to the legacy of Serena and older sister Venus, two Black girls from Compton who shunned the sport’s White establishment and were home-schooled to glory by their father. Osaka, among 12 Black women in the 2020 U.S. Open singles draw, wrote in a recent column in The Telegraph (yes, she writes her own columns): “My young aspirations owe so much to Serena and Venus. Without those trailblazers, there would be no Naomi, no Coco (Gauff), no Sloane (Stephens), no Madison (Keys). Everything we did was inspired by them.”

When asked about Serena’s future last week, Osaka grew wistful. “It’s kind of sad when you say it like that, because for me, I want her to play forever. That’s the little kid in me,” she said. “As long as Serena’s here, I think she’s the face of women’s tennis.” And make no mistake, Osaka still can be a little kid, such as when she signed a TV camera lens immediately after beating Williams. “Mari, stop sending weird images in the group chat,” she wrote, directing a message to her older sister.

But Naomi is the predominant one-name icon now, capable of winning majors as long as she wants to keep playing. Said Jen Brady: “She’s such an inspiration to us all, and what she’s doing for the game is amazing in getting the sport out there. I hope young girls at home are watching and inspired by what she’s doing.” Osaka likely won’t want to play until she’s 39, but that doesn’t mean she won’t be remembered — like Tiger Woods juxtaposed against Jack Nicklaus — as having played the best tennis ever in the female ranks.

Perhaps that realization already has tapped Williams on the brain. On Instagram, just before leaving Australia for possibly the last time as a player, she thanked local fans in a note. “I am so honored to be able to play in front of you all,” she wrote. “Your support — your cheers, I only wish I could have done better for you today. I am forever in debt and grateful to each and every single one of you. I love you. I love you. I love you. I adore you.”

Hours later, after ruling the final with a serve that reached 122 mph, Osaka was saying after her 21st straight victory, “For me, I feel like every opportunity to play a Slam is an opportunity to win a Slam. So I think maybe I put that pressure on myself, but honestly, it’s working out in my favor right now.”

She was handed a pour of champagne. Not a drinker, she reluctantly took a sip and made a sour face, having been told growing up that alcohol is a no-no. “Like it’s ruining your body or your liver,” she said. “I just want to give myself an advantage for as long as I can.”

Naomi Osaka celebrates with champagne during a photo shoot at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy

And how long might that be? “I feel like the biggest thing I want to achieve is — this is gonna sound really odd — hopefully I play long enough to play a girl that said that I was once her favorite player or something. For me, I think that’s the coolest thing that could ever happen to me. … I just think that that’s how the sport moves forward.”

Spoken like the new QUEEN, with no interest in abdicating until she says so. Let the dethroned shed the tears.

BSM Writers

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.

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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.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 75

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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.

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BSM Writers

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.

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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.

Bron Heussenstamm, CEO Bleav Podcast Network

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.

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