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The New, Chilling Reality Of March Madness

Happy as we are to see brackets, the NCAA tournament hinges on positive COVID tests, which could force a team forfeiture with a single outbreak — making Gonzaga’s historic quest particularly fraught.

Jay Mariotti

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Any other year, the magical brackets would rise above the cesspools of college sports, the recruiting sleaze of Arizona and Kansas, even the condo creepiness of Les Miles. Any other year, March Madness would whisk us to a safe place free from existential disruption, where every great game is topped by a greater game and the impossible always is negotiable.

But even the sublimity of America’s most adored sports event isn’t immune from continuing pandemic disorder. The NCAA tournament can’t simply take two vaccine shots and be OK. A year after the cancellation of this basketball spectacle triggered a hellish year for American sports, 68 teams will warily convene next week within an Indiana bubble, in buildings allowing only one human body for every four seats, with the winners on April 5 owning a trophy and a Steak ’n Shake hangover.

NCAA Unveils Logo for 2021 Final Four in Indianapolis – SportsLogos.Net News

And if you think the mightiest competition comes from a history-shaking Gonzaga powerhouse, Big Ten monsters Illinois and Michigan and solo acts Luka Garza and Cade Cunningham, even Dickie V would say no way, baby. The enemy continues to be COVID-19, capable of wiping out the Zags and their mountainous quest — to become the first unbeaten national champion since Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers of 45 years ago — with one slip of the mask. Or any other team. Think not? Ask Baylor, another championship contender, which was working on its own spotless season until nine players tested positive and forced a 21-day February quarantine.     

“Even Superman has kryptonite. And I guess COVID protocols is ours,’’ coach Scott Drew lamented after a loss at Kansas.     

At least the Bears had an opportunity to pause as a group and self-isolate. In the tournament, a team without an ample number of healthy players forfeits the game and immediately goes home. I don’t care how closely protocols are monitored. Brace for a number of forfeits, based on the reality that youthful, unvaccinated players on the road — in hotels for days and weeks at a time, with families and friends staying nearby — won’t steer clear of the coronavirus. Thus, anyone eyeing a particular game as appointment viewing, or a gambler rushing to bet a hunch, must be prepared for a cancellation at any time.     

The brackets are certain to be compromised. Still days before the selection committee gathers, as teams navigate conference tournament minefields, the printout already looks strange. Gone are the usual sites and dates within each region that bring anticipation and a sense of national community to the Madness. Instead of listing Denver, Minneapolis, Memphis and Brooklyn, and feeding into Indianapolis for the Final Four, we have Regions 1, 2, 3 and 4 — with first-round games in the home gyms of Purdue and Indiana, second-round and Sweet 16 games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and Hinkle Fieldhouse and the Elite Eight and Final Four at Lucas Oil Stadium. It’s quaint and charming, I admit, if you love All Things Indiana, but there’s no nationwide pomp and circumstance. That’s what the pandemic has done to college hoops, after a regular season when 10 percent of games were canceled and more than 20 percent weren’t played on scheduled dates.     

Interest will suffer. Ratings will wane. That’s only natural, given the anxiety over vaccines and other COVID-related turbulence across the land. Plus, there is grime to wipe away, as the sport hasn’t recovered from corruption scandals that resulted in too many dirty infraction cases to count. And those are just the programs that were caught. Arizona and Shifty Sean Miller had the sense to self-impose a postseason ban, but who outside of Lawrence wants to embrace Kansas, where the school blindly defends coach Bill Self when the FBI thinks he’s a dirtball?     

LSU? You can’t navigate the campus without a Hazmat suit, with Will Wade openly defying the feds like a bankrobber on the lam. If Ed Orgeron and the football program quickly fell from grace after winning a national title, the affairs of his predecessor, Miles, were sickening. Back when he was king of Baton Rouge, Les the Mess allegedly was texting female students young enough to be his granddaughter and bringing them back to his condo, making promises he could help the career of one student while attempting to kiss her and woo her to a hotel. When LSU finally fired him, who hired him?

Les Miles explains why he almost left LSU in 2012 | Fanbuzz

Kansas … which didn’t properly vet Miles and finally came around to firing him Monday night. “I am extremely disappointed for our university, fans and everyone involved with our football program,” said athletic director Jeff Long, who hired Miles. This while Self, bless his Rock Chalk Jayhawk heart, coaches Team Adidas Payoff in the tournament.

And how will America deal with the Creighton story? A team that easily can reach the Elite Eight is embroiled in racial strife after coach Greg McDermott uttered the word “plantation’’ — twice — in a horrific speech to his players. In 2021, any authority figure who urges “everybody to stay on the plantation’’ and that he “couldn’t have anybody leave the plantation’’ shouldn’t be representing the school. Creighton suspended McDermott, but quickly reinstated him so he can coach in the tournament. Upset by the mixed messages, his players posted a video condemning his remarks.

Said Shareef Mitchell: “For slaves, life on a plantation was filled with mental, emotional, physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Viewed only as property and not human, slaves had no rights and no voice. They were branded like cattle, forced from their homeland and stripped of their culture, language and basic human rights. They worked 18 hours a day, six days a week. Any sign of wrongdoing such as lack of productivity, not following instructions or resistance would result in beatings or death.”

Said Denzel Mahoney: “… And that is why what Coach Mac said hurt me and my teammates.”

Will Creighton bond or break? Regretfully, it’s a prominent story line.

Awaiting Selection Sunday, one big issue is whether bluebloods on one bubble will be invited into the big bubble. I can do without Duke, which isn’t worthy, and where Mike Krzyzewski should consider retirement at 74 before the slog impacts his mammoth legacy. Michigan State, Louisville — I’ve seen plenty through the decades. Same with Syracuse, where Jim Boeheim is 76 and impressing no one with his crusty behavior, such as when he mocked a reporter “who never has played basketball and is 5-foot-2.’’

Really now, this is a fine time for the ascent of Illinois, which always should have been a perennial Midwestern force and has reached that level under Brad Underwood, who has two imminent pros in Ayo Dosunmu and 7-footer Kofi Cockburn, who somehow found Champaign-Urbana from Jamaica. Behold the rise of Alabama, coached not by Nick Saban but Nate Oats, who lets his guys run and fire like the NBA gunners and wants to entertain with the ball like, well, Saban. Michigan is coached by Juwan Howard, who can name his next head position in the NBA. Give me Houston, Arkansas.

Give me Toledo, Colgate, Grand Canyon.

Assuming the NCAA allows Oklahoma State to play in the tournament — though I don’t see why, given the Cowboys’ role in the sneaker scams — we’ll have a chance to examine Cunningham, the 6-8 point guard, before he goes No. 1 in the NBA draft. I like his perspective. “I’m not in the NBA yet,’’ he said. “I’m not getting paid by any team. I’m an OSU Cowboy. That’s what I’m worried about. I’m with my team every day trying to get better with them. I’m not going to be a foot out the door. I still want to win games. I still love being around my teammates now.” He could be protecting an injured ankle by simply opting out of March, but that’s now he he or his ankle roll. If Cunningham is the must-watch showman, the best player in America is Garza. If you haven’t seen him play much at Iowa, join the crowd.

The central story is Gonzaga. No longer the mid-major interlopers from the Pacific Northwest, the Zags never will have a better title shot. They are that talented, that mesmerizing and that explosive, with four players who rank in the top five nationally at their positions and a combo guard, Jalen Suggs, who chose to play in Spokane when he could have signed anywhere — including Ohio State, which wanted him as a quarterback. You can buy Zags gear around the world. It’s time to complete a full cycle that began with the program’s first tournament victory in 1999, from underdogs to overlords. With a sweep of the West Coast Conference tournament, Gonzaga would be only the fifth team in the past 45 years to enter the big show without a loss.

“It’s hard to be the front-runner and lead the mile all four laps,’’ coach Mark Few said. “Everybody’s gunning for you.”

“All that pressure comes from the outside, not from anything inside the program with the players,” said Suggs, the nation’s best freshman outside of Cunningham. “We’re just looking to go out every night and get a win on that night, not looking too far ahead.”

OKC Thunder NBA Mock Draft: Jalen Suggs linked to Sooner State

College basketball is the sport that has suffered most dearly without fans. We’ll miss that fury inside the stadiums and arenas of Indiana, where deep basketball traditions can’t replace the collective heartbeats and roars. But we can’t be worrying about atmosphere right now, or wondering how “One Shining Moment’’ will sound.     

The mantra is much colder now.     

Mask up, or go home.

BSM Writers

Who Handled the Tua Concussion Discussion Best?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday NFL Countdown – ESPN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The NFL Today – CBS

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

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

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

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

Fox NFL Sunday

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

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

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

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

Football Night in America – NBC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BSM Writers

Jason Barrett Podcast – Terry Dugan & Adam Delevitt, BetRivers

Jason Barrett

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

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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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