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Five Who Get It, Five Who Don’t

A weekly analysis of the best and worst in sports media from a multimedia content prince — thousands of columns, TV debates, radio shows, podcasts — who receives angry DMs from media burner accounts

Jay Mariotti

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THEY GET IT

Tom Coughlin, guest essayist — Forget all images of the authoritarian curmudgeon whose style worked in the NFL until it didn’t. Nothing you read in 2021 will be as soul-torturing as Coughlin’s tribute to his wife, Judy, who is dying of an incurable brain disorder. The coach, who won two Super Bowls with the Giants, wrote in the New York Times: “For the past year, I’ve been torn between protecting my wife’s dignity and privacy and sharing some deeply personal and sad news. It’s only after some reflection that I’ve come to the conclusion that what my family and I are experiencing may be helpful for others to read. As so many of you are gearing up for another NFL season, I will be sitting far from the sidelines, at the bedside and holding the hand of my biggest supporter, my beloved wife, the mother of our children and a grandmother to our grandchildren.” The life lesson: Beneath even the thickest of crusts, a shattered heart always weeps.

National Football League — This won’t win me any friends in the industry, but the league is right to ban independent media representatives from locker rooms this season. It would be more prudent of the NFL to make sure mask mandates are enforced in Los Angeles at SoFi Stadium — where spectators largely are ignoring the county edict, as I wrote this week — but it’s a given that reporters can’t be in locker rooms when franchises are having enough difficulty convincing the likes of Cam Newton and Cole Beasley to vax up. If you’re a conspiracy theorist who thinks the league is capitalizing on the pandemic to permanently relegate independent media to Zoom calls, hey, it’s no conspiracy. But I can’t blame commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners for protecting their $16 billion baby.

The Mike Richards crushers — Hail to Sony Pictures Television, which canceled its messy choice of Richards as “Jeopardy!’’ host and reopened delicious possibilities. They should include Aaron Rodgers, who told CBS’ Adam Schein that he “definitely would have’’ accepted the gig if his football schedule could be accommodated. My latest brainstorm as face of the show is the vanguard of versatility, Bob Costas. But when I reached out, he said he rejected a guest-hosting invitation last year for COVID-19 reasons and isn’t interested in a long-term role succeeding the late Alex Trebek. “Would have been fun as a one time experience, but I never saw myself as the right person for the job,’’ Costas texted. “Whoever winds up doing it, I think he or she should be in their forties or early fifties. That seems like the best fit. I know Alex was around 80, but he had the eternal equity with the audience and could have continued as long as he was able.’’ Costas is 69 going on 49. He should re-consider, though he’s quite busy with his new HBO show and TBS hosting duties for the National League championship series.

Tim Tebow, ESPN — Unless he tries rugby — please, no — the illusion of a professional sports career is over for America’s God-fearing lightning rod. I expect him to expand his role as a college football analyst, the smart call, as he figures out a future that should include, yes, evangelism. I, for one, never have understood Tebow Hate, respecting that his humanitarian contributions overwhelm any me-me-me defects. In a country where people don’t work because they can take government payouts, he set a never-quit example — on minor-league bus rides through the hinterlands — even in the face of social-media ridicule and talk-show overkill. Tebow is a good man at a time when good men are needed, and not a minute after he was waived by Urban Meyer in Jacksonville, he landed a deal with Clean Juice as national brand ambassador. “Tim Tebow’s natural authenticity, inspiring reputation, commitment to healthy living and unwavering faith is a perfect embodiment of the personal and professional values we hold dear at Clean Juice,” CEO Landon Eckles said. Somehow, thanks to Tebow, clean living still sells. ESPN could use a little clean living itself.

Jackie MacMullan, renaissance journalist — To call her a female pioneer is to undersell her extensive impact. As she retires from ESPN, Jackie Mac should be remembered as the rare media badass, regardless of gender, who performed all functions well. She coaxed reluctant sports figures to bare souls. She delivered blistering commentaries in print and on TV. She broke stories, mostly on the NBA beat. In what generally was a farts-and-giggles “Showdown’’ segment on our “Around the Horn’’ episodes, I always braced for fierce, airtight arguments from MacMullan. She is leaving much too soon, but as usual, her reasoning is sensible: “Sometimes, you just know when you’re ready to dial it back, and this is the right time.’’

Ethan Strauss, Substack — This rabble-rouser is the latest to join me and other media freedom-seekers at the independent writing site, joining recent departures at The Athletic. This is the best take I’ve seen in ages on the sleazy intersection of ESPN, sports and Beverly Hills agencies. Just read and swallow hard: “Even if I don’t take it as seriously as malfeasance in our politics or financial institutions, sports corruption still has an impact on coverage, and I dislike how much of the game behind the game is shielded from readers. For example, Creative Artists Agency (CAA) happens to represent key media personalities at ESPN NBA, which was by design, and accomplished with the subtlety and tact of the Red Wedding. When you combine that nugget with knowledge of CAA’s influence over the New York Knicks (GM Leon Rose is a former CAA superagent, coach Tom Thibodeau is a CAA client), ESPN’s reports of Zion Williamson (CAA client) having an interest in joining the Knicks gets put in a different light. The way it’s presented to the consumer is the mere reporting on a rising star in New Orleans wanting to play in New York. You’re not supposed to know that ESPN wants this to happen because ESPN is CAA and CAA is ESPN, which means that CAA is the Knicks, meaning that the Knicks are ESPN. You’re not supposed to know that this factors heavily into why New Orleans is shit out of luck, gumbo and jazz music be damned. In many ways, the agencies run the NBA. The media that they use to execute their messaging is making the principals seem peripheral. So often, the story of a trade or free agency signing is told absent mention of its true author.’’ Preach, baby, preach, as Strauss qualifies as a sixth “They Get It’’ item.

Chicago sports voices — I had the utter misfortune, during my 17 years in the city, to experience the hillbilly homerism of Hawk Harrelson. Chicago was unique that way, filled with broadcasters compelled to shamelessly root for the home teams, sometimes to the point of inebriated parody (R.I.P. Harry Caray). So I’m pleasantly surprised — shocked, actually — to see some of the industry’s best young voices bringing high professionalism to the No. 3 market, namely Jason Benetti and Adam Amin. Both are coveted by the national networks, making it incumbent upon the White Sox and Bulls to keep them well-compensated and happy. Mercy, did I just write something nice about the Reinsdorf Empire? Gobsmacked, I’m calling this item No. 7.

THEY DON’T GET IT

Stephen A. Smith, ESPN — He is appearing so often in the “Don’t Get It” lane, I might have to retire the award and inscribe his name. Body language and long staredowns told us that Smith never was fond of Max Kellerman as a sparring partner, but Kellerman’s removal from “First Take’’ — without a firm replacement — suggests Smith is a tyrant. Will he ever be happy without his close buddy and partner-in-multiple-million-dollar crime, Skip Bayless? Smith should realize that his viewership success doesn’t require Bayless, who is under contract at Fox into 2025, when he’ll be pushing 73. The secret to the longer-running “Pardon The Interruption’’ is natural chemistry, dating back decades, between co-hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. But Smith prefers to argue with an assortment of debate foes including another loudmouth, Michael Irvin, which will hinder the continuity of familiarity — how’s that for self-invented TV jargon? Whatever Smith wants at ESPN, he gets. This is a dangerous game for his bosses, who suffered through the Shohei Ohtani slur and other Stephen A. disasters and might be in for worse if they don’t rein in his control freakdom. Kellerman is moving to morning network radio and will have a new TV show, but it won’t be front and center. He effectively has been Stephen A’d.

Draymond Green and Kevin Durant, b.s. artists — If they want post-NBA careers in media, they must stop with self-serving revisionist history that dents their credibility. On Green’s new Bleacher Report series, “Chips,’’ the two former teammates/combatants don’t blame themselves for the on-court altercation that led to Durant’s departure. Nope, three years later, both are pointing fingers at general manager Bob Myers and coach Steve Kerr for how they handled the viral fireworks. Yep, blame the honchos when you guys were the ones squabbling. Said Green: “I told them, ‘I’ll talk to (Durant), but ya’ll aren’t going to tell what I need to say.’’ Next day, Myers and Kerr asked Green to apologize publicly, and he blew a gasket: “I told them then and there, ‘ya’ll are about to f—k this up. The only (people) that can make this right are me and (Durant). There’s nothing ya’ll can do, and ya’ll are going to f–k this up.’ And in my opinion, they f—-d it up.” To which Durant chimed in: “It wasn’t the argument. It was the way that everybody — Steve Kerr — acted like it didn’t happen. Myers tried to discipline you and think that would put the mask over everything.’’ Welcome to the age of athlete empowerment. They simply can reinvent their mess and expect us to believe it.

Associated Press Sports Editors — I realize this ilk is a dying breed, but sports editors shouldn’t completely abandon ethics. There should have been only one conclusion when APSE hosted a panel discussion titled, “Best Practices For Covering Sports Gambling.’’ That would be: Investigate, don’t participate. But the panelists represented pro-gambling interests, including VSiN’s Brent Musburger and ESPN’s Doug Kezirian, and I have no faith that traditional newspaper sites — who aren’t financially attached to the legal gambling world like broadcast and wagering sites — will launch probes into inevitable scandals. “It was so exciting,’’ wrote VSiN’s Dave Tuley, “to see and hear so many sports editors from around the country interested in devoting staff to sports betting coverage in their states.’’ When in doubt, sports editors usually cover their butts rather than advance journalism.

ESPN — Some people, usually with a Bristol area code, think I hold a professional grudge against ESPN. In truth, after eight years of drawing paychecks on Mickey Mouse paper, I own an advantage unlike any other sports media critic: I have the freedom to expose how the place operates without harboring any interest in working there again. The network has a five-year, $1.5 billion contract to stream and broadcast UFC fights, but to be  a legitimate news organization, ESPN must separate from UFC goon Dana White. It failed miserably on its website by posting a business manifesto titled, “Inside the UFC’s Plans to Expand Its Global Stronghold.’’ How about investigating how many UFC fighters suffer brain damage in a life-and-death sport, how many are underpaid and how many were infected by COVID-19? Nah. White would call ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, throw a fit and threaten to take his rights to Fox. So, the manifesto trumps all.

Double-standard practitioners — The legal case of Rick Telander was only scantly covered in Chicago, probably because local sports columnists aren’t relevant anymore, certainly not as they were 10, 20 and 30 years ago. But a question of fairness comes to mind. If a sports figure is arrested for DUI and charged with five related offenses, he generally is put through a ringer with media investigations and frequent updates. Almost a month passed before Telander’s case was dropped by a Cook County Circuit Court judge, who said he viewed a police video, heard testimony from witnesses and ruled there were no “reasonable grounds to believe (the) defendant was intoxicated.’’ The story probably wouldn’t have ended there for an athlete, who might have faced further media probes. A double standard? I’d say so — and the media who cover sports should be subjected to the same intense coverage of their legal issues, regardless of income and station in life. As I said in a previous column, Telander deserved the presumption of innocence. But so do sports people.

Fox Sports — In a country divided by politics and vaccines, one safe and sacred place should be college football. But Fox insists on leaning right and turning loose Clay Travis — yes, he’s back — as a COVID-is-a-myth, Trump-loving activist on its pregame shows. Riding a bus like John Madden back in the day, he’ll only be appearing in the Deep South, thank goodness, in states such as Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida and Georgia. I assume Fox is trying to attack ESPN’s SEC stranglehold, but now more than ever, America needs a football season as an escape, not another reason to vent. And what’s with the promotional depiction of Travis as some steroids-bulging freakoid with tats? Is anything real anymore? Again, it’s a sixth entry, and again, I can’t help myself.

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.

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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BSM Writers

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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Grading How the Networks Handled the Tua Concussion Discussion

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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