Seen & Heard – Weekend Edition

by mike in boston / @mikeinbostonemail

Happy July everyone. We are half way through 2020, and for all we know we will look back on these last few months as the good half. Things can always get worse. With that said, here’s a roundup of what is making sports media news around the TSM water cooler. As always, if there are things we missed please add links in the comments or email/DM me.

The COVID Games

Since North American professional sports shut down back in March the biggest question was whether it would be safe to resume live team sports. Almost four months later there is no clear answer. In the coming weeks MLS, the NBA, the NHL, and MLB are all set to resume competitive play.

While TFC and the Raptors will be away from Toronto for their games, the Leafs and Jays plan to play in Toronto. The Leafs will be joined by 11 other teams and their support staff. As per usual Bob McKenzie broke the news, on Canada Day:

Barring any last-minute complications, and we have seen some of those (Vancouver and Las Vegas), the two NHL Hub cities will be Edmonton and Toronto. 🇨🇦

— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) July 1, 2020

As is tradition, McKenzie’s home radio station TSN1050 chose to air US syndicated programming rather than pay someone time and half to be on air to discuss their superstar insider’s breaking news. FAN590 ran local programming on the topic of Toronto being a hub city but, as is also tradition, did not credit McKenzie with the scoop.

The virus doesn’t care about sports. Trying to be optimistic, but at some point sports league execs have to be asking themselves: “Are we really doing this?”

— Andrew Brandt (@AndrewBrandt) July 6, 2020

Setting aside whether competing for the Covid Cup in the middle of summer is worth it, the immediate issue is whether the NHL is putting anyone at risk. Some media hold the opinion that the public health concerns surrounding the NHL being in Toronto are manageable:

175,000 travelled into Canada by road (104,000 truck drivers) last week … additional 35,000 came in by air (10,000 from US) … so what’s 600 NHL players? … that said, transparency on COVID testing is a MUST in my books, since their quarantine cohort idea is, umm, unusual

— Kevin McGran (@kevin_mcgran) July 2, 2020

The major question for proponents of Toronto being a hub city is what Vancouver knows that we don’t:

Dr. Bonnie Henry on NHL looking elsewhere for hub city: “We are doing very well. We have a good balance. But under no circumstances was I going to compromise in any way the health of people here in British Columbia, and we made that very clear.”

— Iain MacIntyre (@imacSportsnet) June 25, 2020

On the baseball side, things are a little more complicated since teams would be traveling back and forth across the border and in and out of several cities over the course of the shortened season.

Allowing American teams to come and go from Canada without 14-day quarantines – and using the Dome and hotel as a de facto quarantine site instead – would be quite the public health abdication, and I’m not shocked Ontario is letting it happen https://t.co/8Pljhvo1mX

— Bruce Arthur (@bruce_arthur) June 29, 2020

No reason for Jays to be here with no fans allowed. Play in Buffalo or Dunedin. Too much risk with many border crossings involved this plan. No way Canadian federal government should approve this move

— Carlo Colaiacovo (@CarloColaiacovo) July 2, 2020

There is a difference of opinion on this point:

“Athletes can’t be given a 100 per cent guarantee they won’t attract COVID-19, but can be guaranteed they’re in the safest place possible.” – Blair

“I’m guessing there are ways in which you could make it so that it was minimal or near-zero public health risk.” – Brunt https://t.co/CH4BaQpyNT

— mike in boston (@mikeinboston) June 19, 2020

While the Jays have government approval to play intrasquad spring training games for the next three weeks, they do not currently have permission to host regular season games against American-based teams. Arden Zwelling of Sportsnet has a good summary of what to expect as spring training gets under way. His colleague Shi Davidi also has a good article replete with quotes from Jays’ President Shapiro.

The most interesting questions to me around the decision to try to play professional sports during a pandemic relate to liability. Sports are not essential, and the fact that millions of dollars in advertising and TV rights revenue are at stake doesn’t change that. So, leagues that decide to put their employees (and to a certain extent the public at large) in harm’s way are on the hook for the outcomes of that decision. As Shapiro says in Davidi’s article, the decision to return “is not one that would be without any risk.” For a great read on the liability side of things, here is Michael McCann on whether waivers will protect the leagues if things go very badly:

“Public health experts have consistently stressed that the risk of COVID-19 spreading is higher in crowded, indoor settings. To the extent courts weigh public policy considerations when assessing the legality of waivers to participate in or attend sporting events, science might not be on the side of sports. In short, while waivers seem like uncomplicated devices to protect leagues and colleges, they are anything but in practice. Don’t count on them.”

Some of these reasons might explain why superstar players in MLB and the NBA have chosen not to return to play in 2020. NHL players have until this week to decide if they want to opt out. Ex-Jay David Price recently announced he would opt out of playing out of concern for the best interests of his and his family’s health. Wouldn’t the same considerations be true for all other major leaguers? Price has earned over a hundred million in his career thus far, and so can afford to sit out.

It will be interesting to watch what happens if the number of star players sitting out increases in the coming weeks. Will leagues forge ahead if their best players are telling them they don’t feel safe? Will any of us feel good watching games played under medical duress? The articles I wish were being written would address these and related questions. As Texas and Florida face seeing their hospitals overrun with COVID cases in the coming weeks the time is now to ask whether it would really be so bad to wait until 2021 to start up professional sports. If the games start and then need to be shut down it will have been a mistake. A pretty big gamble is about to take place.

Tackling Racism in Sports

The other big topic this week is the long overdue but seemingly impossible notion of getting rid of racist mascots and names in professional sports. The Washington NFL team is seriously considering dropping the name Redskins, due to pressure from advertisers and branding partners.

And here it is: the Redskins are undergoing a thorough review of the team’s name.

And let’s be clear: There’s no review if there’s no change coming.

Redskins on way out. pic.twitter.com/ZrS3cCvhMg

— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) July 3, 2020

Despite the press release mentioning “recent events” and “feedback from our community” there is nothing new about the problem with the name or the public’s opposition to it. People like me who grew up listening to PTS will recall Bob McCown constantly citing a study that said most Indigenous people don’t find the name offensive. This is a typical case of someone finding data to support what they believe and then stopping any further research on the subject. If you want to read more about current research on the topic, here are some resources.

The Washington case was swiftly followed by news that the Cleveland MLB team who recently moved on from their racist logo was considering a new name as well:

“The recent unrest in our community and our country has only underscored the need for us to keep improving as an organization on issues of social justice.With that in mind, we are committed to engaging our community and appropriate stakeholders to determine the best path forward with regard to our team name.”

Again here there is a reference to “recent” events. In both cases the pressure of the current political climate seems to be making a difference. But what exactly is that pressure? Is it a fear of losing advertising dollars or is it a change in values? In some sense, it doesn’t really matter which explanation is accurate. What matters is that public facing organizations are coming to see that active or passive tolerance of racism is unacceptable.

This now puts the Canadian focus on the CFL and the Edmonton Eskimos. The team recently announced it intends to ramp up consultation with the Inuit community, but that may not be enough to shield them from further pressure.

A longtime sponsor of the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos, insurance company Belairdirect, says it will cut ties with the team unless it changes its name. https://t.co/ZHxSW6VUg8

— CBC News Alerts (@CBCAlerts) July 8, 2020

The common thread through these cases is that sports teams are increasingly unable to cite tradition or heritage or “the way things were” as an excuse for racist behaviour. Rather than getting into a nuanced debate about history, the appropriate response is simply to ask why organizations would choose to defend a status quo that perpetuates racist attitudes. It’s just a name, and there are dozens of locally meaningful names that are unambiguously on the right side of history. Pick one of those and move forward.

This point about disrupting the problematic status quo applies within sports media as well. Donnovan Bennett recently penned another powerful piece on the lack of diversity in sports media:

“Odds are your local newspaper doesn’t have a Black sports reporter. Your national newspaper of choice definitely doesn’t. The beat reporters for every Canadian team in every league are almost all white. You will not find a Black voice hosting a sports talk show on your radio dial. You won’t see a Black person on the board or executive leadership team of a major Canadian sports media company.”

This article addresses so many important issues, including the tacit acceptance of discrimination by the most powerful people in sports media. I wrote recently about this topic here. The reason why Bennett’s piece is especially notable is that his own network is among the league leaders in compulsively hiring white men.

It has been a few years since this photo was proudly advertised across the Sportsnet family of channels but in 2020 the lineup looks pretty much the same. The FAN has fired so many radio hosts over the last decade, yet they always come back to the familiar Toronto archetype of what a sports radio host looks and sounds like. As with his colleague David Singh, Bennett doesn’t go out of his way to name the people whose behaviour he calls out in the article. As a reader I would rather know whom not to support going forward, but that is not my decision to make.

I will continue to be a proud champion of Donnovan. But our industry-including me-could have/should have done more to ensure a more diverse team on both sides of the camera. We should commit to doing much better moving forward.

— Scott Moore (@MooreScottmoore) July 5, 2020

Bennett rightly points out that, overwhelmingly, Toronto sports media involves white men covering Black athletes. Recent research demonstrates how language choices, be they conscious or non, in sports commentary reinforce racist attitudes and stereotypes. Bennett notes that until there is a commitment to breaking the self-perpetuating cycle of marginalizing Black voices by making White voices the status quo, change is unlikely:

“Thirteen years into my career, I’ve never been managed by a Black person, assigned a story by a Black person or had a story I wrote edited by a Black person. I’ve never worked on a show produced or directed by a Black person, either. I’d love to have those opportunities, just as I’d love to have people in my industry to confide in who look like me, especially when another reporter says something in my presence that exposes the unconscious bias that runs rampant in sports media.”

As I have written many times, think about what it’s like to be a Black Raptor or a Latino Blue Jay and to face the local media day after day. The Raptors and Jays beats are 100% White. This doesn’t mean Doug Smith, Eric Koreen, and Ryan Wolstat are bad at their jobs or don’t deserve the chance to write about basketball. It also doesn’t mean that Shi Davidi needs to learn Spanish to keep covering Vladdy Jr. It’s a collective failure by a bunch of different organizations, and this is why Bennett’s piece is especially consequential.

Sportsnet deserves credit for allowing him to write a piece that points the finger back at his own employer. The other major employers – TSN, The Star, The Sun, The Athletic – should also be scrutinizing their own hiring practices and what they can do to diversify their lineups. One of the issues is that Bennett is currently on an island through no fault of his own:

“Being Black has become my beat, and I’m often covering it alone. As proud as I am of the work, I’d love some company, and I’d love to be considered an expert on something else for a change.”

I imagine it is very frustrating to be in a field where you want to talk about all the same sports topics as everyone else, but keep getting asked to talk about race. In a city as diverse as Toronto, with the large number of jobs in sports media that still exist, the status quo is not acceptable.

Low Hanging Fruit

  • Stephen Brunt deserves to be counted among the best sports journalists in Canada. Someone of that stature should not be narrating promotional videos for Tim & Sid.

Taking a look back at 5 memorable years of #TimandSid on the air with Stephen Brunt 🥳🍾 pic.twitter.com/bPRNeEugqy

— Tim and Sid (@timandsid) July 2, 2020

  • Bob McCown’s soft re-launch continues:

Still working on podcast issues. Sorry all! Hopefully resolved today…and something special planned for Friday!

— Bob McCown (@FadooBobcat) July 1, 2020

  • I have no idea what happened to TSN’s Dan O’Toole over the last few days but it was harrowing to witness on social media. I hope his family is doing ok. If you want a rundown, Postmedia has the details. If you want a risky click you can read what Dean Blundell had to say.


thanks for reading and commenting,

until next time …

mike (not really in boston)

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