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Volume 27 No. 5

NFL Season Preview

The NFL is set to begin its season tonight amid the ongoing pandemic because the league has "fought back, making only minor concessions, every step of the way," according to Ryan Dunleavy of the N.Y. POST (9/10). USA TODAY's Jarrett Bell wonders, "Can the NFL pull this off?" Bell: "So far, so good. Just look at the stats." The "last thing the NFL needs is for its stadiums to become super-spreader hot spots, although the decisions for the capacities" are "largely out of the league's hands." In proceeding with what the league can control, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL officials, "working in sync with (and in some cases pushed by) the NFL Players Association, have seemingly stayed ahead of the curve with protocols and policies" (USA TODAY, 9/10). YAHOO SPORTS' Frank Schwab wrote it is "easy to criticize the NFL for everything." It is the "bully on the sports block." It also is "fair to take a step back and acknowledge how well the league has handled the COVID-19 offseason" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 9/9).

UNCERTAINTY AROUND GAMEDAY: The WALL STREET JOURNAL's Andrew Beaton writes the NFL's pandemic protocols have "successfully guided the league through its preseason," but there is "one thing those protocols have yet to experience: gameday" (WALL STREET JOURNAL, 9/10). In Minneapolis, Mark Craig wonders "what will the NFL look like at full speed" after an all-virtual offseason and no preseason games. Craig: "The general consensus is injury-filled and sloppy. Very sloppy" (Minneapolis STAR TRIBUNE, 9/10).

A LETTER FROM THE COMMISH: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league's Chief Medical Officer Dr. Allen Sills write an op-ed for the WASHINGTON POST, noting the league's "eagerness to return in full force has been modulated by our primary concern: the health and safety of players, coaches, staff and the public." The NFL has "worked with players, teams and medical experts to build a comprehensive game plan." The hope is that "transparency about our operations will contribute knowledge and insights that will aid the country's pandemic response." Based on the "single-digit positive covid-19 cases among NFL players and other personnel over the past month of testing," league officials are "cautiously optimistic" about this season. At stadiums, changes behind the scenes "will echo those implemented in training facilities." The on-field action seen on TV "will also look different." Goodell & Sills: "We also know that effort alone cannot control the virus or its effects. There will be speed bumps and perhaps detours along the way" (WASHINGTON POST, 9/10).

Mahomes and the Chiefs will kick the season off against the Texans on NBC tonight
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Mahomes and the Chiefs will kick the season off against the Texans on NBC tonight
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Mahomes and the Chiefs will kick the season off against the Texans on NBC tonight
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
The Texans have previously kneeled in protest as a team during the national anthem
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
The Texans have previously kneeled in protest as a team during the national anthem
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
The Texans have previously kneeled in protest as a team during the national anthem
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Texans and Chiefs players tonight are "expected to deliver some form of united demonstration on behalf of social justice changes in the wake of the recent spate of deaths of unarmed Black citizens," according to David Barron of the HOUSTON CHRONICLE. Texans DE JJ Watt said of plans, "There will definitely be conversations leading up to the game, whether it's within our team alone or with the Chiefs, however it may be, to make sure that whatever everybody does, we're on the same page" (HOUSTON CHRONICLE, 9/10). In L.A., Sam Farmer writes, "Everyone is anticipating some type of player demonstrations across the league." Chiefs S Tyrann Mathieu said, “I do 100% believe we have the organization’s support from top to bottom. Think whatever we do, we’ll try our best to display unity, togetherness. Even if that’s with the opposing team" (L.A. TIMES, 9/10). 

CHIEFS PLANNING GESTURE: In K.C., Sam McDowell reports the Chiefs, with a "gesture they’ve declined to publicly reveal ahead of time ... expect to step aside from football and place the spotlight once more" on social justice. Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes: “I’m not worried about people and how they’re going to do negative stuff back to me. I’m worried about doing what’s right for humanity and making sure that all people feel equal" (K.C. STAR, 9/10). Also in K.C., Vahe Gregorian writes under the header, "Patrick Mahomes’ Conscience And Character Will Guide Him Through Any Protest Dilemma." Gregorian: "If we’ve learned anything from Mahomes these last few years, on and off the field, it’s that he possesses a unique internal compass that enables him to navigate precarious situations with clarity. He always knows where he stands, literally and figuratively, and who he is" (K.C. STAR, 9/10). 

AROUND THE NFL: In Cincinnati, Tyler Dragon cites team sources as saying that the Bengals have had "internal discussions about staying in the locker room or kneeling during the national anthem" before Sunday’s game against the Chargers at Paul Brown Stadium (CINCINNATI ENQUIRER, 9/10). In New Jersey, Andy Vasquez reports the Jets had a conversation this week on "how to best use their massive platform to make their voices heard." They used part of a team meeting that included players, coaches and team CEO Christopher Johnson to "discuss the polarizing issue of protesting during the national anthem." Together, they "came to a consensus of how what to do when the music starts to play early Sunday afternoon, before the season opener in Buffalo." But Jets QB Sam Darnold, on what he will do Sunday, said, “I haven’t thought about it too much. I’ve talked to some teammates about what to do, but I haven’t really come to a decision myself" (Bergen RECORD, 9/10).

Social justice demonstrations are sure to be prominent as the NFL begins its season this week, with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell saying the league is working with teams, players and the NFLPA to “reflect the way we all feel” about social justice. Appearing on NBC's "Inspire Change" special last night with NFLPA Exec Dir DeMaurice Smith, Goodell said, “You’re going to see it in a very emotional way. ... In a way that I think it's important to do, and it will be balanced.” Smith said being able to protest is "incredibly important" for the players, and the effort between the union and league is "about two things: promoting and supporting our players and their voice but also, embracing this idea that while football is great and we all love the game, I would never want to be in a world where the game is simply a distraction from what's going on in our communities." Goodell said of his shifting attitude on protests, "I didn't just educate myself, I was educated by our players." Goodell: “I can feel the emotion from our players and the fear that they have consistently lived with. ... When you hear that and you see it and you feel it, it makes you say, ‘This is wrong.’” 

BIGGER THAN THE GAME: Smith said on-field protests “will be powerful,” and "our players, our fans, our coaches, our owners are all making a decision that we are not going to let ourselves be used in a way to take the spotlight off of what’s happening in our community." He noted it is an "important time in America where there are some public officials who wish that we would just simply play football or play basketball and get away from what's really happening.” Goodell said, “Sports has been a big part of social change.” Smith: “Players have done a great job of embracing that identity and understanding that they should not be relegated to a two-dimensional athlete." Goodell said “absolutely” the owners are buying in, and “you’re going to have some clubs who do things better than others and some teams that may do it differently, but that's okay if it’s organic and it’s with the players.” Goodell: “There is a chance to bridge differences in a way that ultimately is going to make us all better” (“Inspire Change,” NBC, 9/9).

TAKING STEPS: Ravens DE Calais Campbell, who is on the NFLPA's exec committee, said team owners still are "really trying to understand the players, understand what we go through and trying to help us and obviously, we have a long way to go." But their shift has been a "great start." Former NFL coach Jeff Fisher said, “There’s a significant difference between hearing and listening. I think the league for a long time was hearing: ‘Yeah, we got it, we’ll get a handle on this.’” Fisher: “I just encourage every single coach out there at any level to be proactive and to listen and to be understanding” ("CBS This Morning," 9/10). ESPN's Stephen A. Smith said, "You’re going to see a lot of guys expressing themselves more than ever before, and the owners won’t stand in their way. Because they want football, and they don't want a public backlash that could ultimately compromise their season” (“GMA,” ABC, 9/10).

BIGGER PICTURE: In DC, Jerry Brewer writes, "This disruptive year has given the league an unexpected gift: a do-over. It amounts to social amnesty for those who previously suffered from racial indifference. Multiple forces have combined to change the climate and put the NFL in a much stronger position to do the right thing this time." Brewer: "Trump will keep barking, but after various reports that he referred to American soldiers as 'suckers' and 'losers,' his role as chief football antagonist has been compromised. It frees the NFL to stop compromising its humanity and live up to Commissioner Roger Goodell’s pledge to be better" (WASHINGTON POST, 9/10).

A poll revealed 56% of Americans now say it is appropriate for athletes to kneel during the anthem
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
A poll revealed 56% of Americans now say it is appropriate for athletes to kneel during the anthem
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
A poll revealed 56% of Americans now say it is appropriate for athletes to kneel during the anthem
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

A majority of football fans said that it is "acceptable for professional athletes to kneel during the national anthem," and an even larger percentage said that athletes "should use their platforms to tackle social issues," according to Maese & Guskin of the WASHINGTON POST. A poll conducted by the Washington Post revealed 56% of Americans now say it is "appropriate for athletes to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequality," while 42% say it is "not appropriate." Additionally, a 62% majority of Americans say professional athletes should "use their platforms to express their views on national issues, including over 8 in 10 Black Americans and 7 in 10 adults under age 50." Opinions are "similar among football fans, with 59 percent saying kneeling during the national anthem is an appropriate way to protest racial inequality and 64 percent saying athletes should express views on national issues in general." As shown by the poll, the majority of Republicans and people over the age of 50 call kneeling during the national anthem "not appropriate." The feelings are "particularly divided among partisan lines." Majorities of Democrats -- 73% -- and independents -- 54% -- said that it is "appropriate to kneel during the anthem in protest," while 36% of Republicans said that "it is appropriate." The Washington Post's poll was "conducted Sept. 1-6 among a random national sample of 1,001 adults, with 70 percent reached on cellphones and 30 percent on landlines" (WASHINGTON POST, 9/10).

LONG DIVISION: REUTERS' Amy Tennery cited a Reuters/Ipsos poll as showing that the political divide over athlete protests "has deepened in the four years" since Colin Kaepernick first took a knee. The online poll of 1,337 U.S. adults found Democrats and Republicans are "moving further apart on the issue," with more than half (54%) of Americans "wanting professional athletes to be required to stand" during the national anthem. Among self-identified Democrats, 33% agreed that pro athletes "should be required to stand," compared to 43% in '16. Among Republicans, 81% said that athletes "must stand," compared to 73% in '16 (REUTERS, 9/9).

The Chiefs are implementing some changes to their gameday presentation for tonight's season opener against the Texans following the move to ban headdresses and Native American face paint this season, but they will be so subtle that some fans "probably won't notice" them, according to Sam Mellinger of the K.C. STAR. Native Americans prior to tonight's game will "bless the big ceremonial drum like always." Prior to the drumbeat beginning, an "announcement will be made that incorporating the drum into the game-day experience is a 'privilege' and that fans are invited to join as they beat the drum." Cheerleaders "will then do the same chop motion, but with a closed fist instead of open palm." Chiefs President Mark Donovan: "Admittedly it's a subtle change. But it's a step, and it's a change." Mellinger writes the Chiefs are "essentially splitting the middle here." They can be "fairly criticized for that, but they also have a constituency to consider." Donovan: "This is a process. This is years. We're going to do this, and hopefully it's well received and we'll continue to do more" (K.C. STAR, 9/10). The AP's Heather Hollingsworth noted the Chiefs' actions have "pleased Native Americans as a good first step," but they have "frustrated some of the 17,000 fans who will be in the stands." The team also is "discussing the future of its tomahawk chop celebration amid complaints that it’s racist." The Chiefs are among the pro sports franchises "facing increased scrutiny" regarding their nickname after Washington this summer "chose to drop Redskins ... after a long and often contentious dialogue with fans and the public" (AP, 9/9).

MORE NEEDS TO BE DONE: A K.C. STAR editorial states the Chiefs should not play the drumbeat and also should "let the offensive tomahawk chop go away on its own, which it will." The editorial: "These would be symbolic steps, of course. But in this moment, symbols are important. They help change thinking, which can lead to tolerance and understanding." The team still has work to do "to finally call a halt to the Chiefs’ racially insensitive traditions" (K.C. STAR, 9/10).

Jaguars and Chiefs are the only franchises to feature live crowds in their home openers this weekend
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Jaguars and Chiefs are the only franchises to feature live crowds in their home openers this weekend
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Jaguars and Chiefs are the only franchises to feature live crowds in their home openers this weekend
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

There may be "pent-up demand for football in the middle of a pandemic, but that apparently isn’t translating into hot NFL ticket sales for the first week of the regular season," according to Charles Robinson of YAHOO SPORTS. Multiple league and ticket resale sources said that the Chiefs and Jaguars have experienced some "lagging demand for their home openers this week." Robinson noted this is occurring despite the Chiefs and Jaguars being the "only franchises to feature live crowds in their home openers this weekend -- and with seating being at a very limited capacity." The lukewarm sales have "translated into both teams having a surplus of tickets still available through box office outlets such as Ticketmaster, plus a sagging secondary market that has a generous amount of tickets available at or below face value" as late as yesterday afternoon. Some field-level seats for the Jags' home opener versus the Colts "could still be had for as little as $50 to $60 per ticket" yesterday. Sources familiar with Chiefs ticket sales said that the team has had to "work deep into its base of season-ticket holders to move higher-priced seats while also assuring fans of the safest possible environment" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 9/9).

Santa Clara's stadium authority board "voted unanimously to seek about $5 million in unpaid rent" from the 49ers, according to Darren Sabedra of the San Jose MERCURY NEWS. City Attorney Brian Doyle said that the team has told the city that they are "not paying 20% of this season's bill because the coronavirus pandemic caused the cancellation of two exhibition games at Levi's Stadium." Doyle added that there is "no provision in the lease agreement that gets the 49ers off the hook" as a result of the NFL's cancellation of the entire preseason schedule. The city's stadium authority board -- comprised of Mayor Lisa Gillmor and the City Council -- in a closed session on Tuesday "approved filing an arbitration claim to recover the lost money from the team." It is "unclear who will arbitrate the case." The city said that the 49ers owe approximately $2.7M now and it "anticipates the figure to climb" to about $5M by the end of this month. The council in February "voted unanimously to end an agreement that allows the 49ers to operate the stadium for home games and other NFL events." But since the team and city are engaged in litigation, the 49ers' "management of the facility has not changed" (San Jose MERCURY NEWS, 9/10).

Fewer Americans are "expected to bet on the NFL this year, as 42 percent of American adults say they are less excited about the upcoming season," according to Bailey Schulz of the LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL. According to an August survey from the American Gaming Association, about 33.2 million Americans -- roughly 13% of U.S. adults -- are "expected to bet on this year’s season, compared with the nearly 40 million, or 15 percent of adults, who wagered on the 2019-20 season." The online survey was conducted Aug. 24-27 among a national sample of 2,200 American adults. The decline "fits within the survey’s margin of error but comes as 29 million more American adults have access to legal sports betting in their home state, 54 percent more than at the start of last season." Four in 10 American adults "say their excitement over the NFL season has dimmed for various reasons." About 36% of those surveyed "said increased political activism around the league has caused lower enthusiasm." Nineteen percent "cite the absence of fans in stadiums, and another 17 percent blame the inability to gather with friends to watch games" (LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL, 9/10).

SOME PEOPLE ARE PLACING BETS: CNBC’s Contessa Brewer noted new figures from the AGA show sports betting revenue grew 19% during the first seven months of the year despite there being "no sports for almost all of the second quarter.” FanDuel CEO Matt King acknowledged the addition of new states adopting legalized sports betting has been a "huge boon to the industry" and said, "We’re really excited about what the second half of the year holds.” King said the company expects to see over 100% growth "over the balance of the year." King: "If you look at our business across everything, we were up more than 50% in the first half even with no sports. So we’re super excited about how our business is performing” (“Squawk on the Street,” CNBC, 9/9).

 
Tafoya said that it is her understanding that she can move around the entire first row of any stadium
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Tafoya said that it is her understanding that she can move around the entire first row of any stadium
Photo: GETTY IMAGES
Tafoya said that it is her understanding that she can move around the entire first row of any stadium
Photo: GETTY IMAGES

NFL network sideline reporters and TV pregame reporters for the NFL "will be prohibited from field access this season," and NBC's Michele Tafoya for the Texans-Chiefs opener tonight "will be located in an unprecedented area for her -- the first row of the stands -- with a wireless monitor that travels with her," according to Richard Deitsch of THE ATHLETIC. That area is being called "the moat." Tafoya said that it is her understanding that she "can move around the entire first row of any stadium where 'Sunday Night Football' airs games." The "SNF" production "will have another set of eyes on the opposite sideline from Tafoya to focus on things such as injuries," and that person will be Mike Ryan, a former NFL athletic trainer who has worked on the broadcast since '14 as a sports medicine consultant. Fox' Laura Okmin believes that "on-air reporting during games will provide vital information" in this year specifically. One question will be "whether the halftime and postgame interviews with coaches and players will continue." NBC is "still working on its halftime and postgame interview plans." Tafoya said that she "hopes to set up a meeting point to speak with coaches at the players' entrance tunnel as the team walks into the locker room at halftime." CBS' Tracy Wolfson "will also be situated in an area in the first row of the stands that is sectioned off for the sideline reporters" (THEATHLETIC.com, 9/9).

MAKING IT WORK: Tafoya said that she "plans to adjust in many ways, including gathering more information for reports before games start and bringing binoculars for the first time in her career to be able to see things up close." She said that "SNF" crew members "will be far more isolated than in typical years," which "will make verbal communication even more important." NBC "SNF" Exec Producer Fred Gaudelli said that the "crews working on graphics and editing will be back at NBC Sports headquarters in Stamford." In Minneapolis, Michael Rand notes Tafoya's live reports at halftime and postgame "will vary." She said that at some stadiums she "might conduct interviews over the phone with coaches." In other places, a coach "might meet her in the stands for a socially distanced interview" (Minneapolis STAR TRIBUNE, 9/10).

Nissan will “continue putting money into college football” this season, but it also is “shifting a significant portion of its media” to the NFL, according to E.J. Schultz of AD AGE. The automaker’s "Heisman House" campaign returns for its 10th season for ESPN’s college games, and it now will air “during NFL games ... for the first time.” This is the “latest sign of how the coronavirus is upending brand marketing calendars” and also shows how the NFL “will grow even more powerful this year, assuming the league can complete its season without coronavirus shutdowns.” Nissan signed a “season-long deal” with ESPN’s “MNF,” and it also expects to “run ads in select Sunday afternoon games.” Nissan North America VP/Marketing Communications & Media Allyson Witherspoon indicated that the Heisman campaign is a "good fit to run in college and NFL games" due to many players in the ads being NFL stars. Among those in the campaign are Ravens QB Lamar Jackson, Cardinals QB Kyler Murray, Browns QB Baker Mayfield and former NFLers Charles Woodson and Tim Tebow. Creative comes via Omnicom’s TBWA\Chiat\Day, N.Y.; Nissan’s sports media investments “are handled by Omnicom’s Optimum Sports” (ADAGE.com, 9/9).

The start of the NFL season marks a new era for the Washington Football Team, which retired its longtime nickname and has a new team president in Jason Wright. On the most recent episode of "SBJ Unpacks: The Road Ahead," Wright joined our Andrew Levin to discuss the organization’s future under his tutelage.

On having a cohesive front office, with Wright leading the business side and head coach Ron Rivera leading the football side:
Wright: It’s important that those two clear voices, and our interaction with the ownership as well, be very much in sync and thankfully, that was one of the reasons I was excited to take this job. In the interview process, I got to know coach Rivera and it was clear we had identical values when it came to what we valued in an organization and how the culture should be, values like inclusion, transparency, accountability. We are both very straightforward … so that’s helpful for being operational and being able to take action when needed. We very much work well as a team.

On creating a new culture within the organization:
Wright: The business strategy initially is to create a culture where those individuals are unhindered in the work that they have to do every day, where there are career paths that are clear to people, where there are leadership expectations of the values and the ethos that we want our leaders of all levels to create for their colleagues, especially those that work underneath them. In particular, pathways for lodging complaints and disputes and escalating them when they hit the right threshold, so you don’t have harassment and abuse in the workplace. It’s creating that environment so that the immense talent that we already have here can hit its full potential.

On being the first African-American team president in the NFL:
Wright: At first, I wanted to move past it and just get to work because most of the conversation devolved into something like, “Are you qualified enough,” which often happens with firsts or minority executives in general. I really wasn’t feeling it, didn’t want to have that conversation, so I tried to move past it. Since then, I’ve realized that it’s actually important to acknowledge the moment because of so many other people that came before.

In Denver, Ryan O'Halloran notes the Broncos unveiled a "series of social justice initiatives" through the new "Broncos Inspire Change" program. The program "will revolve around education, awareness and funding, diversity and inclusion and activism." Players "will hold a 'Power Hour' meeting every Tuesday 'dedicated to player-led social justice causes,' and new initiatives in youth education and mentorship." A Diversity & Inclusion Committee was created (DENVER POST, 9/10).

SPREADING THE WEALTH: In S.F., Eric Branch notes the 49ers yesterday will distribute their $1M social-justice grant "established in May to nine nonprofit organizations that are focused on one of three areas: racial equality in policing, ending mass incarceration and educational and economic advancement for young Black people." The announcement was made after a "two-month selection process that included a review of each organization’s proposal" by ownership, execs and players. The final distribution of funds was "determined by the Players Social Justice Council" (S.F. CHRONICLE, 9/10).

DIFFERENT APPROACH: In Atlanta, Tim Tucker reports the Falcons "don't plan to have cardboard cutouts of fans at their games" this season. AMB Sports & Entertainment COO Dietmar Exler said, "We looked at it and we didn't feel like this was the right thing to do." Tucker wrote the team instead "plans to bring some season ticket holders into the stadium via the cameras on their smartphones or other devices, showing them on the stadium's halo-shaped video board" (ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION, 9/10).

ORDER UP: In Dallas, Sarah Blaskovich reports the new AT&T Stadium At Home program is "selling group-sized portions of gameday food, available for delivery or pick-up the day before" the Cowboys play. Legends Hospitality Dir of Food & Beverage George Wasai, who oversees AT&T Stadium, said the idea is to "enjoy the spirit and traditional flavors of AT&T Stadium" despite the atypical season. Different food packages vary in price (DALLAS MORNING NEWS, 9/10).