No Count Outs: I Had to Hit the Pose

Matt and Tyler return with episode #2 of the No Count Outs wrestling pod! This time, the conversation revolves around what happened with Tessa Blanchard, Keith Lee’s surprise announcement, and more on the WWE response to COVID. All that and more!

Cam Newton to the New England Patriots is Perfect

It almost makes too much sense. Cam Newton, Superman, is a New England Patriot. And in the year 2020, this is exactly the kind of move we should have expected. Many did, and yet it still felt like such a longshot. Clash of cults of personality aside, there was always a strictly football-related reason for this to happen. The fact that the actual deal is good for both sides is just an added bonus.

New England Patriots Signing Cam Newton is Perfectly 2020

How Did We Get Here?

What an offseason it has been! We’ve seen a quarter of the league’s projected starters entering 2019 change teams, including a wild four-team swap with New England and 75% of the NFC South. Tom Brady joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the shockwave of the off-season; if only slightly edging the Houston Texans swindling themselves out of DeAndre Hopkins.

Jameis Winston is now backing up Drew Brees in New Orleans and Teddy Bridgewater (Winston’s predecessor) will start in Carolina. Even Philip Rivers going to the Indianapolis Colts doesn’t compare.

Tampa Tommy is like the prodigal son going to the Darkside (which would have worked so much better had he joined the Las Vegas Raiders). Newton to the Pats is like, well T’Challa taking over for Steve Rogers. Yes, it’s on the nose, but it’s so very accurate. How else do you describe the expressive Newton heading to the most buttoned-up operation in the NFL?

What’s even better is it is two polarizing entities of opposite ends joining into one. The Patriots have been the bully on the block for much of the past 20 years. This, and a generous helping of sketchy deeds, has led to a buildup of resentment from those on the outside.

Newton, for all his charitable deeds, is more known for his scarves and attitude after losing Super Bowl 50.

Neither man is perfect. Brady was directly indicated in his fair share of the scandals during his time in New England. And, if we’re being honest, the worst Newton has done was his interaction with a female reporter a few years back. He laughed at the depth of her question and said it was “funny” a question like that came from a woman.

But on the football field, both of these men have set records.

Why It Will Work

Brady has the edge in accolades, sure. But even he has conceded it is at least equal parts situation as it is his given talent, effort, preparation, etc. Newton, if healthy, offers the total opposite. A supremely gifted athlete, he reached the edge of the mountain top without the level of coach and system he will have around him next year.

That isn’t a knock on what the Ron Rivera Panthers did either, they ran a system they felt gave them the best chance to win. The issue was they operated like Newton was a rookie for too long, not surrounding him with enough talent at receiver and/or a proper offensive line. His development seemed to stall as the Panthers found their formula.

One thing we know about the Patriots, they know the formula changes from year to year. No team has been better at adapting to their personnel.

Josh McDaniels is a very underrated part of why this will work. He was able to get seven wins out of a second-year Tim Tebow back in 2011. That was ten years ago. But Newton, a former MVP, is far and away a better passer than Tebow ever was.

People also forget the year Newton was having before he got injured in 2018. Carolina was 6-2 with Newton completing 67.3% of his passes for 1893 yards, 15 touchdowns, and four interceptions. He added another 342 yards and four scores on the ground. He over 68 percent of his passes in his remaining six games, but only threw nine touchdowns to nine picks and the Panthers went winless.

What’s The Problem?

That depends on what you thought of Brady last season. He started the season completing 64% of his passes for 2251 yards, 13 scores, and four interceptions over the first eight games. But he finished throwing for 1806 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 4 more picks while completing just 56.9% of his passes. The Patriots went 4-4 over those final eight.

Was that all Brady? He is, after all, in his 40s and has played over two and a half regular season’s worth of playoff games. It’s perfectly reasonable his abilities are in decline.

But New England lost Rob Gronkowski to retirement then lost Antonio Brown (one game) and Josh Gordon (six games) to personal issues. Julian Edelman was still around, but there aren’t many quarterbacks who can overcome that kind of talent drain before and during the season.

Newton’s health will be the biggest deterrent to any success. But he’s been out since September last year and has been seen working with Odell Beckham. Keeping him that way is paramount and dependant upon them either finding upgrades or guys like N’Keal Harry and free-agent addition Marquise Lee stepping up. Edelman and Mohamed Sanu will serve as the vets but the big hole is at tight end.

The offensive line is the bigger concern. Brady took 17 of his 27 sacks over the back half of the year. That line lost center Ted Karras and didn’t add anyone in free agency or the draft until the sixth round. They kept Joe Thuney, though.

The defense underwent a facelift but should be a smoother transition than anything the offense will go through. New England took defensive players with their first three picks and all are expected to contribute early. That’s good with the losses New England suffered at linebacker. Boasting one of the best secondaries in the NFL, though, they should be just fine.

Superman is a Patriot

Cam Newton has had to carry his offenses for much of his career, literally. In New England, he will get a chance to be a part of the machine. They will cater the offense to him week-to-week. His athleticism gives them an added dimension they didn’t have (or need) with Brady. He would also be the first non-Patriots draft pick to start for the team since Scott Secules in 1993.

Doubters will point to Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer and say Newton isn’t a lock to start. But as long as he’s healthy, neither the second-year Stidham nor the journeyman Hoyer is beating him out. The Patriots don’t need the publicity this brought (even with the penalties handed down) but Belichick would love the prestige winning with Newton would bring. We know what’s really on the line here.

Is the NFL Season Bubble-ing Over?

Are you ready for some fooooootbaaaaaallll? Different football that is!  This 2020 movie keeps on rolling and the upcoming NFL season doesn’t lack suspense.  When will players report to camp? What will camp look like? Where will Cam Newton land? Will Colin Kaepernick sign with a team?  This will be one of, if not the most anticipated football seasons ever because of the unknowns.  Not to mention HBO has recently announced their acclaimed show Hard Knocks will feature both LA teams, Rams and Chargers.

We can’t talk about the upcoming football season without mentioning sports’ nemesis: COVID-19.  That’s why we’re at this point. March 12th, 2020 the day sports stopped.  The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci has indicated the NFL should take the bubble approach or not have a season at all, according to an MSNBC article.

Bubble-ing Over: NFL Season at Risk?

Is the Bubble Viable

The NBA and NHL have already set COVID-19 parameters for the bubble when those respective leagues return to action. With the number of personnel and players for each of the teams, it’s doable. Look at an NBA team, for example. There are only 15 players on a roster for which only 13 are active. Along with coaches and trainers, you’re dealing with about 25 or so people per team. Not to mention the facility staff. Other than the players on the court, social distancing in this environment is challenging but can be done. Even with the measures that the NBA has taken, nobody can say that it will prevent the players from contracting coronavirus.

Looking at the juggernaut that is the NFL, there would need to be one big bubble!  Just one team consists of more than two NBA teams combined.  There are 90 players alone that report to training camp, which is cut down to 53 by the start of the season.  Social distancing?  There’s no way this is possible in the sport of football. Sure, the NFL has already suspended combined team practices. You still have over 100 people on the field together.

What about when the season starts? When the NBA restarts on July 31st all the games will be played in the Walt Disney dome in Orlando, FL. It’s hard to envision one central location for the NFL season. I’m sure most people are asking how is this viable? Even the Hall of Fame Game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys has been canceled. Though it was the Hall of Fame’s decision to do so, it could be foreshadowing of what’s to come. Being the billion-dollar industry the shield is, commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL will find a way to pull it off.

How Will the Players React

Even though these are superior athletes, concerns still high for their health and well being. Not only for them but their families as well. Three coaches for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have contracted COVID-19.  Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott tested positive for the virus last week and has recently voiced his concerns.  New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins also made a statement indicating football is non-essential and shouldn’t go on if it’s not safe. The league will surely develop a protocol to ensure to keep players, staff, and fans alike as safe as possible but will it be enough.

There’s always the unknown and human nature.  There will be parameters and set rules in place but players will push boundaries. Like the old saying goes, “rules are meant to be broken.” Per Kevin Seifert of ESPN, the NFL has already announced plans to start on time next month. It’s like being in the Forex market trading but instead of trading currencies, it’s people. The reward is greater than the risk, we’ll training camp is around the corner, we’ll see if the NFL will “take profit” or “stop loss.”

 

 

WWE’s Awful COVID-19 Response: It’s Worse than You Think.

A large number of corporations in America have struggled to balance worker safety and satisfying their bottom line. In sports and entertainment, there have been several examples of companies that have prioritized shareholders over employees. Arguably the worst example is not Major League Baseball, but World Wrestling Entertainment.

March

The U.S. containment of COVID-19 was thought to be possible in early spring. Toward the end of March, however, those hopes were dashed. States began to lock-down restaurants. Most sports leagues including the NBA, MLB, and the NCAA postponed and in some cases canceled the current and upcoming seasons. 

The WWE, for their part, stopped live shows and began pre-recording programming without fans in attendance. According to executives, talent was told that these tapings would be voluntary and would not receive punishment for refusing to attend either financially or otherwise.

Wrestlemania, the largest pro wrestling pay-per-view of the year was held in the performance center in Orlando, Florida. Florida was coincidentally one of the last states to enter lock-down and was open during the taping of Wrestlemania.

The company acted proactively with two of its wrestlers Dana Brooke and Rey Mysterio who showed signs of illness by pulling them from shows. Roman Reigns, a wrestler in remission from leukemia took a leave of absence from performing over concerns over his high-risk status for Coronavirus. WWE did not test any of its wrestlers for COVID-19 during March. 

April 

By early April all states had entered into varying degrees of lockdown, and Nationally the U.S. outpaced the rest of the world in total COVID-19 deaths. With only essential business open in most states, WWE was declared an essential by Florida Governor Ron Desantis despite not initially labeled as such. Around the same time, the Connecticut based company decided on April 10th to resume live shows.

Vince McMahon cited the change by implying the networks carrying his programming could cancel their television contracts if the company did not continue to perform live shows regularly. Dave Meltzer of Wrestling Observer reported that USA Network and Fox denied considering dissolving their agreements. McMahon reversed course and eventually allowed pre-taped episodes to resume.

 On April 15th, WWE released a business update announcing the furlough of talent as well as other cost-cutting measures. Over 30 wrestlers were released, not including behind the scenes workers This included Miroslav Barnyashev formerly known by his in-ring name of Rusev. Rusev had recently donated $20,000 of his own money to help those who lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

A week later the company’s quarter one earnings report was released and the biggest highlight was the increased revenue from the previous year’s first-quarter earnings: A net positive of 60%. During April there was a confirmed but unidentified employee who contracted coronavirus. The individual was not a wrestler but did work at shows. WWE did not test any of its wrestlers for COVID-19 during April.

May

There were not many new developments from the business perspective of World Wrestling Entertainment, however, the content of their programming led to frustration from fans and employees alike. Fans began noticing Reigns had been edited out of more and more programming. He had not made an appearance in over a month so in some regard, it was understandable that his name was not often referenced during or after matches.

What was harder to understand was the manipulation of certain highlight packages removing him entirely. This included matches he was heavily featured in. Previous to this instance only one wrestler had been effectively removed from the annals of history: Chris Benoit. Since the American Somoan’s conduct had been spotless it was unclear why these decisions were being made.

 Also, Sami Zayn was effectively stripped of the Intercontinental title. While this may seem like a storyline angle at first glance, it’s important to note Zayn was participating in Canada’s quarantine protocol as he was a Canadian citizen and could not attend the Orlando tapings due to international travel restrictions. His failure to comply cost him his place despite the company’s earlier assurances that no worker would be punished for skipping voluntary tapings.

Jordan Devlin had an almost identical experience. As the Cruiserweight Titleholder, Devlin was unable to defend his championship and there was a tournament to determine who would hold the belt during the interim similar to how UFC deals with injured fighters. However, the word interim was dropped without explanation and it’s unclear if Santo Escobar, the winner of the aforementioned tournament, will have to defend his title against Devlin when the UK native eventually returns. WWE did not test any of its wrestlers for COVID-19 during May. 

June

This month WWE has made every effort that it could to return to normal. Developmental wrestlers, friends, and families began attending pre-recorded shows to give the performers and audience at home a more authentic fan experience. For the first time in months, there were boos, cheers, and even chants to fill a mostly empty void of fan interaction.

This week, a cascade of bad press has been unloaded upon the pro-wrestling giant. It was announced on Monday that a developmental wrestler who had attended a taping has tested positive for coronavirus. Reports surfaced from multiple sources stating that face masks were not permitted inside the performance center premises during tapings. This is in contrast to the early April CDC recommendations on wearing a face mask in public. 

WWE responded by explaining to fans and news-outlets that masks were unnecessary since all employees and fans in attendance maintained proper social distancing and followed Florida state policy to the letter of the law (despite fans being shown high-fiving talent and disregarding the six feet minimum of each other of the episode in question).

Possibly the most disturbing report released this week was that on some occasions, fans were allowed to attend shows despite having a fever if there were special circumstances. On Wednesday the company implemented the first wave of COVID-19 testing to its wrestlers. At this time there has been no announcement of regular testing.

WWE’s Coronavirus response looks worse with context

All companies have the legal right and ability to hire and fire employees at their discretion. All publicly-traded companies are expected to be at least somewhat responsible with their finances to appease the stockholders. All businesses should be able to set forth policies for their workforce.

The problems lie when WWE is compared to smaller wrestling promotions who have done an objectively better job keeping their employees safe while staying afloat during these difficult economic times.

 All Elite Wrestling on TNT has returned to their regularly scheduled live shows. Before each show, all fans, wrestlers, and staff are all tested before they can enter the building. AEW along with even smaller groups like Ring of Honor and Impact have not fired, released, or furloughed any wrestlers. At shows, you will see masks worn by referees, interviewers, and even fans. These groups have proved you can make every effort to serve your employees first and put the bottom line on the backburner and survive as a wrestling organization.

World Wrestling Entertainment may have fulfilled its legal obligation to its shareholders, but it has severely failed its ethical responsibility to its staff, especially the talent which is the main product for consumers of pro-wrestling.

NASCAR: The Civil War Part 2

Back in the 1980’s growing up, I was a big car fan thanks to my late uncle and a TV show called Dukes of Hazzard. The TV show we’ll get to a bit later. My uncle had two cars I remember vividly; a ’68 Pontiac Firebird and an ’85 Chevy Malibu. He was a drag racer and on the weekends he’d take me to the Joliet Speedway to watch the races. Seeing those one-of-a-kind vehicles dart down the road and smelling that burning rubber was fascinating to a 10-year-old kid.

The Dukes of Hazzard signature staple was an orange ‘69 Dodge Challenger with a confederate flag on the roof called General Lee; named after the confederate leader. I believe many people would say that car was a favorite to see in action. Little did many of us know as kids what the roof of that car meant.

Civil War Part 2 in NASCAR

It Only Takes One Voice

I’m going in a different direction with this article and delving into the world of NASCAR. No, not because of the races but for a recently banned item at the race tracks. The last few weeks in our nation have been a whirlwind of emotions since the death of George Floyd. From protests to rioting to the much-needed attention to the treatment of black Americans by law enforcement.  We’ve seen a wave of changes and commitments to reform.

Many of these actions started in the sports arena with the NFL & NBA pledging their support for black lives, something most would expect since most of the players are black.  Then a little over a week ago, NASCAR  joined the race when Bubba Wallace made a stand indicating that the confederate flag should be removed from racing events.  Wallace is the only black, full-time driver in the circuit by the way.  48 hours later, on June 10th, NASCAR honored his request and banned that flag from all sponsored events.

Long Overdue Change

The Civil War went on from 1861 to 1865 where the confederates of the southern United States fought northerners for the right to keep African Americans enslaved.  The deadliest war in U.S. history, over 100,000 American soldiers killed.  It’s kind of surreal when you think about it, a country going to war with itself to keep a particular group of citizens oppressed.  At any rate, the confederate army lost but statues were erected and the confederate flag was a prominent fixture in the South and in NASCAR.

NASCAR has been around for 72 years, founded in 1948.  Only 8% of the fan base is African-American and there have only been four drivers of this nationality since its inception.  Wallace is one, the other three are Wendell Scott, Willy T Ribbs, and Bill Lester. 1865-2020. 155 years is long enough allowing a flag that represents the enslaving and mistreatment of American citizens to be displayed in public places.  Especially when those very people are patronizing a business.

Time for a Complete Change

Hopefully, NASCAR’s ban will lead to other institutions and public places following in their footsteps.  There has been one racer, Ray Ciccarelli, that doesn’t agree with the change. So he, in turn, stated he will be retiring at the end of the 2020 season.  We’ll see moving forward how other drivers and fans react during the season.  As Bubba Watson articulated, nobody should be uncomfortable coming to an event.  See you at the races.

You Know What Time It Is