Business of Football: COVID-19 Surge; Brett Favre with John Madden; Antonio Brown’s Antics – Sports Illustrated

One week remains in the NFL’s now 18-week season. As always, there are plenty of headlines—on and off the field—related to the business of football.
Stephen Lew/USA TODAY Sports
COVID-19 has brought challenges to anyone trying to do business “as usual,” and the business of sports is no exception. While many thought the adjustments of 2020 would be “one-and-done,” we are constantly reminded that the coronavirus is nowhere near being in our rear-view mirror.
As we followed the NFL in 2020, many of us were aghast at the unheard-of notions that a Ravens team could play a game despite having 20-plus infections, or that a Broncos practice squad receiver could start at quarterback. Now, these stories have become commonplace. Multiple teams have experienced having 20-plus players test positive within a game week. And play at the quarterback position has been among the worst we have ever seen, with third- and fourth-string options starting important games. I recently turned on the television to see quarterback Garrett Gilbert, signed that Saturday, starting a Tuesday night game at quarterback for Washington (he has since been released). If ever there was a sign of the times, that was it.
The NFL was, and is, built on competitive balance. All of the systematic restraints against a free market system—the draft, salary cap, limits on free agency—are implemented in the name of competitive balance. Even with competitive balance baked into the NFL system, it has been no match for COVID-19.
Were competitive balance the paramount NFL goal for 2020 and ’21, there would have been some kind of pause, some way to operate to ensure the best players played, with a nod to competitive balance. But the business of sports is winning against that other foundation of the league.
As there have been multiple teams with in-facility outbreaks in recent weeks, many have asked about some kind of pause to the season. My sense is that the NFL will do that only as an absolute last resort and in the playoffs, using the week off before the Super Bowl as a potential surrender, but only if absolutely, positively necessary.
With the NFL playing through 20-plus infections on teams, it is hard to know what would cause a pushback. Would the league, say, postpone a playoff game with a superstar quarterback on the sidelines with a COVID-19 infection? Of course, the Twidicule would rain down on the league no matter what decision it made (not that the league should care about that).
The bottom line, of course, is the bottom line. It is hard to think of a scenario in which the NFL does not play every scheduled game. The NFL’s mantra in Year Two of COVID-19, fresh off negotiating eye-popping media contracts worth $110 billion, has been simple: “We’re playing through.”
My father’s generation didn’t know he played; they only knew him as a coach.
My generation didn’t know he coached; we only knew him as a broadcaster.
My sons’ generation didn’t know he broadcasted; they only knew the wildly popular video game was named after him.
Depending on your age, you have different associations with him, but everyone who knows the game of football—and even many who do not—know the name John Madden. His broadcasting style changed the way we view not only football but all sports, bringing sharp and clear analysis as well as humor and an “everyman” vision of the game. I, like millions of others, looked forward to listening to Madden. He was a game-changer in so many different ways.
During an era in the early 2000s, there was no more popular athlete, in any sport, than Brett Favre, and no more popular sports television personality, in any sport, than John Madden. And Madden adored Brett; he loved his gunslinging play and witty sense of humor behind the country boy façade. Brett admired Madden right back; they were kindred spirits.
Before each road game, the broadcast crew would always, of course, request Brett for an interview, and he would gladly go, knowing his celebrity would not allow him to leave the hotel. And he truly enjoyed talking football with Madden.
I was lucky enough to be a fly on the wall a couple of times for this once-in-a-lifetime broadcaster–player interaction. When Brett sat with a crew involving Madden, both would light up. They would talk ball, of course, but mostly they would swap stories; Brett was as good a storyteller as I have ever met. When our team meetings would start at night, there were times we would be looking for Brett, only to realize that he was still chopping it up with Madden. Madden would be laughing away, often using the stories from Brett (“Uncle Rube” was one) during the broadcast the next night, especially if it was a blowout.
Madden and Favre were a match made in heaven. And now John is there first.
Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports
When I heard reports Sunday that Antonio Brown had—in the middle of a game—taken his jersey off and left the stadium, my first reaction was: “Sounds about right.” Indeed, if I had to pick one player among the entire NFL player population to do that, it would be him.
When we last saw Brown off the field, he was accepting a three-game suspension for using a fake vaccination card, ratted out by one of a litany of people who’ve been stiffed after providing services to him. The Buccaneers somehow kept him on the roster through the suspension but, of course, their patience ran out on Sunday.
The Steelers tolerated Brown for years before choosing to take on a $21 million dead-cap charge in trading him for two mid-round draft picks rather than keeping him around. Brown lasted a couple of months with the Raiders; he never played a regular-season game for them. He then lasted a week with the Patriots.
It has been interesting to note all the comments hoping Brown gets help and worries for his mental health. I saw none of that through many years of similar antics. The awareness surrounding mental health is a positive sign.
Brown has had many enablers, but I know he has also had people telling him what he needs to hear, not only what he wants to hear. And they have usually been cut off or fired. Scores of coaches, teammates, friends and others have been hoping Brown would change through dozens of second chances. We all know people who constantly say their friend, significant other, business associate or whoever else will change, and then never does. There is an Antonio Brown in all of our lives.
At some point we all have to realize Brown is who he is; there is no change coming there. In the NFL, greater talent means greater tolerance, but Brown’s tolerance level has moved way past his talent level.
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Cryptocurrency exchanges have made a loud entry into the business of sports. Crypto.com is now the naming rights sponsor of the former Staples Center in L.A., and FTX.com has a sponsorship deal with Tom Brady as well as naming rights to the Miami Heat’s arena. Now both companies have bought into the mainstream with the pinnacle of sports advertising: Super Bowl ads. They will pay the unparalleled price of $6.5 million per 30 seconds, up from $5.5 million last year.
The business of crypto is now in the business of sports.
More NFL Coverage:

MMQB: Teams Clinch As Playoff Field Takes Shape
The Buccaneers Enabled Antonio Brown Until the End
Madden’s Revolutionary Impact, Style Will Never Be Replicated
Brady Says Antonio Brown Needs Help. We Should Listen.
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Both powers struggled more than anticipated to oust third-tier competition in the round of 32.

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