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IF YOU MUST BET, HERE’S THE DOPE: AVOID THE NFL’S COVID TEAMS
If only all teams acted as quickly about unvaccinated players as the Patriots, who cut Cam Newton after two COVID-19 snafus, knowing seasons can be wrecked -- hello, Buffalo -- by vaccine resistance
The chances are better of stopping a crossfire hurricane — R.I.P., Charlie Watts — than the legal gambling craze. Tens of millions will bet billions on football this season, and for those of us who don’t partake, the intersection of sports and wagering exists in a shady neighborhood.
Say, where Stench Street meets Broke Boulevard.
But no amount of shrieking about an out-of-control evil incarnate will stop the madness, stoked by ethics-shedding leagues and broadcast networks. That includes the NFL, which will produce $300 million in 2021 revenue from deals with — deep breaths — Caesars Entertainment, DraftKings, FanDuel, Bet MGM, FOX Bet, WynnBet and PointsBet. “This group of operators will help the league engage with fans in responsible and innovative ways this season as the sports betting landscape continues to evolve," said Nana-Yaw Asamoah, the league’s vice president of business development.
Innovative, yes. Responsible, no.
If you must plunge into this dark rabbit hole, there is one obvious rule of digital thumb: Don’t bet on teams with coronavirus issues. COVID-19 and the raging Delta variant remain a daunting obstacle for a league that somehow has convinced 85 to 90 percent of players to vaxx up with at least one shot, even as the NFLPA rejected a Goodellian demand for mandatory vaccination. That said, a day doesn’t pass without another infection or protocol violation impacting another franchise. Bill Belichick had the guts — and the skilled, poised rookie quarterback — to avoid a COVID-wrecked season by cutting former NFL MVP Cam Newton, who is not vaccinated and interrupted the team with two related snafus. Mac Jones, the new starter, is lauded in the locker room for his “great character,’’ a direct shot at Newton by his former teammates. If a Hall of Fame coach can see the issues, a bro-dude with disposable income would be a fool to let gambling whims overwhelm logical science.
The Buffalo Bills are one such problem organization, plagued by vaccine hesitancy with the regular season only days away. Finally a championship contender three decades after losing four straight Super Bowls, the Bills could be sabotaged by an in-house enemy more wicked than a wide-right placekicker. His name is Cole Beasley, and he is the league’s anti-vaccine poster child. Inevitably, the veteran receiver was one of four unvaccinated players removed from the team facility after a COVID situation last week, prompted when another receiver, Isaiah McKenzie, was fined twice by the league for failing to wear a mask at work. Beasley has placed his selfish beliefs above team goals, declaring this summer, “I may die of covid, but I’d rather die actually living.’’ His opinion about shots and protocols didn’t change after he and the others were placed in self-isolation for five days.
“So what’s the point of the masks anyways?’’ Beasley asked.
He might want to explain his rationale to players in his locker room, such as offensive lineman Dion Dawkins, who said he worried about dying when he was hospitalized weeks ago with the virus. Tight end Tommy Sweeney had the same thoughts when he was felled last autumn with a COVID-related heart condition. The Bills have one of the NFL’s lowest vaccination rates, at around 80 percent, and it doesn’t take much imagination to wonder how the locker room might divide as a 17-game season progresses. Head coach Sean McDermott already has called it a “competitive disadvantage.’’
He’s right. You don’t need Anthony Fauci to underline the season’s broad theme: Teams unencumbered by vaccine politics have lesser challenges than teams with jab drama. If commissioner Roger Goodell can’t mandate vaccines, he is playing hardball nonetheless with unvaccinated players, forcing them to be tested daily and issuing fines when they test positive. Teams will forfeit games if their rosters are gutted by COVID, which is why the Bills’ dreams could be dashed.
“It’s tough. It’s frustrating. It’s challenging, however you want to say it. But I can’t make the decision for them,” McDermott said. “There’s people’s livelihoods at stake in terms of people’s jobs. Being able to count on people is important, so when you’re going through a week — if this were a real week — and having the players out that we’ve had, that makes it harder to win games that way.”
Another endangered contender is based, not surprisingly, in a vaccine-phobic state. In recent days, the Tennessee Titans have lost their head coach, Mike Vrabel, and starting quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, to a COVID outbreak that impacted nine players and coaches. If this happens during the regular season, the Titans suddenly aren’t too attractive as a Super Bowl darkhorse. And to think 97 percent of the players, according to the team, are vaccinated or have antibodies present. The coronavirus clearly doesn’t care about percentages, as the Titans deal with their second outbreak in less than a year. All of which prompted general manager Jon Robinson to issue a plea about vaccines.
“We’ve had two people that I know personally that have lost loved ones over the last couple of days to COVID from symptoms and complications,” Robinson said. “And it’s a lifesaving vaccine.’’
Some aren’t listening, such as a number of quarterbacks who merely play the most important position in team sports. Newton is no champ when it comes to vaccines, continuing to reject the jabs even after he was barred from in-person team activities last week — this after he missed time upon contracting the virus last season. Imagine if Belichick and the Patriots missed the playoffs again — while Tom Brady makes another Super Bowl run in Tampa — because Newton kept missing time and rejecting vaccinates. “Too personal to discuss,’’ Newton said. It’s all the more reason Belichick purged the problem and elevated Jones, who is vaccinated. Wrote Newton on Instagram after the move: “I really appreciate all the love and support during this time but I must say please don’t feel sorry for me!! #i’mgood.’’
Among other unvaccinated quarterbacks are Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, merely the key figure for another postseason hopeful, and Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins, one of three Vikings QBs who aren’t vaxxed up. Jackson has tested positive twice in eight months. Yet, he’s still not sure he’ll roll up his sleeve, placing the Ravens in peril. “Keep learning as much as I can about it and we’ll go from there,’’ he said.
What’s there to learn? This is about life and death, not what they read on Facebook or what they’re led to believe based on religion and race. Said an exasperated Mike Zimmer, the Minnesota head coach: “If they miss a game because they get COVID, so be it. But I don’t want them to get sick. And I don’t want their families to get sick and their kids to get sick or my grandkids to get sick.” Urban Meyer, a virgin as an NFL head coach, got it right when he said vaccination status was a factor when the Jacksonville Jaguars made roster cuts. “Is he vaccinated or not? Can I say that that was a decision maker? It was certainly in consideration,’’ said Meyer, who incurred the wrath of the NFLPA for his comments.
One team that has avoided rampant COVID-iocy is the Dallas Cowboys. Jerry Jones hasn’t done much right as a football owner, but it should shock no one that the businessman in Jones has prioritized controlling the virus spread. You might think a Republican billionaire from Texas, nearing 80, would be the last guy pushing vaccines. You would be wrong.
“To me, this is a team game,” Jones said on the team’s flagship station, 105.3 the Fan. “We rely on each other to play. We rely on each other to win. We have to have each other. … You have to count on the other guy being available. And you certainly don’t want to be doing anything that causes your teammates to not be available.
“Everyone has a right to make their own decisions regarding their health and their body. I believe in that completely until your decision as to yourself impacts negatively many others. Then the common good takes over. And I’m arm-waving here. But that has everything to do with the way I look at our team, the Cowboys, or the way I look at our society. We have got to check ‘I’ at the door and go forward with ‘we.’ Your Dallas Cowboys are doing that.”
Maybe a gambler doesn’t trust Dak Prescott’s health or Dallas’ propensity to underachieve. But for now, a gambler can trust the Cowboys to avoid a variant outbreak. The same can’t be said for the Indianapolis Colts, who already have had difficulty maintaining the good health of their wayward quarterback, Carson Wentz — only to place him on the reserve/COVID-19 list with two teammates. Asked weeks ago if he was vaccinated, Wentz didn’t say yes.
“That’s a personal decision,’’ he said.
So why bet on the Colts? The Ravens? The Vikings? The Titans? The Bills? And who know who else?
Don’t say you weren’t forewarned, suckers.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack and a Wednesday media column for Barrett Sports Media while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.