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Mike Ehrmann/AAF/Getty Images

(Mike Ehrmann/AAF/Getty Images)

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Play-by-play gambling

New football league provides a brave new world for gamblers

The Alliance of American Football (AAF), the latest effort to fill the post–Super Bowl void in pro football action, began its inaugural season on Feb. 9. The feel-good premise of the AAF is that it’s a “league of second chances,” where young hopefuls or veterans with something left in the tank can showcase their skills. AAF players sign three-year contracts but can leave for work in the NFL at any time.

Behind all the warm fuzzies, however, lurks a high-tech data collection platform, powered by wearable devices on player uniforms, that optimizes the league’s appeal for gambling. MGM Resorts International invested in the venture and has an exclusive partnership for gambling rights. Scott Butera, MGM’s president of interactive gaming, told USA Today the technology will “allow almost immediate transmission of data and what’s going on in an event to your mobile device, which will allow us to have play-by-play gambling, which is non-existent today.”

Bettors could relish dozens of bets within each game: Will the next play be a run or a pass? How many yards will be gained?

AAF co-founder Charlie Ebersol proclaims innocence: “We are not a gambling company.” He describes the league’s mobile app as something “for families to play. Think of it more like Candy Crush.” But last September he told CBS Radio that in-game betting would be available, with players “able to make money every time they get picked on a fantasy team, every time they get picked on a bet, every time a fan likes them on Facebook.” 

For now, AAF fans will get points for correct guesses on game events, simulating the betting process. Actual mobile betting, which would flow through MGM rather than the league’s own app, requires wider legalization of sports gambling, but last May’s Supreme Court ruling gave states leeway, and many are moving that way.

In addition to MGM, AAF financial backers include PayPal founder Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund and the Action Network, a site focused on sports betting news and data.

—Laura G. Singleton is a World Journalism Institute mid-career course graduate; the Associated Press contributed to this story

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Lin shoots the ball against the Miami Heat at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)

Sports

Star for the East

Jeremy Lin strives to be a light to the people of China

It’s been seven years since NBA guard Jeremy Lin rocketed to stardom. Seeing his first action as a starter for the New York Knicks, Lin promptly erupted for an average of 24.4 points per game as New York won seven straight in February 2012. That span included a 38-point performance against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.

That brief stretch began what was known as “Linsanity,” and Lin wasn’t shy about his Christian faith as he became an NBA star. Today, Lin is a backup guard and a journeyman who recently left the Atlanta Hawks for the Toronto Raptors, and Linsanity has died down a bit. But he still professes his Christian faith, and Linsanity is still strong among basketball fans in at least one country—China.

Lin is a native Californian with family roots in both China and Taiwan. In China, Lin has basketball camps that teach the game to thousands of kids, a reality TV show, and a celebrity charity game. “We’ve done it two years in a row,” he told the South China Morning Post of the charity game. “And this past year we had I believe 18 million people watching online.”

Before a recent game between the Atlanta Hawks (Lin’s team at the time) and the Portland Trail Blazers in Portland, Ore., Lin told me about the challenges of sharing his faith. He estimates that he visits China three or four times a year, and he admits he can’t be as open about his faith as he’d like to be while he’s there.

“It’s difficult because it’s a communist country,” Lin said. “You can’t really be direct about your faith there. I try to push my values, but I can’t be outright about it.”

His efforts were not lost on two Chinese fans at the Hawks-Blazers game. “He’s always posting quotes from the Bible on Instagram,” said Anbio Shen, a University of Oregon (UO) graduate student from Shanghai. “He’s always saying that everything is the best arrangement of God. He always has a positive attitude toward everything, which is why Jeremy’s very popular not just in China, but everywhere.”

His actions speak even louder, according to Shen.

“NBA players have a lot of affairs,” said Shen, who wore a “Linsanity” T-shirt to the Hawks-Blazers game and owns one of Lin’s game-worn jerseys from his days with the New York Knicks. “He never has that sort of thing. That’s very important in China, which is still very conservative. Jeremy’s a very good role model for a lot of kids in China.”

“We all love him,” said Haoyue Li, a UO graduate student who hails from Shenzhen: “Jeremy’s very hard-working. His physical talent is not outstanding, and he’s had a lot of injuries”—he missed practically all of the 2017-18 season after hurting his knee with the Brooklyn Nets in their season opener—“but he’s very persistent in proving himself.”

Lin is also popular in the United States, but his NBA career has not been without controversy: He briefly wore dreadlocks, a hairstyle popular among African-Americans. Former NBA player Kenyon Martin took offense at Lin’s hairdo in an Instagram video, accusing Lin of cultural appropriation: “We get it. You wanna be black.”

Lin responded via Twitter stating Martin was entitled to his opinion but that the more minorities “appreciate each other’s cultures, the more we influence mainstream society.” Lin coupled his statement with a picture showing multiple tattoos of Chinese characters on Martin’s forearm.

Lin—who has since shorn his locks—saw Martin’s attack as an opportunity to be a light for Christ. “I always feel you can be loving in your response, no matter what,” he said. “[Being a Christian] doesn’t mean you always have to get stepped on. You can be firm and loving at the same time.”

The Raptors will be the eighth team Lin has played for in his nine-year NBA career. When news came about Lin’s move to Toronto, William Lou of Raptorsrepublic.com wrote that Lin was a solid acquisition for the team and noted Lin’s status as an “icon” in Asia: “This means the Raptors gained a massive fanbase, and all the consequences that come with it. … It won’t be long before fans start calling for Lin to start ahead of Kyle Lowry, and I’m sorry in advance.”

Transgender roundup

South Dakota: A bill that would have classified high-school athletes according to their gender at birth died in a state Senate committee in late January. South Dakota current policy allows athletes to compete according to their proclaimed gender identity.

Numerous school and business groups opposed the bill, calling it discriminatory and pointing out the negative impact other states have suffered after passing “bathroom bills.” However, the bill’s supporters said the legislation was necessary to keep boys from winning state championships in girls’ sports.

Currently, only four states—Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Texas—classify athletes exclusively according to the gender on their birth certificate.

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Patriots wide receiver Matthew Slater speaks to the media on Thursday. (Anthony Behar/Sipa USA via AP)

Sports

Winning (and losing) by faith

From Matthew Slater to Cody Parkey, NFL players testify to Christian conviction amid career successes and setbacks

There will be no surprise when Matthew Slater, special teams captain for the New England Patriots, calls “Heads” in the pregame coin flip for Super Bowl LIII on Sunday. 

Slater said at a recent press conference, “I remember as a child watching my father play in LA and him going out and doing the coin toss for the Rams, and he always called heads, so … I asked him one time, ‘Hey, why do you do that? What’s the story behind that?’ … I think anyone who knows my family knows faith is important to us, and for him he was always like, ‘You know, God’s the head of my life, so I call heads.’ That was something he came up with and I’ve kind of just embraced it, but I’m glad it’s worked out for us here the last couple of times when we needed it.”

Those “last couple of times” that Slater has in mind were Super Bowl LI two years ago, and this year’s AFC championship game. Both games were tied at the end of regulation, and the Patriots, as the visiting team, got to call the coin flip. Each toss came up heads, and in each game, New England’s celebrated quarterback, Tom Brady, led the offense to a game-winning touchdown. 

The AFC champion is officially the “visiting team” at the Super Bowl in odd years like 2019, so Slater has another opportunity to shine. At a Super Bowl week media event he said his father, Jackie, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, taught him about more than coin flips: “The best advice he’s given me has nothing to do with football. The best advice he ever gave me was to investigate who the person of Jesus Christ was and find out what He wanted to do in my life.”

Slater has multiple Christ-followers as teammates, including running back Rex Burkhead, a Fellowship of Christian Athletes spokesman, and Devin McCourty, who is joined on the Patriots this season by his twin, Jason.

New England is the franchise fans across the country love to hate, both for its dominance on the field and for accusations it has sought unfair advantage (think Spygate, Deflategate). Still, the team has made notable investments in the spiritual life and character development of its players. In 2013 the Patriots hired Jack Easterby, former team chaplain of the Kansas City Chiefs, as a “character coach.” He also serves as chaplain, leading team Bible studies.

Easterby’s Twitter account bears the headline “Just some dirt God has been good to!” and a banner photo of three crosses silhouetted in sunlight. In an interview posted to the team’s website last fall, he described how he connects with players: “My best ability is my availability—2 o’clock in the morning, 3 in the afternoon. When I do that, I show a little glimpse of who God is. Because God doesn’t sleep. God doesn’t turn away when your problem’s too big. My goal in a small way is to mirror that the best I can.”

Across the field on Super Bowl Sunday, Easterby and the Patriots will see a former teammate, Brandin Cooks, playing for the Los Angeles Rams. Cooks seeds his Twitter account daily with Scripture allusions. A Jan. 30 tweet: “Do everything as for working for the Lord.” He also made headlines in the week leading up to the Super Bowl for arranging Super Bowl tickets and a trip to the game for the Rams’ day porter, who keeps the team’s home stadium locker room in order.

At a pregame media appearance, Cooks stated: “It goes to show that everyone is a part of this success, even the people that you may not think of. … To be able to have him at the game is going to be awesome.”

Not all Christian players, of course, have reached the pinnacle game, and some faced especially painful playoff exits.

Benjamin Watson, tight end for the New Orleans Saints, announced in December that he was retiring after 15 years in the league. Watson has spoken and written about his Christian faith in books on fatherhood and racial justice. During the NFC championship game, he was on the sideline in street clothes, having suffered a bout of appendicitis that week. A Saints victory would have given him the potential to play in one last Super Bowl.

Instead, Watson watched his team endure an excruciating defeat: The Saints were tied with the Rams in the final minutes when an apparent pass interference violation on a Saints receiver went uncalled. The Saints would have had a first down deep in Rams territory, with the chance to run remaining time off the clock before a possible game-winning field goal or touchdown. Instead, they kicked a field goal with time for the Rams to retie the game, and lost in overtime.

Outrage from New Orleans fans after the game was vehement. Watson posted to social media: “As horrible as this feels now, we must congratulate the victors and enter into next season with expectation, excitement and renewed hope and resolve. It’s not fair. I’m angry for a number of reasons. And we are all incredibly disappointed. But we will not be shaken!"

Placekicker Cody Parkey was not on the sidelines when his Chicago Bears lost their first-round home playoff game to the Philadelphia Eagles. His attempt at a game-winning field goal bounced off not one but two portions of the goal post while time expired. Replays later showed an Eagles player got a fingertip on the ball, affecting its flight, but fans only saw the miss, and booed Parkey with gusto.

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