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Gambling on College Football Almost Fixed My Dysfunctional Family

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My first mistake was feeling sorry for him.

The first season my brother and I bet on college football against each other, I beat him so badly I often bragged I could have lost every single game we gambled on for the rest of the decade and still finished in the money.

Each week, we would agree to disagree on five games across the N.C.A.A. schedule. Each win was worth a dollar. Whoever won the most games of the five we selected cashed an additional five bucks. Best out of five, winner takes all for a maximum potential profit of $10 for the weekend.

He couldn’t have owed me more than $100 — we weren’t kids anymore, making outrageous wagers on games of blackjack at the kitchen table neither of us could have paid off in three lifetimes — but I still didn’t have the heart to make him pay up.

The next year, after torching him a second season in a row, I gave him a book as a joke — “Handicapping College Football for Beginners,” which he told me he relegated to the washroom magazine basket.

I didn’t realize it then, but he was setting me up.

Later he admitted to reading it every chance he got. Studying. Formulas, strategies, all of it. By season three, he cleaned my clock. Our father soon inserted himself into the competition, which, over the past almost 20 years, came to represent our relationship: We went from being a dysfunctional trio of man-children who didn’t have the language to express our feelings to discovering that our mutual love of competition and one-upmanship gave us the language we needed to reconnect.

And then came the coronavirus.

As of June, in response to concerns over the coronavirus, the N.C.A.A. Division I Football Oversight Committee announced their approval of a plan that would allow teams to transition from voluntary workouts to mandatory meetings and preseason camps — just like any other year. But by the end of July, five Division I conferences had canceled their seasons outright. Others, in a last-ditch effort to play something in 2020, are leaning toward playing “conference only” or “plus one” schedules to minimize travel and mitigate risk. The closer we got to August, the more it seemed that Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been clear in his position from the outset, may have been right after all: “Football may not happen this year.”

My little brother and I remain hopeful that won’t be the case. Five years apart, we were never especially close. Growing up, I’d put him through the wringer.

When I was 8, and he was 3, I nearly took his eye out with a dead tree branch. He still has a scar above his brow. In high school, my friends and I would wrestle him to the ground, strip him down to his Fruit of the Looms, force him onto the front lawn, and make him run around the block in his skivvies before we let him back in the house. He still delights in telling that story to showcase what kind of brother I was, but there are plenty of other examples. I’ve made Baby Bro steal beer from a convenience store ice cooler, thrown him in the trunk of a friend’s car and done doughnuts in a snowy church parking lot, and run him over with a golf cart.

As adults, even when we both became dads, we weren’t doing much better, and I felt guilty. College football seemed like a good way to connect. But I had no idea what I was in for. It was payback time, and every win he tallied was sweet revenge.

“Hey. Who’s winning this week?” he would call any Saturday he was ahead, pretending not to know.

“Really,” I’d say. “You know good and well who’s winning.”

As much as I hated losing, I did my best to be happy for him.

The kid was due.

When he won in Season Four, evening the series at 2-2, I wasn’t bothered (much), and I wasn’t all that surprised either. After all, we’d both been raised in the same ultracompetitive, winner-takes-all environment.

Our dad never let us win at anything when we were kids. Not golf, not Go Fish. I tell myself now, he only wanted his boys to succeed — his desire to win was that great — but to say that my dad was an enthusiastic spectator was putting it mildly.

Looking back, I imagine in my dad’s mind he was only teaching us to be tough, to never quit or back down — it was the 1970s and ’80s when a spanking was considered a valuable life lesson. So, it made sense after watching our competition from the sidelines for a couple of years the old man wanted in.

“You donkeys worried I’ll beat you too badly?” my dad goaded my brother one summer afternoon as he casually flipped through the pages of his Street & Smith’s “College Football Annual.”

I knew this was going to be a problem.

The man loved sports almost as much as he loved being right, which was a lot. Not only did we have to mastermind a way to manage a three-person, round robin format, but also keep our heads as my father continued what he’d done our entire childhood: reveling in every moment he won.

After every victory he took great pains to remind us, it would be a long time before we beat him at anything.

We were all supposed to be grown-ups, but most of the time we acted like 6-year-olds upset over a game of Chutes and Ladders that didn’t go our way.

We showed we cared by needling each other unmercifully anytime one of us wound up on the wrong end of the point spread.

Like the year my dad gave my brother and me second and third place medals to make sure we didn’t forget who had come out on top that season.

Or when visiting my parents once, my father introduced me to friends of his and my mother’s as “the one who finished in last place” the year before.

I still don’t know half of what I should about my brother, or agree with all the things he believes in. But I’m learning. That ratio skews much higher when it comes to my dad. I’ve realized my brother, dad and I aren’t all that different. We all want to be heard, each of us wants to be seen, and above all, each of us wants to win. After almost 20 years of this, our bonds are stronger than ever.

As disappointing as the prospect may be, whether college football happens this year or not, at least now I have a reason to call.

The bonds we’ve worked so hard to build — even if they’ve come from trash talking each other over our latest win-loss records — are in danger of being lost. If Covid takes that away from us, we’ll just have to find something else to fight, I mean, connect over.

Mike Evans is a writer and television producer living in Los Angeles. He is currently at work on a memoir.


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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