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SEC warns of fines, bans for COVID-19 violations

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For the second straight week, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey sent out an internal memo to athletic directors and coaches on the need to follow coronavirus protocols, this time outlining fines and possible suspensions in the event that they do not do so.

The memo, which was obtained by ESPN, cited the recent spread of the coronavirus in the White House and the effect of positive tests on the NFL schedule.

Bolded and underlined for emphasis, the memo stated, “Do not relax — and do not let those around you relax — because of a few weeks of success.”

The memo states that programs whose coaches, staff or other personnel fail to adhere to the approved task force requirements will be assessed a $100,000 reduction in conference revenue. The amount will increase by $100,000 for each subsequent week of noncompliance.

“The imposition of any reduction in Conference revenue for failure to substantially comply with or repeated disregard of the SEC masking requirement will be determined at the Commissioner’s discretion,” the memo states. “In addition, individuals who fail to comply with or disregard the masking requirement could be subject to penalties, including but not limited to, suspension for a specified period.”

In consecutive weeks, high-profile SEC games have featured coaches improperly wearing their face coverings. Mississippi State coach Mike Leach was shown frequently with his mask pulled down during his team’s win over LSU on Sept. 26, and on Saturday, Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher was shown repeatedly not wearing his face covering during the TV broadcast of the Aggies’ loss to Alabama.

Last week, Sankey sent a memo to coaches and ADs following the league’s opening weekend reminding everyone to wear face coverings and saying that “additional action” could be taken if they do not follow protocol.

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Exec: Wash. likely to remain Football Team in ’21

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The Washington Football Team still may be going by its placeholder name this time next year.

“There’s a pretty good chance we will be the Washington Football Team next season,” team president Jason Wright told Washington, D.C., TV station WJLA on Tuesday.

The team retired the name it had used for 87 years on July 13, after launching a thorough review 10 days earlier. The temporary name was announced July 23.

“I think next year is fast because of how the brand has to come together through uniforms, through approval processes through the league,” Wright said Tuesday.

“We could get there quicker, it’s actually pretty hard to get there that quickly because of all the steps that need to happen.”

For years, Washington owner Dan Snyder had resisted changing the name; he told USA Today in 2013 to “put it in all caps” that he would never make such a move. Some who worked for Snyder said they believed then that he would rather sell the team than use a new name.

The controversy surrounding the name predated Snyder’s purchase of the team in May 1999. When Washington played in Super Bowl XXVI following the 1991 season, there were 2,000 protesters outside the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Jack Kent Cooke, the team owner at the time, said of any possible change, “There is not a single, solitary jot, tittle, whit chance in the world. I like the name, and it’s not a derogatory name.”

But Snyder and the franchise have been under more pressure after the protests following the death of George Floyd in May while he was in police custody in Minneapolis. Within a few weeks of Floyd’s death, sources said Snyder had been discussing the name change with NFL officials for several weeks already. The team also felt financial pressure from investors and several sponsors to change the name.

Information from ESPN’s Adam Schefter and John Keim was used in this report.

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Why A Gamer Started A Web Of Disinformation Sites Aimed At Latino Americans

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This article was written in collaboration with First Draft, a nonprofit organization that provides investigative research to newsrooms tracking and reporting on mis- and disinformation.

When we picture the entity behind a network of disinformation websites, a few archetypes spring to mind: shadowy figures intent on interfering with democracy, Russian agents, Macedonian teens. Not usually included: a gamer from a suburb of New York City who sells coffee beans with his wife at the local farmers market on weekends. But that’s precisely who was behind three sites that, until last week, were pumping out misleading, hyperpartisan Spanish-language content on both the left and right. They were just a few sites in a broader ecosystem of misinformation — and disinformation — that spreads such narratives to millions of Americans. But their story has something to tell us about the misinformation industrial complex overall.

Sean Reynolds, a YouTuber, gamer and entrepreneur, was the owner and operator of three websites and affiliated Facebook pages that peddled in misinformation, predominantly in Spanish. The existence of the network was first reported by Politico last week,1 but an exclusive interview with Reynolds revealed why he started the sites.

Namely, he said, he saw an opportunity.

“These websites and the content on them do not reflect my personal political leanings,” Reynolds wrote in a direct message on Twitter. “I am non-discriminating towards opportunities where there is demand and no supply, which in this case, there was no political opinion pieces written in Spanish on Facebook, so I found writers (ghostwriters) interested to fill that demand.” Reynolds did not respond when FiveThirtyEight asked whether he speaks Spanish but did say he does not personally write the content on the sites. In a video he posted on his gaming channel, he identified as half Jamaican and half German.

Since 2017, Reynolds has operated the three websites and their affiliated Facebook pages: PoliticaVeraz.com, which published right-leaning content, AlertaPolitica.org, which published left-leaning content, and LeftOverRights.com, a left-leaning site which initially ran English-language stories but switched to publishing in Spanish this August. When all three sites were active, they would each regularly publish 5-10 stories per day and then spread those stories through Facebook, where they would typically attract thousands of shares. After FiveThirtyEight contacted him, Reynolds took all three sites and their Facebook pages offline.

A FiveThirtyEight investigation found multiple links that tied Reynolds to the sites, including a common server and IP address among his personal website and his other confirmed businesses, the same Google AdSense and Analytics code for his personal sites and these pages and corporate records listing Reynolds as a process agent for both Left Over Rights LLC and Alerta Politica LLC (there was no record of an LLC for Politica Veraz). Reynolds also confirmed to FiveThirtyEight that he ran the sites.

Much of the content these sites published was misleading and hyperpartisan. A recent story on Politica Veraz, for example, claimed that Joe Biden had “forgotten the words to the Pledge of Allegiance,” when in actuality he quoted part of the pledge for emphasis in a speech. Meanwhile, recent stories published on Left Over Rights deployed spin from a left-leaning perspective, such as a story about the vice presidential debate declaring Sen. Kamala Harris had “destroyed” Vice President Mike Pence by asking him not to interrupt her.

The disinformation on Politica Veraz, in particular, often echoed messaging that was already circulating in far-right communities online and among followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory, pushing it towards a more mainstream audience. One article claimed that President Trump’s life was in mortal danger after he gave a speech at a Whirlpool Corporation Manufacturing Plant in Clyde, Ohio, where he said he had many enemies and that “this may be the last time you see me for a while” when discussing lower prices for pharmaceuticals. And while Reynolds said the sites’ content had minimal reach, that story was shared more than 6,000 times on Facebook, according to social media data tool BuzzSumo, and received nearly 40,000 interactions (reactions, shares, and comments combined). Similar messaging had been amplified by right-leaning users on Twitter before the Politica Veraz piece was published, including a tweet from an account that regularly shares theories associated with QAnon that was retweeted or quote tweeted more than 12,000 times.

Reynolds’s sites are far from the only source of misinformation targeting the Latino community. There are sites, Facebook pages and YouTube channels that operate on the margins, attracting little mainstream notice while garnering audiences in the hundreds of thousands. Their stories — rife with misleading spins on the news and outright falsehoods — are shared across social media and privately in messaging apps. They target communities that have fewer trusted sources that cater directly to them, according to media experts we spoke to, and amplify misinformation originating from extremist communities. And experts say this kind of misinformation can lead to voters not only being misinformed, but also feeling disillusioned by the political process.

Nevertheless, Reynolds said his goals weren’t necessarily to inform, misinform or disinform, but to make a little bit of money. So little money that he didn’t think twice about taking the sites down as soon as he was contacted by a reporter.

“I will say, though, that these websites (all three) were scheduled to be fully closed after the months of not posting and not generating any income to keep them running,” Reynolds wrote. (Two of the sites stopped uploading new posts in August and September, respectively.) “But now I’m getting contacted about them, and I just don’t have time for anything else, so I will have their closings sped up.”

Reynolds’s sites represent a brand of misinformation fueled by the ease and profitability of building an audience on social media, according to Joan Donovan, a researcher of disinformation at Harvard University.

“Social media companies have incentivized disinformation by rewarding it with financial dollars,” Donovan explained. “The fact that he was targeting Latinos with Spanish-language disinformation or misinformation from either side of the aisle shows a kind of willingness to create chaos so long as it makes money.”

It’s not as if the content was simply a translated version of English-language misinformation, either. It clearly targeted the Latino community, playing into existing fears such as worries about socialism, given its history in authoritarian Central and South American governments.

“Some of the key narratives are around the perceived threat of socialism coming into the United States, and connecting that to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris,” said Jacobo Licona, a disinformation researcher for Equis Labs, a Latinx voter research group. “Another one we often see is trying to discredit Black Lives Matter and paint them as violent. Since the murder of George Floyd, we’ve seen an increased effort by these bad actors in Latinx spaces to fuel racial tension in Black and brown communities.”

Politica Veraz regularly posted stories that played into these threads, like one that called the Obamas “Marxists” or another that inaccurately reported two Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies shot in Compton were “ambushed by Black Lives Matter.”

This misinformation is being seeded in the midst of an election where Latino voters represent a powerful voting bloc. While Trump is trailing Biden among Latino voters in national polls, the margin is narrower in the key battleground state Florida. In a Univision poll released on Sept. 28, 52 percent of Latino voters nationally said they planned to cast a ballot for Biden, compared to 19 percent who were committed to Trump. But in Florida, 36 percent of Latino voters said they favored Trump.

Reynolds said his content was not effective and that the sites were not profitable or popular, and that he had been planning to shut them down before he was contacted by FiveThirtyEight. But data tells a different story. Combined, the three site’s Facebook pages had nearly 1 million likes and followers, and Politica Veraz alone attracted more than 500,000 interactions on its Facebook posts since July, according to data from Crowdtangle.

The allure of sensational, emotionally provocative misinformation is well documented. But this content was also able to appeal to an audience facing a dearth of targeted media, according to Randy Pestana, the assistant director of research at Florida International University’s Institute for Public Policy.

“The media outlets that appeal to Hispanics are limited. There are not a lot of them out there, and the ones that are out there more recently have been called fake news,” Pestana said. “There’s this movement where everything is ‘fake news’ if it doesn’t align with your opinion.”

He also noted that many Latino Americans consume news through social media, including Facebook and WhatsApp, making it easier for this kind of content to spread. The share of Latino Americans who get their news from the internet is higher than that of the U.S. population overall, according to surveys from the Pew Research Center. In a 2016 survey, Pew found that 74 percent of Latino respondents got their news online on a typical weekday, whereas a 2017 Pew survey found that 43 percent of the total population “often” got their news online. And while social media platforms have been cracking down on English-language misinformation to a certain degree, Spanish-language disinformation doesn’t always receive the same treatment, Pestana said.

Reynolds’s sites are now shut down, but there are plenty of other misinformation sources targeting Latino Americans. As we head into the final weeks of an election, many members of one of the most influential voting blocs continue to be bombarded with false information.

“The worst examples of the potential consequences of this is what we saw in 2016: People felt so disenfranchised by the political process that they opted not to participate in it,” said Steven Renderos, the executive director of MediaJustice, a nonprofit that focuses on racial inequality in communications. “That’s the risk we’re facing here today, that people will just opt out of engaging.”

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Timing a surprise, but Brian Flores sets up Tua Tagovailoa for success

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It’s Tua Time in Miami, and the immediate question is why now? It was well known that 2020 first-round pick Tua Tagovailoa would eventually become the Miami Dolphins‘ starting quarterback, but coming off back-to-back blowout wins does not seem like an ideal time to switch things up.

Most would have been fine with Tagovailoa sitting for longer, or even all of the NFL season, and learning behind veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who had been playing very good football through six weeks. But after taking a step back, this move makes a lot more sense.

The way Dolphins coach Brian Flores has handled a difficult quarterback situation shows his plan will set Tagovailoa up for success, even if it isn’t exactly how I would have mapped it. The timing of the decision comes as a surprise, but Flores’ process has seemingly always had the rookie QB as his top priority. Flores has watched Tagovailoa in practice and if he deems him ready to start now, then the move might be well-timed.

Patience is rare among NFL teams when it comes to playing rookie quarterbacks. Flores resisted the pressure to play Tagovailoa heading into the Dolphins’ season opener at New England. And that same pressure was ratcheted up even higher when Fitzpatrick hit a rough patch and the Dolphins fell to 1-3. Add on, there was early success from rookie quarterbacks, including Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow and Los Angeles ChargersJustin Herbert.

But still, Flores resisted to cave to any outside pressure.

The second-year head coach, seemingly one of Fitzpatrick’s biggest fans, preached patience to the Dolphins fan base and promised he would not be rushed into starting Tagovailoa. He treated this decision as if he were the father and the quarterbacks were his sons, so in the safest scenario — up 24-0 late in the fourth quarter against the NFL-worst New York Jets in Week 6 — Flores let Tagovailoa get his feet wet by inserting him into the game. Tagovailoa had five plays, two throws and a moment he’ll remember forever.

Then, when everyone felt Fitzpatrick was most secure in his starting job, Flores made the move to Tagovailoa. This wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision, either.

“Expect the unexpected from coach Flo,” one team source told ESPN.

One player told ESPN he was surprised by the move, but noted Tagovailoa keeps improving and he makes one or two “wow” highlight plays in practice every week.

The biggest thing to know about the Dolphins’ move is that it’s more about Tagovailoa’s development than Fitzpatrick’s play.

Fitzpatrick did nothing to lose his job. In fact, Fitzpatrick’s play would give every reason to believe he strengthened his grip on it. He ranks seventh in the NFL in QBR and he’s the most beloved player in the Dolphins’ locker room.

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Jeff Saturday expresses surprise at the Dolphins’ decision to start Tua Tagovailoa for their next game, and Stephen A. Smith weighs in on the move.

But everything about the 2020 season was about preparing for life with Tagovailoa as the starter and finding the ideal moment to make that transition. Although it’s a blow for Fitzpatrick to be benched while playing his best football of the season, Flores’ QB plan has never really been about him in the grand scheme of things. It has always been about Tagovailoa.

It will be 351 days since Tagovailoa’s scary, career-threatening hip injury when he makes his first pro start on Nov. 1 against the Los Angeles Rams (1 p.m. ET, Fox). Don’t underestimate the impact that anniversary has on the decision to start him.

Another important factor to consider is the Dolphins are entering their Week 7 bye, which gives Tagovailoa two weeks to prepare. It’s worth wondering if Miami’s plan was always to start Tagovailoa after the bye week, which was initially scheduled for Week 11 before schedule changes happened because of the coronavirus affecting other teams.

The Dolphins’ move is reminiscent of the 2004 New York Giants benching Kurt Warner, who was playing well and had led his team to a 5-4 record in the first half of the season, for rookie Eli Manning.

The Manning-led Giants struggled, going 1-6 the rest of the way and missing the playoffs. Manning threw more interceptions than touchdowns, but the experience was invaluable. Manning led the Giants to the playoffs each of the next four seasons, including two NFC East titles and a Super Bowl championship.

It’s possible and maybe even likely the Dolphins’ offense takes a step back initially with Tagovailoa leading it. Miami has two rookies, right guard Solomon Kindley and right tackle Robert Hunt, protecting Tagovailoa’s blindside. Although the offensive line is much improved through six games, Fitzpatrick did a lot to cover up its faults. Tagovailoa’s timing will have to be on point and fast for him to avoid getting hit often.

Another impact on how this transition has played out? The Dolphins are ecstatic to have Fitzpatrick in the fold to show Tagovailoa the way. Fitzpatrick will support him and teach him, and that’s a rare trait in today’s NFL. That dynamic between the experienced QB and the rookie has had a big impact on how this has all played out.

Flores believes this is the right time for Tagovailoa and it makes more sense. The Dolphins (3-3) are in the thick of the playoff race and it will be invaluable to get their rookie QB the experience he needs. This is a franchise in a rebuild with promises to prioritize the long-term over the short-term outlook.

Tagovailoa is the Dolphins’ most talented quarterback and biggest star since Pro Football Hall of Famer Dan Marino — and this is before he has even started a game.

Tua Time begins in a bit of a surprising way, but early indications are the rookie quarterback is set up for success.

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