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Need a one-stop shop to catch up on the top sports stories big and small? Time Out For Sports airs Mondays on WFAE's "All Things Considered" and has what you need to know about everything from Charlotte-area high school football highlights to the latest updates on the Carolina Panthers.

Pro Sports Officials Eye Rising COVID Cases; Olympians Rep Charlotte In Tokyo

With COVID-19 cases on the rise, vaccinations are on the radar of professional and college sports officials. A high-profile local high school basketball player has signed with a sports marketing agency to take advantage of name, image and likeness rules. State legislators questioned the authority of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association, and the NBA draft is this week. Langston Wertz Jr. with The Charlotte Observer joins us to talk about those and other stories for Time Out for Sports.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Hi, Langston.

Langston Wertz Jr, a longtime sportswriter for the Charlotte Observer.
Langston Wertz Jr.

Langston Wertz Jr.: Hi, Gwen. How are you?

Glenn: I am great. Well, let's start with vaccinations for college and professional athletes. Langston, briefly tell us what the NFL recently announced.

Wertz: They basically said if a game cannot be rescheduled in the current 18-game framework, it would be canceled. If there's an outbreak of unvaccinated players, players on neither team will get paid.

Glenn: OK, and they will forfeit the game with a loss, right?

Wertz: Correct.

Glenn: Now, college football kicks off in less than a month. Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips was in Charlotte last week and had this to say about COVID-19 protocols for the upcoming season.

Jim Phillips (recording): We all really want to wait a couple more weeks or so. I think we'll understand the (delta) variant a little bit. We certainly will be transparent when that decision is made, and we'll let everybody know.

Glenn: OK, Langston. That was Phillips. And earlier last week, the Big 12 and Southeastern conferences put out statements saying they will not reschedule games due to COVID-19 outbreaks. How do you think all of this is going to play out?

Wertz: The ACC is going to let students make up their own minds, but I think in the end, most students are going to get vaccinated because they don't want to hurt their teams. Commissioner Philips is saying it's a personal choice you can make yourself, but he also said that 85% of the players are already vaccinated on teams. There are seven schools that are required to be vaccinated before they return to campus. So hopefully I think this won't be a big deal with the ACC.

Glenn: OK, and staying with college football and Commissioner Philips' temporary rule changes will allow college athletes to be compensated in name, image and likeness deals. Some coaches say they are fumbling, Langston, in the dark on this one. And here's what Phillips said last week on that issue.

Jim Phillips (recording): I'm looking forward to seeing where this goes. We need federal help, and I think that we'll get it, but I hope it's sooner rather than later.

Wertz: Phillips said we need a national standard, and that makes sense because you could have one conference allow one thing and another conference allow more. And if I'm a potential recruit, I'm going to sometimes go where they are allowing more. So I think you need to have baseline rules for this thing because we're seeing players already signing deals. We had a quarterback at Carolina, quarterback at Clemson — D.J. Uiagalelei and Sam Howell — sign with Bojangles last week. So kids are making these moves right now in real time. We're going to need national legislation in real time right now.

Glenn: Also in name, image and likeness news, former Lake Norman Christian star basketball player Mikey Williams became one of the first high schoolers, Langston, to sign with a marketing firm. Can he do this? Because Karissa Niehoff, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, said the "NIL" rule changes do not affect high school athletes. And she said, "Current high school student-athletes cannot earn money as a result of their connection to their high school team."

Wertz: I think Ms. Niehoff Is fighting a battle she's not going to win. I think you're going to see more high school athletes try to push this the same way that Mikey did. He's playing on Vertical Academy, which is not a part of the NFHS — her organization — which does govern the North Carolina public schools and the private schools as well. But Mikey is playing on a team that's outside of that.

So I think, first of all, you're going to see star players like Mikey go to schools like Vertical Academy that exist outside of these organizations and take advantage of NIL rules. I think, second of all, you're going to see people within the NFHS get tired of looking at guys making money outside of it and try to pursue their own avenues to get that type of NIL representation.

Glenn: The 2021 NBA draft is this week, and the Charlotte Hornets have the 11th, 56th and 57th picks. Langston, what holes on the roster are they looking to fill? And any specific players?

Wertz: Well, Gwen, there's a big hole in the middle. The Hornets need size. They got the guy called the big bug, LaMelo Ball, that looks like he's going to be a star rookie of the year, but they got to have somebody to protect the basket. That said, you know, at No. 11, a lot of times in basketball, you want to go for the best player available, the "BPA." And there could be a guy like Jaden Springer, who played high school ball here in Charlotte — Rocky River — a star at Tennessee.

There's a center, Usman Garuba, hope I'm saying his name right. He's on the Spanish Olympic team. He's 6'8" with a 7'3" wingspan. And then there's Texas center Kai Jones, who sounds really intriguing. Didn't start playing basketball, Gwen, until he was 15 years old. He turns 21 in January. He's a freak athlete. I could see him catching lots of lobs from the big bug and exciting fans in Charlotte.

And also, Gwen, the Charlotte Hornets could trade that No. 11 pick and maybe try to get themselves a big man of free agency. They got to get a big man, got to get a big man. Got to get a big man. Don't bring me any more guards.

Glenn: And Langston, before we leave professional sports, there's been a lot of chatter this morning about the Texans being willing to hear trade offers for quarterback Deshaun Watson. With his legal problems and the high cost, including probably having to give up numerous first-round picks to get him, do you think they will actually trade him? And would the Carolina Panthers be interested?

Wertz: I think the Texans would actually trade Watson if the numbers were right, if the picks were right. It's probably going to take two or three No. 1 picks, which is a high risk in the NFL. The Panthers are one of the teams who were most interested in him before all the legal issues popped up. If those things can be cleared up, I think the Panthers will be right back in line for him.

 Anna Cockrell is seen in 2018. The Providence Day High grad is competing in the 2021 Olympic Games.
Anna Cockrell is seen in 2018. The Providence Day High grad is competing in the 2021 Olympic Games.

Glenn: So let's go to the Olympics in Tokyo. At the end of this week, Anna Cockrell, a Providence Day graduate, will compete in the 100- and 400-meter hurdles. Here she is when she qualified for the Olympics.

Anna Cockrell (recording): I just trained really hard for this. I worked really hard for this. In 2019 I was super depressed. I didn't want to be here anymore. To be standing here today as an Olympian is like more than I can take. And I just want to shout out my family, everybody in Charlotte and all my coaches who just never gave up on me even when I had given up on myself.

Glenn: So tell us about her, Langston. And how do you think she'll fare in Tokyo?

Wertz: Well, she's going to do the 400 qualifying rounds and the 100 qualifying rounds on Saturday. It's going to be a tough day for her. She ran the best race of her life to reach the Olympics, 53.70 in the 400-meter hurdles. In high school, she was dominant. She was one of the best high school athletes we've ever seen.

She won 12 state championships. She won the 100- and 400-meter hurdles in this year's NCAA national championships. And wouldn't it be a great way to top it off with an Olympic medal?

Glenn: Well, what other local or state athletes are competing in Tokyo that you think we should be watching?

Wertz: We had Erika Brown, out of Hough High School, who just won a bronze medal last night in the 400-meter relay. She graduated from Hough in 2016. And then also in Greensboro, Randolph Ross was the son of an Olympian at North Carolina A&T. He's going to run the 400 meters.

Glenn: OK, and finally, Langston, there is a bill going through the state Senate that would dissolve the North Carolina High School Athletic Association and replace the organization with a 17-member commission starting in the 2022-23 school year. How would this organization be different? And do you think the bill will pass?

Wertz: I think it'll be different in that it would initially be worse for the state's public schools. I don't like this idea. I think the association does a wonderful job. I think there's some tweaking that needs to be done — definitely more transparency, definitely listening to their coaches and athletic directors a little bit more.

But I don't think we need to blow up this traditional system. Will this pass? It's going to have to have bipartisan support. It's kind of been a Republican bill — a Republican-pushed issue so far. I don't know if we're going to have bipartisan support.

Glenn: OK, thanks as always, Langston.

Wertz: Absolutely.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Langston Wertz Jr. is a longtime sportswriter for The Charlotte Observer.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.