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Sir Jim Ratcliffe on Man United, Old Trafford, Sheikh Jassim and Mason Greenwood: Full transcript



Sir Jim Ratcliffe on Man United, Old Trafford, Sheikh Jassim and Mason Greenwood: Full transcript

On Tuesday evening, Sir Jim Ratcliffe and INEOS completed their purchase of a minority stake in Manchester United, as the British billionaire acquired a 27.7 per cent stake in the Premier League club in a deal worth over $1.3bn.

On Wednesday, Ratcliffe spoke to the written media for the first time about his decision to take a minority investment, for which he has received control of the club’s sporting operation. Inside a boardroom at INEOS’ offices in Knightsbridge, London, Ratcliffe sat at the head of the table and took questions from 13 assembled journalists from the British and international media.

Along the way, Ratcliffe answered every question, including:

  • His ambitions to restore Manchester United to the summit of English and European football, knocking the “enemy” Liverpool and Manchester City “off their perch”
  • How INEOS will make a fresh decision this summer on the future of Mason Greenwood
  • Insight into the year-long battle to secure a stake in Manchester United, “odd affair” of Sheikh Jassim’s rival bid and how INEOS previously thought they had won the battle nine months ago, opening a bottle of champagne to celebrate at the Monaco Grand Prix in May
  • Why Manchester United have targeted Newcastle’s sporting director Dan Ashworth and the club’s battle to prise him away
  • His ambitions to create a ‘Wembley of the North’ as Manchester United seek to redevelop Old Trafford or build a new stadium, including his argument for the British state to support funding plans for the project

Has the last decade been quite painful? 

Sir Jim Ratcliffe: “It’s been a complete misery really in the last 11 years and it’s just frustrating if you’re a supporter during that period of time. That’s football isn’t it? It has its ups and its downs. I remember pre-(Sir Alex) Ferguson it wasn’t great for quite some time — for a more extended period of time, actually, for about 25 years.


Is that your incentive for investing: to transform Manchester United into what it used to be?

“Fundamentally, you want to see your club being where it should be. It’s one of the biggest clubs in the world. It should be playing the best football in the world and it hasn’t been doing that for 10 or 11 years. So it’s certainly related to the decision (to invest).”

Do you have a time frame for achieving success?

“It’s not a light switch. it’s not one of these things that change overnight. We have to be careful we don’t rush at it, you don’t want to run to the wrong solution rather than walk to the correct solution. We have two issues: one is the longer term, getting Manchester United to where we would like to get it but there’s also the shorter term of getting the most out of the club as it stands today.

“We would like to see the Champions League for next season if we can. The key challenge here is that, longer term, we need to do things well and properly — and thoroughly. So it’s not an overnight change. It’s going to take two or three (seasons). You have to ask the fans for some patience. I know the world these days is about instant gratification but that’s not the case with football, really. Look at Pep Guardiola at Man City; it takes time to build a squad.


“What you need are the foundations to be in a good place for Manchester United to be successful, which means you need the right organisational structure. It means not having a coach reporting to the chief executive, for instance.

“Then we need to populate all the key roles with people who are best in class, 10 out of 10s, and there’s clearly a lot of interest in these roles in Manchester United because it’s one of the biggest clubs in the world but also it’s one of the biggest challenges — because you’re taking it from a difficult place to hopefully where it should be at the top of the pyramid.

“Thirdly, you need to create this environment which is driven and competitive. It is going to be intense at times, but equally it needs to have warmth and friendliness and be a supportive structure because the two things marry together well. They probably haven’t had that environment for the last 10 years. If we get those three things right, then you have to believe the results will follow.”

“If you look at a club like Manchester City, you see they’ve got a very sensible structure. They’ve got a really driven competitive environment but there’s a bit of warmth to it. There are two clubs not very far from us who have been successful and have got some of those things right, and United don’t.”

Ratcliffe and his INEOS company have spent £1.3billion to buy a 25 per cent stake in Manchester United (Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images)

How is a minority stake going to work? What do you get to drive?


“We have a really good relationship with Joel and Avram (Glazer), who are the only two of the siblings that we’ve got to know and have met. And there’s a fair amount of trust between those two parties. And they obviously are very comfortable with us running the sports side of the club.

“This is going to be a very sports-led club, it’s all going to be about performance on the pitch. I’m still a significant shareholder even in respect of all the other things in the club.

“We’re obviously going to be on the ground, whereas the Glazer family are a fair way away. So I don’t see an issue in us being able to influence the club in all the right ways going forward, to be honest.

“I don’t think we’re going to be taking the legal agreements out of the bottom drawer. I just hope they gather dust and we never see them. Which it should be. It should be on the basis of a relationship.

“As long as we’re doing the right things, then I’m certain that relationship is going to go very well.


“One of the things I’d add is that the transaction was quite challenging, as you know. We met all sorts of obstacles on the way, a lot of them in relation to hedge funds, and SEC, American (regulations) and a few with the Qataris and all those sorts of things. It obviously it was a rocky road for quite an extended period of time.

“And the Glazers really, from the beginning, preferred ourselves to the Qatari option — which, in a way, for them was a much easier option because they could just sell the whole thing and they would have walked away and financially done quite well.

“But they stuck with us through the whole process. Our offer was a bit more complicated and that sort of adversity, that rocky road for a year, has forged a relationship between ourselves and the other shareholders.

“We’ve all got to know each other. You get to know people better in adversity than when the whole thing is going swimmingly.”



INEOS and Ratcliffe finally have the keys to Old Trafford. What does it mean for Man United?


Did you always have confidence that you would end up here? Were there moments when you thought about walking away?

“How long have you got? Time and time again. I remember at the Monaco Grand Prix, which was in May, we opened a bottle of very expensive champagne and all celebrated. That was in May — but that was a false dawn and we went through several more false dawns after that.

“We had a few surprises on the way. Not at the Glazers’ making. We just kept bumping into problems, particularly with the non-executives on the board.”

How would you rate the scale of this challenge? You are up against clubs linked to nation-states, financial fair play, it has not been a great season, etc…

“I don’t know about the biggest thing in my career. But certainly, the biggest challenge in sport that we’ve undertaken. It’s enormous — and the club is enormous. The tentacles reach around the world. Everywhere I go in the world, it’s Manchester United. It affects an awful lot of people on the planet, and getting it right is not easy.


“We’ve got to get so many aspects of that club right. And the right people doing the right thing at the right time and doing it well. It’s a very complex problem, football – which is surprising considering it’s just putting 11 players on a football field, and they run around. But it’s very complex getting there.”

Part of the INEOS mantra is a compass which says you “don’t like losing money” — but you have spent so much for a 27 per cent share…

“To be honest, I don’t think I’ll ever lose money. For me, it’s not about a financial investment. The objective was to get involved and be influential in the future of Manchester United.

“I don’t believe I’ll ever lose money in it and I’m not interested. I’ve just put that aside. It’ll sit there forever but I don’t see that the value is going to devalue. I don’t believe that. In that sense, I don’t think I’ve been financially stupid but it’s not my motivation in life at all.”

What do you think the biggest growth is financially, in terms of the ability to grow revenue?


“We’re really, really clear about that: it’s football-led. So if we’re successful on the pitch, then everything else will follow.

“Manchester United (has been) a bit, I think, in the last 10 years or so, that if you’re really good in commercial and you make lots of money, then you’ll be successful in football because you’ve got lots of money to spend.

But I think that’s flawed because it only starts for a certain while and you start to degrade the brand if you’re not careful. But we’re really clear that football will drive the club. If we’re really successful at football, then commercial will follow. And we’ll make more money.”

And how do you take on the challenge of those nation-states? It’s now almost viewed as impossible to take them on…

“I don’t agree with that. Firstly, the nation-state bit helps to a degree but FFP limits the degree by a considerable margin, doesn’t it? Ultimately, it becomes about how successful the club is because that dictates your FFP.


With FPP, you have to operate the club within its own means. So clearly that means that if you’ve got a bigger club it ought to be more successful than a smaller club, by definition, because you’ve got more means that you can spend more money and recruitment.

How much is FFP an issue for United (particularly ahead of the summer)? How patient will fans need to be with the damage that’s been done before — i.e with what’s been spent?

“Firstly, FFP has become a new aspect of running the football club, and it’s clearly a really critical part of running a football club. And you have to think about how you can manage FFP to the benefit of the club. But ultimately, FFP says you have to operate the club within its own means. Effectively, it takes into account your prior expenditure, and the club’s spent quite heavily in the last couple of seasons. So that does impact FFP going forward because they’ve used quite a large part of their allowance.

“I don’t know the full answer to that question at the moment. It’s obviously related to sales as well as purchases, and so we need to get our heads around that well before the summer window — there’s no question that history will impact this summer window.

You have been heavily linked with Newcastle’s sporting director Dan Ashworth in the media in recent weeks. Would it be fair to say that identifying player sales and purchases is an area that United can make a real improvement on?


“Recruitment in the modern game is critical. Manchester United have clearly spent a lot of money but they haven’t done as well as some other clubs. So when I was talking about being best in class in all aspects of football, recruitment is clearly top of the list.”



Dan Ashworth – the sporting director Manchester United want to lure from Newcastle

What do you make of the recruitment under the current manager? Because it seems like he’s had quite a lot of sway…

“We don’t benefit too much from thinking about that. I’m thinking about getting recruitment in a good place in the future. There’s not much I can do about what’s happened in the past. Our thinking is all about how we become first in class in recruitment going forward. Which means you need the right people.”

You talk about being best in class… is it a five-year plan or is it a 10-year plan?


“It’s not a 10-year plan. The fans would run out of patience if it was a 10-year plan. But it’s certainly a three-year plan to get there.

“To think that we’re going to be playing football as good as Manchester City played against Real Madrid last season by next year is not sensible. And if we give people false expectations, then they will get disappointed. So the key thing is our trajectory, so that people can see that we’re making progress. I think it’s the club’s 150-year anniversary in 2028… if our trajectory is leading to a very good place in that sort of timeframe then we’d be very happy with that. Because it’s not easy to turn Manchester United into the world’s best football team.”

Is it the aim to win the Premier League and then the Champions League?

“The ultimate target for Manchester United — and it’s always going to be thus, really — is that we should be challenging for the Premier League and challenging for the Champions League. It’s one of the biggest clubs in the world. There are six who are probably the six biggest clubs in Europe: three in the north west (of England), two in Spain and one in Germany. United should be in that small group. It hasn’t been for a while. And so, therefore, it must be challenging for the Premier League. And if we’re not, then in a way, we’re not doing what we saying we ought to do.

Does FFP influence your thinking about the need for a modern stadium? 


“You have to think about how you can optimise the football club in FFP terms — and a stadium is one of those. You can increase your revenues by building a new stadium, rebuilding a stadium or putting all the facilities in. You have to think practically because money doesn’t grow on trees. The two most talked-about issues at Manchester United are number one, the football, the performance on the pitch and the second one is the stadium.

“What we can see so far is a really good case to refurbish Old Trafford, probably about £1billion in cost. You finish up with a great stadium, it’s probably an 80,000-90,000-seater. But it’s not perfect because you’re modifying a stadium that is slap-bang up against a railway line and all that type of stuff, so it’s not an ideal world. But you finish up with a very good answer.

The Trafford Park area around Manchester United’s stadium is a far cry from the modern surroundings of Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

“Manchester United needs a stadium befitting one of the biggest clubs in the world and, at the moment, it’s not there. Old Trafford maybe was 20 years ago but it’s certainly not today. There’s this wider conversation with the community as to whether you could use a more ambitious project on-site as a catalyst to regenerate that Old Trafford area, which is quite an interesting area in a way because it was the heart of the Industrial Revolution — it is the oldest industrial park in Europe, it was the first industrial park in Europe. And it’s still one of the biggest ones. And they obviously built the Manchester Ship Canal to service it. That’s where all the coal came in, the cotton. And that’s why they built Old Trafford there.

“People would finish their shift and then walk to the ground; there was no transport in those days. That’s the history of why the club is there. But today it’s a bit run-down and neglected in places. There’s a strong case for using a stadium to regenerate that area, like with the Olympics, as Sebastian Coe did with that part of east London quite successfully. City have done it and they’ve done quite a good job.”

But both of those had some state funding… (There have been reports suggesting United may seek state support) 


“The people in the north pay their taxes like the people in the south pay their taxes. But where’s the national stadium for football? It’s in the south. Where’s the national stadium for rugby? It’s in the south. Where’s the national stadium for tennis? It’s in the south. Where’s the national concert stadium? It’s the O2, it’s in the south. Where’s the Olympic Village? It’s in the south.

“All of this talk about levelling up and the Northern Powerhouse. Where is the stadium in the north? How many Champions Leagues has the north west won and how many Champions Leagues has London won?

“The answer to that is the north west has won 10 — Liverpool (six) have won more than us — and London (Chelsea) has won two. Where do you have to go if you get to the semi-final of the FA Cup and you’re a northern club? You have to schlep down to London, don’t you? So what happened to HS2, which was going to be a substantial amount of investment in the north, what happened to that? They cancelled that. And where are they going to spend that? They’re going to spend it on the rail network in London.

“People in the north pay their taxes and there is an argument you could think about a more ambitious project in the north which would be fitting for England, for the Champions League final or the FA Cup final and acted as a catalyst to regenerate southern Manchester, which has got quite significant history in the UK.”

Might your tax status, having relocated to Monaco, pose a challenge in the optics of requesting state support? 


“I paid my taxes for 65 years in the UK. And then when I got to retirement age, I went down to enjoy a bit of sun. I don’t have a problem with that, I’m afraid.”

Do you prefer a new ground or a refurbishment? 

“In an ideal world, I think it’s a no-brainer, a stadium of the north, which would be a world-class stadium where England could play and you could have the FA Cup final and it’s not all centred around the south of England. So in an ideal world, absolutely, that’s where I would be, but you’ve got to be practical about life.”

Is there a financial estimate of what that might be?

“In broad terms, a refurb is one (billion) and a new stadium — both of these would include the campus so, you know, the museum’s crap and the shop is too small and you’d have the Xbox thing for entertaining the fans. So in other words, the fans could come there and do some stuff. So include the campus in both cases, in very simple terms you are talking about one versus two (billion).”


And how long would it take to happen?

“I think the refurb would take longer than the new one because it’s more complicated, because obviously you’re building and you have to build over a main railway line which is quite complicated and expensive.”

And a stadium for the women’s team as well?

“If you use that as a centre of regeneration, a bit like the Olympic Village, then I think what you probably finish up doing is Old Trafford would end up being reduced in size to a smaller facility still in the same footprint but a smaller facility which can be used for all sorts of community things, be it a concert or whatever. The ladies’ teams could play there. The academy teams could play there. Some of the local teams could play there and Old Trafford could sort of become a community asset and then you’d have this world-class stadium next door to it.”

What’s your vision for broader control of Manchester United? Would you like to increase your stake?


“We spent well over a year getting to where we are. We got to where we could do. I’m really pleased we are here and we are going to be able to influence the future, to be in charge of the sports side. I haven’t had the energy to think about the future or worry about it because I’m focused on the problem today — not what I might do in three, five, 10 years.”

In the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) filing, it said that if the Glazers received an offer for a complete buyout within 18 months, then they could force you to sell…

“There’s all sorts of scenarios. We might get hit by an asteroid. There’s been lots of opportunities for someone to come in and buy United in the last 12 months.”

What are your ambitions for the women’s team?

“I know we have been around since Christmas but we only took over today. What I would say is that if it’s a team wearing a Manchester United badge on shirt then it’s Manchester United and they need to be focused on winning and being successful.”


Dan Ashworth, are you confident you will get him?

“Dan Ashworth is clearly one of the top sporting directors in the world. I have no doubt he is a very capable person. He is interested in Manchester United because it’s the biggest challenge at the biggest club in the world. It would be different at City because you’re maintaining a level. Here it’s a significant rebuilding job. He would be a very good addition. He needs to decide if he is going to make that jump.

Dan Ashworth has been placed on gardening leave by Newcastle United (Serena Taylor/Newcastle United via Getty Images)

“We have had words with Newcastle, who would be disappointed. They have done really well since their new ownership. I understand why they would be disappointed, but then you can’t criticise Dan because it’s a transient industry. You can understand why Dan would be interested because it’s the ultimate challenge. We’ll have to see how it unfolds.”



Ashworth placed on gardening leave at Newcastle amid Man Utd interest

There have been reports of a £20million asking price. Does £20m seem strange for a sporting director?


“A bit silly, personally. I won’t get dragged into that. What I do think is completely absurd is suggesting a man who is really good at his job sits in his garden for one and a half years. We had a very grown-up conversation with City about Omar Berrada. When things got done, we sorted it out very amicably. They could see why he wanted to take that challenge.

“You look at Pep and when he’s done with one of his footballers: he doesn’t want them to sit in the garden for one and a half years. He doesn’t do that. That’s not the way the UK works or the law works.”

One of the main stories at Manchester United last year was what the club would do with Mason Greenwood (who is on loan at Getafe). That is now a problem on your doorstep as you control the sporting operation…

“I can talk about the principle. I am not going to talk about Mason. I am familiar with it. The principle is the important one. We will have other issues going forward. You are dealing with young people who have not always been brought up in the best circumstances, who have a lot of money and who don’t always have the guidance they should have.

“What we need to do when having issues like that is understand the real effects — not the hype. Then we need to make a fair decision in light of the club’s values. That’s what we need to do and that’s how we will deal with it.”



Man United will make fresh decision on Greenwood, says Ratcliffe

Will that be a fresh decision then? 

“Yes, absolutely. We will make a decision and we will justify it.”

So it’s feasible he could still have a future at Man Utd?

“All I can do is talk about the principle of how we will approach decisions like that.”


What are the values you are defining? 

“Is he the right type of footballer? Is he a good person or not?”

We don’t want to misquote you or take this out of context… Are you saying you are not closing the door on Mason?

“He’s a Manchester United footballer, so we are in charge of football. So the answer is ‘yeah, we have to make decisions’.

“It’s quite clear we have to make a decision. There is no decision that’s been made. He’s on loan obviously, but he’s not the only one. We’ve got one or two footballers that we have to deal with and we have to make a decision on, so we will do that. The process will be: understand the facts, not the hype, and then try and come to a fair decision on the basis of values, which is basically: is he a good guy or not, and answer could he play sincerely for Manchester United well and would we be comfortable with it and would the fans be comfortable with it?”


Is the INEOS ownership of French club OGC Nice an issue for playing in the Champions League if you both qualify under UEFA’s regulations? 

“We’ve spoken to UEFA. There are no circumstances upon which an ownership of Nice would prevent Manchester United from playing in the Champions League — I’ll be crystal clear on that.

But at the moment, the rules say you can’t…

“It says you have to change the ownership structure. So it’s all about influence and positions on the board and that sort of thing. So, a) the rules are changing, and, b) there are shades of grey, not black and white. Manchester City will probably have the problem before we have the problem because they’ve obviously got Girona who are doing well in the Spanish La Liga.



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You tried to buy Chelsea when they were for sale in 2022…

“We have a collection of quite interesting sports clubs, Formula 1, America’s Cup, cycling etc. but we’ve always recognised that the biggest sport in the world is football and the Premier League is the biggest league in the world. So we’ve always had an interest in having a Premier League club — but they don’t come up very often, and at the time we had no inkling that Manchester United might ever be sold. So that’s how we finished up in that Chelsea equation.”

Dave Brailsford is the director of sport at INEOS. Can you talk about what his role will be, how important he is and what his attributes are? Some will look at his history in cycling and query his role at United amid the criticisms…

“Well, I think he will be critically involved in the future of Manchester United. He’s interested in elite sport and performance, which is what Manchester United is and I think he’s been very, very successful in sport in cycling, but he’s generally viewed as one of the world’s best thoughtful people on the subject of sports performance.

“It’s for good reason. I’ve known Dave now for quite a few years. He is obsessive about performance in elite sports, and he is going to be very successful at Manchester United.”



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Rival fans will bring up the parliamentary select committee and (his role in) questions about Team Sky previously…

“I’m not interested in all that. Really, I’m not. You can keep harping on about the past, but I am not interested in the past. I’m interested in the future. My view is he is a really good man and is really good at his job.

“That, for me, was all nonsense, in the past. I’m not interested.”

Chelsea was a very busy process but there seemed to be fewer bidders for United. Why was that?


“Good question, that.”

There was this Qatari guy (Sheikh Jassim) that no one’s ever seen. It was very odd…

“Still nobody’s ever seen him, actually. The Glazers never met him… he never… I’m not sure he exists!” (laughs). I would say this but there is no comparison between Chelsea and Manchester United. The scale of Manchester United is incomparable to any of the London clubs, to be honest with you.”

The SEC filing suggested Qataris did not provide proof of funds…

“No, they didn’t. No.”


Were they really bidding against you, or were you potentially the only bidder?

“I don’t know. They were they were obviously there and there was a whole host of people on the team in their squad… I didn’t ever meet them. But it was it was a very odd affair.”

There seemed to be a lot of background briefings. Did they play clean?

“I’m not going to comment on that. I know what the answer is.”

They claimed the bid was a lot higher than it was…


“Yeah, that’s correct.”

Do Chelsea show how not to do things given their recent spending?

“I don’t want to finish up criticising Chelsea but what I would say is that, in having bought other clubs in Lausanne and Nice, we have made a lot of cock-ups. We’ve made some really stupid decisions in both those clubs. There are a lot of organisations in the world where, if you make a mistake, you get shot, so nobody ever puts their head above the parapet.

“But at INEOS, we don’t mind people making mistakes — but please don’t make it a second time. So with that, we’re much less than sympathetic when they make the same mistake twice. We have made mistakes in football, so I’m really pleased that we made those mistakes before we arrived here at Manchester United. If we hadn’t, this would be a much tougher job for us. Because it is huge and it’s very exposed.”

What sort of player do you want at the club? Youngsters or superstars?


“We’re probably still debating what precisely is the style of football we want to play. If you look at Manchester City, they know precisely what the style of football is they want to play and all 11 teams at the club play the same formula. We need to do that, but I think in terms of the nature of the players, you want Manchester United types of players: attacking football, exciting football, bringing the youth through. You want players that are committed. You want players that play 90 minutes — those are the types of players you want playing for Manchester United.

“The academy is really, really important for us. It’s probably the most successful academy in football in terms of number of players that have come through.”

“We’ll decide that style, plus the CEO, sporting director, probably the recruitment guys, what the style of football is and that will be the Manchester United style of football, and the coach will have to play that style. We’re not going to oscillate from a (Jose) Mourinho style to a Guardiola style. That’s not the way we’ll run the club. Otherwise, you’re changing everything all the time, you change your coach, you’ve got the wrong squad — we won’t do that.

“In modern football, you need to decide what’s your path and stick to your path.”

You are doing something today that has been very rare at Manchester United in recent decades: communicating. How important is it to reconnect the fans and the club? 


“Again, I have a very simple view of a football club. It’s a community asset. The club is owned by the fans, that’s what it’s there for: for the fans. We’re guardians or stewards for a temporary period of time. I’m not going to be there forever. It is important we communicate to the fanbase. We underestimate how important an aspect it is of their life and how it affects their life.

“On a wet Monday morning in Manchester, that’s the first thing you talk about when you go into the office or the factory: how did we do at the weekend? And you either start off with a good week or a bad week depending on how it went. It’s beholden upon us to… It’s not my job to do it on a frequent basis but it was quite important today that we are seen by the true owners, who are the fans really.”

You are sitting in front of a jersey in here where there is a No 7 on the back and the collar up. It looks like an Eric Cantona shirt.…

“He was a maverick, obviously. He was the catalyst for change in Ferguson’s era… and that kickstarted everything off. He was a talisman.

“There has always been a bit of glamour attached to Manchester United which has been lacking a bit in the last few years. You’ve had George Best, Bobby Charlton, Eric the King. At the end of the day, we are in the entertainment business. You don’t want to watch bland football or characterless football. And to be honest, since Christmas, with the young lads, they have played some fantastic football. There have been some great matches.


“I can’t remember many matches at the beginning of the season that I was really excited by. The three young lads sitting on the hoarding at the side; that was a good picture. So I think that’s the Eric point, really. We are cognisant of the fact you do need a bit of glamour in this.”



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How would you assess the job Erik ten Hag has done during his time at Old Trafford?

“I’m not going to comment on Erik ten Hag because I think it would be inappropriate to do that. But if you look at the 11 years that have gone since David Gill and Sir Alex stepped down, there have been a whole series of coaches — some of which were very good. And none of them were successful or survived for very long. And you can’t blame all the coaches.

“The only conclusion you can draw is that the environment in which they were working didn’t work. And Erik’s been in that environment. I’m talking about the organisation, the people in the structure, and the atmosphere in the club. We have to do that bit. So I’m not really focused on the coach. I’m focused on getting that bit right. And it’s not for me to judge that anyway — I’m not a football professional.”


Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Sir Dave Brailsford visited Erik ten Hag and others at the club’s Carrington training base in January (Manchester United via Getty Images)

Have you spoken to Sir Alex Ferguson much? 

“I have. He was the first person I met when I went up there, which I think was the second week of January. I had a meeting from 9am to 10am at his house and I left at 1pm.

“He never stopped. He’s got a lot of experience, a lot of stories to tell and a lot of thoughts about the club.

“I don’t think he has been encouraged to get involved but he is still very thoughtful about the club and he has an immense amount of experience. He really understands the values and traditions of the club and what it’s all about. He’s still fiercely competitive, Alex Ferguson.”

You have mentioned Manchester City an awful lot in this conversation…


“Well, they are one of the best teams on the planet.”

Are they a blueprint?

“Blueprint? (laughs) We have a lot to learn from our noisy neighbour and the other neighbour. They are the enemy at the end of the day. There is nothing I would like better than to knock both of them off their perch.

“Equally, we are the three great northern clubs who are very close to one another. They have been in a good place for a while and there are things we can learn from both of them. They have sensible organisations, great people within the organisations, and a good, driven and elite environment that they work in. I am very respectful of them but they are still the enemy.”

Would it help if they were found guilty of 115 breaches they are accused of by the Premier League?


“I would not wish that upon them. I don’t understand any of that. I just want to smash them on the football field.”

When you refer to knocking them off their perch… is that a knowing nod to Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous comments about knocking Liverpool off their perch?

“It is, actually. He was the first one who came out with that expression. I am in the same place as Alex — 100 per cent. He was fiercely competitive and that is why he was successful. We have to be the same.

“Queen Victoria was present at the first America’s Cup when we (the UK) challenged America in 1851. They sent a yacht across called America. We had 11 yachts and we had a race around the Isle of Wight. It was hosted by the Royal Yacht Squadron. In the end, the American boat won the race. Queen Victoria turned to the commodore and said ‘Did we come second?’ And the commodore said: ‘There is no second’.”

(Top photo: Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)


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How hockey helped make J.J. McCarthy one of NFL Draft's most intriguing prospects



How hockey helped make J.J. McCarthy one of NFL Draft's most intriguing prospects

Dan Capuano’s funeral at St. Rita of Cascia High School on Chicago’s Southwest Side was standing-room only. Hundreds of firefighters from Chicago and around the country attended. Members of the St. Jude Knights youth hockey club were there, too, wearing their jerseys.

Capuano’s sons, Andrew and Nick, played for the Knights, a Northern Illinois Hockey League program that feeds many of Chicago’s powerhouse Catholic schools. Nick was on the 2012-13 team that won the Squirt A state championship.

Dan had devoted much of his time to the Knights before he died in the line of duty while fighting a warehouse fire on the South Side on Dec. 14, 2015.

That title-winning Knights team wanted to get back together to honor Capuano and his family, so in March 2016, a new team was formed. “Team Capuano” would play in the Shamrock Shuffle at the University of Notre Dame over a weekend. Their jerseys would be red and white and include Dan’s badge number: 1676.

There was an early hiccup. “The guy that was running the tournament, he didn’t want to let us in,” said Ralph Lawrence, a former St. Jude coach. “He said that the competition would be way too high.”


Team Capuano just wanted to play together again. It got in. Things got chippy. During one game, a hit from behind sent center Luke Lawrence, Ralph’s son, hard into the boards.

“Could have paralyzed him,” Ralph said. “It was a bad hit.”

That’s when 13-year-old wing J.J. McCarthy rushed in. The future five-star recruit, Michigan quarterback, national champion and soon-to-be NFL draft pick was livid. He didn’t drop his gloves, but a scrum ensued.

“It was a little cheap hit in the corner,” Luke said. “J.J. was the first one to me, come into the corner and exchange a few words with the kid.”

“J.J. went off on the kid and got kicked out of the game,” Ralph said.


The whole scene was unlike McCarthy. He was typically more collected on the ice — his father, Jim, one of the primary organizers of Team Capuano, didn’t like the outburst — but Luke was J.J.’s close friend, and the tournament was an emotional experience. And in hockey, leadership often involves going into the corners.

“Those kids played for something more than hockey that weekend,” Ralph said.

When it was over, Team Capuano — the team some thought didn’t belong in South Bend — won the tournament. A year later, they returned and repeated as champions.

Ice is in McCarthy’s blood. His mother, Megan, was a competitive figure skater. He started playing hockey in kindergarten. Organized football came later.

McCarthy is on record calling hockey his first love. What he experienced on the ice would ultimately help make him a better quarterback — one now on the verge of being drafted in the first round.


He was 10 when the Knights defeated Winnetka in the Tier II Squirt A state championship in March 2013. He and Luke Lawrence assisted on the only goal of the game. It was a special season for a special group, one that eventually split up as players changed teams and levels.

McCarthy (far right) got used to winning early as part of a championship squad with the St. Jude Knights. (Courtesy of Ralph Lawrence)

McCarthy and Lawrence were inseparable for years. Competitive in everything, they played so much and so well together on the same line that they earned a nickname referencing Henrik and Daniel Sedin, the twin stars from the Vancouver Canucks.

The Lawrences and McCarthys stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts before practices or games. The dads would get coffee. Luke would get a bagel or a banana. McCarthy always ordered a strawberry frosted donut. Ralph Lawerence advised against the pre-skate pastry, but it became McCarthy’s go-to. (After McCarthy signed an NIL deal at Michigan, a medium iced coffee and a strawberry frosted donut became his official Dunkin’ Donuts meal in the Detroit area.)

“We laugh till this day,” Ralph said. “And it didn’t hurt him. His speed was fine. His stomach didn’t get upset.”

As a coach, Lawrence emphasized playing positionally strong in the neutral zone and the importance of forechecking and backchecking. But McCarthy played the game with feel.


“He knew where the puck was going to be,” Ralph said. “He knew what the other team was going to do.”

As Lawrence watched McCarthy play football, he saw similar things happen on the field.

“He had an instinct,” Lawrence said. “It was the same way he had it on the ice.”

McCarthy and Lawrence moved on to the Northern Express, another Tier II team that played in the Central States Development Hockey League, which expanded outside of Illinois. It was time for a new challenge.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited as a coach,” Northern Express coach Brent Dolan said.


Dolan’s team excelled defensively. The team’s forecheck was relentless, but it didn’t score a lot.

“When J.J. and Luke came, that instantly changed,” Dolan said. “I would say our goals per game went up by two — and that’s massive in hockey.”

Checking was now permitted, too. There would be contact and a lot of it, a new and different level of physicality. McCarthy could give hits, take hits — and avoid them. The extra contact also meant extracurriculars, and McCarthy had no problem mixing it up.

“If I needed anything or if I was getting banged up in the corner, J.J.’s always there for me, getting in there and making sure that nothing’s gonna escalate,” Luke said. “He would always stick up for me.”

By the time he hung up his skates, McCarthy had developed into a fast, physical forward. (Courtesy of Ted Eagle)

Hockey requires quick decision-making under duress and amid contact. For McCarthy, as a forward, that often meant receiving the puck while exiting his own zone and deciding what to do as an opposing defenseman barreled his way.


Pass the puck quickly to a teammate? Make a quick cut around the defenseman? Chip the puck past the opponent and go after it?

“People who don’t play hockey don’t really understand how fast of a sport it is and how many different components go into it,” Dolan said. “You have to make a decision with the puck, and you got to know where to go with it and execute that all in a split second. That’s not overexaggerating it. That probably helped J.J.’s vision in football.”

A shift on the ice can feel like standing in the pocket: chaos everywhere, violence nearby. You have to see it — or, more importantly, feel it — to overcome it. McCarthy, who was on Northern Express’ power play, had the poise and spatial awareness to operate in the maelstrom.

“Hockey definitely slowed down football,” Luke Lawrence said.

In particular, McCarthy developed a Patrick Kane-like knack for avoiding major hits. Dolan later saw him make hockey-like cuts playing for Michigan.


“He’s trying to avoid getting drilled,” Dolan said. “The quick, subtle movements that you make in hockey probably helped him in the pocket and then also while he’s out on the edge rushing or scrambling.”

In the summer between seventh and eighth grade, McCarthy started training with Greg Holcomb, a private QB coach from Next Level Athletix. Holcomb saw a lot of natural ability. He also saw hockey’s influence.

“One of the reasons why he was so good at throwing off platform and moving around and changing direction is probably because in hockey he would get absolutely killed if he wasn’t able to skate past guys or make them miss,” Holcomb said. “Hockey definitely helped him.”

The first game of McCarthy’s final hockey season came, fittingly enough, at Yost Ice Arena on the University of Michigan campus.


He was playing for the 14-and-under Chicago Young Americans, a Tier I team, during his freshman year at Nazareth Academy high school. McCarthy had always been talented enough to play at the highest level of youth hockey, but football overlapped with hockey too much, especially on the weekends.

CYA coach Ted Eagle didn’t mind the conflict because of who McCarthy was.

McCarthy had good hands and a quick release. He played hard, generated turnovers and scored. “He was a beast in hockey,” Eagle said. “He threw the body around and he wasn’t kind of this less skilled, bigger guy. He was just fast and physical.”

And he was a spark — a tone-setter. In hockey, you need that.

“I relied on him, too,” Eagle said. “It kind of sets the tone for the rest of the team when one or two guys are kind of pushing the pace.”



J.J. McCarthy’s draft ceiling: What film shows about Michigan QB’s NFL potential

McCarthy missed the first game of the tournament at Michigan because of a Nazareth football game then showed up in the first period of their second game against the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite junior team. Eagle considers it one of his favorite hockey memories. “He raced up, and he showed up mid-game and scored a couple of goals against one of the top teams in the country,” Eagle said.

There were three hockey practices every week, mostly after football practice, which resulted in some very late nights for a high school freshman. And there were the out-of-town games missed because of football games on Friday nights or Saturday mornings. CYA would play nearly 70 games that season, many that required travel, and McCarthy made more than 40 of them, according to Eagle.

The back-and-forth between football and hockey required discipline, but McCarthy was different. Eagle described him as a “front-of-the-line guy” in practice. He paid attention to the smallest details, asked plenty of questions, talked through different scenarios. Eagle said McCarthy craved the information to get better. Teammates were drawn to him.

“I’m sure a lot of people are aware of this by now,” Eagle said, “but he was just like an ultimate leader.”


McCarthy hung up his skates after his freshman year of high school to focus on football. During his sophomore season the next year — and just days before Illinois’ Class 7A state championship game in 2018 — McCarthy’s throwing hand collided with a defensive lineman’s helmet as he released a pass.

“As a quarterback, it’s the kiss of death,” said Brody Budmayr, Nazareth’s former quarterbacks coach.

Everything stopped. McCarthy was in pain — serious, excruciating pain. After a few nervous moments, the sophomore starter with Division-I interest wanted to test his hand. He dropped back to pass, and then …

“It’s just the pain and anguish of you know it’s broke,” Budmayr said. “It’s him actually dropping to his knees and us thinking, ‘Wow, this is not good.’”

But there was no way he was missing Nazareth’s state championship game against St. Charles North. His parents found an orthopedic surgeon to work on Thanksgiving, and playing became a matter of pain tolerance.


That wasn’t a problem. McCarthy was a hockey player.

In the state championship game, McCarthy was 15-for-21 passing for 201 yards and a touchdown as Nazareth dominated 31-10. A legend was born.

“Ultimately, he was the one that had to go out there,” Budmayr said. “He taped it up and he led us to a state championship.”

McCarthy’s hockey coaches are convinced his experience on the ice informed his play on the gridiron. (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

On May 11, 2019, McCarthy announced he was committing to Michigan and coach Jim Harbaugh. During the recruiting process, Nazareth head coach Tim Racki told the story about McCarthy and his broken thumb.

“When I told him he was a hockey player, (Harbaugh’s) eyes lit up,” Racki said. “And then when I told him that story, that sealed the deal in terms of the kid’s toughness and the grit that he had.”


When McCarthy announced his college decision on social media, he thanked three hockey coaches — Lawrence, Dolan and Eagle — for allowing him to play both sports together.

“I would not be where I am without having had hockey in my life,” he wrote.

(Illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic; photos: courtesy of Ted Eagle, Scott Taetsch / Getty Images

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Anonymous NBA player poll 2024: LeBron or Jordan for GOAT? Most overrated? Finals favorite?



Anonymous NBA player poll 2024: LeBron or Jordan for GOAT? Most overrated? Finals favorite?

Sample size matters, people.

So when The Athletic launched its first NBA player poll in 2019, with 127 players answering questions about league matters so honestly because of the anonymity they were granted, the bar was set very high. We hit triple digits again last year (108 players), when the popular poll returned in full force after a COVID-19-induced hiatus because of limited locker room access for reporters during that time.

This time around, with familiar topics like MVP, “most overrated,” “player you’d least like to fight” and the referees to discuss, as well as new debates over the 65-game rule and the commissioner’s letter grade, our NBA staff interviewed a whopping 142 players from March 5 through April 11. That’s nearly a third of the entire league, with unfiltered views of stars and role players alike. And yes, all 30 teams had a voice.

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As is always the case, not every player answered every question. But the unprecedented participation means there are more opinions and insights than ever. There’s a bonus question, too, with players telling us which non-NBA player is their current favorite athlete (yes, as you might have imagined, Caitlin Clark received a few votes).

Away we go…

(Editor’s Note: In some cases, the combined percentages of all the answers to a question may not add up to 100 percent, because individual percentages have been rounded up or down to the nearest tenth of a percentage point.)

Here’s a not-so-bold prediction when it comes to the actual MVP race: Nikola Jokić is going to win it by a far more significant margin than the one you see above. This has been the trend with our polls, with players typically seeing it very differently from the 100 media members who vote on the award every year.


So while Jokić is considered the heavy front-runner, it should come as no surprise that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander came so close to taking the top honor here. And bear in mind, these votes were taken before Oklahoma City secured the top seed in the Western Conference on the last day of the regular season.

Luka Dončić was simply incredible down the season’s home stretch, but — like SGA — didn’t see his full body of work reflected in the polling because of the timing factor in the process.

Jokić voters

• “He’s Jokić. He affects the game in many ways that people just can’t understand — both offensively and defensively, honestly. His defense has gotten a lot better.”

• “He’s unstoppable.”


• “To be this effective the year after winning a championship, when it’s supposed to be harder, is impressive.”

• “Nikola Jokić is MVP. Consistent, still winning, still affecting the team in a number of ways. And it’s noticeable when he’s off the floor.”

• “He’s changed the game. His defense is underrated. He just knows the game so much.”



Hollinger: Why Joker is MVP again, Wemby is Rookie of the Year and more honors

SGA voters


• “No one expected the Thunder to be what they are this season, and he’s the head of that snake. And he’s consistent every single game — same numbers, and they’re incredible numbers. And he plays on both ends of the floor.”

• “I think he’s the most consistent No. 1 option on his team without a consistent helper. Like, there isn’t really a clear second superstar even though Jalen Williams is coming on as well. I think what he’s doing every game is the most impressive, and it translates into wins.”

• “Obviously, he’s scoring the ball. But the way he shares it and has his team involved is very unselfish. And I think he’s up there in steals as well (tied with Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox for the league lead at two per game). And he’s been doing it all season long. …He’s just been really consistent in the style of play that he has. He’s just been dominating the game, and it’s not just points. It’s rebounds, assists, and he’s done a great job of leading that team over there.”

• “Underdog. Just with what OKC is doing, nobody would be mad if they were a 10 seed with their roster. If they were a 10 seed, nobody would be like, ‘Oh, they’re having a bad year.’ They’d be like, ‘They’re still rebuilding.’ … With what he’s doing, I think that’s my MVP.”


Victor Wembanyama said last month that his friend and fellow Frenchman Rudy Gobert would be a worthy winner of the 2023-24 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award. But Wembanyama also added that, in future seasons, he, and not Gobert, would be the front-runner.

Their NBA peers, however, feel Wembanyama’s time has already arrived. Players voted the towering Spurs rookie as the league’s best defender right now.

Wembanyama led the league in blocks, averaging 3.58 per game. His next closest competitor, Utah’s Walker Kessler, recorded 2.41 blocks per game.

“He just makes it so hard to finish at the rim,” one opponent said of Wembanyama.

Another player said: “He’s changing the game. Players — you can’t say ‘scared’ — but he’s changing their shots. He deserves it.”


The Grizzlies certainly looked terrified in this three-on-one Wemby highlight that went viral earlier this month.

Gobert, who would join Dikembe Mutombo and Ben Wallace as the only four-time winners of the DPOY award if he wins it this season, finished fifth in our vote (6 percent). As you’ll see later on in this poll, this isn’t the last time Gobert is questioned by his peers.

Jrue Holiday, the top vote-getter by a wide margin in last year’s poll, placed second in the voting this year at 12.9 percent, barely trailing Wembanyama.

Wembanyama voter


“He really, like, affects everything in the paint. He has dudes not even trying to go to the rim. He damn near leads the league in blocks right now, and this is his first year. He’s doing it in limited time too.”



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Holiday voter

“I think guard defenders are more impressive because they’re on the ball all the time. As a big man, you make up mistakes by helping off your man. So it’s easier. Protecting the paint is somewhat easier than staying in front of the ball.”

Lu Dort voter


“(He) guards multiple positions, (is a) physical defender, guards without fouling — even when at the beginning of the season when the referees were calling fouls. Now, it helps him even more, because they’re not calling fouls.”

Wembanyama entered last year’s draft with enormous hype. The answers to this question once again demonstrate that, in the players’ eyes, the adulation was deserved.

“Some of the stuff he does offensively, the way he moves, it just looks so fluid,” one player said. “Just seeing him from afar, he’s playing the right way. He has the right principles. He’s focused on the right things. I like him.”

Wembanyama’s age factored into some of the players’ votes, as he turned 20 in January. Naturally, any team executive looking to build a title-contending team wants as long of a runway as possible.


“You can have him for 20 years,” one of the players said.

Another player who chose Wemby explained his vote like this: “The upside and at 20 years old, you can see that if he stays healthy and continues to get better, he can be a truly great player. I don’t want to put a ceiling on him.”

Jokić, on the other hand, is 29. So, it says something about how much his peers respect his game that so many of them still would make him their first signee even though he’s nearly one decade older than Wembanyama. Jokić is seven years older than Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards and four years older than Dončić.

Do you think Jokić faring so well is impressive? How about the fact that LeBron James is still getting votes in this young man’s category at the ripe old age of 39 (he’ll be 40 on Dec. 30). Ditto for Steph Curry, who turned 36 on March 14. The same can’t be said for 29-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo, who won this category by a landslide in both 2019 (36.4 percent to Anthony Davis’ 10.4 percent) and 2023 (52.4 percent to Jokić’s 8.7 percent) but registered a measly 2.2 percent this time around.


There’s just something about Gobert’s game that his peers don’t like. Maybe the skepticism stems from a lack of playoff success, as none of Gobert’s teams have advanced to the conference finals. Or maybe it all traces back to the bubble in 2020 when the Clippers’ Terance Mann buried all those 3s over Gobert in the West semifinals and sparked serious scrutiny about the perceived limitations of the big man’s game.

Gobert has the elite résumé, though, with the three DPOY awards, three All-Star appearances, an All-NBA Second Team selection and three All-NBA Third Team nods. He has the receipts from this season, as he was the indisputable anchor of a Minnesota defense that was the best in the league while Gobert finished second in rebounds (12.9) and sixth in blocks (2.1) on a team that came just two wins shy of earning the No. 1 seed in the West (it finished third). And as our resident Timberwolves expert Jon Krawczynski wrote in January, the truth about those Jazz teams was that their lack of perimeter defense was the real problem that was exposed in those playoffs. These Timberwolves don’t have that deficiency.



How a Brazilian coach is transforming Rudy Gobert into an offensive threat

Still, Gobert joins Draymond Green (2019) and Trae Young (2023) as the latest winner of this undesirable award.


Seven seasons in, Derrick White’s top claim to NBA fame is finishing 16th in the media’s 2018-19 Most Improved Player voting and being named to the 2022-23 NBA All-Defensive Second Team. Jalen Williams, in his second season, placed second in last season’s Rookie of the Year voting but was also routinely mistaken on opposing telecasts for the Thunder’s “other” Jaylin Williams. Both Jalen Williams and White were lightly recruited coming out of high school.

So yes, in other words, they’re very familiar with the experience of being underrated. And while both are receiving more acclaim, they’re not the ones commanding the brightest spotlight on their respective teams.

White plays in the shadows of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kristaps Porziņģis and Holiday. Williams, meanwhile, is on a dynamic young Thunder team where Gilgeous-Alexander commands most of the spotlight alongside big man Chet Holmgren.

One of the players who voted for White said, “I say that every single day: He’s one of the most underrated players in the league. They talk about him more (now), but they still don’t talk about him enough.”

Said another: “(White) defends really well (and) does a little bit of everything on offense.”


It’s notable, too, that Gilgeous-Alexander finished fourth in the players’ most-underrated voting even though he’s a virtual lock to be an All-NBA First Team selection by the media for the second season in a row.

“I don’t know if you can even say it anymore because he’s starting to get his due, but from a players’ perspective, it doesn’t feel like it’s covered enough,” an SGA voter said. “But what Shai has done this year, just how his progression has gone … I don’t know if you can call him underrated, but it almost feels like how for all those years they were talking about Damian Lillard (during his Portland years), how he was kind of flying under the radar (because of Steph Curry). But if you asked players, (they would’ve said) he’s one of the best guards in the league, in the top two. So I’m starting to see some of that with how we’re talking about Shai.”

The legend of James Johnson grows yet again.

Not only is the 6-foot-7, 240-pound, 37-year-old tough guy now a three-time winner of this award, but he continues to inspire fear in his opponents despite playing in just nine games this season. The Pacers forward has been mostly out of sight, but he’s not out of mind.


As many players discussed, it’s Johnson’s formal training as an actual fighter that most concerns them. He previously said that he holds a 20-0 record as a kickboxer, is 7-0 in mixed martial arts fights and has a black belt in karate. His nickname is “Bloodsport.” Need we say more?

In a January podcast interview with former NBA player Ryan Hollins, Johnson shared his opinion that, with a year of training in ground defense, he could beat UFC heavyweight legend Jon Jones in a fight.

Here’s the best part of Johnson’s latest season, though: Johnson re-signed with Indiana just two days after the game ball kerfuffle between the Pacers and Bucks on Dec. 13. Johnson had been available all season long, but the Pacers just so happened to come calling for him to return after that wild night in which Antetokounmpo gave them all the Big Brother treatment.

Johnson has been on board ever since, with a brief interruption for paperwork purposes. Indiana had to waive him to complete the Pascal Siakam trade with Toronto on Jan. 17 but signed him to a 10-day contract two days later before signing him for the rest of the season.

“He can actually fight,” one player said. “He’s different. He’s crazy. He’s one of those where you won’t win, but if you do win, you’ll have to kill him.”

Another player said: “Is he still in the league? He’s a triple black belt. I’m not f—ing with James. There’s other guys (where) I might actually lose the fight, but I’m not f—ng with James. He might kick me in my head.”

One of Johnson’s former teammates said: “J.J. is actually the coolest dude ever. He’s super cool. I just know his reputation. I know if you mess with him, it can get like that. But he’s one of my favorite teammates that I’ve had.”


Speaking of consistency in this category, Steven Adams (6-11, 250) takes second place behind Johnson for the third consecutive time. The Houston Rockets big man hasn’t played since Jan. 22, 2023, when he suffered a posterior cruciate ligament sprain in his right knee that would later require surgery. But like Johnson, the intimidation factor remains.

“(Adams) knows all the MMA stuff, and he can get you in a chokehold real quick,” one Adams voter said. “He’ll be nice with it, but he’ll choke you out and be like, ‘It’s OK, buddy.’”

And how’s this for a terrifying thought for Rockets opponents during an on-court melee? A healthy Adams and his 7-4, 290-pound teammate, Boban Marjanović, in the same scuffle. The Serbian big man, who played a villain in “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” and starred in the below fight scene with Keanu Reeves, garnered votes as well.

“John Wick 3,” one Marjanović voter said in explaining his choice. “It’s not like he can fight, but he’s huge.”

You may have noticed Wembanyama received a vote for the player guys would least like to fight. Picking Wembanyama seemed like an iffy choice considering how thin he is. But, sure enough, Wemby garnered the player’s vote. The reasoning? He would have a massive reach advantage.


Do you think MJ’s getting nervous? King James almost took his (player poll) GOAT crown this time around, and he’ll do just that next year if this voting trend continues.

In this endless debate, His Airness has experienced serious slippage for the third consecutive poll. Jordan had a huge edge in 2019 (73 percent to LeBron’s 11.9 percent) and was still nearly doubling him in 2023 (58.3 percent to 33 percent). Now the gap is only 3.8 percent.

It makes some sense, though, as James is doing things at this late stage of his career that players this age have never done. And these many feats, it’s quite clear, are changing the way some players see this debate. Consider the highlights of his past 14 months…

  • Broke Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record on Feb. 7, 2023
  • Led the Lakers to the West finals three months later
  • Led the Lakers to an (inaugural) In-Season Tournament title in December
  • Became the first player to be named to a 20th All-Star team in February
  • Was one of three players to average at least 25 points, eight assists and seven rebounds this season (the others were Jokić and Dončić)


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As one of us wrote when James became the first player to cross the 40,000-point barrier in early March, the constant comparisons do a disservice to both. Their respective journeys have become too different for the discussion to maintain any merit. But James’ ability to remain elite for this long, and to put together this incredible body of NBA work that started during George W. Bush’s first term as U.S. president in 2003, is forever changing the way his career will be remembered.

As a final note here, someone did, in fact, vote for Paul Pierce as the GOAT. (Insert shrug emoji here…)

The folks who run Madison Square Garden call it “The World’s Most Famous Arena” and the “Mecca.” But what sounds like brash marketing hype also matches the opinions of NBA players.

One player responded: “MSG. It’s the Mecca. It’s classic.”


Another who chose the Garden answered: “At MSG and Crypto, there are bright lights and celebrities.”

The Celtics’ arena historically has gotten a lot of praise for its fans, and nothing’s changed this season. One player said: “Crazy atmosphere. Some big sports fans. It’s so loud in there.” Another said he likes facing the Celtics in Boston because he enjoys playing in a “hostile environment.”

The architects who designed Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena, Charlotte’s Spectrum Center and Memphis’ FedExForum shouldn’t feel bad. Those arenas top this list because the home teams in those venues struggled to draw fans this season relative to other clubs.

Little Caesars Arena, which the Pistons share with the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, “won” this dubious honor even though its average announced crowd was said to be a respectable 18,159 fans per game.


“No fans, no atmosphere at the moment,” one player said.

Another added: “It’s very open. It’s got to be packed out for it to stand out, and that’s just not what it is.”

The Hornets ranked next to last in home attendance this season, prompting one of the players who voted for Spectrum Center to say, “It’s quiet. Good arena. But it’s quiet.”

One of the NBA’s off-court dramas this season swirled in Washington, where Wizards principal owner Ted Leonsis attempted to move the team and the NHL’s Washington Capitals to Alexandria, Va. Leonsis later scuttled those plans after they failed to move forward in Virginia’s legislature, and Leonsis subsequently reached a deal to remain at Capital One Arena and receive $515 million in funding from the local government to upgrade the arena.

Opposing players don’t like the arena much. One of them said: “Just the way it’s built, it’s a very cold arena. It feels like there’s no soul to it. It feels very empty when you’re there — not by how many people are there. There’s no warmth. I don’t really know how to explain it. … As a player, you like to feel enveloped by the crowd. It doesn’t feel like that.”


You may be wondering why Denver’s Ball Arena, where fans have been rocking for years now, ranks seventh in the voting. The answer: the altitude, which is something the Nuggets and NHL’s Colorado Avalanche lean into as a psychological play. When visiting teams’ buses arrive in the arena’s loading dock, players see a sign that says: “Ball Arena WELCOMES YOU TO THE MILE HIGH CITY, ELEVATION 5,280 FEET.”

“Oh my God, that team needs to be moved,” one player said. “The altitude is crazy. I don’t like it at all. Every time I play there, I’m dog-tired.”

This is a case where players’ opinions appear to have changed in one year. Gregg Popovich won this vote last year, followed by runner-up Steve Kerr.

Erik Spoelstra placed third last year, receiving 9.5 percent of the vote, but has since vaulted to the top. He has come a long way in this poll since getting just 1 percent of the vote (12th place) in 2019. Considering that his Heat reached the NBA Finals by way of the Play-In last season, it’s safe to assume that earned him even more respect.


“Just the Heat culture — they’re always competing,” one Spoelstra voter said. “They’re always trying to find a way (to win). I feel like they’re always taking guys that fit their system, and that makes them play very good.”



The Tao of Spo: Erik Spoelstra’s compassion, competitiveness and confrontations

Popovich remains highly regarded.

“Pop,” one player answered. “Easy. I love those types of coaches, like Pop and Spo. I would rather you ‘mother—’ me than smile in my face.”

The Knicks’ Josh Hart, who voted for Spoelstra, insisted that he be quoted on the record for this one.


“Spo, hands down,” said Hart, who worked with Spoelstra at the FIBA World Cup tournament last summer when the Heat head coach was a Team USA assistant. “Quote me on that one. F–ing love Spo.”

Few coaches get more out of their teams than Tom Thibodeau does. But no coach gets more grief for it than Thibodeau, either.

Thibodeau’s Knicks finished 50-32 and earned the East’s second seed, but New York’s success this season and his two NBA Coach of the Year awards didn’t seem to matter much to players. He’s been named the coach players least would like to play for in all three polls, with this margin (37.7 percent ahead of Doc Rivers) the largest yet (he was 13.5 percent ahead of Chicago’s Jim Boylen in 2019 and 29.1 percent ahead of Houston’s Stephen Silas last year).



Instead of wearing on the Knicks, coach Tom Thibodeau is enhancing them


“I’m too old for those practices,” one player said.

“He’s playing everyone 48 minutes,” another said.

Well, that’s not quite accurate. According to the NBA’s figures, four Knicks players ranked in the top 50 in minutes per game this season: Julius Randle (15th at 35.4 per game), Jalen Brunson (16th at 35.4 per game), Anunoby (35th at 34.0 per game) and Hart (50th at 33.4 per game).

It’s said that the NBA has improved parity in recent years, and that’s true.


But players still think the NBA title race will come down to two teams: the defending champion Nuggets and the team with the league’s best regular-season record, the Celtics.

“Whoever comes out of the East is going to lose to the Western Conference teams,” one player said. “I just think when you look at the landscape out West, the best teams — Denver is my pick. OKC’s too young and they’re not big enough. … The one team that could give (Denver) problems would be the Clippers if they play at their best and they’re healthy, just based on matchups. But continuity in this league is everything, and Denver has it. So that’s my pick.”

Another player who voted for the Nuggets said: “It’s like a factory, plug and play. They play the right way, no matter who’s out there. Shoutout to Jokić.”

Still, Boston was a buzz saw during the regular season, compiling a league-best 64-18 record while finishing first in offensive rating and second in defensive rating.

“When you’ve got Jrue Holiday on the team with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who are shot makers, he’s a great defender obviously,” one player said. “And with Kristaps Porziņģis, they have got danger everywhere and defensively as well. Also, their fans make it hard to beat them, for sure.”


All things considered, this report card could have been much worse for the refs. In essence, you had 21.9 percent of the players polled indicating that the officiating job was below average this season and 78.1 percent giving a grade of average or better. Given all the high-profile frustration with the officiating on display this season, as well as the midseason change in “points of emphasis” that empowered defenders again and suppressed scoring, no one should be surprised that they didn’t get straight As.

Voters who gave an F

“Sh–, they don’t know if they want us to play or not play.”


“But they good people…”

Voter who gave a D

“It’s a different sense of entitlement that they feel, and they get a little bit more sensitive than they had previously. Some of the missed calls, it’s just like, that’s not OK. And some of them are blatant. It’s not an easy job by any means. (But) I’ve seen better years.”

Voter who gave a C

“The issue is there’s just too much volatility. But also, the inconsistency. I would say there’s eight elite officials, great officials, and then you have the rest of the 50 that are just, you could carry them in. It makes it hard on those guys. There’s eight elite officials who are great at communicating and at officiating, and then there’s four (who can do) one of each, where they can either officiate or they can communicate. And the rest of them are just … bad.”


Voter who gave a B

“I don’t think people realize how hard that job is. All things considered, they’ve done a good job. That’s not a job I would ever want to have. There’s still definitely room for growth, but within the job and what’s asked of them and where the game’s moving, I think they’ve done a great job.”

Voter who gave an A

“They make the calls that the league wants them to make, right? … And now, we’re just adjusting again, because there’s more holding and grabbing now. So they’re allowing stuff now. I guess they just do whatever they’re told.”


What’s more telling? That 46.2 percent of the players gave the commissioner an A or that none of the 130 players who responded gave him a D or an F?

“Some of the things he does, we’re not going to like, but that’s just us as players,” said one of the players who gave Adam Silver an A. “We like to complain about s—. But I think what he’s doing is great for the league. The In-Season Tournament. The Play-In. All this is to build the luster of the league and to build the TV ratings to make sure they’re in a certain place so when it comes time to do this new TV deal, we can do it.”

Another said: “I’d give him an A. The money’s good. The fans are enjoying the games. We’ve got a new In-Season Tournament that everybody looks forward to now, especially because there’s money on the line. I really wanted to win that In-Season Tournament. I had some plans for that money, for real.”

It’s not all perfect, of course.

“Everything is good except the All-Star Game, and that weekend wasn’t great,” said one player who still gave Silver an A. “Other than that, I feel like it’s been entertaining. I feel like the league’s been real competitive.”


One player who gave Silver a B said: “There’s a big disparity with the referees still. Referees aren’t consistent with their integrity, the way they approach you, and the NBA has a huge problem on its hands. That’s the biggest thing in the NBA right now: the referees. Some people get calls and some people don’t get calls. It may be the same (play), but if it’s Trae Young or somebody else, it looks different.”

In terms of criticism for Silver, several players indicated officiating is one of the few areas in which they believe he has fallen short.

“The only reason (I’m giving Silver) a B and not an A is that I’m not sure that players have the liberty to speak out (against referees) the way it should be,” one player said. “I do, to a certain extent, understand why that is, because you’ve got to create a culture of togetherness and can’t just randomly criticize referees and all that stuff. But some of this stuff, especially with referees, they have an ego and they know that so they act a certain way toward you because they know you’ll lose money if you criticize them. … Adam’s doing a great job of maximizing our money in a great way.”

The new collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players, enacted last summer, includes a provision that says players must appear in at least 65 games to be eligible for most end-of-the-season honors, including MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, the All-NBA teams and All-Defensive teams.


From league officials’ perspective, the new rule is designed to get the league’s best players on the court more often. In addition to benefiting the fans who purchase tickets to games, the theory goes that having such a rule will make the league even more attractive to suitors for the upcoming media rights deal.

The rule has come under fire from some players, even though they voted to accept the new CBA. Keep in mind that the rule is one small part of a large, dense document that came as the result of thorough negotiations between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association that represents them. Neither side got everything it wanted.

But still, we wondered how players feel about the rule now. In the wake of the sensitive Embiid situation earlier this season, when the reigning MVP was roundly ridiculed for missing a nationally televised Jan. 27 game at Denver because of a left knee injury only to get hurt three days later when Jonathan Kuminga fell on the knee in a game at Golden State, the discussion about whether the rule was putting players in harm’s way was front and center for the second half of the season.

Exactly half of the players who answered the question said they’re against the rule.

“Obviously, I get why they do it in terms of wanting guys to play,” said one player who is against the rule. “But I also think guys will force themselves to play through things sometimes — obviously, the Embiid thing that happened, whether he was right or not to play. I just think it gets risky for guys. If you’re talking about MVP, I think for everyone in the league it’s clear who the MVP is, whether they play 65 or 82 games. From a player’s point of view, I think guys know who the MVP is. It’s always going to be whatever the top two or three or whoever those guys are. So, I just think it’s forcing guys to play sometimes when there (are) legitimate reasons (not to play).”


Some of the players against the 65-game rule said they’re in favor of having a rule but would prefer the threshold be set at a lower number of games.

One player said: “I think that’s a lot of games, honestly, when you think about how the game is played. Back in the day, guys would play 80-some games. They would walk the ball up and post up. But we’re non-stop, and there’s a lot of wear and tear So, guys like Embiid, guys that are superstars in this league, there’s a situation where they might have to fight through games to get to a threshold to get an award. It’s kind of tough, kind of bulls— sometimes. But what if one of those guys, they’re at 60 games, they’ve got a bad knee injury and, in one of those five games, tears his meniscus because he’s trying to get an award? I don’t like that.”

Nearly 45 percent of the players who responded said they were in favor of the rule.

“Sixty-five games, that gives you a 17-game cushion to miss if you need rest or things like that,” one of the rule’s supporters said. “I’m all for it. You’ve got to be out there on the floor if you can.”


Let’s face it, folks: During the 2023-24 college basketball season, no player was more compelling than Clark. And when we were enjoying March Madness, the women’s NCAA Tournament seemed to have more engaging storylines and colorful characters than the men’s.

This got us wondering: Is women’s basketball having a moment within the NBA too?

The answer appears to be a resounding “yes!”

In our survey, Clark not only ranked as the second-favorite current non-NBA athlete, but women’s basketball players — Sabrina Ionescu, Kelsey Plum, Angel Reese, JuJu Watkins, A’ja Wilson and Clark — were named on 12.2 percent of all NBA players’ ballots. Only NFL players were named on more ballots (39.1 percent of them) than women’s basketball players.

“She’s unreal,” one NBA player said about Clark, who went first overall last week to the Indiana Fever in the 2024 WNBA Draft. “I’m excited to see how her journey pans out and what she does for the women’s game.”



Caitlin Clark’s whirlwind WNBA Draft week just the start for the in-demand rookie

Now that Clark has finished her college career, who, if anyone, will become the most popular NCAA women’s player? Maybe Watkins, the dynamic 6-foot-2 guard who just finished her first season at USC.

One NBA player said: “Her game is so pretty to watch. She’s so fluid, smooth. … I hadn’t watched a full game (of hers) until tournament time. I’d seen little clips and highlights and stuff. But watching her against UConn the other night, she definitely made a big fan out of me.”

Soccer players — none of them American — were named on the third-highest number of ballots, coming in at 11.3 percent.

Given that the NFL dominates the North American sports landscape, it should come as no surprise that it dominated our poll. Jackson, the Baltimore Ravens quarterback who won his second NFL MVP last season, has a bunch of fans in the NBA.


“He’s one of the best QBs ever since he came into the league,” one player said. “His running ability is crazy.”

But it was one other NFL quarterback — a quarterback far less talented than Jackson — who drew one of the funniest responses in our entire poll: Cousins, the former Commanders and Vikings quarterback who recently signed a four-year, $180 million contract to join the Atlanta Falcons, with $100 million of that total guaranteed.

When an NBA player named Cousins as his favorite current non-NBA athlete, the response elicited a dumbfounded “Why?” from one writer from The Athletic.

The NBA player said: “Kirk Cousins because he gets paid and doesn’t have to win or don’t have to do anything and made $400 million off of one playoff win. Legend.”

(Illustration by John Bradford / The Athletic; top photos of Rudy Gobert, Victor Wembanyama and Adam Silver: Kenny Giarla, Ronald Cortes, Justin Tafoya / Getty Images)


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How the NFL views the NIL era: 'This whole draft landscape has changed'



How the NFL views the NIL era: 'This whole draft landscape has changed'

The bright lights and quarterback debates will be there as always when the NFL Draft starts Thursday night. But something’s different this year, which will become more evident as the rounds turn and we get into Day 3 on Saturday.

Only 58 underclassmen have declared for this week’s draft — down from 130 players in 2021 and the smallest number of underclassmen since 2011. For those in NFL circles, the introduction of NIL money is a clear factor.

“It’s crazy to fathom that some of these guys made more money in college than they will in the NFL,” Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur said.

Players started signing marketing deals after the Supreme Court’s 2021 ruling that collegiate athletes are entitled to payment for their “name, image and likeness.” The pandemic-shortened season in 2020 has also played a part in players staying in school, as they were granted an extra year of eligibility. And then the NCAA allowed players to transfer without sitting out a year.



How name, image and likeness is impacting NFL draft decisions

NIL payments are not public figures, but most players who will be selected in the top three rounds this week have money in the bank now. USC quarterback Caleb Williams, the projected top pick to the Chicago Bears, has been estimated to have earned around $10 million while in school. He may be an outlier, but NFL coaches are noticing a difference in their interactions with draft prospects in the NIL era.

“You look for the guys that have that look in their eye,” Las Vegas Raiders coach Antonio Pierce said. “You can really feel it, and you can also see the guys that are entitled, that have NIL money, which is an issue because they come in privileged. They have money in the bank.

“When I came in the league, I was broke. These guys already got goddamn jewelry on and the Louis Vuitton rocking already.”

Las Vegas Raiders coach Antonio Pierce wants to see players enter the NFL with the same type of competitive edge that he possessed. (Steve Marcus / Getty Images)

Pierce wants players with an edge, and he feels that already having money in the bank from college might affect how hard they are willing to work to crack a starting lineup in the NFL. Compounding that problem, Minnesota Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell said it’s harder to know how players respond to adversity when so many hit the transfer portal at the drop of a hat.


“They already have money in their pocket, so you see some guys not going as hard in the pre-draft process,” agent Ron Slavin said. “And no one is eating those packs of ramen noodles anymore.”

The NFL minimum salary for a rookie in 2024 is $795,000. Players who are drafted sign standard four-year deals — contracts for first-round picks also include a fifth-year option — that are scaled based on the draft slot. The slotted deal for the No. 1 pick — presumably Williams — is $38.5 million over four years. By the start of the second round, the four-year value dips to under $10 million. From about the fourth round on, players make an average of roughly $1 million per season on their rookie deals.

And that’s where there appears to be a huge drop-off in player quality in this year’s draft.

“Clubs are saying that this is a really good draft through 150 picks, and then after that it falls off a cliff,” agent Steve Caric said.

New York Giants general manager Joe Schoen said Thursday that, according to the team’s assistant director of player personnel, Dennis Hickey, 170 players with draftable grades returned to school this year.


“Because of COVID partly and NIL, this whole draft landscape has changed,” Baltimore Ravens GM Eric DeCosta said. “There’s less draftable players, less underclassmen.”

“All those guys stayed in school for NIL money,” Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said. “You’re going to see teams drafting players late that they usually sign as priority free agents.”

Vikings GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said players he has been scouting for years still are not in the draft.

“It’s a supply and demand issue,” he said. “Defensive line was apparently a big issue in college, and a lot of those guys got a lot of money to go back to college. And so that’s gonna affect our league and the depth of that position and different things.”

NFL teams will likely spend the run-up to the draft looking to package fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round picks and move up.


“We’ve talked about the idea of, (in) the later rounds of the draft, if there’s nobody there that you covet, potentially trading that pick for a better pick,” DeCosta said.

The feeling around the NFL is the quality of draft prospects drops after this year’s fourth round, in part because so many players elected to stay in school. (Michael Wade / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Jason Belzer, the CEO and co-founder of Student Athlete NIL (SANIL), manages more than 30 booster collectives for some of the bigger Power 5 schools.

“I think the NIL has affected the NFL considerably, but for the better,” Belzer said. “You have more and more players that are choosing to stay in college football and develop and get paid, rather than go into the draft. There are multiple quarterbacks that made over a million dollars that are not going to get that kind of money because they’re going to be late-round picks. The NIL is the best thing that ever happened to the NFL when it comes to development.”

He estimates that 40 college players made more than the 2023 minimum NFL salary of $750,000, with a lot more making $500,000, including a tackle projected to go in the sixth round this week. Belzer said that roughly five players per Power 5 roster make more than $100,000.

For late-round picks who aren’t guaranteed to make the roster, the decision to return to school can be quite easy.


“Getting drafted is a significant honor no matter where you go — even the sixth or seventh round — but if you’re a seventh-round pick, you’re getting, like, a $90,000 signing bonus, and that’s the only guaranteed part of your contract,” agent Eugene Lee said. “Compare that to a school where you have a front-line starter at a P4 school and you say, ‘Hey, come back! We’ll give you $350,000.’ It’s just like, ‘OK.’ You take out a loss-of-value policy and there you go.”

The later-round prospects simply are taking advantage of a chance to have their cake and eat it too.

“A fourth-round pick, for example, has a chance to go back to school and get better, move his draft status up and then make more money next year,” Caric said. “And as insurance, he can make what he would make with a Day 3 signing bonus thanks to NIL and coming back to school.”

More collegiate experience can be a good thing, especially at the quarterback position. Jayden Daniels played in 55 games at Arizona State and LSU, almost double the number of games North Carolina’s Drake Maye played in (28).


“We don’t have a minor league, and those extra years is maybe a couple of minor-league years,” Adofo-Mensah said. “And that also depends on where they’re playing and the system, how relatable that is to our game.”

The Vikings, who hold picks Nos. 11 and 23 in the first round, could trade up to fill their quarterback need or just stay put and use their first pick on the best player available and the latter pick on someone like Oregon QB Bo Nix. Nix played a whopping 61 games at Auburn and Oregon and thinks his experience gives him an edge over the other potential first-round quarterbacks.

“Repetition is the mother of all skill, so the more you can do something, the better you become at it,” Nix said at the combine. “I was able to prove that as the years went on, getting better and better, learning new things, playing in different systems — five in five years is a lot, but that’s a lot of fun. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Nix is 24 years old, which could impact his perceived upside.

Bo Nix’s age (24) could work against him in the draft process, but he thinks his experience is a benefit. (Zac BonDurant / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing if you come out a little bit older — and maybe even a better thing,” Raiders GM Tom Telesco said. “You’ve got more experience under your belt, more maturity at that position. Other positions, it may or may not matter.


“Typically as a scouting staff, we always say we’d like a younger player because the guy has a chance to develop, maybe has a little bit more ceiling. Is that true or not? I’m not really sure. But I do know that we’re going to have some players coming in the league that have good experience and may be ready to play a little bit earlier than maybe in times past.”

Nix could have entered the draft last year but stayed for a chance to win a national championship and had the cushion NIL allows.

That experience edge might only hold for quarterbacks, though.

“I can’t tell you how many conversations I have had in the last couple of weeks where I ask a club about Player A or Player B; the older age is always a minus,” Caric said. “They obviously want to draft someone they’re going to have for more than one contract. When you come into the league at 24 years old with these super-senior years, that’s not as attractive as the 21-year-old.”

Alabama offensive tackle JC Latham was able to enjoy a different college lifestyle than previous players but said the extra money also helped him prepare for the NFL.


“It definitely has you grow up,” Latham said at the combine. “You gotta understand that you’re getting more money now, so there’s gonna be a bigger target on your back.”

It can also help players learn to manage their money before their first NFL rookie camp.

“If you want to create more wealth for yourself and your family, you gotta really understand how to maneuver it and manage it,” Latham said. “Definitely puts you in the mindset to really understand what’s going on around you and how (you can) create your wealth early.”

All these players staying in school have to come out at some point, so the number of draftable players will grow again next year.

And GMs and coaches still need to draft good players to keep their jobs — owners don’t want to hear an excuse about the NIL impact after another losing season.

“I do think — especially in the early rounds — it’s a very good draft,” Denver Broncos GM George Paton said.

And though the NFL can wring its hands a bit about NIL, it doesn’t change how it watches a player’s game tape and decides who to invest in.


“It hasn’t changed our preparation that much,” said first-year Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Macdonald, a former defensive coordinator at Michigan. “I was ready for it since we had it down back at Michigan.

“The only thing is that some of these players are going to have to take a pay cut to play in the league.”

— Staff writer Tashan Reed contributed to this report.



2024 NFL Draft rankings: Dane Brugler breaks down the top 300 prospects

(Top illustration: Dan Golfarb / The Athletic; top photos of Roger Goodell and Caleb Williams: Rich Graessle / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images and Michael Reaves / Getty Images)


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