SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
And nothing says Christmas like, it’s sports time.
SIMON: The NHL says its players will not be going to Beijing for the Winter Olympics. Peng Shuai surfaces in another video, but tennis officials are not convinced. Lots of NFL and NBA games this weekend, despite this wave of omicron tension.
ESPN’s Michele Steele joins us this Christmas morning. Merry Christmas. Thanks for spending a few minutes with us.
MICHELE STEELE: Merry Christmas to you, Scott.
SIMON: Look, the NHL’s decision – totally understandable, given the rise of the omicron – but then, still, you think of the young athletes who have worked to make it happen since they put on the shoes. their skates for the first time. I was struck by what Sid the Kid Crosby said – who has been to two Olympics. These are opportunities and experiences of a lifetime; you might only get one.
STEELE: Yeah, yeah. No Auston Matthews, no Patrick Kane for Olympic bottom hockey fans this year. They won’t be representing Team USA – which, you know, some say, Scott, would have sent in their most comprehensive roster since Team Miracle on Ice …
STEELE: … in 1980. But it all seemed inevitable, didn’t it? You mentioned it. NHL says COVID is really tearing up the lists here. They are pressing the break of the season. They won’t send any guys to the Beijing Olympics. We will therefore see players from minor league teams, the American Hockey League, colleges and European leagues. These guys are going to have their chance.
SIMON: Well, good for them – further Olympic implications in this new video posted by a pro-Chinese site in Singapore – shows tennis star Peng Shuai denying ever having said he was sexually assaulted by a former vice-president. Chinese Premier. What do you think of this video ?
STEELE: Yeah – kinda related to the Beijing Games, again, because Peng Shuai was seen this week at an event promoting the Winter Olympics, which of course is in China this year. And she sort of seemed to run into a reporter from a friendly newspaper, who had a video camera with her. And Peng appeared to withdraw all of her claims – her claims last month that she was sexually assaulted by a Communist Party leader – former vice premier Zhang Gaoli. And we’re tracking that for ESPN. She basically said it never happened. I’m well. And you know what? The Women’s Tennis Association, which by the way canceled all events in China and Hong Kong …
STEELE: You don’t see this very often in professional leagues – they released a statement saying they’re still worried about her, and they’re calling for a full and transparent investigation into her allegations.
SIMON: Let me ask you a question about the NFL – Browns, Packers, Colts, Cardinals. Has the NFL made the decision to reverse any type of cancellations due to COVID?
STEELE: Yeah, pretty much. You know, we saw the pressing NHL hiatus. The NFL is committed to playing its entire 18-week schedule, plus the playoffs, of course. More than 300 players have tested positive in the past two weeks, Scott. It’s a lot. That’s over 10% of the listings.
STEELE: And since then the league has been fine-tuning the rules. They don’t test vaccinated guys every week like they used to. They only test if you are symptomatic. They say the data shows that there is mainly symptomatic transmission in facilities – not asymptomatic. They will also do some random testing. But there are 50 days until the Super Bowl, Scott. And the NFL is committed to playing all of those games and is hoping they can keep players who say they feel good on the field until then.
SIMON: Michele, there are five NBA games today, from noon to 10:30 p.m. EST. But let me ask you a question about the Boston-Milwaukee game. We’re going to see the reappearance of Joe Johnson.
STEELE: Yes. The Celtics are one of those teams that have been hit very, very hard by COVID. The NBA therefore authorizes these teams to recruit players via exemptions for difficulties. And the Celtics signed a guy they drafted 20 years ago – Joe Johnson, 40. He was sitting…
SIMON: Help us.
STEELE: … at my place, Scott, this week – yeah, I know – in Little Rock. Forty is when NBA guys normally coach or do analysis on TV. No. He signed a 10-day contract. He scored in the dying minutes of a win over Cleveland this week.
STEELE: Scott, the crowd went wild. He’s getting dressed…
STEELE: … Today again. So sometimes you can go home – as long as you’re in NBA shape.
SIMON: Michele Steele from ESPN – thank you very much.
STEELE: You bet.
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