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White Sox Announcer Jason Benetti Uses Humor to Shed Light on Cerebral Palsy

The play-by-play announcer has cerebral palsy, but he has built a career in a field that hasn’t always been accessible to those with disabilities.

Bailey Knecht

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Photo via Ron Vesely, Chicago White Sox

When it comes to attaining success in the sports industry — and in life — Jason Benetti has created his own blueprint.

The ESPN and Chicago White Sox play-by-play announcer has cerebral palsy, but his ability to laugh at himself has allowed him to build a career in a field that hasn’t always been accessible to those with disabilities.

“If I were giving advice, it would be just absolutely have a sense of humor about yourself, and don’t take yourself so seriously,” he said. “I’m in an industry that cares about what you look like, in some regard. Not that it was a major impediment, but people sort of have to be convinced that you should be on TV. But it’s just a matter of navigating the perceptive feelings of others, and that usually goes away.”

Benetti’s cerebral palsy manifests itself in a way that gives him an “unconventional” appearance, but he has been able to thrive despite his diagnosis.

“The cool thing is, it doesn’t look great, but it gets me where I’m going,” he said. “There’s no pain in any way, and it’s really not something I have to manage at all. I’m pretty fortunate that there are no lingering effects, other than things that are perceived by others — like, someone sees me walking toward them, sort of staggering toward them — but there’s no pain or increasing severity. I just am what I am.”

READ MORE: 3 Predictions for Sports Digital Media in 2019

Recently, Benetti has taken on a venture apart from his sports career — one that capitalizes on his witty personality and dedication to disability awareness. With the help of the Cerebral Palsy Foundation (CPF), he has taken part in a campaign called “Awkward Moments.” The animated video series, written and voiced by Benetti, uses humor to chronicle awkward encounters between people with disabilities and the rest of the world.

“We decided to do something campaign-wise that hit on the dry, funny, observational part of having a disability because that’s the way I approach it,” Benetti said. “We talked for a long while and came upon this series. I love it, and I couldn’t love it more.”

“It holds a unique place where it addresses, head-on, the experiences that someone with disabilities has, and it tries to change the way people look at disabilities,” added Richard Ellenson, CEO of the CPF. “It’s our only animated campaign, the character has a terrific persona, and it’s a continuing series.”

As a former advertising creative director, Ellenson co-writes the series with Benetti, bringing his eye for sharp, witty commentary. He explained how the series fits into the CPF’s broader objective.

“Our mission is that we want to be a catalyst for creating new possibilities in the world of disabilities,” Ellenson said. “We look to amplify and communicate, and we are one of the strongest communicators in the field.”

The most recent episode of “Awkward Moments” detailed the uncomfortable exchanges that may occur in a museum, poking fun at the security guards who look on with apprehension as people with disabilities approach valuable artifacts.

The point of the series is not to shame people for their treatment of those with disabilities, though, but rather to inform, entertain and spread awareness.

“We’re not trying to tell people they’re bad for being awkward around us, because you’re not,” Benetti said. “You’re just experiencing something you haven’t experienced a lot. I’d rather explain to people. I find it hilarious.”

The response to the videos has been positive, from everyday people to well-known media members, according to Benetti.

“It’s pretty heartwarming,” he said. “Scott Van Pelt and David Axelrod were nice enough to tweet about it, so I guess this has touched them in a way that they’d want to send it out.”

Although the series takes on a lighthearted tone, Benetti mentioned that it hasn’t always been easy to remain upbeat in his career. Like many people who’ve had to overcome obstacles, he’s gone through his fair share of moments of doubt.

“The thing that’s insidious about being someone with a disability or in a minority group is that when you aren’t getting opportunities, it’ll float in your head that maybe it’s because of X, but some people legitimately don’t care,” he said. “You just kind of play with what you have. You don’t know if there are opportunities you would’ve gotten otherwise. All I have is this life and me. It’s hard to not roll around in your mind when stuff isn’t happening, but what does it do for you?”

He added that he has great respect for those who dedicate themselves to taking on the system and fighting the status quo, but that he takes an alternate approach.

“That’s not to criticize people who pioneer — it’s just a different view of the system,” he said. “I tend to believe over the course of time that people don’t mean to discriminate, even if they slightly are. If they treat me in a way I don’t think others would want to be treated, you can get to know them further or give up. I prefer to get to know them.”

Benetti maintains that first impressions can be overcome, particularly because those impressions stem from the initial look at someone’s appearance and don’t reflect skill or work ethic.

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“If there’s something about you that you don’t think is exactly welcome to some people, it’s OK,” he said. “If you have a thing you think people can’t overcome perceptually, you’re probably wrong. I’ve been fortunate that the effects of my disability have not touched my speaking, and that’s kind of why I leaned into this job. There’s a place for everybody, and the first thing people think about you is generally wrong.”

Ellenson, who has gotten to know Benetti well since collaborating with him on CPF initiatives, said that Benetti’s self-assurance is the reason he succeeds as both an announcer and as a person.

He knows who he is,” Ellenson said. “He has a strong sense of identity — he’s open, yet strong, and he projects confidence, yet warmth. There’s an enthusiasm and warmth from his voice that is pretty unique in sportscasting, and it fills and illuminates the room.”

“He is one of those remarkable individuals who sort of walks through life embracing the complexity and joys around him,” he added. “He shares his passion for sports, life, and storytelling.”

Bailey Knecht is a Northeastern University graduate and has worked for New Balance, the Boston Bruins and the Northeastern and UMass Lowell athletic departments. She covers media and marketing for Front Office Sports, with an emphasis on women's sports and basketball. She can be contacted at bailey@frntofficesport.com.

Professional Development

Inside The Huddle: Group Expectations with Michael Taylor

After ten years on the business side of pro basketball, Michael Taylor has learned how valuable persistence and personal branding are in ticket sales.

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In the buildup to Front Office Sports’ Ticketing Huddle at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on May 10, we’re introducing you to the huddle leaders who will be lending their expertise to the conversation.

Today, meet Michael Taylor: Director of Team Marketing & Business Operations at the National Basketball Association (NBA). Taylor will be one of the leaders of the huddle “Squad Goals: The Evolution of Group Expectations.”

Taylor played basketball at West Virginia State University, where he graduated in 2004 with a degree in business administration and management. After playing basketball in Europe for a few years, pursuing a career on the business side of basketball simply made sense. It’s also proved to be a natural fit. For example, during his time in Detroit with Palace Sports and Entertainment, the group sales department jumped from 29th in revenue leaguewide to fifth in just over three years.

READ MORE: Inside The Huddle: Premium Sales with Naimah German

Now, with over a decade in the NBA, Taylor takes great pride in the people he has been able to develop.

“I look at some of the people that I’ve been able to work with and have hired and are thriving in the industry and moving on to different leadership positions, and that is probably the thing I’m most proud of,” he says. “The people and the development pieces are where I like to focus my time.”

The biggest mistake that Taylor sees young reps making in their early years is not having a short memory.

“In this business you have to be able to take the bad days…the days where you make a hundred calls and 50 people hang up on you and you leave 50 voicemails and no one returns,” he says. “You have to be able to maintain the same enthusiasm, the same confidence on that next call. And then, on the flip side, you have a day where maybe you made that big sale. Do you then slack off? Do you get complacent? Do you not focus on your fundamentals anymore because you’re starting to see some success? Don’t focus on what happened yesterday, whether it was good or bad, but approach each day as a chance to be great.”

READ MORE: Inside The Huddle: Group Expectations With Josh Feinberg

Taylor’s other piece of advice to young professionals just beginning their career in ticket sales is to constantly be maintaining their reputation online and in real life.

“It’s never too early to think of yourself as a brand,” he say. “The things that you do now, you’re building your reputation before you even realize it. The sports world is small. When you think about applying for internships or applying for jobs, your reputation is what speaks before you even get into the room. Everything that they do either adds to their brand, or it takes away from it.”

Meet Michael and hear more of his thoughts on the current ticketing space at the Front Office Sports Ticketing Huddle at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, CA on May 10. For tickets and additional info, click here.

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Professional Development

Inside The Huddle: Premium Sales with Naimah German

German will lend her expertise on premium sales at the Front Office Sports Ticketing Huddle at the Oakland Coliseum on May 10.

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In the buildup to Front Office Sports’ Ticketing Huddle at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on May 10, we’re introducing you to the huddle leaders who will be lending their expertise to the conversation.

Today, meet Naimah German: Premium Sales Consultant with Legends at the Las Vegas Stadium (the future home of the Raiders). German will be one of the leaders of the huddle “The Experience Economy: Navigating Shifting Premium Sales Demands.”

READ MORE: Inside The Huddle: Group Expectations With Josh Feinberg

German made the move to Nevada in January of 2018 ahead of the Raiders moving to and playing their first season in Las Vegas in 2020. In the months since, German and the rest of the organization have had their hands full in the best possible way.

“It has been a whirlwind to have that many people on the waitlist,” she says, “but we were all committed from the very beginning, and we are making adjustments as we go along. So it’s been a lot of learning as we go through that process of checks and balances and communicating with one another.”

Prior to arriving in Las Vegas, German graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2007 and worked in insurance and advertising sales for a number of years before completing her master’s degree through Northeastern University in 2014. German’s breakthrough, and what she describes as one of her proudest professional accomplishments, came in 2015 when she landed a Membership Development Associate role with the Miami Dolphins.

“That was the most rigorous process to get a job that I’ve ever been through,” German says, reflecting on the experience. “I did two separate phone interviews and then I had to fly myself out to Miami. But I knew that if I went down there, I was going to come back with the job. They had a hundred of us participate in a sales combine, and we competed for a job over the course of that whole weekend. They accepted nine people into that inside sales class and I was one of the nine.”

German then joined the Legends crew in 2016 as a Premium Sales Consultant with the Atlanta Falcons, where she stayed for about a year and a half before moving on to her current role in Las Vegas. With her experience on the premium side, German has learned that the ability to build strong relationships with clients go a long way.

“Ask questions and you will be able to build a relationship with someone and know why they want what they want,” she says. “Everyone wants the top-notch experience, so being able to identify potential problems early in the process is going to help alleviate any potential frustration.”

In her experience, German notices that many young sports professionals can define themselves by their work. While careers are important, she urges everyone to maintain a balance. 

READ MORE: Inside The Huddle: Selling A New Team With Ted Glick

“Don’t let the job take over your identity,” she says. “Sometimes people forget who they are with all their motivations and ambitions and what they want to do. Knowing you are more than what you do is a much healthier attitude to have in this business.”

Throughout her career, German has not lost sight of how sports can be a force for good. This is the primary reason she wanted to pursue a career in the industry, and why she continues down this path today.

“Sports is something that brings people together,” she says. “I always come back to that. When you’re at a game, we’re all one. We’re united.”

Meet Naimah and hear more of your thoughts on the current ticketing space at the Front Office Sports Ticketing Huddle at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, CA on May 10. For tickets and additional info, click here.

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Professional Development

Why Athlete Retirement Transitions Can Be So Devastating

Sports psychologist Scott Goldman discusses the struggles athletes can face in retirement from their professional and amateur careers.

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Ben Hartsock was thinking ahead to avoid difficulties following retirement.

Following a 10-year NFL career, the tight end jumped right into a career as an agent. For Hartsock, it was better than taking time to figure his life out after the structure and rigidity of an NFL career.

“There’s really two schools of thought, and there’s the school of thought you need something waiting when you’re done because idle time is the devil’s playground,” said Hartsock, who ended up realizing agent life wasn’t right after two years and is now pursuing broadcasting.

“Had I not jumped right into working, I wouldn’t have been able to handle it. I could have downward spiraled.” 

Professional athletes, no matter the sport, leave a life of structure and must transition to a life of relative normalcy. More athletes today are thinking about it, but no matter how well-prepared the transition, it can still cause hiccups, Hartsock said. After 20 years of playing football, Hartsock said it’s almost like being institutionalized.

“I don’t know what other industry or business has a similar experience,” he said. “The shelf life of an athlete is limited in a way I can’t think any other profession is. Think about going to high school getting great marks, going to college and excelling, and after five or 10 years of being the best surgeon in the world, they take it away from you. That’s hard.”

READ MORE: As Retirement Nears, Yankees Star CC Sabathia Experiments With ESPN Deal

Athlete struggles following their athletic career’s end is not an easy topic to address, said Scott Goldman, the president-elect of the Association of Applied Sport Psychology. Goldman is a sports psychologist who’s worked for 20 years with collegiate and professional athletes.

Much of the conversation in post-career struggles revolve around professionals, but Goldman said it’s also a serious issue among collegiate athletes as well, as 90 percent don’t go professional. While many sports don’t have a clear path to the pros, Goldman said those that do — like basketball and football — can make inflate aspirations.

Goldman said he’s happy that leagues, like the NFL, are working intently to help create programs and guide players through their career and after to help ease the pain.

When Goldman works with an athlete struggling post-career, he said he likes to follow the Kubler-Ross Stages of Grief. Leaving an all-or-nothing career, like professional athletics, can leave athletes in a similar depression as losing a loved one.

“For some of them, it’s as much a shift in identity as dealing with a tragic loss,” Goldman said. “Most of these athletes get up at 6 a.m. and their day is largely accounted for and scheduled. It can be really intense when they leave.”

Goldman said he believes more potential employers are realizing that while athletes mostly don’t have lengthy business resumes, the commitment and dedication to their careers and being successful can often easily translate to the business world.

Often times, careers ended because of injuries are worse because they’re sudden. For careers like Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki, players get a goodbye tour and can ease into their retirement through a grief-like path.

Beyond the personal-identity struggle, Goldman said athletes also often struggle with their financials following retirement. The general public has a perception of multimillionaire contracts, and while some athletes are set for life, those contracts are in reality few and far between. More common are the sub-million dollar contracts with athletes averaging less than three years as a professional athlete. Add on trying to ensure that money and whatever post-retirement career the athlete ends up pursuing to obligations, and the stress can be high.

READ MORE: Missy Franklin Opens Up About Retirement and Life After Swimming

“It’s amazing the demand of the million dollar athlete,” Goldman said.

Former athletes balancing a dwindling bank account with their lack of direction can experience a perfect storm for emotional troubles. That’s where people like Goldman and companies like Priority Sports, Hartsock’s former agency, and its Preparing for Life After the NFL, or P.L.A.N., come in. 

Leaving a professional sports career often doesn’t have a ceremonial ending like other transitions in high school to college; college to the working world; or even a long TV series finale. Goldman said he doesn’t often like to use cliches, but can’t avoid one in this situation.

“It’s more of a transition than a severance,” Goldman said. “When you exit one room, you enter another space. Sometimes we focus on what we’re leaving and other times, it’s what we’re entering.

“It’s important to accept what we leave, and see what’s coming next and find meaning.”

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