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Archive for Omnibus

July 19, 2017 — The disappearance of an All-Star

Three years ago, Shoni Schimmel was the toast of the WNBA.

The Atlanta Dream guard had schooled the very best that women’s basketball had to offer, scoring 29 points — 24 in the second half and overtime on a variety of shots.

She sank seven 3-point goals. She drove to the hoop, once using the basket as a pick, hitting a twisting layup over Brittney Griner that resembled a similar confrontation that happened in the NCAA Tournament a few years earlier when Louisville took on Baylor.

Today, Schimmel is the property of the New York Liberty, but has not played a game this season, choosing to take time off to be with her family.

Fame, it seems, is a fleeting thing. It can also be a great clarifier as to what is truly important.

Schimmel, remember, is from the Umatilla tribe of Native Americans. She has felt it her mission to use basketball as a platform for understanding and change, hosting tribal nights at WNBA games. She has also represented basketball, and Native Americans at a Nike summit.

But she has also, in the offseason, joined protesters against the Dakota Access Pipeline, and spent time with her ill mother. She has not been one to play basketball overseas to not only earn extra income, but to remain in playing shape.

As good as Schimmel has been, and as many skills as she still has in her frame, having an offseason without basketball is an enormous risk. There are only 12 roster spots available on each of the 12 rosters in the league. Lose your spot, and you may never get it back again. Atlanta, for example, was able to acquire guard Layshia Clarendon a couple of years ago, and she made the All_Star team this year.

Part of me wonders what might have been.

 

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June 21, 2017 — Tony DiCicco, 1948-2017

As long as there has been a U.S. women’s national soccer team, there have been great players and teams which have won three World Cups and four Olympic gold medals. The women have blazed a trail for personal and team success that has impacted American and world culture far beyond what had ever been dreamed about when the States first created a select team for a game in Blaine, Minn. some 30 years ago.

While there have been gritty defenders, stellar goalkeepers, steady midfielders, and electric attackers, there has also been talent on the bench. Anson Dorrance won the inaugural Women’s World Championship with its ersatz 80-minute halves (it would only be recognized as the first World Cup years later. Greg Ryan had a remarkable run of success in the 2000s, losing only a single game in regulation over his 55-game tenure, but it was that one game — a 4-0 defeat by Brazil at China 2007 — that has defined his legacy.

Pia Sundhage, the first foreign-born coach and first woman to coach the team full-time, coached the side not only to two gold medals in the Olympics, but was the coach on the sidelines for two of the most dramatic goals in the history of football, regardless of gender.

But what started the hype machine for the U.S. women’s national team effort were the players who matured and then excelled under Tony DiCicco.

DiCicco had the unenviable task of replacing Dorrance as the U.S. manager for FIFA’s second world-level championship tournament in Norway in 1995. It was an opportunity for the U.S. women to defend their M&M’s Cup from China in 1991, but it was also an opportunity for the women to get televised exposure in the States.

In that second Women’s World Cup, the games were on ESPN2 live from Norway, usually in the morning. And they made for great theater, especially when DiCicco had to roll the dice in a group-stage match against Denmark and put scoring star Mia Hamm in goal for the last couple of minutes when Briana Scurry was sent off for leaving the 18-yard box in the act of punting the ball downfield.

DiCicco was therefore used to playing a hunch and gambling a bit when the 1999 Women’s World Cup came down to a penalty shootout against China.

What most people don’t know is that the fifth shooter for the States in that game was supposed to have been Julie Foudy. However, DiCicco had noticed that defender Brandi Chastain was almost machine-like in practice taking them with her non-dominant foot.

Plus, given Chastain’s history with the team, having had to earn her way back into the lineup after some time out of the elite pool. DiCicco knew she had the determination in that moment to beat Gao Hong with a shot into the side netting.

Without Tony DiCicco, there wouldn’t have been the bra-bearing celebration, or 90,123 people in the Rose Bowl clapping and cheering, or even a sustainable professional league like there is today. While he could have used his considerable pull within the industry to become a motivational speaker or a guest coach anywhere in the world, he instead stuck with the WUSA’s front office, and coached the WPS version of the Boston Breakers.

Tony DiCicco died on Monday evening. And the world of women’s sports is diminished without him.

June 17, 2017 — More disappearing stripes

This story came out yesterday in The Washington Post.

There is a lot to digest in this, especially some of the stated reasons delineated in the article for the reasons why game officials in many sports don’t return. And they go far beyond verbal or physical abuse and confrontations.

I’ll give you some perspective on a few:

  1. Low pay. There used to be certain competitions where boys’ sports officials were paid a third more than girls’ sports. I know there are some officials organizations which have advocated for better pay, which has allowed officials to make a pretty good living. But at other times, the pay is so low that the game official loses money in the mileage needed to go the game.
  2. Cherry-picking. There are still places in the United States where coaches are allowed to choose members of the pool of game officials for postseason play. This puts coaches in the position of possibly choosing against officials who may have missed a call or judgment.
  3. Continuous development. If you watch the mini-documentaries on NFL referees, you’ll notice that the officials are coached up constantly. They watch video, take a mini-quiz, and will sometimes make up game scenarios in the form of questions to test teach other. In U.S. high schools, you can get certification in the preseason to be rated for a certain level, and you keep that level for the season no matter what happens.

But there is, I think, another reason for the lack of retention for game officials in youth sports. It’s because there is an entire new class of youth sports officials which have come into being in the last few years. These are the officials who oversee elite-level competitions sponsored by national government bodies of sport, whether it is the Olympic Development Program or the U.S. Soccer Development Academy; the National Club Championships in field hockey; or any number of travel softball, baseball, or lacrosse tournaments which have cropped up like weeds across America.

These are competitions which occur on weekends and attract elite players and teams — presumably ones who know the rules. But even then, there’s no guarantee. If you read websites carefully, you’ll note how complicated and expansive the Code of Conduct is for players, coaches, teams, and their supporters have become the last few years.

And these regulations are written for a reason.

May 22, 2017 — An interesting career change

Georgie Parker has been a supernova of a field hockey player for the Australia Hockeyroos the last five years. In a career lasting a shade more than 100 appearances, she had 33 goals and gave many sleepless nights to opposing coaches and tacticians trying to find a way to stop her.

But for Parker and her career, the peak came in the summer of 2014 when Australia won the Commonwealth Games and placed second in the FIH World Cup only after a shootout win over the United States.

This week, it’s been announced that Parker, at the age of 28, would begin training to play with the Collingswood Magpies in the new Australia Football League for Women. Parker is one of a number of women who have been called “code switchers,” people who have certain skills from various other sports such as indoor cricket and Ultimate Frisbee.

Australian Rules Football has been played by women for more than 100 years, and there are roughly 300 women’s club sides across Australia. But only this year has the game become professionalized, with AFL Premiership clubs on the men’s side offering space and facilities to the women’s clubs which are playing in front of unexpected crowds. Indeed, there was one match recently held where the gates had to be locked, leaving nearly 2,000 willing supporters outside the ground.

What’s interesting about this endeavor is that the AFLW is not being held in a vacuum: there is an under-18 competition to provide the next generation of women’s footy stars.

It’s something that no professional women’s league in America has, and I think that bodes extremely well for the league’s future.

Perhaps the people running field hockey in Australia and worldwide need to take notice.

May 18, 2017 — The start of what could become a two-track system

This past week, Mallory Pugh, the 19-year-old wunderkind of the U.S. women’s Olympic soccer team, decided to forego her collegiate eligibility at UCLA and play professionally for the Washington Spirit of the NWSL.

It’s something that is done all the time on the men’s side of the equation, where players like Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey, Freddy Adu, John O’Brien, and Jozy Altidore have turned professional without a sniff of a high-school or collegiate team.

But what has been happening is that U.S. Soccer has developed its own league, running outside the realm of what some might see is the expected road to the pros. The U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy is a nationwide league of 149 boys’ teams that started 10 years ago.

And the DA’s expected girls’ league of 74 teams could also alter the way that talented female soccer players play their way into the elite pool for the national team. Depending on word of mouth, or opportunity, or dumb luck, it will be, I think, difficult for a player choosing to play for a school team then to go to an NCAA college to get the same opportunities that athletes from the DA will have to either join the national team or to turn professional someday.

Of course, a lot of this has to do with the fervor by which MLS and NWSL teams are partnerning to form teams in the Development Academy. New York City FC, the Washington Spirit, and Sky Blue FC are amongst the partners thus far pulling together coaching staffs and other resources for the upcoming 10-month Development Academy season (yep, 10 months).

It’s going to take a while to see whether the DA is able to turn out ready-made pros like Pugh and Lindsey Horan, who left North Carolina to join Paris-Saint Germain before her eligibility expired. But I think it will also be interesting to see if the college player — especially those who have been tutored by the Anson Dorrances and Jerry Smiths of the world may have a different kind of football intelligence from players on Academy sides.

Sure, they may be fitter, but I wonder what kinds of decisionmaking the DA players will make when playing in a big world tournament or in a professional league.

That will be an interesting study.

 

Apr. 26, 2017 — The ESPN 100 and what it means for print journalism

In an era of high unemployment since the financial crisis of 2008, thousands of job cuts befell the likes of MCI-World Com, Enron, Bear Stearns, and other failing businesses. But the names of those cut from the rolls of these companies were made public.

Today, however, is seeing perhaps the most unusual public airing of job losses in history. Every news outlet has been waiting with bated breath for announcements surrounding about 100 layoffs at ESPN, the most valuable cable television network and the self-proclaimed “world-wide leader in sports.”

With a declining subscriber base and bills coming due on ESPN’s voracious rights fees for both college and professional football, ESPN has been cutting staff at a regular rate. Indeed, today’s announcement is only about a third of the size of cuts which were made in October 2015.

But today’s 100 layoffs — The ESPN 100 — come on the heels of a number of notable departures from the network over the last year or so. Nearly the entire Monday Night Countdown crew from two years ago — Chris Berman, Tom Jackson, Keyshawn Johnson, Trent Dilfer, Ray Lewis, and Mike Ditka — are gone. This is the group that is the lead-in to Monday Night Football, the network’s highest-rated program.

Also gone in recent months were Keith Olbermann, Mike Tirico, Skip Bayless, and Bill Simmons. Simmons, a notable writer, put together a tremendous staff of writers to create an enterprise site called Grantland. But when Simmons was fired, Grantland was closed in October 2015.

And while tomorrow’s headlines will concentrate on some prominent on-air personalities as part of The ESPN 100, I think the biggest impact are the dozens of columnists and writers that ESPN is letting go. This goes all the way from award-winning Johnette Howard to ESPNW’s Melissa Isaacson to Jean-Jacques Taylor, who was with ESPNDallas, which was supposed to compete against the sports staff of The Dallas Morning News.

Indeed, I think today’s layoffs are a sign that ESPN’s experiment with trying to pull eyeballs away from stablished media organizations is meeting with abject failure. Columnists from Nashville to the West Coast have been let go. You may not know their names, but you might have seen their work on an ESPN web presence.

The ESPN experiment in print writing has compounded its initial colossal failure with cuts that could very well imperil the network’s ability to cover the beat adequately.

But The ESPN 100 also tips the network’s hand when it comes to its future priorities. The network’s most senior motorsports reporter, Dr. Jerry Punch, who worked at the network for three decades, was furloughed. Given the fact that the network shows exactly five automobile races a year, this is perhaps in a prelude to the dropping of all motorsports coverage.

The NHL division took huge cuts; the network does only a handful of ice hockey games a year. Golf commentator Dottie Pepper was also jettisoned, the sport having long since moved to NBC’s Golf Channel.

But that’s what happens when your “world-wide leader” forgets its core competency and goes off into these incredibly expensive flights of fancy. Anyone remember when “SportsCenter” showed actual sports highlights and delivered news?

Not a good long-term sign.

Apr. 9, 2017 — Teamwork meets a different enemy

The U.S. women’s ice hockey team has had one major rival over the last 27 years: Canada. This year, the women added another entity to unify against: USA Hockey.

Last week, the United States took its newfound togetherness after a player strike in order to beat their Canadian rivals 3-2 in overtime of the final of the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship. It was the States’ third championship in a row.

But I think there’s much, much more to this title than any other. The win was a vindication for the U.S. women as a labor union, and I also think it is going to put a burr in the saddle of the current group of owners of the nine professional women’s hockey teams in the United States and Canada. I think there will be a flow of cash from sponsors interested in not only an expansion of the U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League, but perhaps a merger with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

I believe a merger is a more important priority for women’s hockey than professionalization. One unified league, one pay scale, one set of rules, and one great pro league.

I hope it doesn’t take more labor action to make this happen.