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August 11, 2022 — The one-year experiment

When Mark Parsons left the Portland Thorns of the NWSL to coach the Dutch women’s national soccer team, his departure was under a bit of a cloud. A league-wide scandal surrounding player abuse had enveloped the Thorns franchise because they had employed Paul Riley, who had been removed from his position at the North Carolina Courage after a 2021 story in The Athletic.

While Parsons wasn’t involved in the scandal, members of Portland Thorns management, including general manager Gavin Wilkinson, were targets of supporters’ ire for hiring Riley.

And less than a year later, Riley is jobless. The national governing body of soccer in Holland has fired Riley after the Oranje, the second-place team at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, finished out of the medals at the recent European women’s soccer tournament. It was a highly unexpected result, even though the team finished undefeated in pool play. France, in the quarterfinals, came up with the overtime goal to advance 1-0.

By failing to make the final, the Netherlands not only are shut out of the 2024 Olympic tournament, but now have to win their final UEFA qualification game against Iceland in order to make the World Cup automatically.

That Sept. 6 game will not have Parsons on the sideline.

August 9, 2022 — Two imminent exits in the women’s sports world

More than two decades ago, Sue Bird was written up in the forgotten magazine Sports Illustrated On Campus, where she was labeled as “the most popular team-sport athlete of all time.” This was even before she had dribbled a basketball for the United States Olympic Team or for any WNBA team.

Today, Serena Williams dropped an interview (well, a first-person account) of her intention to retire in, of all places, Vogue Magazine..

This summer is likely to be the summer of discontent for fans of two of the greats in the history of American women’s sports. Both have, for better or worse, done it their way. And they’ve done it in completely opposite ways.

Sue Bird plays a team sport. Serena Williams plays an individual sport (albeit she has done quite well in team scenarios such as doubles, World Team Tennis, and the Fed Cup).

Sue Bird is from New York, Serena Williams is from Los Angeles.

Bird is Caucasian; Williams is Black.

Bird is an out lesbian, married to U.S. women’s soccer midfielder Megan Rapinoe. Williams is married to Internet investor Alexis Ohanian, and the two have a child together.

Bird is an even-keeled player who has never averaged more than two personal fouls per game in her entire career, and has maybe one technical foul called against her in her entire career. Williams, however, can show anger on the tennis court, and has, on more than occasion, received penalties for on-court conduct which resulted in her losing matches at the U.S. Open.

These two women — these two champions — are about to step off their respective courts for the final time. Bird, at the end of the Seattle Storm’s playoff run. and Williams, at the end of her U.S Open run.

Each will be celebrated in their own way.

But they will be remembered as out-and-out winners.

As it should be.

Aug. 7, 2022 — Might the Commonwealth Games have hit on something for the future?

Today is the penultimate day of the Commonwealth Games, the multisport athletic competition for athletes representing nations in the British empire. Starting in 1930 as The Empire Games, these have gradually grown to be one of the major non-Olympic competitions, and a place to demonstrate sports which were introduced to other nations under British hegemony, such as lawn bowling, T-20 cricket, and netball.

But since 2002, the Commonwealth Games program has also included Para sports — not a separate Para Commonwealth Games, but competitions run at the same time as unclassified athletes.

This is something not done in the Olympics, or within many athletic competitions. Indeed, when it comes to one of the more important athletic pursuits — track and field — the world championships were held last month in Oregon, but the Para track and field championships will be held two years from now in Japan.

You might ask whether holding a unified Olympics with unclassified sport and Para sport might have a chance to occur. As a show of acceptance of the Paralympic movement, I think this would be an awesome step. But I also recognize that the presentation of the Olympic and Paralympic programs side-by-side over the course of 16 days may be a near-impossible task.

First off, you have the previous limits as to the amount of total athletes who can appear at any one Olympic games, which is roughly 11,000. Adding the Paralympic athlete roster would bump the number of athletes to some 15,000. That’s a sizable group to house and feed in the Olympic Village.

Second, there’s the time factor. If you wanted to be able to get in all of the 100-meter races for the various classifications, you would have to hold 18 different events, including heats and semifinals leading to the medal races.

Finally, not all Para competitions use the same competition surfaces as their Olympic counterparts. Sure, a volleyball court can double as a goal-ball field, and a basketball court can hold a wheelchair rugby tournament, but that isn’t always the case.

But there’s one thing that a merger of the Olympics and Paralympics could do: expand the Games from 16 days to, say, a month. That’s what the World Cup’s footprint is on the schedule, and I don’t see any reason to think that a monthlong Olympics couldn’t work.

Aug. 5, 2022 — The definition of “television” is evolving rapidly

Part of the idea of television is to be able to turn it on and tune it into an event which is scheduled for a certain time of day. “Five o’clock, time for Wapner!” is a line from the movie Rain Man, and it neatly shows the social compact that we consumers have had with broadcast networks over the years.

Part of that social compact has been changed in the last few years with the invention of “time-shifting” technologies like the video cassette recorder, the DVD machine, and even TiVo, which allowed you to, say, watch The Arsenio Hall Show at 10 a.m. the next morning after recording it the night before (in the early days of my work in the dailies, I did it).

But these days, time-shifting takes the form of various digital networks which can be found on devices like the Roku or the Amazon Firestick. There are also subscription services like Hulu, Paramount Plus, and Peacock, which require fees to watch them.

This week, a number of upheavals have occurred in this world of time-shifting television.

First, after 57 years of being on over-the-air television, the soap opera “Days of Our Lives” is moving behind the Peacock paywall and being replaced by a one-hour news program. This is odd to me on more than one level because, way back in the heart of the late-night TV wars, NBC wound up having to try to fill an hour of programming left by the departure of Jay Leno back to The Tonight Show back in 2010 with news programming.

Second, there was an announced merger of the digital networks of Home Box Office and the Discovery Channel. Thing is, I’m not sure whether the accumulation of content will help anyone’s bottom line, since cable users already with certain HBO packages get HBO Max for free. I’m not sure whether that will put more eyes on the U.S. men’s soccer team, many of whose games go to HBO Max starting after the World Cup.

Third, the ABC ratings-grabber Dancing With The Stars is now going behind the Disney Plus paywall. I wonder if this means that ABC’s grand experiment in taking Monday Night Football off over-the-air television is an abject failure.

Finally, you’re seeing a number of streaming exclusives this year. Major League Baseball has been running a Sunday afternoon game on Peacock. The NFL Thursday night game is going from Fox to Amazon Prime. I wonder what the overall effect on ratings will be for these two behemoths of American sports culture.

I know that for most television executives, they’re seeing the future in streaming their content to mobile phones. Thing is, I’m not sure there is enough 5G data for that, especially when there are large stretches of the country that do not get this kind of service.

Which makes you wonder: what if they broadcast a Super Bowl and nobody had the opportunity to view it?

Aug. 4, 2022 — Brittney Griner and a Hobson’s choice

There has already been a Twitter explosion this afternoon after Brittney Griner, the center for the U.S. women’s national basketball team, was sentenced to some nine years in prison for the possession of CBD products.

Media and pundits have already laid out glib solutions as to whether or not Griner should be involved in a prisoner exchange with Russia involving notorious arms trader Viktor Bout.

But somehow, I think this is too little of an endgame. Especially for someone like Vladimir Putin, who has been desperate enough in trying to regain its role as a world superpower that it is throwing its prestige, its soldiers, and its munitions into trying to take back one of its former Soviet socialist republics, The Ukraine.

I think, in the grand chess match, Putin wants something more significant. And it’s something he does not have right now.

That is, the full participation of Russians in most forms of organized sport.

Right now, Russians are personae non gratae in everything from the World Cup to Wimbledon to the Olympics. Of course, the reason for this is self-induced: a massive collusive conspiracy to not only provide performance-enhancing drugs, but to subterfuge the World Anti-Doping Agency’s testing regimen through substituting clean urine to laboratories.

Russian athletes in many different sporting endeavors have had to resort to many different tactics in order to be able to compete. In many multisport competitions, Russian nationals have had to compete as unaffiliated. In the last two Olympics, Russians have worn the uniform of the Russian Olympic Committee.

Others have declared for other former Iron Curtain countries such as Georgia, Belarus Poland, Hungary, Czechia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine.

Now, I don’t think anything is going to happen in the Griner situation until a substantial escalation of demands happens. I think that a shortening of the worldwide ban on Russian athletes is going to be on the table.

We’ll see what happens.

July 31, 2022 — A short lesson in “sportswashing”

Today, the Formula 1 Hungarian Grand Prix had a title sponsor of Aramco, the company which is responsible for oil drilling in large parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

In France today, the Paris-St. Germain soccer team beat Nantes, 4-0 in the annual Champions Trophy, all while wearing their new jersey sponsor, Qatar Airways.

In Bedminster, N.J., the third tournament in the new LIV Golf Tour, a tour fully backed by the Public Investment Fund of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, finished off its final round.

These, and other sports-related investments of recent vintage, add up to what some call “sportswashing,” which, loosely defined, means trying to use sponsorships for public-relations purposes to counter criticisms of the regimes behind several petroauthoritarian states.

I’ve talked about some of this kind of “sportswashing” before, whether it was the ownership of the Brooklyn Nets or Chelsea Football Club. Many of the oligarchs who have bought into these teams have had to make a 100 percent turnaround because of European sanctions which have come into being after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But there have not been sanctions for the Middle Eastern sponsors of sport, even as withering criticism of their regimes has forced, for example, the cancellation of the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Bahrain in 2011, only to see it reinstated a year later.

But “sportswashing” has been around a lot longer than many of you may realize. If you watched network television in the weeks before the 1994 FIFA World Cup, you may have seen commercials extolling the fact that the Saudi Arabia men’s soccer team had qualified for the first World Cup to be held in the United States.

Little was said that women in Saudi Arabia did not have their own team. In fact, women in the kingdom did not have a number of civil rights and privileges’ that many of us take for granted. Women could not, until June of 2018, drive a car in Saudi Arabia. Strict interpretations of religious laws restricted when women could leave their homes, or limited the amount of higher education women could have.

As much as the criticism of the LIV golf tour has beleaguered the organizers, to the point where tickets for this weekend’s final rounds were going for $7, there is one major sportswashing event set for later this year. In November, the FIFA World Cup is being held in Qatar, an oil emirate which, it is alleged, has used indentured labor to build its stadiums while its top oil class lives in incredible luxury.

The lavish new construction in Qatar over the last 20 years has been featured as a centerpiece as the emirate has tried to become a center of sport. There was a cycling tour that ran for a few years but was cancelled in 2017 because of a lack of sponsor and a lack of challenging elevation: there were no attractive mountains for the climbers.

Which is surprising, given the fact that oil dollars have built enormous office buildings as well as artificial islands which, not surprisingly, have undergone some troubles because of the 2008 global financial crisis and global climate change.

We’ll see, in the next few years, whether the dollars behind sportswashing campaigns have a return on their investment — or if the oil money will last.

July 26, 2022 — United States Coach of the Year: Jill Thomas, Princeton (N.J.) Day School

Heading due north out of Princeton, N.J., is County Road 604. But nobody calls it that. For generations of residents, that corridor is called The Great Road.

Take a left off Great Road at the top of a rise, and you will find Princeton (N.J.) Day School, an institution which has been around since 1899.

For the last 34 years, Jill Thomas has been an fixture in the life of the school, coaching basketball, coaching and umpiring field hockey, and being the public-address announcer for football games until the sport was discontinued in 2011.

In recent years, Thomas has also coached the school’s girls’ lacrosse team. The girls’ lacrosse program has gone through a number of coaches throughout the years, including the late Kim Bedesem, Leslie Hagan, and Thomas. Throughout, the Panther team was a dominant force in private-school girls’ lacrosse in the capital region of New Jersey.

The 2022 season, however, brought a new opportunity. Princeton Day School followed a number of its sister schools and gained admission into the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing body of public and some non-public schools in the state.

It also turned out that the first season of PDS’s dual membership in the NJSIAA and the New Jersey Independent Schools Athletic Association was going to be Thomas’ last as a coach, as she announced her retirement.

For her years of coaching and an unprecedent 2022 campaign, Thomas is the TopOfTheCircle.com United States Coach of the Year.

What did the Panthers do in 2022? Well, within a period of three weeks, they won the NJISAA private-school tournament with a 13-12 win over Montclair-Kimberley Academy (N.J.), then won four win-or-go-home games in the NJSIAA Non-Public “B” tournament, culminating in a 17-11 win over Absecon Holy Spirit (N.J.).

Three days later, Thomas’ career ended with a 14-9 defeat to Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.) in the final NJSIAA Tournament of Champions, but the Panthers were able do match what Oak Knoll has done in recent years — win the private/public school double for the Garden State.

In addition, PDS became the first girls’ lacrosse team from Mercer County to win a public-school state championship since the spring of 1985.

All the while, Thomas did it with her usual combination of hard work and humility. In what has become a Score-O decade in both field hockey and lacrosse, Thomas held fast to the principle that a field hockey team shouldn’t score more than five goals in a game, or win more than a certain amount in a girls’ lacrosse game.

And yet, throughout the years, Thomas has racked up win after win after win on the court and on the turf. It’s estimated that she has more than 600 wins in a coaching career that began in 1988.

When it comes to coaching, the year 1988 has a significance: it was when The Lawrenceville (N.J.) School started admitting girls, and immediately became a rival for Princeton Day School and the other private schools in the capital region.

It always seemed as though when a Thomas-coached team played Lawrenceville, the game became more than just a game. It was an occasion, and a mission.

But if there is one game I’ll always remember Thomas for, it was in another sport: field hockey. It was in 1996 when PDS took on the reigning NJSIAA Group IV champions in Flemington Hunterdon Central (N.J.). Despite the fact that PDS has one-sixth enrollment of Hunterdon Central, the Panther eleven played even up with Central for 60 minutes, coming away with a 0-0 draw.

In terms of small vs. large schools, this was a definite lesson for anyone watching or participating in this intersectional contest.

Jill Thomas taught a lot of lessons to her students and to observers for a third of a century. The girls’ lacrosse universe in central New Jersey is going to be lessened with her retirement.


ALSO CONSIDERED:

Allie Ferrera, Morristown (N.J.): Steered the Colonials through a murderous North Jersey Group IV bracket and won the state championship in the group. Only losses were to national powers Oak Knoll, Summit, and Chatham

Mary Gagnon, Brooklandville St. Paul’s School for Girls (Md.): It wasn’t the fact that the Gators were able to come out of the COVID years a winner in 2022, it’s just the fact that the team has had great and consistent winning form in the country’s finest lacrosse conference

Becky Groves, Sykesville Century (Md.): Steered the Knights to a state championship and the second unbeaten season in program history. Century handled Parkton Hereford (Md.) 15-6 to win the Class 2A state championship.

John Kroah, Massilon Jackson (Ohio): Came close to winning a first state championship against established powers

Savannah Porter, Canton Creekview (Ga.): Almost upended an established power, Milton (Ga.) in the state final, but lost a late lead

Laura Sandbloom, Denver Colorado Academy (Colo.): In her final year as head coach, she was able to best Highlands Ranch Valor Christian (Colo.) 13-9 in the Class 5A final for the team’s seventh straight championship

Olivia Smart, Huntington Beach Edison (Calif.): In five years, this team has become a true contender for postseason honors. Edison won its first Sunset League title and qualified for the California Interscholastic Federation’s Southern Section Division 1 Tournament

Paige Walton, Glenelg (Md.) Country School: The veteran coach has won titles at the IAAM “C” Division and the “B” Division, and made a memorable run at a first “A” Division championship

Kristin Woods, New Canaan (Conn.): Playing a tough league schedule, the Rams were able to get past county rival Darien (Conn.) when it counted, the state championship final after each team split previous matches

July 20, 2022 — Soccer … and then everyone else

The U.S. women’s soccer team this week dispatched with all of the preliminaries and drama, winning the CONCACAF W championship 1-0 over Canada in the final. Over the course of the tournament, the States won outright berths to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup and the 2024 Olympics.

And gave up no goals in the process.

As we were discussing a few days ago, the United States has, in women’s team sports, developed some pretty intense rivalries with Canadian national sides.

But within CONCACAF competition, the United States has not yielded a goal in any confederation tournament in more than 12 years. It’s been complete and utter dominance on the part of the Stars and Stripes.

Which brings up a question: what has led to this young U.S. women’s national soccer team’s dominance now, and possibly for years to come with young stars like Midge Purce, Caterina Macario, Sophia Smith, Sofia Huerta, and Mallory Pugh?

Let’s face it: many of these players have chosen soccer over other athletic pursuits — some much earlier than others. Indeed, I’d wager that you can’t find a player in the greater player pool in the U.S. women’s national soccer team who was a multi-sport athlete in high school. Indeed, most of the current players are products of the year-round “pay to play” system.

Want some examples? Pugh gave up a scholarship at UCLA to play pro soccer with the Washington Spirit. Lindsey Horan did not play with her high school team, instead playing with the Colorado Rush club side, then spurning an offer from the University of North Carolina to play with Paris-Saint Germain.

There are lots more young female soccer players who are turning pro as early as age 15 to join NWSL club sides. Olivia Moultrie joined up with the Portland Thorns at that age. A couple of weeks ago, the San Diego Wave announced the signing of 17-year-old Jaedyn Shaw.

It seems to me that this new (and younger) third wave of women’s soccer talent is coming into being at a time when clubs and sponsors around the world are clamoring for their services. And I think this is helping shrink the player pool for other athletic pursuits.

July 13, 2022 — What is Canada doing right?

Yesterday, at the gold-medal final of the World Games men’s sixes lacrosse tournament, Canada defeated the United States by a score of 23-9.

For most of you who follow the game, this isn’t entirely unexpected. Six-a-side lacrosse, especially played on a rink or court, is practically religion in Canada. Box lacrosse is played from coast to coast and is especially popular amongst Native Americans on both sides of the border.

Now, if you’ve been paying attention to the women’s side of world championship play in team sports, you’d see what’s coming.

In soccer, Canada is the current Olympic champion, having won the gold in Tokyo last year. In ice hockey, Canada is also the Olympic champion, having won gold in Beijing in February.

In field hockey, Canada is the current top cheese in North America, as they are playing in the World Cup while the United States failed to qualify.

In field lacrosse last week, Canada got to within three goals of the United States in the gold-medal match.

Compare this to what the world of women’s sports was like in 1998, the year this site started.

The U.S. had won the Nagano Olympics in women’s ice hockey. The States also held the Atlanta Olympics gold medal.

In field hockey, the U.S. had finished in eighth place at the FIH World Cup, whilst Canada didn’t qualify.

And in field lacrosse, the States held the 1997 FIL World Cup, with Canada finishing fifth.

Canada, a nation with 1/10th the population of the United States, is catching up to (if not already surpassed) a number of high-dollar, well-funded team sports throughout the athletic universe.

And that’s not all. In the current FIBA rankings, the Canadian women’s basketball team is ranked fourth in the world. And that’s in a sport the United States has outright owned since the 1932 Olympics on the men’s side, and since the 1953 FIBA World Cup on the women’s.

Makes you wonder what Canada is doing right.

July 2, 2022 — How might the USC-UCLA move to the Big Ten help or hurt some Olympic sports?

This week’s vote by the Big Ten Conference to accept USC and UCLA as members starting with the fall of 2024 is going to have some wide-ranging consequences throughout the athletic departments of the current Big Ten schools as well as within the two new members.

Both UCLA and USC have athletics programs as wide-ranging as Ivy League schools; UCLA has been particularly successful in many sports, winning 119 NCAA titles.

Sure, every pundit in the world is going to measure this move in terms of just two sports: football and men’s basketball. But look forward — to 2028, when the Olympics come to Los Angeles. There are a number of athletic endeavors which, I think, could either affect, or be affected, by Big Ten membership on the part of USC and UCLA — two Los Angeles schools located a mere 15 miles apart.

Here’s a list:

FIELD HOCKEY: One year ago, the Big Ten was the leader in the game of field hockey, sending Michigan to the 2020-21 NCAA title game and Northwestern to the 2021 championship. Question is, can Big Ten membership move the needle for field hockey at USC and UCLA — and with it, all of Southern California? I guess that depends on where the organizing committee decides to put the field hockey facility. As of now, the plan appears to depend on temporary facilities build on the grounds of Cal State-Dominguez Hills, where a soccer-specific stadium currently stands.

GYMNASTICS: The newcomers are going to run into some resistance for the top of the women’s gymnastics table as Michigan has been a dominant team program in the Big Ten. Neither USC nor UCLA have a men’s gymnastics team, while only five exist in the Big Ten. It might have been a great help to keep the sport alive in an era of shrinking budgets and growing insurance costs.

LACROSSE: If this move had occurred three years ago, a USC entrance into the world of Big Ten women’s lacrosse would have been an enormous splash. The Women of Troy have not been as good the last couple of seasons, but it would be a key beachhead for the sport with the next men’s World Championship being scheduled for San Diego.

SWIMMING: There are currently 12 women’s swimming teams and eight men’s teams in the Big Ten, and the successful USC and UCLA teams could provide an immediate challenge. These two schools have put together impressive resumes when it comes to individuals winning the Olympics. Legends like John Naber, Janet Evans, Brian Goodell, and Tom Jager have swum for these two schools.

TRACK: USC and UCLA have been highly successful in both genders in athletics, peaking with a 1-2 finish in the women’s 2001 NCAA championship. These two teams are likely to dominate the current Big Ten field — to the point where teams like Illinois, Maryland, Indiana, and Purdue may wind up being relegated completely to the sidelines with Northwestern, which dropped the sport in 1987.

VOLLEYBALL: Southern Cal and UCLA have historically have had good volleyball on the court and on the sand. USC is the current women’s beach volleyball champions, and UCLA’s men made the national tournament, falling a game short of making the title match. Oddly enough, in terms of women’s court volleyball, the Big Ten have been on a tear in recent years, putting two teams (Wisconsin and Nebraska) in last December’s final.