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Archive for Omnibus

Sept. 15, 2021 — Is the world of tennis having a major problem?

Over the weekend, Emma Radacanu won the women’s singles title of the U.S. Open tennis tournament.

As one of the four majors on the women’s tennis calendar, the requirement for Radacanu to get to the final, much less win it, is to get through a bracket of 127 other competitors. Radacanu, moreover, had to go through one of 16 eight-player qualifiers in order to get into the bracket.

Radacanu, over the course of the last three weeks of tennis, has been nothing short of unbeatable. She won every match in qualifying and in the main draw in straight sets, besting many of the best players in the world.

And yet, she was the 160th-ranked player on the WTA Tour coming into this month.

The professional tennis tours, the ATP for the men and the WTA for the women, are a year-long multinational carnival of sport, visiting every continent with prize money over $300 million for both tours.

At the same time, however, the sponsors of these players, from shoe manufacturers to jewelers to energy drink purveyors, are in for several million dollars of their own, even before a ball gets struck.

It is a sport swimming in money. And as such, it is seen as a “country club” sport which throws up an enormous economic barrier up against average kids looking to take up the sport. And there was no better example of overcoming these barriers than the Williams sisters.

Venus and Serena Williams come from the public tennis courts of Compton, Calif. Their first-ballot Hall-of-Fame careers are close to the end, but their example of having to be twice as better as their competitors is still being played out to this day on USTA junior courts, satellite events, and college rosters as players are angling to try to make it into Grand Slam-level events some day.

Radacanu’s ascension is reminiscent of Boris Becker, who was an unseeded and unknown teenager in 1985 when he won the Wimbledon men’s singles title, the first of six Grand Slam events he would eventually win.

Now, tennis should be a meritocracy. Every match, there is one winner and one loser. Brackets are navigated every week on tour.

But the question is, what are the tennis tours doing to help identify good talent rather than build concentric circles of exclusivity? Are the economic barriers inherent in the game keeping the next Radacanu or the next Becker or the next Williams away from the sport?

Sept. 12, 2021 — No game, lots of shame

There was supposed to have been a soccer game today in the National Women’s Soccer League between the Washington Spirit and OL Reign.

But there won’t be a game played this evening; instead, the Reign, a team playing out of the Pacific Northwest, will be given a forfeit win and credited with three goals scored and three points in the league standings.

The forfeit comes a week after the Spirit’s match against the Portland Thorns was postponed because of a reported outbreak amongst the Washington team. News reports had as many as four Spirit players testing positive for COVID-19.

Further reports have indicated that as many as eight Spirit players having to quarantine for today’s game, and that the quarantines were mostly not for positive tests, but for breaches in league-mandated health and safety protocols.

The forfeit also stands in contrast with last week’s game cancellation against Portland: no forfeit was mandated for last week’s game, an inconsistency that was pointed out in social media immediately after the league announcement.

Today’s cancellation is the latest in a number of negative stories around the beleaguered team, following on the heels of revelations of a toxic team culture which has cost the Spirit the services of a number of players. Too, there was the botched separation of head coach Richie Burke from the rest of the team because of verbal abuse.

The Spirit forfeit comes at a time where attitudes towards vaccination against the Coronavirus are changing. Vaccine mandates are being extended at private businesses such as airlines and medical facilities, and this zero-tolerance approach is being applied in the sporting world.

But it also comes several months after COVID-19 vaccines have been made available to the public. It befuddles me that any professional athlete — not just women’s soccer players — has not yet undergone vaccine treatment.

Sept. 4, 2021 — Is the NWSL on the verge of a reckoning, if not a collapse?

The National Women’s Soccer League is currently in its ninth season of operations, and is the longest-serving USSF-sanctioned Division I women’s soccer league in history.

After losing a number of star U.S. players such as Alex Morgan and Christen Press to foreign clubs in the last year or so, the league has not only gotten a number of national-team players to relocate back to the domestic league, it has announced plans to add clubs in Los Angeles and San Diego in 2022.

But a number of off-field situations and scandals are threatening the stability and viability of the league, going forward. This afternoon, it was announced that the game between the Washington Spirit and Portland Thorns was postponed because of positive COVID-19 tests of four Spirit players. Add to this reports that the Spirit have carried up to eight players on their roster who have not had a Coronavirus vaccine.

The Spirit are at the center of more than one of this year’s scandals. There were questions raised about a week-long cultural exchange with the host of the 2022 World Cup, Qatar. The exchange included a soccer clinic and tours of several facilities, some of which have been pointed out as being built with imported labor that critics and international NGOs have deemed abusive.

The team also botched the recent release of head coach Richie Burke, first announcing a move to the front office, then announcing his firing after the resurfacing of stories of abuse of youth players under Burke’s care in a previous coaching regime. The situation has led supporters to post signs urging owner Steve Baldwin to sell the team — signs which were ordered to be taken down during the team’s last home game last weekend.

Now, the Spirit are not the only NWSL team to have made a coaching change this season. At least six out of the eight NWSL teams have either made a change or have announced the imminent departure of their head coach at the end of the season.

Some of these moves are lateral moves within the world of soccer, but a number of others have been for cause, such as the recent firing of Racing Louisville coach Christy Holly.

The U.S. women’s soccer landscape has become riven with toxic personalities in positions of power. The second Division I pro league, Women’s Professional Soccer, was destabilized and eventually folded because of the actions of Dan Borislow as the self-appointed leader of magicJack FC. Then, you had the situation with the Utah Royals, which saw an ownership change when it was revealed that Andy Carroll, the team’s chief business operator, was mistreating numerous employees within the team.

All of this makes you wonder what is going on. Are players being told not to complain about their owners and GMs because it could reflect badly on the league? Are ownership groups not being vetted to weed out toxic personalities? Are coaches being selected out of convenience instead of competency?

Thing is, the NWSL is being lionized for attracting all-star ownership groups, such as what is happening with Angel City FC in Los Angeles. This group included civic and business leaders, as well as sports stars like Magic Johnson and Mia Hamm.

The Spirit, for what it’s worth, had announced a number of additions to its ownership group just four months ago, adding people like Chelsea Clinton, Alexander Ovechkin, and Briana Scurry. But the Spirit seems to be run by only three people: Steve Baldwin, Michele Yang, and Bill Lynch.

If a similar power arrangement evolves in the high-visibility market of Los Angeles, and another scandal arises, I can’t see how the league gets itself righted going forward.

Aug. 18, 2021 — Back to normal?

We’ve been keeping our ear to the ground, trying to figure out how the several states and the District of Columbia will be handling health and safety protocols for scholastic sports in the fall of 2021.

Interestingly, we haven’t heard very much that are keeping outdoor sports from returning to the way they were conducted in 2019 and earlier.

That is, except the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

While the sporting landscape is returning to pre-2019 rules (meaning that field hockey is going back to 11-v-11), the institution of mask rules is being delegated to the local level. That is to say, towns and individual school districts are being given the final say as to whether athletes will be masked.

Now, this mostly goes for outdoor activities; indoor sports (aside from swimming) are going to me almost universally masked up.

This is all occurring in a time when attention is being paid to the effects of the delta variant of the Coronavirus, a mutation which is said to be more lethal than previous iterations of the virus.

Thing is, there is now conflict brewing over whether schools should enforce mask mandates, even though some states have not opened vaccinations to those under the age of 16.

I think these various forces are not helping to flatten the COVID curve. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens.

Aug. 16, 2021 — One of the greats, in any sport, retires

Carli Lloyd came onto the U.S. women’s national team scene in an era of great turmoil. Two years after she made her first cap in 2005, the U.S. team was embroiled in an enormous controversy over the choice of the starting goalkeeper for the Women’s World Cup semifinal match against Brazil, a match the States lost 4-0.

After that game, one in which Lloyd was a halftime substitute, she rarely subbed in at halftime of any big game. Indeed, over much of her national team career, she was known for scoring many of her 128 international goals at the most opportune time.

At the 2008 Olympics, returning to Beijing less than a year after their humiliation of the year before, Lloyd scored the game’s only goal in the gold-medal match against Brazil. Four years later, Lloyd had a pair of goals in the gold-medal final of London 2012.

But her piece de resistance, her absolute masterpiece, was her hat trick in the first 16 minutes of the 2015 Women’s World Cup final against Japan. That included a 55-yard golazo which gave her worldwide fame.

Lloyd is calling it quits at the end of this year, finishing off four games with the U.S. women’s national side as well as her club career with Gotham FC of the NWSL. For me, is the best kind of athlete — one who not only knows how to score, but knows when to score. And as the standard-bearer of the post-99ers era for the U.S. women’s soccer program, she was a proud steward of the game and a person who worked ceaselessly to better herself for more than a decade and a half.

Lloyd, like her fellow New Jerseyan Frank Sinatra, did it her way. She trained obsessively for years with a personal coach named James Galanis, sometimes shunning contact with members of her own family. Last year, she split with Galanis and re-established ties with her family.

While she was gregarious in the mixed zones for media at tournaments, she also would not suffer fools gladly, taking to Twitter on numerous occasions to dispute the line of questioning of some journalists who questioned her approach to the game.

And you know there had to be plenty of social media critics who had plenty to say a few weeks ago when the United States laid an egg against Canada in the Olympic semifinals. So, what did Lloyd do a scant couple of days later?

She answered her critics — and historians — the best way she knew how, scoring two of the four U.S. goals in the bronze-medal match against Australia in her final major tournament appearance.

Friends, it will surprise absolutely nobody when she ascends the dais in Frisco, Tex. in the summer of 2026 to accept a knit scarf and a red blazer, emblematic of her election to the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

And it will be well-deserved.

Aug. 15, 2021 — Saying what everyone is thinking

The American scholastic field hockey season begins in earnest this week with a handful of games in Kentucky as well as the start of play in the annual Apple Tournament. But it also is still in the midst of a wave of COVID-19 illnesses due to the presence of the Delta variant.

Today, the New Haven Register published an article which asks the prime question that many people, not just scholastic sports people, are thinking: “Can High School Sports Be Played Safely With COVID?”

It’s worth a read and some critical thinking.

Aug. 12, 2021 — What Major League Baseball could teach the Olympics

This evening, there is going to be a baseball game being held in Dyersburg, Iowa, the home of the original Field of Dreams movie. Workers chopped out a second baseball diamond on the same cornfield used for the haunted field where farmer Ray Kinsella encountered the ghosts of baseball past.

That construction, including stands, a scoreboard, and a clubhouse, are all temporary and much of it is likely to be disassembled after the game. While the new field, irrigation system, dugouts, and benches remain, the disassembly of the bleachers and lights will take place in the next week.

Now, we’re in the midst of a four-year cycle of Olympic and Paralympic competitions, where cities and national governments are obligated to build sports facilities which often regrettably fall into disuse afterwards.

These “white elephants” range from a skating rink in Sarajevo to the field hockey facility in Athens to the ski jump ramps in Sochi to a number of unused venues in Rio. What all of these facilities have in common is that they were all assumed to be permanent structures for legacy use by athletes in those countries. But as we have seen, there have never been long-range plans to boost, say, the Brazilian field hockey program, the Greek baseball program, or the Italian ice hockey team.

The MLB game this evening is one of many sporting events which use temporary structures to hold the event, then are quickly disassembled after it is over. Other sporting events, such as auto races on street circuits (such as the Monaco Grand Prix), extreme sports (the X Games or the Dew Tour), or events like the NHL Winter Classic, are held so that, once the finish line is crossed, the last medals awarded, or the final horn sounds, the workers can start on disassembling the ramps, grandstands, or the rink so that it leaves little trace that anything had ever happened.

It’s amazing and mind-boggling that the International Olympic Committee has not committed to this model, leaving the host organizing committees to plan the infrastructure needed to have an Olympics. Some Olympics have been more successful than others when it comes to building for the long term; London, for example, repurposed almost every one of its new facilities after 2012, including a teardown of the Riverbank field hockey complex at Olympic Park.

I have this vision of a bolt-together field hockey complex, including drainage of the artificial pitch (no matter what kind of turf is chosen by FIH in the future), seating, locker rooms, and press box, which could travel around Europe, Asia, and the world to host FIH world-level competitions.

The way I see it, if beverage companies and major cable TV networks can design temporary facilities, so can the IOC.

Aug. 11, 2021 — The NWSL coaching carousel is turning into a blender

The National Women’s Soccer League has matured into a 10-team league which has finally achieved a measure of stability, heading into its ninth full season of operations.

However, that stability has not extended into the coaching box.

In the last eight months, half of the teams have undergone coaching changes. Gone are Craig Harrington of the Utah Royals (which eventually left to go back to Kansas City), Mark Parsons of the Portland Thorns, Mark Skinner of the Orlando Pride, Farid Berstiti of OL Reign, and, yesterday, Richie Burke of the Washington Spirit.

Some of the moves were made for greener pastures: Skinner, for example, has been tapped as the new manager of Manchester United’s women’s team. And Parsons will be taking over the coaching duties of The Netherlands national team.

But other moves have been under less-than-ideal circumstances. There have been conflicting reports in the last 24 hours about the departure of Burke from the Spirit. He had originally been announced as joining the team’s front office, but after a Washington Post reporter contacted the team about allegations of abuse of players, the team announced that Burke was being fired. And this, after Burke’s original hire in 2019 was clouded by allegation of verbal abuse of some of his youth soccer players.

The world of women’s club soccer has expanded greatly in the last 10 years, with a number of women’s teams being sponsored by many of the world’s best men’s teams — Chelsea, Manchester United, Paris-Saint Germain, Barcelona, Juventus, Club America, Bayern Munich, and Santos have lent their name, club infrastructure, and prestige to the women’s game. It has gotten to the point where American players like Tobin Heath, Rose Lavelle, and Carli Lloyd left the NWSL last season to play in Europe.

Given the instability within the management of the NWSL, it makes me truly wonder if these players had sensed something about the culture within their NWSL clubs and decided to go overseas to get away from an abusive coach.

Aug. 7, 2021 — The U.S. is still the best in women’s team sports

Tonight, the U.S. women’s basketball team will be taking on host Japan in the gold-medal match in basketball at the Tokyo Olympics. And like many iterations of the team before them, they should win gold.

Indeed, since this site started 23 years ago, team sports have been at the head of the women’s sports revolution in America. The States are guaranteed to medal in basketball (both full-court and 3×3), volleyball (indoor and beach), soccer, water polo, and softball.

Too, the States won medals in a number of team events in what are usually individual sports. American women have medaled in the 4000-meter team pursuit in cycling, synchronized platform diving, team gymnastics, three swim relays, three track relays (including a mixed-gender relay), the mixed-gender triathlon relay, and team dressage and team jumping in the equestrian events.

Now, not all of these have been gold medals. Indeed, there will be more ink expended on the bronze medal won by the U.S. women’s national soccer team than is usually expended on the Boston Red Sox.

But the level of competition in all sports on the Olympic program has been raised across the board the last several years. Some of the competition boosters have been governments, especially state-sponsored funding by China and Russia — and, to a smaller extent, the United States, which has more and more talent identification within governing bodies of sports at younger and younger ages.

Some of the other competition boosters have been privately-owned. The X-Games, the Dew Tour and the like have been the springboards for the recent additions of skateboarding, BMX, freestyle skiing, and other “extreme” sports in the Olympic program.

Another booster, I think, is going to be Athletes Unlimited. With this week’s demise of the Women’s Professional Softball League, AU is going to be the primary outlet for the player pool of softball players as they have to play and train through an Olympic cycle without the sport (softball and baseball won’t be played at Paris 2024). Too, the AU is going to be helping train a generation of pro players for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, by which time lacrosse is reputed to be added as a medal sport.

The regrettable constant throughout the last 23 years? Field hockey has brought up the rear when it comes to achievements. Yes, the women’s national team won its first major trophy in 2014, but the current world ranking for the team is 15th.

Yep, 15th.

And so it goes.

Aug. 2, 2021 — The two implacable opponents

The U.S. women’s soccer team has been facing many opponents the last couple of years.

It’s not just the games that the team plays, but the U.S. team has been fighting for equal pay from its own soccer federation, as well as fighting a war for social justice off the pitch.

But in the game the States needed in order to get into the gold medal game, the U.S. lost 1-0 to Canada. In the course of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the team fought, and lost, against two inevitable opponents: age and hubris.

The U.S. team, coming into the Games, were one of the older teams in the competition. Veterans like Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe were being asked to step into a tropical climate (complete with a typhoon) and play games every other day — a shorter turnaround than what is expected during FIFA international windows. The fact that the team decided to stay with many of its 2019 World Cup veterans is an admirable show of loyalty, but the team did not feed in younger players to make the team better and fresher during the compressed schedule.

The hubris comes in with the team selection and how the players were deployed. A number of fine players, such as Jessica McDonald, Mallory Pugh, Midge Purce, Andi Sullivan, Trinity Rodman, and Emily Fox were left at home. A number of starting selections, such as putting in Lindsey Horan at defensive midfield against Sweden, proved to be less than fruitful.

But ultimately, the American failing was in the attack end of the pitch. In the offense, there was no flow, no interpassing, and, ultimately, no teamwork. If you were to chart the last half-hour of play, you’d be hard-press to find a sequence in the final third where the United States strung as many as three passes together before either a turnover, an interception, or a shot that could barely dent the edge of a custard pie.

I’m amazed that, after all of the games and training camps over the last two years, that head coach Vlatko Andonovski was unable to find a combination of players with the explosiveness, speed, and confidence to take on defenders and score in bunches.

Yes, the United States were undefeated in Andonovski’s first 23 games at the helm. But only in a few games did you ever get the sense that the Hammers were bossing the game. And those were against minnows like Costa Rica and Colombia.

With two years until the next major FIFA tournament, the 2023 Women’s World Cup, you get the feeling that the roster is going to see a major upheaval in the next few weeks.