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July 18, 2019 — What’s missing in the WNBA?

Last night, at a takeout place near home, I actually got to sit down and watch part of a WNBA game on an NBA TV simulcast.

The item that led the news of the day in one of the world’s most high-profile women’s pro basketball leagues? The news that Riquina Williams of the Los Angeles Sparks was being suspended for 10 games for her part in a domestic violence incident.

This follows on allegations over the weekend involving the Seattle Storm’s All-Star forward Natasha Howard and her spouse.

The 2019 WNBA season has been more about disappearances, rather than a maturing league bringing the game of women’s basketball to the fore. Sue Bird, with a knee injury, is lost for the season. So is her teammate Breanna Stewart, who tore her Achilles tendon.

Maya Moore has not reported to the Minnesota Lynx, expressing a desire to do ministry work. Skylar Diggins is missing the season to have a baby.

And two other high-profile players, Angel McCoughtry and Diana Taurasi, couldn’t start the season because of major injuries.

Now, I recognize a lot of these player disappearances are out of the control of the various teams and owners. But the Moore situation came just after the Lynx put its franchise tag on her, which puts less freedom of movement on her for her next round of contract negotiations.

Aside from player disappearances, some WNBA teams have made befuddling moves from large arenas in the middle of their territories to out-of-the-way buildings barely better than high-school arenas. The New York Liberty, having played parts of most of its last few seasons either at the Prudential Center in Newark or in Madison Square Garden, has been relegated to playing at the 5,000-seat Westchester County Center in White Plains. The team barely took in an average of 2,000 fans a game last year.

The Washington Mystics, having filled the current Capital One Center on several occasions in the 1990s, is relegated to playing its home games at the practice gym of the Washington Wizards, a place that barely seats 4,500 people and is located far from the center of town.

It’s as if though the WNBA has been complicit in hiding its most valuable asset — its teams — under a bowl, to borrow a Biblical parable.

I can’t see this as being terribly sustainable over the long haul.

July 14, 2019 — To break a tie

In the sports world today, there were two unprecedented tiebreakers implemented in order to determine a winner after a tie.

One, in an individual pursuit, saw the Wimbledon men’s singles final determined by a tiebreaker, the vision of Jimmy Van Alen had finally come to the All-England Club after nearly 50 years. But unlike much of the rest of the world, this 12-point tiebreaker came only after Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic had played to a 12-12 game score in the fifth set.

The institution of the fifth-set tiebreaker came only after a couple of ridiculously long matches featuring U.S. player John Isner affected the scheduling of courts at the Club, including one which went 70 games to 68 in the final set in 2010.

The other tiebreaker came in a team sport, cricket. They held the final of the ICC World Cup, a competition featuring one-day international (or ODI) rules, where teams had 50 overs, or groups of six attempts, at scoring as many runs as they could by running in between two sets of stumps 22 yards apart.

In the final, England, the host nation, played upstart New Zealand. At the end of 50 overs for each team, the score was tied at 241 runs apiece. Now, I thought that perhaps the game would be decided in favor of New Zealand, since they spent only eight outs getting the same number of runs that England did in scoring theirs while expending all 10 outs.

Instead, the game went to what was called a “super over,” which saw each side getting six deliveries to score as many runs as they could. Oddly enough, the two sides each scored 15 runs off their six deliveries in each over, so the winner was determined by the number of times each team had scored either a four (hitting the ball to and over the boundary surrounding the Lord’s cricket ground), or a six (hitting the ball over the boundary on the fly). In the tiebreak, England won 26 to 17 on boundaries.

Now, I’ve seen some interesting tiebreakers implemented in sports like field hockey and lacrosse. But to me, the super over is something that shouldn’t be done just once. Instead, why not go for another super over and get a clear winner?

Or make it a really “super” over and have 10 deliveries per team rather than just six, and restrict the placement of players as in the “power play,” where teams score more runs than usual.

July 8, 2019 — More than just equality

As much as the U.S. women’s soccer team’s dominating performance at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup served as a platform for pay equity, human rights, and Title IX, there’s so more that needs to be done outside of the stated goals of various team members.

Shockingly left unsaid was the state of the National Women’s Soccer League, the nine-team American league which started in 2012 and is the longest-lasting women’s pro soccer league in U.S. history.

The NWSL has survived by paying its non-Federation based players very low-ball wages, playing in some very small stadia (as low as 4,000), and pretty much tolerating any and all contravention of field, ownership, and leadership standards.

If you remember, the final season of the Western New York Flash was marred by a controversy when a late-season game was moved from Rochester’s soccer-specific stadium to a site with a baseball diamond, resulting in the kind of narrow pitch not seen since the days of the North American Soccer League.

The Boston Breakers played their first NWSL season at Dilboy Stadium in Somerville, Mass., on artificial grass which was, according to the players, not very well kept. Too, the capacity was barely 3,500. Boston made a move to Soldiers Field Soccer Stadium at Harvard University, which was only a little larder, then folded after the 2017 season.

Sky Blue FC is a team which is still playing, but is barely hanging on. Ownership issues involving the sitting Governor of the State of New Jersey, plus poor accommodations at Yurcak Field at Rutgers University has hampered this franchise, and the team’s supporters have banded together in protest of the way the team is being run.

Now, the current run of success of the senior women’s national team has gotten the attention of at least one major sponsor: Anheuser-Busch. Of course, given the fact that the beer company has been a major sponsor of soccer back to the 1970s, this isn’t much of a stretch.

But it’s going to take more than just one sponsor to help keep the league going. Major League Soccer, as started back in 1996, had Bud, Honda, MasterCard, and the Bandai toy company, amongst others. The package of sponsors, both leaguewide and within each club, has evolved and expanded over the years.

I’ll be interested to see when and if the NWSL is willing to commit to that kind of finance structure going forward. I think it’s going to require about a dozen more kinds of commitments like this in order to keep the league going.

In other words, there’s a lot more work to do.

July 7, 2019 — What the Holland women’s soccer team didn’t learn from its field hockey team

This afternoon, the U.S. women’s soccer team defeated Holland 2-0 in order to win its fourth FIFA Women’s World Cup.

It was a game that was eminently winnable on the part of the Dutch, as their bend-but-don’t-break defense and the goalkeeping of Sari van Veenendaal did something that nobody had done during this World Cup: hold the United States without a goal for the first half.

That was the good part of how Holland, the current European champions, were able to make the championship final. But in the second half, it all fell apart.

It didn’t have to, had the football team taken a few simple lessons from the current world women’s field hockey champions in the same country.

Holland’s stickwomen, which went 15-1 in FIH Pro League play this year, attacks from different points on the pitch. But the soccer team attacked up the middle almost every single time it had the ball. If you drew a line from the sides of the goal box and extended them upfield, this 20-yard corridor was the entirety of the Netherlands’ attack area, and you saw that Kelley O’Hara and Crystal Dunn were able to cheat in towards the center of the park to help center backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper, making it nearly impossible to get a shot of any quality on goalie Alyssa Naeher.

But what I think also happened is that the U.S. team out-cultured Holland, the same way the reverse has happened in field hockey. Here’s what I mean: back in 1991, when the United States participated in the first world tournament which would retroactively be named the first Women’s World Cup, one aspect Anson Dorrance brought to the team from his days at the University of North Carolina was the concept of “play for each other.” For three decades, the ethic of the U.S. team was to not let their teammates down by a slack bit of skill, not going 100 percent for a loose ball, or through losing.

The Dutch hockey system, however, has relied on grass roots. The game has taken a strong hold in Holland’s society. Entire families often join a single hockey club, with children playing on age-group sides, and the adults on social sides unless they are at an elite level, in which case they would be on the club’s best team. This has given the Dutchwomen tremendous success, having won 11 world titles since 1971 and three Olympic golds, making the medals stand every Olympiad since 1996.

I have a feeling the shoe may be on the other foot very soon, especially given Holland’s dominion over field hockey the last 50 years.

July 3, 2019 — Arrogant, or just good?

Over the last two decades of running this site, I have witnessed some of the best field hockey lacrosse teams and individuals who have ever played the game both at the scholastic and collegiate levels.

Where do I start? The names of certain teams — Voorhees Eastern (N.J.), the University of Maryland, Moorestown (N.J.), the University of North Carolina, Emmaus (Pa.), Owings Mills McDonogh (Md.), Old Dominion University, Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.), The College of New Jersey, Watertown (Mass.), and Ellicott City Mount Hebron (Md.) — strike fear into the hearts of opponents everywhere.

And the players — from Kat Sharkey, Kelsey Kolojejchick, Austyn Cuneo, Meredith Sholder, Haley Schleicher, Rachel Dawson, Lexi Smith, Jill Witmer, and Mackenzie Allessie to Jen Adams, Sheehan Stanwick, Dana Dobbie, Taylor Cummings, Zoe Stukenberg, Kali Hartshorn, Megan Bosica, Carly Reed, Sophia Turchetta, Corinne Wessels, and Caitlyn Wurzburger — are all the stuff of legend in their respective sports.

All of these teams and individuals have come through during a time of increasingly intense scrutiny and withering criticism not of their own making, but by sometimes anonymous critics on both Internet message boards and on social media.

And so it was that, leading into yesterday’s U.S. women’s soccer match, the American team wasn’t just undefeated, it was labeled as being “arrogant.”

Leave it to writer Maggie Ryan, a former member of several high-flying San Diego Serra (Calif.) field hockey teams, to lend perspective to the double-standard good women’s athletic teams face.

June 26, 2019 — An original ESPNer hangs up the microphone

Yesterday, it was announced that Bob Ley, who had been with ESPN for four decades and who broke ground in video sports journalism, taking over in an era when local newspapers dropped the ball on enterprise stories, was leaving the network as of this week.

Ley, in his show “Outside The Lines,” tackled such various and sundry subjects as fake autographed sports memorabilia, steroids in baseball, concussions in football, and the ongoing scandals in the governance of world soccer.

While Ley said this week that he was leaving the network on his own terms, some of his topics, and the undeniable pushback from some of his subjects, may suggest otherwise.

You see, sportswriting is what is called “the candy store” in terms of journalism. Lots of hero worship, the building up of personalities and teams, and certain coddling of the big names in the sport.

That went away, big-time, one morning in 2015 when Ley, having been provided with a copy of a meeting agenda of the FIFA meeting to elect a new president to replace the disgraced Sepp Blatter, tore it in half.

“This is FIFA, making it up as we go along,” he said.

Ley never capitulated to pressure from ESPN bosses when it came to stories which called into question the integrity of the sports the network considered “properties.” He took on the questions about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE) long before some of the bizarre suicides that some NFL players committed in order to preserve their brains for post-mortem study.

The NFL, with a two billion-dollar footprint on the national sports landscape, has considerable clout, even influencing ESPN to not make another season of Playmakers, a drama which follows a fictional NFL team and its players.

I wonder if some of that clout forced Ley out of his chair.

June 13, 2019 — A perspective on runaway scores

Yesterday, I published an opinion on the U.S. women’s national soccer team’s 13-0 win over Thailand.

It wasn’t the only opinion, naturally.

But my thoughts on blowouts (and how to deal with them) are shaped by what I have seen on this site over the last 21 years.

And some of the defeated teams were American.

On Constance Applebee’s first European tour of the Home Nations of Great Britain back in 1920, the United States women’s field hockey team lost to England by a score of 16-0. Don’t believe me? Read the title card from this vintage newsreel. It wouldn’t be until 1962 until an American field hockey team got at least a draw from the English national team.

On the men’s side, India defeated the United States by a score of 23-1 in the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. It stood for decades as the most lopsided international score in men’s field hockey until Argentina’s men beat the Dominican Republic in the 2003 Pan American Games by a score of 30-0. That was only surpassed in 2007 when New Zealand beat Papua New Guinea by a score of 39-0.

And there was one high-school game in Pennsylvania in which Hazelton (Pa.) Area beat Wyoming (Pa.) Area by a score of 29-0.

Lacrosse has also had its share of monumental blowouts. Back in the 1960s, when an England women’s national select team was taking a tour of North America, the team played a Long Island all-star team and beat their hosts 40-0. There have been some blowout defeats domestically on the part of teams like the girls’ team at Ellicott City Mount Hebron (Md.), a side which routinely beat teams by 25 or more goals during the late 80s, early 90s, and the 2000s.

In college lacrosse, the record had been a 1993 game between Roanoke’s men and Virginia Wesleyan, which the former won by a score of 40-0. That is, until the Colorado Mesa men beat Johnson and Wales-Denver by a score of 52-0 in a game this past April. It is a game which had been shortened by 7 1/2 minutes due to a severe injury.

So, I ask you: where were the pundits then, decrying the victors in these games?