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Archive for Omnibus

Jan. 14, 2021 — A second prominent ACC women’s basketball team opts out

The University of Virginia women’s basketball team has had some hard luck since the team made three consecutive Final Fours between 1990-92. The Cavaliers have not been ranked in the AP Top 25 in a decade, and have gone through a pair of coaching changes.

Even with WNBA legend Tina Thompson at the helm of the program, the team seemingly struggled to attract the kind of top-level talent which has been going to the likes of Stanford, Connecticut, Tennessee, and Louisville. It’s notable that, of the 13 members of the UVA roster coming into the 2020 season, four of them were transfers from other colleges, meaning that Thompson only had nine players who were directly recruited into the program.

A wave of injuries and the COVID-19 pandemic hit the team hard, necessitating the decision today to end its season. Virginia becomes the second ACC women’s basketball team, following Duke, to opt out of finishing the 20-20 campaign.

The Cavaliers had started its season 0-5 but its most significant metric was the fact that seven of its games were postponed because of health issues. And perhaps the most troubling of these cancellations was a Dec. 6 road trip to George Washington University. Virginia had just six healthy players for the game.

I know there are better days ahead for this once-proud program. I can’t help but think that, once the pandemic ends and the players apply themselves fully to the task at hand, they’ll be competitive.

Jan. 13, 2021 — More of the same in women’s soccer?

A decade ago, Lindsey Horan did something which was unheard of in American women’s sports. As the top-ranked female soccer recruit coming out of high school, she decided to forego a scholarship to the University of North Carolina in order to play with the pro women’s soccer team Olympique Lyonnais.

This kind of thing has been de rigeur in men’s sports for years, especially since a pair of basketball players named Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson entered a little-known dispersal draft called a “hardship draft,” sending both to the NBA, whereupon they won eight NBA titles, six MVPs, played on the 1992 “Dream Team” at the Barcelona Olympics, and entered the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

The last couple of days, the world of women’s soccer has been flipped upside down with a pair of intentions to turn professional by a pair of prominent American players.

Brianna Pinto is a midfielder for the University of North Carolina. She is one of the most-capped players in the history of United States U-20 soccer, having won the 2019 U.S. Soccer Young Player of the Year. That honor has been won by a litany of legends including current U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone, as well as national-team mainstays like Heather O’Reilly, Kristie Mewis, Tobin Heath, Julie Johnston Ertz, Morgan Brian, and Mallory Pugh.

A couple of days ago, she posted her intention on Twitter to leave UNC to declare for the NWSL draft, which takes place today. She is expected to be a likely top-four pick by expansion side Louisville, Washington, or Sky Blue FC, which holds the third and fourth selections of the draft.

While Pinto is destined to be wearing an NWSL shirt starting this spring, the same cannot be said for another college soccer star. Stanford junior Catarina Macario, she of the two Hermann Trophies and two NCAA titles, has opted to forego her senior season and sign professionally with Olympique Lyonnais.

Macario, according to the Stanford Daily, was in a bit of a bidding war for her services, as Bayern Munich was cited as a candidate. But Macario decided to instead go to France, even though there’s likely to be an NWSL side likely to snap up her domestic rights for the moment she decides to come back to U.S. shores.

I think, however, there’s something deeper than just the ability to play in France, away from the COVID-19 pandemic in North America.

One of her teammates in Lyon will be Ada Hegerberg, the Norwegian player who decided to opt out of participation for Norway at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup over player contracts with the national federation for soccer. As such, I think Macario could very well be setting up a confrontation with the NWSL over the very existence of the player draft.

You see, in world soccer, individual teams in every country try to grow their talent at home in developmental academies or developmental youth leagues, sort of like if every NWSL or MLS team had teams at every possible age level. Something like this has already been tried, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, which was ended in April of 2020.

But the draft remains, tying the drafted player’s rights to one club unless that club trades those rights away. Mind you, it’s not quite like baseball’s reserve clause; eventually soccer players’ rights can expire.

I’m interested to see what happens in a couple of years after Macario’s contract expires, especially if she becomes a prominent player for the United States leading up to the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

Jan. 9, 2021 — A cold closing

Remember this and this, partially balanced by this?

Yesterday, the hammer dropped on another private school, one which had a small part in field hockey lore, but has a pretty large history in sports in its area.

Trenton (N.J.) Catholic Academy yesterday announced that it would be closing at then end of the academic year, citing both financial and COVID-19 concerns. It is a school which has built its reputation largely on athletics since its founding in 1962. It hosted, at one time, the most important boys’ basketball holiday tournament in the country, the Eastern States Catholic Invitational Tournament, which brought in regional as well as occasional national powerhouse teams.

TCA, when it was known as St. Anthony’s, also had a field hockey team at the dawn of Title IX, but the sport was long gone once the first Mercer County Tournament was held in 1981.

Since then, sports at the school have driven many decisions. When your Founder was doing the dailies, the football team at the school was at the bottom of the table in the Colonial Valley Conference. At one time, the Iron Mikes football team was dangerously close to being unable to field a team because of low turnout and injuries.

A few years ago, however, the school made the radical decision to break its geographical boundary and play its sports within the Burlington County Scholastic League. This is the high-school equivalent of Australia playing soccer within the Asian Football Confederation or the years when Phillipsburg (N.J.) was part of the East Penn Conference, which was the case until 1995.

Trenton Catholic’s move to the BCSL had the desired effect for the football team; it was placed in the Freedom Division of the BCSL with several small school districts along the Delaware River where the team at least would have a chance to compete on a fair basis.

But the consolidation of nearly 100 schools into the West Jersey Football League complicated matters, and TCA dropped football.

The basketball enterprise, however, grew in prestige and importance. The girls’ basketball team at the school was ranked in the Top 10 in numerous polls, and the boys’ team was winning county and state tournaments. And the school’s apex was when the boys’ team was able to win the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions in 2010.

Regrettably, TCA is going to be remembered as yet another COVID-19 casualty.

Jan. 6, 2021 — Could the votes of 2.2 million people have an outsized effect on the WNBA?

Yesterday, a runoff election took place in the state of Georgia for two U.S. Senate seats.

As of this morning, one of the losing candidates was Kelly Loeffler, the co-owner of the Atlanta Dream of the WNBA. Loeffler had been appointed to the senate seat by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp to replace Johnny Isakson, who for health reasons stepped aside.

In the mid-summer, Loeffler was polling in the mid-20s, while her eventual runoff opponent, Raphael Warnock, was polling at a mere nine percent. However, when WNBA players, including the entire Dream roster, expressed support for Warnock, his poll numbers and profile rose.

That profile rose to the point where he was able to get 2.2 million votes yesterday, which is roughly twice as many people who have ever bought a ticket to an Atlanta Dream game since the inaugural 2008 season.

Loeffler’s position within Washington was built on the amassing of wealth. Her husband is the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange’s parent company, and, as such, made her the single richest U.S. Senator.

Oddly enough, she hadn’t had much of a hand in the day-to-day operations of the Atlanta Dream, but somehow found time to criticize her own team for wearing protest shirts and leaving the court pre-game and staying in the dressing room while the National Anthem played before a game in the WNBA’s summer bubble last year.

Loeffler isn’t the first person in the current political class to be connected with a women’s sports team. Phil Murphy, the governor of New Jersey, is a majority owner of Sky Blue FC, the NWSL soccer franchise that plays out of New Brunswick, N.J.

But Loeffler did something that only Dan Borislow, the former owner of magicJack FC managed to do, and that is to turn employees of the sports team against the owner in a highly public way.

When it came to Borislow, he alienated players, coaches, and fans of the team’s former home in the greater Washington, D.C. area with his actions, including naming himself head coach even though he did not have the requisite coaching license.

The question I’m posing here is, “Can Kelly Loeffler effect some sort of punishment on her Atlanta Dream players that could affect the stability of the entire WNBA?” While there is no indication that Loeffler is likely to sell her share of the team to a possible ownership group including the likes of LeBron James, I do wonder if Loeffler could leverage her position as a team owner to create some sort of crisis that could ripple across the league.

I’m not kidding. This could get ugly.

Jan. 1, 2021 — My hopes for 2021

The end of 2020 sees the end of one of the tumultuous years in the history of the world. Oddly enough, this tumult wasn’t as a result of war, natural disasters, or terrorism.

Instead, the COVID-19 global pandemic has been responsible for 83 million worldwide infections with 1.8 million deaths. It has had devastating effects on many worldwide economies: the United States, the world’s largest economy, leads in infections and deaths from Coronavirus.

But you’re also seeing three out of the four so-called BRIC countries in the top four in terms of the number of COVID infections. Russia, India, and Brazil, with more than three million positive tests each, are similarly overrun by the virus, and they were, along with China, four of the most important growing economies in the world before the onset of the pandemic.

Not only are public health and world economies being affected by the virus, but also competitive sports. Here are my hopes for 2021:

I hope that the spring collegiate field hockey season is able to take place without the kind of tumult that has befallen football and men’s basketball in the last year, and is able to wind its way to a champion.

I also hope that teams in the ACC which did not win the automatic qualifier are able to get a fair shot at the two at-large bids in the NCAA Division I Tournament.

I hope that the college women’s lacrosse season is able to take place, especially with the talented players expected to make an impact this fall.

I hope that, in Division I, that teams other than the University of North Carolina are able to emerge as national championship contenders. I think Notre Dame, Denver, and Michigan are going to be major Final Four contenders if they are able to get through their seasons.

I hope that the National Women’s Soccer League is able to put a good product on the pitch, given the fact that a number of NWSL and U.S. stars are currently under contract to foreign clubs.

I hope that the “nouveau riche” women’s soccer clubs worldwide — I’m looking at you, Manchester City, Paris-St. Germain, Club America, and FC Barcelona — are treated as more than just window dressing, and that the corporations that run and sponsor them put the money and resources behind their women’s teams equal to the men’s teams.

I hope that both the WNBA and NWSL are given proper credit for the way they were able to make good on their 2020 seasons.

I hope that two major female athletes who played very little or not at all in 2020 — soccer’s Megan Rapinoe and basketball’s Elena Delle Donne — are able to come back with their club sides and have an impact at the 2021 Olympics.

I hope that the Olympics are able to have a full re-opening with fans in the arenas this summer.

I also hope that the companies responsible for long-term transport — especially cruise ships and commercial aircraft — undergo systemic reform so that their vessels do not continue to be petri dishes for viruses and other diseases.

I also hope that as many of you as are able can will take advantage of vaccine distribution programs in the first three months of 2021 and help flatten the curve of COVID-19, given the fact that there are seven billion people in the world, and there are maybe only 400 million doses of vaccine in the pipeline right now.

And I hope you, dear reader, stay safe and well until then. Mask up, socially distance, and just be careful out there.

Dec. 26, 2020 — Duke’s cessation is not a good sign for NCAA basketball in either gender

Yesterday, it was announced that the Duke women’s basketball team, a side which was expected to contend for ACC honors with new head coach Kara Lawson, would end its season after playing just four games.

It had been 10 days ago when Duke’s women put a pause on games and other activities when two members of the team’s travel party (the exact identities or roles remain a mystery) tested positive for COVID-19. The pause came five days after one of Duke’s opponents, Louisville University, had a positive test within its ranks.

After that game, Lawson came out and made a single devastating statement: “I don’t think we should be playing right now.” And according to numerous reports, players on the Duke women’s team were the thought leaders in closing down the season.

Duke is a prominent team, making the Final Four four times between 1999 and 2006. Too, the ACC is a prominent conference in both men’s and women’s basketball, as member teams have won the NCAA Division I tournament on numerous occasions.

The Duke women are the first team amongst the so-called Power Five conferences to opt out of playing basketball. But they are certainly not alone in not playing. A handful of schools on the men’s side, including Siena and Merrimack, have not even played a game yet because of Coronavirus. Virginia State, a historically-Black university, has cancelled both its men’s and women’s basketball seasons.

Too, a number of conferences in all three NCAA divisions, including the Ivy League, the North East Athletic Conference, the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, and the Midwest Conference have already decided not to play.

But what should give you pause are the words of the men’s basketball coach at Duke, Mike Krzyzewski. After a game this year, he offered his take on playing sports during the global pandemic: “I would just like for the safety, the mental and physical health of players and staff to assess where we’re at.”

This is a Naismith Hall-of-Famer who has taken the last three U.S. men’s Olympic basketball teams to gold medals, the first coach to do so. I have a feeling that, if the Duke men were to follow the lead of the women, it could have a ripple effect on not only Division I basketball, but all of college sports.

And all this less than a week before the start of the billion-dollar College Football Playoff begins.

Dec. 24, 2020 — A streaming war, streaming dumbly?

Quick quiz: if you want to watch soccer games from the English Premier League, where do you turn? Well, a year ago, you could easily find matches on NBC, the NBC Sports Network, USA, and CNBC as well as an upgrade service called NBC Gold.

This year, the number of available outlets has been compressed, with the vast majority of content now being placed on the very buggy and troublesome Peacock Premium streaming service. For NBC Sports Network, there’s no more “Match of the Day” or “Manchester Mondays” highlights; everything is now on Peacock.

A number of sports properties have now been hidden almost exclusively behind video-streaming paywalls instead of being put on cable. I think a lot of it started a couple of years ago when Bleacher Report Live started hosting streams of UEFA Champions League and Europa League games, as well as pro indoor lacrosse and various other sports, including FIH field hockey events involving the United States.

BR Live, however, is now just a shadow of its former self, with just 10 different sports leagues being promoted.

ESPN Plus, Hulu, CBS All Access, and various other platforms have had more success in recent months, but the panoply of other streaming services like DaZN, Sling, and Fubo have led to much confusion and the seeming inability to find live matches even in a universe where hundreds of blank channels exist on many cable services.

Flip through your cable box sometime and count up the number of blank channels. That’s potential broadcast streaming that is not being used; it kind of reminds you of those pictures of empty or near-empty shopping malls which were gleaming commercial palaces years ago, but are now shadows of their former selves.

It’s now being reported that the NBC Sports Network, having broadcast everything from the Tour de France to the Stanley Cup Playoffs to the Premier League to NASCAR to Indycar, may be shutting down altogher by this time next year.

Now, we’ve seen some repurposing of sports channels in the past. There were the changes within Fox Sports, repurposing SPEED into Fox Sports 1 and Mav TV into Fox Sports 2, only to see FS2 remain largely unused for original content with the departure of the UFC to ESPN.

But with more and more people adopting streaming, how many more networks will go off the air? How many sports will go behind paywalls? And ultimately, will there be some sports destined to forever be kept from the public except for a select few viewers?

Dec. 22, 2020 — COVID, the great isolator?

Yesterday started that two-week-long cavalcade of athletic excess called the college bowl season. But if you’ll notice, there’s something missing this year. Actually, a lot of somethings.

A number of prominent schools, such as Boston College, have opted out of selection to bowl games. Too, a lot of bowl games are not going to be contested.

One of them was a given: the Bahamas Bowl was only one involving foreign travel. There were a lot of bowls slated for cold climates in the northeast U.S. which were also cancelled. These were in New York, Boston, and Annapolis, Md.

But the lead of the 2020-21 bowl story had to have been the fact that there are going to be no bowl games in California. Even the self-titled “Granddaddy of Them All,” the Rose Bowl, is being held outside of Pasadena for the first time since World War II, when Duke University volunteered to host the game to keep out of range of a feared Japanese air attack.

California leads the nation in Coronavirus cases, and many hospitals are already full to the gills with newly infected persons. Places like Santa Clara County have put the kibosh on professional sports, and there has been all number of changes to the California sports calendar because of it. Indeed, if the curve fails to flatten, the entire CIF fall season, already pushed back to late January, may be forfeit altogether.

The same can be said in Europe because of an outbreak of a deadlier COVID-19 strain in the United Kingdom. Travelers from the Host Nations are now being barred from travel to a number of countries. This situation is taking place right when the country is executing its “Brexit” from the European Union, and could have a lot of unfortunate implications down the road.

You see, the United Kingdom has not only been interconnected with the EU not only economically, but in terms of the sporting world. I think the popularity of competitions such as the UEFA Champions League in soccer and the Six Nations Tournament in rugby have been accentuated by the fact that travel was made relatively seamless.

Eight teams — seven from England and one from Scotland — are scheduled for knockout play starting next year in the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Europa League. Under normal circumstances, travel from one place to another for these games is mere formality. But now, passports and visas are going to be required.

I, frankly, can’t wait until a lengthy delay at a border crossing has an effect on a UEFA game, especially if it is a smaller nation looking to make a political point at the expense of England, Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland.

It could happen.

Dec. 21, 2020 — An increasingly louder conversation

In the last few weeks, there has been more and more airtime on Sky Sports, a British 24-hour channel, devoted to the long-term effects of head injuries in sport.

Sky has been focusing on the recent deaths of 1966 World Cup soccer winners Jack Charlton and Nobby Stiles, as well as the possible legal action on the part of 70 former rugby players who could be party to a class-action lawsuit against the Rugby Football Union, the Welsh Rugby Union and World Rugby.

This is, of course, a half-decade after an enormous lawsuit, backed by 4,500 former college and professional football players, has been working its way through the courts.

Now, if you’ve been keeping an eye on pro sports recently in the United States, you’ll notice blue medical tents on the sideline of football games, and the words “concussion protocol” being omnipresent in any and all sports broadcasts.

I’m glad more and more societies worldwide are having conversations about closed-head injuries and how to prevent them. In so many countries, admitting possible symptoms of concussions is seen as a sign of weakness or a lack of commitment.

There is still a lot to do, especially in the way that sports are policed. I’m seeing a lot more physical contact at the higher levels of women’s lacrosse than I ever have. Going into the fan now often means getting crashed into by more than one defender, which isn’t supposed to happen.

And you’re also seeing more and more concussions in field hockey as goalies are getting hit in the helmet with 80-mph shots and forwards without protection are running into goalkeepers with shoulder and hip pads made of hard plastic.

Indeed, a number of players who I have seen in high school have had to either modify or end their field hockey careers because of repeated blows to the head. This includes at least two players who have represented the United States in international competition.

I think, especially for field hockey goalies, a concussion conversation is long overdue.

Dec. 19, 2020 — WADA’s surprising rollback

Some of you may remember this and this, both of which led to an announcement this week confirming the original Russia ban, but pulling back some of the stipulations two years.

There has been some righteous disappointment on the part of some officials and Olympic pundits about this move. And I can’t say I blame them: Russian government officials were caught tampering with databases to cover up hundreds of doping violations over the years.

But I think the Court for Arbitration for Sport’s decision is much more of a carrot than the proverbial stick. According to a communique:

It has considered matters of proportionality and, in particular, the need to effect cultural change and encourage the next generation of Russian athletes to participate in clean international sport.

In other words, the CAS seemingly does not want to punish hopeful Russian athletes who are likely to hit their physical peak three to four years out, but still punish authorities whose state-sponsored doping started in the leadup to the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

That’s fair, I guess. But, if you’ve been watching the series “Take the Podium” on the Olympic Channel, you’ll get an idea of the scope of the doping violations and just how many Olympic dreams were taken away from athletes who never doped.

I’m still looking to see further effects of American doping even after the end of the BALCO investigation. Given what we are seeing with the imminent announcements of Baseball Hall of Fame voting — and the presence of users like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, and Andy Pettite — the American sports nation has a lot to answer for.