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Archive for Omnibus

June 14, 2018 — Anne Donovan, 1961-2018

Anne Donovan, the Naismith Memorial and Women’s Basketball Hall-of-Famer who died this morning, authored a singular event in the history of women’s basketball.

The scene was the 1986 Goodwill Games, a preparatory tournament for the FIBA Women’s World Championship that would be held later in the year. The Goodwill Games were a made-for-television multi-sport extravaganza that was funded by the Turner Sports group and was meant to be a direct competitor to the Olympics.

But for Donovan and the United States team, it was the chance to meet the Soviet Union in an international contest after boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 games made it impossible for the two sides to meet.

The USSR came into the Goodwill Games having won 152 of its previous 154 games stretching back into the 1950s. They had the biggest and most imposing player in the world, 7-foot-2 Ulyana Semenova.

Both the Americans and the Soviet had won their first four games in round-robin play. As the rules of the Goodwill Games women’s basketball event had no classification playoff or medal round, the team with the best overall record would win the gold medal.

It was sometime in the first half of that game when Semenova got the ball near the basket, and Donovan, the most dominant player in the later years of the AIAW at Old Dominion, got her hand on the shot. The Soviets were never the same, as the Americans went on a 20-4 run and took a 39-25 lead at the interval. The States would win by 23, the first time the Soviet Union ever lost on home soil.

After that game, the United States would win the FIBA Women’s World Championship as well, with a win over the Soviet team.

It would be a decade later when a U.S. team led by Rebecca Lobo, Theresa Edwards, Jennifer Azzi, and Dawn Staley would sweep its way to a gold medal in Atlanta 1996 and start the foundation for the WNBA. Donovan, who was well into her post-playing days, wound up being a fine coach in the pros, as she took the Charlotte Sting and Seattle Storm to WNBA championships.

I met Anne Donovan once for an interview about the arms race that WNBA teams were involved in when it came to finding pivot players. It was a contrast to the winning strategy of early WNBA dynasty Houston Comets, who played a three-guard offense and beat you with passing and movement and fluid shooting.

Donovan, I reasoned, knew more about the value of centers than most. I was honored to meet her and gain some wisdom.

Safe home, Anne. You were the best.

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June 6, 2018 — The conundrum of women’s soccer

The history of sanctioned U.S. Soccer Federation Division I leagues for women only dates back to 2001 with the launch of the WUSA. And yet, the three iterations of pro women’s soccer in America — the WUSA, WPS, and NWSL — have never really found a television home.

That was driven home today with the announcement that Lifetime was offloading seven NWSL games which will now be broadcast on ESPNews.

Lifetime is the latest television partner which has dumped women’s soccer like a hot rock, following TNT, Pax, and Oxygen.

It’s Oxygen and Lifetime which, I feel, need a bit of a recentering when it comes to their mission. Both of these networks say that they cater to an overwhelmingly female audience, but are missing out on content which will bring in more eyes to their screens.

Thing is, they also got out of broadcasting WNBA games by 2003, and the league is still going.

The problem is, both of these networks seem to only want to re-run 15-year-old docudramas or “women in trouble” movies.

And that’s a shame.

 

May 17, 2018 — 500 million reasons

Yesterday, Michigan State University announced that it would be setting aside up to a half-billion (that’s “billion,” with a “b”) dollars as a payment fund for victimized women athletes in the Larry Nasser matter.

That’s roughly the entire current intercollegiate athletics budget as spent by Michigan State University in a four-year timespan. It is also about 40 percent of Michigan State University’s entire budget for the 2018 fiscal year.

This tells you a couple of things. One, Michigan State University is not a university crying poverty. Its income, from tuition, endowments, intercollegiate athletics sponsorships, and from the government of the State of Michigan, is free-flowing.

But a half-billion dollars is impactful. And it should be, as the conspiracy to shield Nassar enveloped dozens of individuals and lasted a decade and a half.

Currently, the university is paying the brunt of the penalty.

It shouldn’t be that way.

USA Gymnastics, which has been shown to have been rotten to the core since Don Peters was accused of sexual abuse as early as 2011, is being investigated for its role in the affair. The investigations are from federal and state agencies, including the Texas Rangers, who are currently investigating the role of coaches Martha and Bela Karolyi in all of this.

Somehow, this is not going to end well for anyone in that governing body.

May 16, 2018 — How the 1919 Black Sox Scandal could rear its ugly head again

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the way for legalized sports betting all over the United States — in states large and small, in its six non-voting territories, in sovereign areas such as Native American reservations.

And it should scare you to death if you are a sports fan.

It’s not a coincidence that most of the largest sports properties and organizations in the United States got there by betting. Betting on the Super Bowl, the NCAA Division I men’s basketball championship, boxing and MMA bouts, and other major sports reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

And even a tiny fraction of this money is a temptation for either amateur athletes or professionals in leagues where salaries are held artificially low.

It’s a group of eight players from the Chicago White Sox baseball team of 1919 that helped a man named Arnold Rothstein guarantee a result for the Cincinnati Reds in that World Series.

Since then, one justification that has been made for the payment of ever-escalating salaries to major professional athletes in the U.S. is that a well-paid player is less likely to fall prey to betting syndicates.

In the last couple of days, a number of leagues stateside have had to respond. The National Women’s Soccer League, which has a great gulf between its highly-paid national-team players and its lowest-paid players, put out a statement which said this:

We’re aware of the Supreme Court’s ruling. It is premature to speculate on what it may mean for the NWSL, but the league will ensure the integrity of our games remains intact.

Problem: This is a league whose average salary is short of $30,000. It also does not have a commissioner, a collective bargaining agreement, and it also does not have top-level professional referees.

And yet, there are numerous betting lines on NWSL matches overseas.

This is trouble. And I think it will get infinitely worse.

May 2, 2018 — Two greats, one well-deserved honor

Today, New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association (NYSPHSAA) announced its six-member Hall of Fame induction class for 2018.

Two of the greatest players in their respective sports were amongst the six selected for this year: field hockey’s Tracey Fuchs and soccer’s Abby Wambach.

Tracey Fuchs, a product of Centereach (N.Y.), was one of the all-time great scorers in American field hockey, beginning with her time playing for the legendary Nancy Cole, who Fuchs follows into the Hall after her 2004 induction. Fuchs, playing on grass fields with wooden sticks, scored 82 goals in one season and 171 for her career, marks which would not be approached en masse for three decades.

Fuchs took her talents to UConn, winning a national title and All-America honors. She played for the U.S. national team, helping the Applebees qualify for the 1988 Olympics and helped guide the Americans to a bronze medal at the 1994 FIH World Cup.

But perhaps her finest moment came in 2002, when she helped cap off a 10,000 mile journey in search of the last FIH World Cup bid by scoring a second-half brace to beat India in the third of a three-match series in Birmingham, England.

Wambach, for her part, led Rochester Our Lady of Mercy (N.Y.) to three Section V titles in soccer, then, her freshman year, helped power Florida to the national championship. Similarly, in her rookie season as a professional, she helped will the Washington Freedom to the 2003 WUSA championship. Her header was the last golden goal in a FIFA-sanctioned league match, and it was the last game ever in the league, which folded a month later.

Wambach, however, kept on playing for the U.S. women’s national team, scoring a world record 184 goals for the Hammers. She helped power the United States to gold medals in three consecutive Olympics, scoring an overtime winner at Athens 2004. She would cap off her career with a cameo in the 2015 World Cup, coming on long after Carly Lloyd’s 16-minute hat trick put the matter to bed early.

The six-member Hall of Fame class will be inducted this summer.

 

April 21, 2018 — A change in recruitment, but is it the right one?

This week, the NCAA Division I Council voted to change a very important date in the recruitment calendar of high-school athletes.

The day is Sept. 1 of a potential student-athlete’s junior year of high school. That’s the first day that a player may make an official visit to a university campus, and the first day of permissible contact between a coaching staff and a recruit.

The vote, made during meetings of the Council last Tuesday and Wednesday, was spun by the NCAA as some sort of major initiative:

[M]ost prospective student-athletes will follow a recruiting model that resembles the schedule other students follow when choosing where to go to college … The new recruiting model allows potential student-athletes more time to make thoughtful decisions about their next steps after high school.

The rules were written for every NCAA sport except for football and men’s and women’s basketball. A few sports, like softball, see the rules as necessary given the number of 8th-10th grade commitments that have become the norm, especially amongst mid-major softball programs.

It must, however, be pointed out that there have been more than enough sophomore, freshman, and even middle-school commitments which have hit the news in both field hockey and girls’ lacrosse the last three years.

Indeed, when Syracuse announced that it had landed Caitlyn Wurzburger, an attacker now playing for Florida powerhouse Delray American Heritage (Fla.), a vote one year ago this week amongst NCAA lacrosse coaches put a ban on certain kinds of contact before Sept. 1 of a recruit’s junior season.

Sound familiar?

That’s pretty much the same legislation that was passed by the NCAA Council this week to cover most of the rest of Division I scholarship programs, albeit the Division I softball coaches have put down more severe strictures in a separate vote.

Now, it’s dubious what the long-term impact is going to be. In field hockey, a number of players have already escaped before the barn door closed. Carly Hynd, a freshman from Tredyffrin Conestoga (Pa.), committed a few weeks ago to the University of Maryland. And rising senior Sammy Popper, who contributed to the United States senior women’s indoor national team a few months ago, had committed to Princeton during her freshman year at Fort Washington Germantown Academy (Pa.).

I do not know how many more freshmen or sophomores will be precluded from making verbal commitments or early decisions. I guess it’s the hope that the NCAA Council’s vote will give parents more time to make a good decision about their child’s future, or whether the Council will adopt softball’s stronger rules governing phone contact between coaches and recruits.

But given the national-team, professional, or Olympic dreams of some of these players and the single-mindedness of some to do whatever it takes to pick the right college, there will still be a handful of very elite players who will take an early plunge, sometimes just to get the decision over with.

April 12, 2018 — A third NWSL attendance contender?

In the five years of the National Women’s Soccer League, there have been few crowds of more than 10,000 for any individual game, and most have involved exactly two teams: the Orlando Pride and the Portland Thorns.

The home support for these two women’s pro sides have been absolutely superb, but there’s a third contender coming in this year. The Utah Royals, a team which moved over from Kansas City over the offseason, is on the verge of selling out its home opener at Rio Tinto Stadium, which will be seating about 20,000 for Saturday’s game against the Chicago Red Stars.

It’s a pretty big development, I think, one which calls into question what teams in bigger markets like Chicago, New York, Boston, and Houston are doing with their NWSL franchises.

Of course, the real test is one of time. Will the novelty wear off? Will people come back? I saw this first hand when, back in 2001, more than 30,000 came to watch the opening match of the WUSA between the Bay Area CyberRays and the Washington Freedom. By the time the league folded in 2003, the average home attendance was barely 6,600. It is certainly a cautionary tale.