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Sept. 4, 2018 — When a championship team is undercut

Imagine, if you will, if the Philadelphia Eagles, or the Houston Astros, or any sports team winning a championship one year, gets the news that it will be out of business the next year. Imagine the absolute chaos that would ensue amongst participants, fans, and especially, the governing body of that sport.

Such is the case with the announcement today that Furniture Row Racing, the team that supplies NASCAR champion Martin Truex, Jr. with his crew and car, is ceasing operations at the end of this season. And this, while the team is just on the cusp of going for a second consecutive title.

What is unique about NASCAR, and its race teams, is that they are all run very much like mom-and-pop grocery stores. The governing body is still run by the France family, and teams are independent entities, hiring drivers as contractors. There is no franchise system like there is in, say, Formula 1, where teams are required to have exactly two cars at every race, and every car is guaranteed to run subject to certain rules enforced by the FIA, the world governing body of motor sports.

But in recent years, race teams in NASCAR have become increasingly corporate in nature. Teams now run sometimes three or four cars in a division, gathering all sorts of data that can be shared. Engineers are often relied upon for big decisions, not grizzled mechanics in overalls.

NASCAR has been part of my youth, since I grew up in Mississippi. But it also was a great model for the management of competition. In spite of the odd outlier (a Southern 500 was once won by a stunning 14 laps), races have been close and quite enjoyable by supporters.

A few things have changed in the last two decades, and have, frankly, contributed to the decline of the sport. The rise of the multi-car team put pressure on smaller operations like Furniture Row.

But what has hurt NASCAR is the same factor that has hurt many athletic competitions. The saturation of the sport on television, especially with broadcasts in high-definition, gives the viewer a better entertainment experience at home than going to the race track. NASCAR, especially, reveled in its traveling-circus ethos as families would sometimes take the camper out to the track and tailgate in the infield for an entire weekend. Sometimes with a couple of weeks of vacation, fans could follow along the NASCAR trail between various points in the Southeast.

That’s changed, with races in Nevada, California, Arizona, Chicago, Kansas, Indiana, and New Hampshire on the schedule.

But whatever the multitude of reasons for the closure of the race team is, there is one immutable takeaway: if a championship team in a competition closes so soon after its championship season, is any team safe in NASCAR?

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Aug. 23, 2018 — The fallout continues

Today, the state of Michigan filed charges against former Michigan State University women’s gymnastics head coach Kathie Klages for lying to investigators about what she knew about Larry Nasser, the university’s former team doctor.

Earlier this year, Nasser was convicted in his part in sexually molesting student-athletes at Michigan State as well as various competitors on dance teams and in gymnastics schools, including those feeding into the elite pool that sent gymnasts onto Olympic careers.

More than 150 women have come forward in the last few months to testify either in open court or in affidavits. Nasser is in a Federal prison in Oklahoma City, serving anywhere from 100 to 235 years in prison — in essence, a life sentence.

Klages is the first of Nasser’s alleged enablers to be charged as an accessory. Published reports list her alongside more than a dozen people who could have reported Nasser’s behavior but are alleged to have done nothing.

The highest-ranking official in this situation, MSU President Lou Anna Simon, has already resigned. With these charges, the Michigan attorney general is certainly in the process of going after the rest.

 

Aug. 17, 2018 — A toxic culture, examined

This afternoon, the Board of Regents of the University of Maryland held a conference call to discuss the ramifications of news reports and other allegations surrounding a toxic culture in the Maryland football team, one which pushed a young student-athlete named Jordan McNair past his physical limits, dying of heatstroke during spring workouts.

The football coach, D.J. Durkin, stands accused of a lack of oversight over the people who are in charge of various aspects of the team, and he and other members of his staff have been put on administrative leave. A strength coach has been fired.

Today, the death of a football player is enough to bring out tabloid sports media, university compliance officers, and even the governance of the university.

Not so long ago, death and serious injuries in training were seen as a fact of life or even a necessary process of whittling down a group of trainees into a team. A recent telefilm, “The Book of Manning,” detailed Archie Manning’s own training as a University of Mississippi freshman in the 1960s under a head coach named Wobble Davidson.

“His job,” Manning told the Times-Picayune a few years back, “was to run a bunch of people off.”

To “run people off” means to push players sometimes beyond their physical and mental limits, to the point of quitting. The hope is that those who remain will be able to serve the varsity program after the limited freshman schedules of the time.

This being the month of August, this kind of whittling down is happening all the time, and in all sports, in all 50 states and the six non-voting U.S. territories. Maybe not with the brutality as was found a half-century ago, but you do hear stories as a sportswriter.

I once saw a field hockey program, run by one of the all-time greats, winnow down a group of 64 walkons and trialists down to less than 10 in five days. I once saw one of the most-skilled and creative players I ever saw on a high-school field last less than three days in a Division I program.

I have heard stories of torn knee ligaments, hip sockets, broken bones, and heat exhaustion. I even remember one team which was overtrained to the point where half the roster was injured by midseason and the matchday roster had just one outfield substitute. More than once in the last few years, NCAA teams have had to go into games with 11 outfielders and no goalkeeper because of injuries in that position.

Mind you, this wasn’t through physical violence or intimidation or the kind of abusive overtraining that killed Jordan McNair.

Sometimes, the attrition came from a realization on the part of the players who left that they didn’t have the time, fitness, skills, or ambition to make the varsity team. Other times, players have felt as though they were targeted for removal because of a lack of production or the perception that an enormous recruiting class would be coming in.

But at the heart of the matter when it comes to collegiate sports in America is that student-athletes are often seen by athletic programs as little more than a disposable resource with anywhere from one to four years of usable talent and sinew. A player with a severe injury is of no use whatsoever to a coach, and I have seen oft-injured players be off the coach’s radar and off the team by the start of senior year.

You might not like to hear it, but there’s a reason why they call organized workouts and combines of youth sports “meat markets.” The most organized may be the NFL Combine, but there are enough youth tournaments held around the country — some televised by sports networks or the Internet — that serve the same purpose.

The nation will take a few moments to reflect on the circumstances of the death of Jordan McNair. But coaching habits die hard, especially when you’re dealing with the livelihoods of coaches who must win to keep their jobs.

It’s a far cry from decades ago when college coaches moonlighted as instructors at their universities instead of being the highest-paid public employee in a particular state or commonwealth.

Aug. 8, 2018 — A black mark for the WNBA

Yesterday, on the front of the basketball/hockey arena in your nation’s capital, an 8-by-11 sheet of paper was duct-taped to one of the front doors that were laminated with images of one of the main tenants of the building.

Overshadowed by images of members of the Stanley Cup-winning Washington Capitals were the words printed on the four-day-old sign, “Tonight’s WNBA game has been cancelled.”

Last weekend, the Las Vegas Aces were scheduled to play the Washington Mystics, but travel delays resulted in a 26-hour ordeal that saw the Aces arrive in town only about four hours before the start of the game — right about the time when the team would begin pregame preparations.

The Aces players decided not to play the game, and yesterday, the league announced that the game would go into the books as a 2-0 forfeit in favor of Washington.

The episode brings up a question of equality, though. The WNBA’s players are not transported from game to game on charter or private jets, but are at the mercy of commercial schedules, which have been in rare form in recent days.

But the episode also points up something else when it comes to the Aces franchise. As much as Las Vegas has been pointed up as a great entertainment destination, it is stupefying that nobody in the Las Vegas community stepped in to help when the Aces’ travel situation became known. Not the Las Vegas Golden Knights hockey team, not billionares Sheldon Adelson or Steve Wynn, or any entertainers.

Yes, it may be a logistical challenge getting 11 players and a coaching staff plus equipment into many private jets, but the WNBA players are used to flying coach, so they aren’t bringing very much with them.

I think it’s time for the WNBA to get an upgrade, don’t you?

 

Aug. 2, 2018 — Chaos in Columbus

Yesterday, Ohio State University put its head football coach, Urban Meyer, on administrative leave due to a scandal having to do with his assistant football coach, Zach Smith. The university is investigating what the Buckeyes coaches, their wives and support staff knew and, perhaps more important, when they knew about the domestic incidents between Smith and his ex-wife, Courtney.

This has made news because of Meyer’s success on the field as well as the fact that he is the state’s highest-paid public employee, at more than $5 million per year.

But there’s another sporting scandal at Ohio State, one which is flying under the radar, involving the wrestling team and former team doctor Dr. Richard Strauss. Over the course of decades, Strauss allegedly molested student-athletes in the guise of medical examinations.

Strauss is not able to answer for his crime; he committed suicide in 2005. But, as in the Meyer affair, there are questions about what Buckeyes wrestling coaches knew, and when they knew it.

And one of the people receiving a lot of scrutiny is Jim Jordan, a former coach who is now on the powerful Judiciary and Oversight Committees of the House of Representatives. It’s now coming to light that alumni of the wrestling program are being contacted in an attempt to get them to recant their stories, which is, potentially, witness-tampering.

These events are unrelated in their scope, but it kind of reminds you of the scandal-plagued Louisville athletics administration, which had to reform after numerous scandals. And, it does not cast the best light on the Ohio State University’s athletics department.

July 27, 2018 — Women’s soccer opening a new avenue

This week, there is an important women’s soccer tournament called the Tournament of Nations, featuring current World Cup champions USA, Australia, former World Cup champion Japan, and Brazil.

But for the exposure of the sport worldwide, there is an even more important happening this week in Miami.

The NWSL side North Carolina Courage is hosting three European women’s club sides, Manchester City, Olympique Lyonnais, and Paris-St. Germain, in the International Champions Cup tournament.

Women’s professional soccer is a novel concept on a worldwide scale. Some nations like Norway, Japan, and Italy have had organized leagues for years. Meanwhile, the United States is on its third league, with the WUSA having folded in 2003 and WPS in 2012.

But only in the last few years, more nations have been getting their collective act together when it comes to sponsoring a dedicated women’s league. Men’s club teams like Lyon, PSG, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chivas of Guadalajara, and Barcelona are now funding and professionalizing women’s soccer teams.

There are situations in the U.S. with MLS sides sponsoring women’s teams; D.C. United Women won a championship in the void between WPS and the NWSL. A number of teams in the lower-level Women’s Premier Soccer League and United Women’s Soccer are badged with MLS sides and have financial and in-kind help from the pro teams.

Such is the case with North Carolina Courage, whose benefactor is North Carolina FC of the United Soccer Leagues. They’re playing Sunday in the final of the women’s ICC against Lyon.

Sunday’s match may be just a mid-season friendly for the Courage, but a win by either side would be an enormous statement about the state of women’s soccer worldwide, a statement which applies chiefly to the winner.

July 24, 2018 — Opening another barn door and a can of worms

The 2017-2018 academic year saw a shift in girls’ high-school soccer in America, as elite players were coaxed and pried away from their high-school teams to play in the U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy, a 210-team league with play in the U-15, U-17, and U-19 divisions.

For the record, two of the three champions this year were funded by Major League Soccer; the U-15 FC Dallas and U-19 LAFC Slammers. The other champion, U-17 Real Colorado, is not affiliated with Real Salt Lake, but is affiliated with A.S. Roma.

All three of these girls’ championship sides, plus 85 others, have announced plans to jump ship and join the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) starting this month. The ECNL has been in operation since 2009, and has primarily been an outlet for girls and young women to develop, and the moves by a number of club sides away from the DA has put the ECNL in an unprecedented position of influence in shaping the game for the next generation and beyond.

Indeed, the interesting aspect about the ECNL is that the girls’ league was developed first, nearly a decade ago. Only recently has there been a boys’ ECNL competition, and I’ll be interested to see whether the boys’ DA structure will be as weakened as the girls’ side undoubtedly will be this coming fall.