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July 31, 2022 — A short lesson in “sportswashing”

Today, the Formula 1 Hungarian Grand Prix had a title sponsor of Aramco, the company which is responsible for oil drilling in large parts of the Arabian Peninsula.

In France today, the Paris-St. Germain soccer team beat Nantes, 4-0 in the annual Champions Trophy, all while wearing their new jersey sponsor, Qatar Airways.

In Bedminster, N.J., the third tournament in the new LIV Golf Tour, a tour fully backed by the Public Investment Fund of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, finished off its final round.

These, and other sports-related investments of recent vintage, add up to what some call “sportswashing,” which, loosely defined, means trying to use sponsorships for public-relations purposes to counter criticisms of the regimes behind several petroauthoritarian states.

I’ve talked about some of this kind of “sportswashing” before, whether it was the ownership of the Brooklyn Nets or Chelsea Football Club. Many of the oligarchs who have bought into these teams have had to make a 100 percent turnaround because of European sanctions which have come into being after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But there have not been sanctions for the Middle Eastern sponsors of sport, even as withering criticism of their regimes has forced, for example, the cancellation of the Formula 1 Grand Prix of Bahrain in 2011, only to see it reinstated a year later.

But “sportswashing” has been around a lot longer than many of you may realize. If you watched network television in the weeks before the 1994 FIFA World Cup, you may have seen commercials extolling the fact that the Saudi Arabia men’s soccer team had qualified for the first World Cup to be held in the United States.

Little was said that women in Saudi Arabia did not have their own team. In fact, women in the kingdom did not have a number of civil rights and privileges’ that many of us take for granted. Women could not, until June of 2018, drive a car in Saudi Arabia. Strict interpretations of religious laws restricted when women could leave their homes, or limited the amount of higher education women could have.

As much as the criticism of the LIV golf tour has beleaguered the organizers, to the point where tickets for this weekend’s final rounds were going for $7, there is one major sportswashing event set for later this year. In November, the FIFA World Cup is being held in Qatar, an oil emirate which, it is alleged, has used indentured labor to build its stadiums while its top oil class lives in incredible luxury.

The lavish new construction in Qatar over the last 20 years has been featured as a centerpiece as the emirate has tried to become a center of sport. There was a cycling tour that ran for a few years but was cancelled in 2017 because of a lack of sponsor and a lack of challenging elevation: there were no attractive mountains for the climbers.

Which is surprising, given the fact that oil dollars have built enormous office buildings as well as artificial islands which, not surprisingly, have undergone some troubles because of the 2008 global financial crisis and global climate change.

We’ll see, in the next few years, whether the dollars behind sportswashing campaigns have a return on their investment — or if the oil money will last.

July 26, 2022 — United States Coach of the Year: Jill Thomas, Princeton (N.J.) Day School

Heading due north out of Princeton, N.J., is County Road 604. But nobody calls it that. For generations of residents, that corridor is called The Great Road.

Take a left off Great Road at the top of a rise, and you will find Princeton (N.J.) Day School, an institution which has been around since 1899.

For the last 34 years, Jill Thomas has been an fixture in the life of the school, coaching basketball, coaching and umpiring field hockey, and being the public-address announcer for football games until the sport was discontinued in 2011.

In recent years, Thomas has also coached the school’s girls’ lacrosse team. The girls’ lacrosse program has gone through a number of coaches throughout the years, including the late Kim Bedesem, Leslie Hagan, and Thomas. Throughout, the Panther team was a dominant force in private-school girls’ lacrosse in the capital region of New Jersey.

The 2022 season, however, brought a new opportunity. Princeton Day School followed a number of its sister schools and gained admission into the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing body of public and some non-public schools in the state.

It also turned out that the first season of PDS’s dual membership in the NJSIAA and the New Jersey Independent Schools Athletic Association was going to be Thomas’ last as a coach, as she announced her retirement.

For her years of coaching and an unprecedent 2022 campaign, Thomas is the TopOfTheCircle.com United States Coach of the Year.

What did the Panthers do in 2022? Well, within a period of three weeks, they won the NJISAA private-school tournament with a 13-12 win over Montclair-Kimberley Academy (N.J.), then won four win-or-go-home games in the NJSIAA Non-Public “B” tournament, culminating in a 17-11 win over Absecon Holy Spirit (N.J.).

Three days later, Thomas’ career ended with a 14-9 defeat to Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.) in the final NJSIAA Tournament of Champions, but the Panthers were able do match what Oak Knoll has done in recent years — win the private/public school double for the Garden State.

In addition, PDS became the first girls’ lacrosse team from Mercer County to win a public-school state championship since the spring of 1985.

All the while, Thomas did it with her usual combination of hard work and humility. In what has become a Score-O decade in both field hockey and lacrosse, Thomas held fast to the principle that a field hockey team shouldn’t score more than five goals in a game, or win more than a certain amount in a girls’ lacrosse game.

And yet, throughout the years, Thomas has racked up win after win after win on the court and on the turf. It’s estimated that she has more than 600 wins in a coaching career that began in 1988.

When it comes to coaching, the year 1988 has a significance: it was when The Lawrenceville (N.J.) School started admitting girls, and immediately became a rival for Princeton Day School and the other private schools in the capital region.

It always seemed as though when a Thomas-coached team played Lawrenceville, the game became more than just a game. It was an occasion, and a mission.

But if there is one game I’ll always remember Thomas for, it was in another sport: field hockey. It was in 1996 when PDS took on the reigning NJSIAA Group IV champions in Flemington Hunterdon Central (N.J.). Despite the fact that PDS has one-sixth enrollment of Hunterdon Central, the Panther eleven played even up with Central for 60 minutes, coming away with a 0-0 draw.

In terms of small vs. large schools, this was a definite lesson for anyone watching or participating in this intersectional contest.

Jill Thomas taught a lot of lessons to her students and to observers for a third of a century. The girls’ lacrosse universe in central New Jersey is going to be lessened with her retirement.


ALSO CONSIDERED:

Allie Ferrera, Morristown (N.J.): Steered the Colonials through a murderous North Jersey Group IV bracket and won the state championship in the group. Only losses were to national powers Oak Knoll, Summit, and Chatham

Mary Gagnon, Brooklandville St. Paul’s School for Girls (Md.): It wasn’t the fact that the Gators were able to come out of the COVID years a winner in 2022, it’s just the fact that the team has had great and consistent winning form in the country’s finest lacrosse conference

Becky Groves, Sykesville Century (Md.): Steered the Knights to a state championship and the second unbeaten season in program history. Century handled Parkton Hereford (Md.) 15-6 to win the Class 2A state championship.

John Kroah, Massilon Jackson (Ohio): Came close to winning a first state championship against established powers

Savannah Porter, Canton Creekview (Ga.): Almost upended an established power, Milton (Ga.) in the state final, but lost a late lead

Laura Sandbloom, Denver Colorado Academy (Colo.): In her final year as head coach, she was able to best Highlands Ranch Valor Christian (Colo.) 13-9 in the Class 5A final for the team’s seventh straight championship

Olivia Smart, Huntington Beach Edison (Calif.): In five years, this team has become a true contender for postseason honors. Edison won its first Sunset League title and qualified for the California Interscholastic Federation’s Southern Section Division 1 Tournament

Paige Walton, Glenelg (Md.) Country School: The veteran coach has won titles at the IAAM “C” Division and the “B” Division, and made a memorable run at a first “A” Division championship

Kristin Woods, New Canaan (Conn.): Playing a tough league schedule, the Rams were able to get past county rival Darien (Conn.) when it counted, the state championship final after each team split previous matches

July 20, 2022 — Soccer … and then everyone else

The U.S. women’s soccer team this week dispatched with all of the preliminaries and drama, winning the CONCACAF W championship 1-0 over Canada in the final. Over the course of the tournament, the States won outright berths to the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup and the 2024 Olympics.

And gave up no goals in the process.

As we were discussing a few days ago, the United States has, in women’s team sports, developed some pretty intense rivalries with Canadian national sides.

But within CONCACAF competition, the United States has not yielded a goal in any confederation tournament in more than 12 years. It’s been complete and utter dominance on the part of the Stars and Stripes.

Which brings up a question: what has led to this young U.S. women’s national soccer team’s dominance now, and possibly for years to come with young stars like Midge Purce, Caterina Macario, Sophia Smith, Sofia Huerta, and Mallory Pugh?

Let’s face it: many of these players have chosen soccer over other athletic pursuits — some much earlier than others. Indeed, I’d wager that you can’t find a player in the greater player pool in the U.S. women’s national soccer team who was a multi-sport athlete in high school. Indeed, most of the current players are products of the year-round “pay to play” system.

Want some examples? Pugh gave up a scholarship at UCLA to play pro soccer with the Washington Spirit. Lindsey Horan did not play with her high school team, instead playing with the Colorado Rush club side, then spurning an offer from the University of North Carolina to play with Paris-Saint Germain.

There are lots more young female soccer players who are turning pro as early as age 15 to join NWSL club sides. Olivia Moultrie joined up with the Portland Thorns at that age. A couple of weeks ago, the San Diego Wave announced the signing of 17-year-old Jaedyn Shaw.

It seems to me that this new (and younger) third wave of women’s soccer talent is coming into being at a time when clubs and sponsors around the world are clamoring for their services. And I think this is helping shrink the player pool for other athletic pursuits.

July 13, 2022 — What is Canada doing right?

Yesterday, at the gold-medal final of the World Games men’s sixes lacrosse tournament, Canada defeated the United States by a score of 23-9.

For most of you who follow the game, this isn’t entirely unexpected. Six-a-side lacrosse, especially played on a rink or court, is practically religion in Canada. Box lacrosse is played from coast to coast and is especially popular amongst Native Americans on both sides of the border.

Now, if you’ve been paying attention to the women’s side of world championship play in team sports, you’d see what’s coming.

In soccer, Canada is the current Olympic champion, having won the gold in Tokyo last year. In ice hockey, Canada is also the Olympic champion, having won gold in Beijing in February.

In field hockey, Canada is the current top cheese in North America, as they are playing in the World Cup while the United States failed to qualify.

In field lacrosse last week, Canada got to within three goals of the United States in the gold-medal match.

Compare this to what the world of women’s sports was like in 1998, the year this site started.

The U.S. had won the Nagano Olympics in women’s ice hockey. The States also held the Atlanta Olympics gold medal.

In field hockey, the U.S. had finished in eighth place at the FIH World Cup, whilst Canada didn’t qualify.

And in field lacrosse, the States held the 1997 FIL World Cup, with Canada finishing fifth.

Canada, a nation with 1/10th the population of the United States, is catching up to (if not already surpassed) a number of high-dollar, well-funded team sports throughout the athletic universe.

And that’s not all. In the current FIBA rankings, the Canadian women’s basketball team is ranked fourth in the world. And that’s in a sport the United States has outright owned since the 1932 Olympics on the men’s side, and since the 1953 FIBA World Cup on the women’s.

Makes you wonder what Canada is doing right.

July 2, 2022 — How might the USC-UCLA move to the Big Ten help or hurt some Olympic sports?

This week’s vote by the Big Ten Conference to accept USC and UCLA as members starting with the fall of 2024 is going to have some wide-ranging consequences throughout the athletic departments of the current Big Ten schools as well as within the two new members.

Both UCLA and USC have athletics programs as wide-ranging as Ivy League schools; UCLA has been particularly successful in many sports, winning 119 NCAA titles.

Sure, every pundit in the world is going to measure this move in terms of just two sports: football and men’s basketball. But look forward — to 2028, when the Olympics come to Los Angeles. There are a number of athletic endeavors which, I think, could either affect, or be affected, by Big Ten membership on the part of USC and UCLA — two Los Angeles schools located a mere 15 miles apart.

Here’s a list:

FIELD HOCKEY: One year ago, the Big Ten was the leader in the game of field hockey, sending Michigan to the 2020-21 NCAA title game and Northwestern to the 2021 championship. Question is, can Big Ten membership move the needle for field hockey at USC and UCLA — and with it, all of Southern California? I guess that depends on where the organizing committee decides to put the field hockey facility. As of now, the plan appears to depend on temporary facilities build on the grounds of Cal State-Dominguez Hills, where a soccer-specific stadium currently stands.

GYMNASTICS: The newcomers are going to run into some resistance for the top of the women’s gymnastics table as Michigan has been a dominant team program in the Big Ten. Neither USC nor UCLA have a men’s gymnastics team, while only five exist in the Big Ten. It might have been a great help to keep the sport alive in an era of shrinking budgets and growing insurance costs.

LACROSSE: If this move had occurred three years ago, a USC entrance into the world of Big Ten women’s lacrosse would have been an enormous splash. The Women of Troy have not been as good the last couple of seasons, but it would be a key beachhead for the sport with the next men’s World Championship being scheduled for San Diego.

SWIMMING: There are currently 12 women’s swimming teams and eight men’s teams in the Big Ten, and the successful USC and UCLA teams could provide an immediate challenge. These two schools have put together impressive resumes when it comes to individuals winning the Olympics. Legends like John Naber, Janet Evans, Brian Goodell, and Tom Jager have swum for these two schools.

TRACK: USC and UCLA have been highly successful in both genders in athletics, peaking with a 1-2 finish in the women’s 2001 NCAA championship. These two teams are likely to dominate the current Big Ten field — to the point where teams like Illinois, Maryland, Indiana, and Purdue may wind up being relegated completely to the sidelines with Northwestern, which dropped the sport in 1987.

VOLLEYBALL: Southern Cal and UCLA have historically have had good volleyball on the court and on the sand. USC is the current women’s beach volleyball champions, and UCLA’s men made the national tournament, falling a game short of making the title match. Oddly enough, in terms of women’s court volleyball, the Big Ten have been on a tear in recent years, putting two teams (Wisconsin and Nebraska) in last December’s final.

June 25, 2022 — Knowing what we don’t know

A few years ago, I attended a book talk by sports columnist Christine Brennan, who was a field hockey player at Toledo Ottawa Hills (Ohio), a team which was one of the only ones to wear argyle socks as part of its uniform. (Don’t believe me? Buy her book “Best Seat In The House.”)

During the Q-and-A period, a question was asked about the progress of women’s sports in the post-Title IX era, and how we should remember people and teams like the Raybestos Brakettes, or any number of “Bloomer Girls” traveling baseball teams, or dominant athletes like volleyball’s Flo Hyman and squash player Heather McKay, who once went 20 years without losing a match (and who also made the Hockeyroos squads in 1967 and 1971, taking bronze at the ILWCA World Championship in Auckland).

Brennan’s answer, to paraphrase, was that a lot of these pioneers are not likely to get the credit they deserved for advancing their particular sport.

That answer has stuck with me, especially this week in this anniversary week of Title IX. A lot of the celebrations surrounded things which have happened in the last 25 or so years, such as the 1999 win by the U.S. women’s soccer team, the start of the WNBA, and the struggle for equality in the NCAA, especially after the March Madness weight room fiasco of 2001.

One video illustrates the problem. The Premier Lacrosse League posted Twitter video in which players were asked which was the best female athlete of all time.

A lot of the flash answers fell into predictables: Boston College graduate Charlotte North, tennis player Serena Williams, and soccer player Abby Wambach — people who have made their marks in sports during the “highlight” age of televised sports, after the founding of ESPN in 1979.

Now, I’ve always said that I thought Babe Didrikson Zaharias was the best woman athlete of all time, what with her prowess in track and basketball. She dabbled in billiards and toured with the House of David barnstorming baseball team.

But Didrikson’s bigger contribution was to golf, helping to start the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1950. She won majors such as the U.S. Amateur, British Amateur, and three U.S. Opens. In 1950, she won the Open, which, in conjunction with victories at the Women’s Western Open and the Titleholders’ Open, gave her what was then golf’s Grand Slam.

I also believe that the conversation about the greatest female athlete ever also should involve Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a dominant track athlete in the 1990s who somehow found time to win four letters with the UCLA women’s basketball team in the early 1980s.

And no doubt, Serena Williams’ haul of professional majors (23 in singles, another 16 in doubles and mixed doubles) should mark her in both longevity and versatility. And for all of Williams’ wins, it could have been even more. Four times, she bowed out of the U.S. Open under controversial circumstances; if she had flipped a couple of those into wins, she would be even more legendary.

But that’s a conversation for another time.

June 18, 2022 — Can’t catch a break

Christen Press is a member of the U.S. women’s national soccer team pool. A two-time World Cup winner and Olympic bronze medalist, she has scored some of the most ridiculous goals I have ever seen, even on the level of a Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Her touch, improvisation, and talent have put her in the running for international duty.

But in the last week, Press suffered a tear to her anterior cruciate ligament, which has ruled her out for this summer’s CONCACAF W Tournament, the competition that serves as qualification for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup and the 2024 Olympics.

The kicker for this story for me is the fact that, when asked by reporters about the public release of the player pool for an upcoming series of friendlies against Colombia in preparation for the team’s July 4 opener in the W Tournament, head coach Vlatko Andonovsky said that Press would not have been up for selection in the side even when healthy.

Given the kinds of brilliant goals she has scored in the past, plus her speed, savvy, and competitive ability, I’m a little heartbroken for her. She’s an amazing player whose goals have put supporters on their feet and has sent some commentators into outrageous fits in the booth.

I, for one, hope this veteran can get back to health in time for the next series of major competitions. She would be a tremendous asset.

June 16, 2022 — Choice vs. infrastructure

Today, the host cities for the 2026 FIFA men’s World Cup were selected across the North American continent.

Much has been made of the fact that several former shoo-ins for selection, such as Pasadena, Edmonton, Nashville and Baltimore, were not selected as one of the 16 sites for the 80-game World Cup.

But what was astounding was the fact that there were a number of cities which weren’t even in the final mix that could have been jewels for the game.

I’ll list a few here:

Indianapolis: Lucas Oil Stadium
Phoenix/Glendale: State Farm Stadium
Las Vegas: Allegiant Stadium
Tampa: Raymond James Stadium
New Orleans: Caesar’s Superdome
Toronto: Rogers Center
Buffalo: New Era Stadium
Detroit: Ford Field

I have a unicorn I’d like to propose to FIFA for the next time they want to have a world-beating event in the United States: Bristol Motor Speedway.

They’ve already tried putting down a grass pitch in the concrete infield, drawing almost 157,000 people for a college football game between Tennessee and Virginia Tech.

Imagine what would happen if a top soccer game like a FIFA World Cup final was scheduled for that facility.

The mind boggles.

May 19, 2022 — U.S. Soccer’s push to equality exposes worldwide inequality

Monday, with some fanfare, U.S. Soccer announced the ratification and adoption of collective bargaining agreements to equalize pay between the men’s and women’s senior national teams and their players.

From June 1 forward, the men and the women will evenly split commercial revenue, including sonosorship, media rights, and ticket revenue,

There was a little give and take, Members of the men’s national team will have access to child care while in camp, while the women have given up guaranteed contracts with the national team, which had been the primary source of income given the paucity of professional women’s clubs around the world even up until the 2010s.

That has changed tremendously in the last decade and a half. The English FA, which had banned women from playing soccer altogether until 1969, went from a ragtag first division including such names as Doncaster Belles, Maidstone Tigresses, and the Millwall Lionesses. Today, the FA Women’s Super League has world-recognized clubs like Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, and Manchester City in its ranks.

FC Barcelona, A.C. Milan, Bayern Munich, and Club America have started women’s teams and have drawn fans in the tens of thousands.

There is one proviso of the new U.S. Soccer collective agreement which says that, after consecutive World Cups with the men and the women, the pool money from the two consecutive tournaments are pooled and split between the teams and the Federation. In other words, whatever the U.S. men win for placing in Qatar is added to whatever the women win for placing in Australia. The men get 45 percent, the women 45 percent, and the USSF gets 10 percent.

This part of the agreement lays bare an enormous bastion of gender inequality: the world governing body of the sport, FIFA. For the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the prize pool for the 32 teams is $440 million, up $40 million from Russia 2018. The women split a prize pool of $30 million for France 2019, but it’s been reported that the amount will double to $60 million for Australia 2023.

Here’s the thing, however, The 16 teams which fail to qualify for the knockout stage of this fall’s tournament in Qatar will receive $12 million each. The winner of the last Women’s World Cup, the United States, was paid a mere $4 million.

That’s how bad the pay gap is worldwide, and FIFA is directly responsible. It’s going to be interesting to see how these figures are discussed over the next six months.

May 9, 2022 — A prescient story

It was in May 1995 when I first saw Christa Samaras on a lacrosse pitch. She completely took over an NCAA Division I semifinal against Dartmouth with her enthusiasm and relentless energy in a 13-8 win.

It turns out that day was the last time we would see Sarah Devens on a lacrosse field. Her own enthusiasm and relentless energy masked personal demons which would see her take her own life in July of that year.

Last week, Samaras was the subject for a Forbes Magazine story, detailing her own mental health struggles at the time. Reading her struggle against suicide is a complete shocker and eye-opener that one of the greatest female lacrosse players our country has ever produced almost never stepped on that world stage.

As far back as the early 90s, while attending Annapolis (Md.), she was looking for a way out, including trying to see if there was a gun in her household.

“If I had found one,” she tells Forbes, “it would have been over.”

In this month, set aside for mental health awareness, we’ve been reading numerous accounts of struggle on the part of not only female athletes, but just plain folks who have found the Global Pandemic Era one of extreme emotion and trauma.

The Samaras story has had me going back over a quarter-century of mental notes about people I have seen in the sports world. Were there frowns when I asked questions? Was there a quaver or tremor in a voice? Did the behavior of an athlete or coach change over time? Were there coaches who, while finding success on the pitch, were creating numerous individual mental health crises off it?

I have my own suppositions regarding the role of coaching in the downward spiral of athletes. In some of the support areas of the teams, if you brought up the name of a player who may have flunked out of school or had a drop in form that relegated them to the bench, the player was dismissed as either a “head case” or a “lost soul.”

As we are all learning from the examples of Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, and other athletes who have either retired or withdrawn from competitions citing the need for a mental health break, the need for such a break has existed for long, long before.

I always observed, during the early 1990s in covering field hockey, that often the best goalkeepers were burnt-out soccer players. And I knew there were plenty of burnt-out soccer players who were going to camps and training events like the Olympic Development Program, all hoping to become the next Michelle Akers, Mary Harvey, or Lisa Gmitter (the U.S. right winger immediately before a legend named Mia Hamm came along).

I have seen different forms of what could be called abusive behavior. It wasn’t all about raised voices or raised hands, but commenting on appearance sometimes. I have seen more than one Division I athlete starve themselves and overtrain because their coach talked about a player’s baby fat.

And I have also seen overtraining like you wouldn’t believe. I once attended a week-long training camp for first-year students and walk-ons for a college field hockey program. The group numbered more than 60 at the start of the week, but were whittled down to about a dozen in about five days. It’s this kind of “survival of the fittest” which has often claimed promising players because of devastating lower-body injuries borne of overtraining, overstress, and dry, old-style artificial turf laid out on concrete.

Now, we’ve seen a major exodus in coaching in the last two years — not just in terms of field hockey or girls’ and women’s lacrosse, but in sports overall. Great leaders such as Mike Krzyzewski, Anne Horton, John Savage, C. Vivian Stringer, Laurie Berger, Jay Wright, and Karen Doxey have walked away from their coaching positions in the last few months.

I understand that some of them may be seeing the evils of the NLI on the horizon. It’s gotten to the point where high-school students are now receiving money to endorse products like athletic wear.

And maybe, just maybe, these coaches are looking for a mental-health break of their own, given the pressure to build on past success.