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Archive for Omnibus

Dec. 11, 2019 — Change is coming to the Bay State, but in what form?

There has been a lot of chatter about how the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association is considering a statewide format for its scholastic tournaments.

The MIAA’s Tournament Management Committee is readying a vote of membership to make changes to the postseason which is expected to jumble up what had become somewhat stagnant bracketing, even across sports.

There were a number of years when the same two teams would fight their way to the sectional final, and only the matchups between state semifinalists would determine who would be the sole survivor.

In addition, there were a number of years when the West bracket might have as few as seven or eight teams, while the other brackets qualified as many as 19 or 20 teams.

We’re not privy to what the future makeup of MIAA tournaments will look like, but there are plenty of questions. Will there be three, maybe four enrollment classes? Will certain sports have the top seeds all in the same area of the state? Will there be situations when two local rivals both go to a faraway neutral site in order to play a state championship final?

We’ll have to see what the lords of Massachusetts scholastic sport have to say once the votes are in.

Dec. 9, 2019 — An unbelievable penalty that should give pause

Today, it was announced that the International Olympic Committee was instituting a blanket four-year ban on international competition by athletes representing the Russian Federation.

This follows on the blanket ban of the Russian Olympic team in Rio, was extended through PyeongChang, and now runs through the Tokyo and Beijing Olympics.

This means that there are going to be two entire Olympic cycles without full participation from Russian athletes. Any athlete from Russia who wishes to participate in an Olympics is now required to compete as an unaffiliated athlete.

The ban from international competition is not only for multisport athletic competitions such as the Olympics. It also extends to the next FIFA World Cup in 2022. Oddly enough, it does not affect Russian participation in the European Championship for men’s soccer next year, as UEFA is not defined as a “major event organization” regarding drug testing.

Now that Russia is now pretty much a pariah in world sport, it’s instructive to note that it could have very easily been the United States in this position, given its role in sports doping in the last 90 years.

Let’s not forget the United States has mixed controlled substances with sport as early as the 1930s, when the six-day bicycle race required teams to ride lap after lap on a velodrome over the course of six days.

The United States, thanks to a long-forgotten team physician named John Ziegler, introduced the oral anabolic steroid methandrostenolone by 1960.

And let’s also not forget that BALCO, the laboratory that developed so-called “untraceable” steroids, was founded in California. The company’s athletic portfolio included a raft of American athletes such as Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis, and Bill Romanowski.

Makes you wonder if there’s more coming down the pike when it comes to blanket bans of athletes.

Dec. 2, 2019 — The easiest way to win … or lose

It’s one of the aphorisms of sport: “Don’t beat yourself.”

When teams are at or near the top of their competitive level, playing for championships, one of the great secrets of coaching is to get players to not commit mental errors — misjudgments of either the rules of the game or situations within it which often cost games.

In field hockey, the most frequent mental error I have seen in the last three or four years is when the offense turns the ball over after being awarded a free hit in the striking circle, for not moving the ball five yards (or five meters under FIH play) before entering the circle.

In girls’ and women’s lacrosse, I’ve seen multiple mental errors when it comes to the “self start” rule. One cost a team a conference championship in last year’s postseason when the player self-started just after the issuance of a penalty card and didn’t wait for the umpire’s whistle to restart play.

This past weekend, there were a pair of football teams which usually cling to the mentality of “don’t beat yourself,” which wound up making a passel of mental errors to lose key ballgames.

The University of Alabama, for example, committed 13 penalties in the Iron Bowl matchup against Auburn. But the last one was the most costly: Alabama was anticipating a punt with under two minutes to go which could have yielded the tying or winning score. But in lining up against Auburn’s ersatz formation that had the punter out on the wing, Auburn had 12 players lined up — a mental error.

One day later, the New England Patriots, a franchise which had won six NFL championships in the last 19 seasons, fell behind 21-3 on the way to a 28-22 defeat in part thanks to the inability of the Patriots defense to mark backs and tight ends in pass coverage. It wasn’t one big play that cost New England, but a series of small and consistent errors.

As good as these tackle football teams have been in the last 20 years or so, they are the models for teams which would like to beat them in championship situations, and there are plenty of coaches who have been figuring out the best ways to compete, and to put pressure on the seeming leaders of their respective sports competitions.

Nov. 7, 2019 — An educational windfall, and an opportunity

Yesterday, an educational proposal worth some $2.2 billion was unveiled, promising curriculum changes, and new school and infrastructure construction for the State of Maryland.

The announcement follows on the funding plan assembled by the Kirwan Commission, a blue-ribbon panel of experts. Using casino and money from an educational trust fund, the plans would expand pre-K, increase salaries, implement advanced curriculum, target funding towards underperforming schools, and add a mechanism for accountability.

Education, it seems, will be on the mind of many Maryland legislators during the 2020 legislative session, which occurs between the first week of January and the first week of April.

And, I think, there is an opportunity here to rectify an imbalance — actually, several of them.

In field hockey and lacrosse, the regular season in the state of Maryland is just 12 games, the shortest mandated regular seasons in the nation for these two sports.

But change is slow and frustrating in The Free State. To make any sort of substantive change requires an act of the state legislature, not a rule passed by the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, since the MPSSAA is part of the Maryland Department of Education.

I did an interview back in 2000 with Lil Shelton, the head field hockey coach at Severna Park (Md.), who expressed frustration with the way that scholastic sports were run in the state. It had taken a lot of her social capital to get a friend of hers to introduce a resolution allowing field hockey (and other sports) to add an in-season tournament of up to two games to the schedule.

But I’m looking to do more. I’m drafting an actual legislative bill, with the working title the Schedule Equity Act (or SEA) of 2020.

What it would do is direct the MPSSAA to adopt schedule lengths dependent upon the average of the four surrounding U.S. states — Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and West Virginia. We would have included the District of Columbia, but the DCIAA has a much smaller athletics footprint (except for football and basketball), and their numbers might affect the averages.

So, here’s a listing of sports, the length of season for the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, and the average for the four surrounding states (three in the case of field hockey and lacrosse, because neither sport is officially sanctioned by the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission):

SPORT MPSSAA AVG
Field hockey 12 16.3
Football 10 10
Cross Country 10 14.25
Soccer 12 17.75
Volleyball 15 19.75
Basketball 20 21.5
Swimming 12 14.75
Indoor Track 10 12.3
Wrestling 14 17.5
Baseball 18 22.5
Softball 18 22.5
Golf 12 15.75
Tennis 18 17.75
Outdoor track 10 14.5
Lacrosse 12 15.6

Only one sport remains constant across all five juristictions: football, as all play a 10-game regular season.

There are some interesting variations in other athletic endeavors. West Virginia boosts the games-played average in baseball and softball because they have a 32-game regular season in comparison to the 18 in Maryland and Delaware.

Virginia drags down the average in both indoor and outdoor track, with just 10 dual meets allowed in their regular season — presumably, the work gets done in the VHSL during District, Regional, and State all-comers meets.

Our scenario, if enacted, would direct all but two athletic activities in the MPSSAA’s purview — football and tennis — to increase their regular-season schedules. These increases would be at least two games per sport, and as many as six for soccer.

The argument about why scholastic sports team schedules should expand is as simple as equality. With Maryland being such a small state, there could be a danger of athletic flight, with families moving over state lines in order to give their children a better environment for playing the sport they love at their school.

But there’s also another reason. Players and coaches in Maryland have the same 12 weeks together as a team as other teams in neighboring states. There should be more games in Maryland so that players aren’t training day after day late in the season with little to do unless you’re a playoff team.

Having an extra two to four games in a season also won’t cost schools all that much money, since the uniforms, sticks, trainers, and playing fields are already paid for. And with more than $2.2 billion coming in from casino and other funding, opportunities should be opened for existing sports teams.

Over the course of months, I’ll try to bring you some progress reports as to how this bill goes through the process. I’ll try to take you into the smoky backrooms as legislators talk up this bill. Heck, if this gets enough popular support (i.e., goes viral), perhaps your Founder might have to register as a lobbyist.

And wouldn’t that be something?

Oct. 30, 2019 — New rule, same problems?

Yesterday, the NCAA’s Board of Governors voted to allow students to benefit from the use of their names, images, and likenesses for money.

It is a very small step in the movement towards paying collegiate athletes for their time and labor, a step which only covers the O’Bannon v. NCAA court case, which was settled five years ago.

For those of you just joining us in the discussion, O’Bannon v. NCAA dealt with the fact that Ed O’Bannon, a student-athlete in the NCAA who had a middling pro career despite being the ninth pick in the NBA Draft, noticed that he was receiving no compensation for appearing in college basketball video games, or from sales of his UCLA jersey in the campus bookstore.

Only now, with California and a number of states proposing and passing laws allowing student-athletes to receive compensation, has the NCAA made this very sudden — and very reactive — move.

The problem is that the NCAA has been this lumbering and arrogant bureaucracy, proclaiming an outdated version of amateurism while raking in billions of dollars through television rights.

Thing is, amateurism went out the window the day that Dwight Stones sought to appear on The Superstars, the made-for-TV athletic competition, back in the mid-70s. A lawsuit coming out of this situation led to the passage of the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act of 1978, which broke up the Amateur Athletic Union, brought in the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, and allowing track and field and many other heretofore amateur athletes to make a living through prize money.

It’s taken people of vision, such as Stones, O’Bannon, and California governor Gavin Newsom to challenge the old way of doing business. And yes, I posit that college sports is most definitely a business. There is value on muscle and sinew, and the way that the college athlete — whether a water-polo player, a quarterback, or a dragflicker — uses those gifts.

Now, a lot of people have asked me over the last 21 years about the recruiting process in the context of “return on investment.” Sports which used to have little to no cost to play have developed monetized systems to make money off overly eager parents.

What had been a 12-week Little League experience has now become all-season travel baseball with four or five games on a weekend. What was “shirts and skins” at the local blacktop is now the cesspool that is AAU basketball. What was pond shinny every morning in locales from Maine to Minnesota is now 6 a.m. travel hockey with long bus rides and very expensive equipment, most of all paying for the rink.

I wonder if the NCAA’s decision to allow athletes to make money may actually make the teen sports experience worse.

Oct. 29, 2019 — A milestone

Today’s National Top 10 has a special significance, as it was the 5,000th blog entry for this site.

Ever since we transitioned our entries over from a very clunky Yahoo site (something which, seemingly, foreshadowed its exit from the blogging business) into WordPress back in July 2006, the blog catalogued 13 years’ worth of achievement, endeavor, and, we think, history.

We’ve seen how history has repeated itself between the field hockey and lacrosse communities, in that:

  • the two winningest coaches in either sport (Susan Butz-Stavin and Kathy Jenkins) are currently active;
  • the highest scorers in the history of the game (Mackenzie Allessie and Caitlyn Wurzburger) are graduating within a year of each other;
  • the longest unbeaten streaks (McDonogh and Watertown) were snapped in the same academic year;
  • And, for a while, the top teams in the country in each sport (Eastern and Mount Hebron) were called the Vikings.

What was initially conceived as BlogOfTheCircle, an occasional place for insights, has become the major driver of eyeballs to TopOfTheCircle.com. It has given you lists, opinions, statistical analysis, and breaking news — especially a surfeit of field hockey news on Nov.  14 and 15, 2007.

We reported on some of the semifinal action in state tournaments in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. A few hours later, we added a bulletin about Oak Knoll beating Eastern in the second NJSIAA Tournament of Champions — the origin of The Garden State Firm. The next evening, we had the news that Sussex Tech was no longer going to be in the Delaware state tournament because of an ineligible player.

Throughout it all, we’ve had context and perspective. We’ve stuck with our journalistic principles in reporting facts (with the occasional opinion herein). As such, I think our proudest moment was Nov. 19th, 2015, when we recapped two frenetic days of field hockey action from several states on a timeline.

Another moment was in early 2010 when we broke the news of mandatory eyewear in scholastic field hockey, a development which changed the game since players got to be more fearless attacking the scoring circle, leading to the current Score-O Decade.

And there was the weekend where we got the most views: the Maryland-New York Challenge in April 2012. There were eight games over the weekend and it threatened to overload the limits that we had at the time on our bandwidth.

So, here’s to 5,000 more blog entries to come!

Oct. 27, 2019 — Should the NWSL be worried?

This afternoon, the North Carolina Courage won their second consecutive National Women’s Soccer League championship.

And it wasn’t even close; the team beat the Chicago Red Stars 4-0 thanks to a number of players, such as Casey Short, Jessica McDonald, Heather O’Reilly, McCall Zerboni, and Lynn Williams, who did not figure into the U.S. women’s national team’s run in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Let’s focus you a little more. This Courage team was able to put four goals past the U.S. starting goalkeeper, Alyssa Naeher.

This tells me that the United States possesses an absolute surfeit of talent in women’s soccer. It is a surfeit that, I think, can be tapped by a number of foreign football clubs looking to make names for themselves.

That could be a problem, especially with clubs like Olympique Lyonnais, FC Barcelona, and Arsenal, all of whom have deep pockets.

I think there is going to be a reaction by the NWSL though expansion. There has already been one announcement of a new team for 2021, in Louisville, Ky. But I think the league desperately needs to take up residence somewhere in California next year, and perhaps join up with the new St. Louis team in MLS when it begins.

Too, the league needs to try to mend fences with supporters in Boston and perhaps figure out a way to put Sky Blue FC closer to New York, reboot franchises in Philadelphia and Kansas City, and take advantage of soccer-specific stadia being built all over the country.

Ultimately, there needs to be more national sponsorship in order for the league to be sustainable. Yes, InBev has boosted the league’s profile and marketing through the Budweiser brand, but Bud was one of the original sponsors of Major League Soccer all the way back in 1996.

MLS, remember, had deep-pocketed sponsors such as MasterCard, Honda, Bandai, and the New York Life insurance company back in 1996. But the majority of the investment in Major League Soccer these days is through ownership groups ranging from Red Bull Gmbh to the group that owns Los Angeles FC, which includes the likes of Mia Hamm, Nomar Garciaparra, and Magic Johnson.

The NWSL needs more of these, rather than corporate names on the front of jerseys.