Have we had presidents who were athletes?

Dear Sports Fan,

I know we’ve had presidents who were actors (well, at least one) and presidents who were generals, and lots who were lawyers. Have we had presidents who were athletes?


Dear Richard,

We have had presidents who were athletes. Off the top of my head, I know that Gerald Ford played center for a big-time college football team, which makes it doubly funny that his Saturday Night Live parody was almost completely based on his clumsiness. Barack Obama’s skill on the basketball court is probably a little overstated, but its importance to him cannot be. I believe Teddy Roosevelt overcame a fairly severe asthma condition to become an avid outdoorsman and big game hunter. And we all know how much exercise he got on the stairs in Brooklyn. I don’t think George W. Bush played a sport at the collegiate level, but the first pitch strike he threw out in the World Series after 9/11 was a chill-inducing presidential athletic moment in my memory. You deserve an answer with a little more weight though, so I researched the topic. Here is what I found.

I’ll stick with my original answer. Gerald Ford was one of our most athletic presidents. He not only played center for the University of Michigan, but he also played linebacker and long snapper. In 1932 and 1933 his University of Michigan Team was undefeated and won the national championship. Even more impressively, in 1934, Ford briefly quit the team in protest for the racially motivated benching of his best friend on the team, an African-American running back named Willis Ward.

George H. W. Bush also played college sports. He was first baseman and captain of the Yale baseball team and played in the first two College World Series ever held. Oddly enough, he was also a member of the Yale cheerleading squad, something his father, and his son, future president George W. Bush, also did at Yale.

Dwight D. Eisenhower has a compelling athletic back story. While attending the U.S. military academy at West Point, he played football, starting at running back and linebacker in 1912. He either made or missed a tackle on the legendary Jim Thorpe, (sources seem to disagree, but even today, a tackle is a highly subjective statistic, so we’ll give it to him.) He also injured his knee badly enough to need to give up football… although Wikipedia claims he then moved on to “fencing and gymnastics,” which are both highly knee-dependent sports, so who knows. There’s also the mysterious matter of the Eisenhower baseball controversy. In the summer before he went the West Point, he may or may not have played semi-professional baseball under the pseudonym, “Wilson.” If he did, then he may be our only president who personally violated the NCAA ban on paying “student athletes.”

Many other presidents have been athletes. George Washington apparently had a hell of an arm. John F. Kennedy was on the swimming team at Harvard, an avocation which may have saved his life when his patrol boat went down in the Pacific Ocean during World War II. But my favorite piece of presidential athletic trivia that I picked up was from this article on Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was not only a champion wrestler who took on all comers and a fair number of wagers during his life, but he was also an excellent handball player! In a moment that parallels and foreshadows President Obama’s tradition of playing basketball on election days by almost 150 years, Lincoln played handball (and was injured slightly) while waiting for news of the 1860 Presidential nominating convention.

Thanks for reading,

Why do once in a generation things happen so often in sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

My girlfriend convinced me to watch a Golden State Warriors game last night by saying that teams as good as them only come along once every twenty or thirty years. I watched the game. They were legitimately great but it seems like sports fans have something they need to watch for that reason pretty frequently. Why do once in a generation things happen so often in sports?


Dear Cesar,

The Golden State Warriors are a magnificent basketball team. They won the championship last spring and, unlike many championship winning teams, have started this season strong. They’ve won their first 23 games. In doing so, they obliterated the previous record for consecutive wins to start a season, which two other teams had set at 15. They’re closing in on the Los Angeles Lakers record for wins in a row, (any time during the season,) which is 33 and has been since the 1971-72 season. Their start also has the folks over at Five Thirty Eight frantically modeling to see how likely it is that the Warriors match or beat the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls season record of 72 wins and 10 losses. The conclusion they come to is that the Warriors certainly can but will probably choose not to, since breaking that record is likely to be a harmful distraction from their true goal of winning another championship. The Warriors streak is so impressive, that the Harlem Globetrotters (who were once a very real, very formidable competitive basketball team but who now only play exhibition games against a team of stooges called the Washington Generals,) jokingly worried on Twitter about the safety of their own “record”:

Beyond numbers, the Warriors are a wonderful collection of characters to root for. Their super star, Steph Curry, is barely big enough to make you look twice at him if he passed you on the street, and yet he’s as unstoppable a force as any the NBA has known. He is the best long-range shooter in NBA history and plays with a fluid, captivating style. He’s surrounded by teammates who benefit from and augment his skills. Klay Thompson, who pales in comparison to Curry, may also be one of the top 20 shooters in NBA history. Draymond Green was a popular college basketball player who most thought would not amount to much in the pros. Now he’s the new prototype for a power forward, one who can do a little bit of everything well enough to be extraordinarily effective. The next five best players on the team, Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livington, and Festus Ezeli all have their own talents and their own attractive stories. From a sports fan’s perspective, the Warriors really are a comet passing through space: rare and wondrous. To give you a sense of how much people want to see them, their presence as the away team playing against the Boston Celtics this Friday has launched tickets on the secondary market from starting at between $13 and $20 to starting between $150 and $200.

Your question wasn’t about whether the Warriors were amazing, it was about how rare they are. There’s a saying I love: “You’re one in a million… which means there’s a thousand people just like you in China.” One in a million seems like a giant rarity, but not when viewed against a country with a population of over a billion! The same thing is true about sports. Say the Warriors truly are a generational team. That would put them alongside the Chicago Bulls that set that 72-10 record in 1996. That’s awfully convenient, because it was 20 years ago, exactly the number most people use in estimating a generation. Go back farther, and most people point to the 1985 Celtics as another generationally good team. That’s only 10 years before the Bulls, but that’s okay, sometimes data falls randomly in clumps. No big deal. The thing is, sports fans follow many sports. Most fans follow at least three of the big four American professional leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL) pretty closely. Add a college sport or two, international competitions like the Olympics and World Cup, as well as a few individual sports like tennis, golf, boxing, or car racing. That’s close to 10 sports that a fan will follow. The chances of a generational event (one every 20 years) happening in a sport, if you follow 10 of them, is 50% in any given year.

Of course, when something this eventful happens in a sport a fan doesn’t follow closely, there’s a good chance that she’ll hear about it on Twitter, Facebook, Sports Center, from a podcast or a friend, etc. And anything so magnificent, so rare, as a generational sporting event is worth following, even from an unusual sport! There are also two or three close calls for every one truly generational event (the Carolina Panthers are 12-0 in the NFL right now… if they get to 16-0, they will be only the second team to ever do it. Earlier this year Serena Williams almost became the first person to win all four major tennis tournaments in a year – called the Grand Slam – since 1988). So, if you’re a sports fan who wants to see something with the potential to be truly remarkable, you’ve legitimately got a chance to watch one every couple of months at most.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer


What are the terms for starting a game in different sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

One of the things that I find confusing about sports is the unique technical language that goes with each sport and which sports fans seem to all know without needing to learn! For instance, I know that the start of a football game is called the kick off but I’m not sure about other sports. What are the terms for starting a game in different sports?


Dear Lauren,

There are a lot of different terms for when a game starts in different sports. The good thing is that you can almost always get by with a generic term and still fit in, even amongst the craziest of sports fans. For instance, if you’re running late to a game and you’re encouraging a friend to walk faster, you could say “Come on! I don’t want to miss the start of the game.” No matter what sport you’re headed to, that’s a reasonable thing to say. If you do want to learn the specific terms for each sport, here’s a list of them with a little detail on what happens at the start of each one.

American Football begins with the kick off

At the start of an American Football game, one team kicks the ball off to the other. The ball is placed on the 35 yard-line of the team that is kicking off. Their team’s kicker kicks the ball down the field while his teammates sprint down it, trying to make sure that they are in position to stop any return. The other team can catch the ball and run down the field with it. Wherever they run to before they’re tackled is where they start their offensive possession with the ball. If the kick goes out-of-bounds, the receiving team gets the ball on their 40 yard line. If the kick goes out the back of the end-zone or if the receiving team catches it in the end-zone and decides to stay there, the receiving team gets the ball on their 20 yard line.

Basketball starts with the tip or tip-off or opening tip

The first event in a basketball is a jump ball. In a jump ball, the referee throws the ball straight up between two players and as soon as it reaches its apex, both players try to tap the ball into the hands of one of their teammates. Whichever team gets control of the ball first gets the first offensive possession of the game. Jump balls used to be much more common than they are today. Early in basketball’s history, jump balls were used after almost every stoppage and skill at corralling them was important. These days, they happen at the start of the game and not too many other times, so basketball players don’t practice them that much.

Soccer starts with a kick off

Soccer games start at the center of the field with two players from one team standing right near the ball and no one else in the center circle. The game begins when one of the two players kicks the ball and it rolls forward. The player that kicked it initially can not be the next player to touch the ball, so frequently her teammate steps up and then kicks it backwards to another teammate. The ball does need to roll forward though to begin the game. Although it’s rarely attempted and even more rarely successful, a goal can be scored directly from the kick off, so if you feel like taking a shot, go for it!

Baseball begins with the first pitch

This one is a little confusing because there is a ceremonial first pitch and an actual first pitch and they are both referred to with the same phrase. Before a baseball game begins, there’s usually some celebrity or honoree who goes up to the pitching mound and throws a ceremonial first pitch to the catcher. Although it’s just for show, first pitches of this type can be very important. Politicians, in particular, are believed to be judged by their ability to throw out a good first pitch. Whatever you think about President George W. Bush, you have to admire his first pitch in the World Series following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. President Obama didn’t fare quite as well although you’ve got to appreciate his trolling of the home town Washington Nationals fans. It may seem idiotic to compare the two presidents on something as prosaic as throwing a baseball, but that doesn’t stop people from doing it. Just check out this somewhat bizarre video. Anyhow, after the ceremonial first pitch, there’s usually a commercial break (in person, this is just empty time with everyone standing around) and then the teams come on the field and the starting pitcher throws the real first pitch to get things started.

Hockey begins with the puck drop

Now that we’re nearing the end of our list, we can begin building on what we’ve already explained. The start of a hockey game shares some elements with baseball and some with basketball. Like baseball, there is a ceremonial puck drop with an honored guest emulating the act that’s going to start the game in earnest in a few minutes. Like basketball, the first act involves the referee putting the puck (ball in basketball) into play evenly between two players who fight to gain possession. In hockey, the drops the puck instead of throwing it up in the air and the action is called a face off not a jump ball. In both cases though, the term that describes the start of play is a description of what happens (in basketball the players try to tip the ball, in hockey the referee drops the puck). In either case, referring to the start of the game with the technical term – jump ball or face off – would also be acceptable.

Car racing starts with the green flag

Car racing comes in many different forms involving different types of cars on different courses with different rules. One thing that’s constant in almost all forms of racing is a simple set of flags that convey meaning to the drivers. These flags come from a time before every race car driver had a speaker in his ear and a microphone in front of her mouth. The signal for the start of the race is a solid green flag. It’s also used during the race to signal the end of a caution period (yellow flag) when the drivers must slow down. The end of the race is symbolized by a white and black checkered flag.

There we go — five terms for the start of six different sports. I hope that helps to assuage your fitting in jitters. There are lots of other sports, each with their own technical languages. If you’re a fan of one of those sports, send me a note at dearsportsfan@gmail.com with your sport’s term for the start of the game.

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

For women's sports to thrive, look beyond the World Cup

So far, the women’s 2015 World Cup has been a great success. Sure, it’s had its sore spots: the cringe-inducing spectacle of people playing soccer on artificial turf that literally melts their cleats and burns their feet; the lackluster performance of the United States team so far; the mostly empty stadiums for some Round of 16 games; but overall, it’s been a great time for soccer and women’s sports in general. The games have been fast, exciting, and as a whole, quite competitive. There have been viewing parties all over the country, from bars and living rooms to town squares and outside city halls. Even President Obama got into the act, showing support for the U.S. team.

One way that you can tell that women’s sports has hit the jackpot of popular support with this World Cup is by noting how quickly and vociferously opponents of equality in sport get shouted down in the media. Early this week, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Benoit provided an example when he tweeted his belief that women’s sports in general are not worth watching. As you might expect, Benoit was roundly condemned for his tweet. He was mocked by former Saturday Night Live actors Amy Poehler and Seth Myers (who themselves were good-naturedly mocked by Fox Sports 1’s Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole). His contention that women’s sports are not worth watching was debunked by innumerable columnists around the country, my favorite of which was Will Leitch in Sports on Earth who argued that anyone who thinks women’s sports are boring, are in fact, boring themselves:

People like Benoit toss out these justifications for not watching women’s sports out of some sort of faux sports purity, like he’s really just out to watch the pinnacle of athletic achievement every night, like anything less than the “best” and the “fastest” and the “strongest” is somehow a waste of one’s time. But this isn’t why we watch sports at all; we watch because every game we watch, we have a chance to see something we’ve never seen before. Dismissing that out of hand isn’t a way of demanding the highest quality performance every game (as if that’s something that could be done anyway); it’s a way of confirming your preexisting biases. It also devalues the actual athleticism on display, and the amount of work it required of everyone to get there.

Although the reaction against Benoit’s comment suggests that he was voicing a fringe, minority opinion, he was not. His attitude towards women’s sports is quite mainstream. Benoit simply made the mistake of speaking out against women’s sports during the World Cup, one of women’s sports two or three most popular events at a time when it’s never been more popular. If you think anything he said was new, you should watch this bitingly ironic video the Norwegian national team made before the World Cup began:

Negative attitudes like the ones the Norwegian team mocked in their video are all too common in the sports world and are relatively safe to voice during the 45 months out of every 48 when a World Cup or Olympics is not going on. This is bad for elite female athletes, it’s bad for people who love watching sports, it’s bad for girls who aspire to be athletes and their parents. I actually can’t think of anyone it is good for. It’s bad for everyone. Unfortunately, as popular as events like the World Cup and Olympics are, they can’t solve the problem because they only come around once every four years. To solve the gender inequalities in sports, a more consistent, permanent force is needed.

Tanya Wheeless, a former executive of the professional basketball teams, the Phoenix Mercury and Suns, wrote recently about the challenge of sustaining interest in women’s sports beyond the World Cup in Time magazine. She suggests that the critical variable in equalizing the opportunities and rewards provided by sports to women is investment:

What if the likes of Nike, Adidas, Coke, and Gatorade spent as much promoting female athletes as they did men? What if women’s leagues had the same marketing budget as men’s leagues? What if the National Women’s Soccer League got as much airtime in the U.S. as the English Premier League?

Naysayers will say all of that would happen if the interest were there. I say, increase promotion and the interest will follow. It’s the difference between having a market and creating one.

Wheeless could not be more right. The future of women’s sports must be bolstered by strong professional leagues. Professional leagues provide opportunities for athletes to get the training and experience they need to become world class. Without strong professional leagues, athletes are left making gut-wrenching decisions, like that of Noora Raty, perhaps the best women’s hockey goalie in the world, who retired at 24 for financial reasons, or Monica Quinteros, the 26 year-old Ecuadorian soccer player who left her job as a gym teacher to play in this year’s World Cup. You think they might have stuck with their sports if they could have made a living doing so? Yeah, so do I.

We don’t need to leave it to “Nike, Adidas, Coke, and Gatorade.” We can do something about this ourselves. We can contribute to equality and the success of women’s sports by becoming a fan of an existing women’s professional team. That’s exactly what I aim to do with the local professional women’s soccer team, the Boston Breakers. I’ve been to one game so far this year and it was a lot of fun. Held in a Harvard University complex convenient to most of the greater Boston area, Breakers games provide high-quality soccer in a thoroughly enjoyable atmosphere. I’m going again this Sunday when the Breakers take on the Western New York Flash at 5 p.m. Tickets are available and affordable. Join me!

There’s really no excuse to continue watching only male sports. There are successful women’s basketball and soccer leagues: the WNBA and NWSL, and later this year, a brand new professional women’s ice hockey league, the NWHL will begin. The WNBA is carried on television by the ESPN family of channels and you can buy streaming access to all the games for only $15. The NWSL goes a step further and puts all of its games on Youtube for free! If you’re reading this post now, you can watch those games. So join me, over the next year and more, in supporting women’s sports by putting our eyes and our wallets were our mouths are!

Why is 50% written .500 and said "five hundred" in sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

Here’s something I don’t get about sports. Why is 50% called “500” in sports? Is this some kind of metric system thing? Or is it for a purpose?


Dear Emily,

There are a variety of numbers in sports that are expressed as a number between zero and 1,000 when they more naturally might be thought of as a percentage. For example, a team that has won half its games and lost half its games is often said to be a “500 team” or playing “500 ball.” What this means is that they have won 50% of the games they’ve played. Likewise, a basketball player who scores on 38.9% of the three point shots she attempts may be said to be “shooting 389 from downtown.”

There’s nothing magical about these numbers, they’re just like percentages — a way of expressing the result from one number being divided by another. In the case of percentages, we take one number, divide it by another number, and then multiply the result by 100 and smack a percentage sign next to it. Thus one divided by two, which is .5 becomes 50%. The difference between a percentage and a sports number is that instead of multiplying by 100, sports numbers get multiplied by 1,000. At least when spoken out loud. A lot of times when you see a sports number like this written out, it will actually be written as “.500” even though no one would ever read it as “five tenths” instead of “five hundred” in a sports context.

If you always want to express a ratio to the hundredths place, it kind of makes sense to multiply by 1,000 instead of 100. It’s certainly easier to refer to something that happens three times every eight times it’s attempted as “three seventy five” than “point three seventy five” or even “thirty seven point five percent.” It’s not surprising that sports people feel that their numbers need this level of accuracy. People who live in and around sports often seem to be obsessed with accuracy to the point of over-precision. For example, players eligibly to be picked in the NBA draft tonight have their height measured down to the quarter inch with and without shoes! Commentators in many sports will often argue about whether it looks like something a player did took .25 seconds or .28 seconds. As if the commentators can actually judge a hundredth of a second difference from their perch at the top of the stadium! Because the difference between winning and losing in sports can sometimes be as slim as a fraction of an inch or a hundredth of a second it’s tempting to believe that all metrics in sports need to have that level of detail.


In defense of the sports way of expressing percentages, its historic source is a number that reasonably should be expressed to the tenth of a percent: batting average in baseball. Batting average is a player or team’s number of hits divided by their number of at bats. It’s not the best metric in baseball, in fact it’s a reasonably misleading one, but it does have a very long history. For many years, it was considered a key statistic in measuring how good a player was doing against to his current competition and for making historical comparisons. Baseball is obsessed with statistics because it creates them so nicely. Its long, 162 game season virtually guarantees that any measure one can imagine will have a statistically significant sample over the course of a year. With 30 teams and well over a dozen position players on each team, not even to mention the 120+ history of professional baseball, if you really want to know how a player’s batting average compares to his peers, you do need to take that number to the third decimal point. It would be far less interesting to say that Manny Machado and Adrian Gonzalez have the same batting average of 30% than to say that Machado is 18th in the league, with a .304 (pronounced “three oh four”) batting average and Gonzalez is 30th with a .296. Eight tenths of a percent may not seem like much, but over the course of a season (162 games times roughly 3.5 at bats per game) that’s a difference of four or five hits.


Of course, the source of the habit doesn’t matter so much if it is misapplied. Team records are the clearest form of misapplication. The problem with using this kind of number to express a team’s record is that aside from the most obvious numbers like .333, .666, and any of .000, .100, .200, and so on, these figures are very hard for us to translate into numbers in our heads. Quick — tell me how many wins and losses a team whose record is .527 has. According to the current MLB baseball standings, the answer is 39 wins and 35 losses, like the Toronto Blue Jays have. Although these numbers are convenient for creating a standings table (because they allow an easy comparison of teams who have played different numbers of games) they probably should not be displayed. In terms of figuring out how well your team is doing, the order of the teams in the standings and the games back metric are far, far better.

Regardless of how reasonable or unreasonable the sports percentage expression is, it’s deeply engrained in sports culture and seems to be here to stay. It’s easy to wonder though, if this small form of numerical manipulation makes it easier for sports people to mangle numbers in much sillier ways, like the habit of asking players to “give 110%.” That’s a story for another day.

Thanks for your question,

Dear Sports Fan joins the real world: Meetup

Watching sports with someone who knows more or less than you can be a frustrating proposition.

If you’re the person who knows less about sports, you probably have a lot of questions. How many can you ask before the sports fan you’re watching with gets annoyed? When is the right time to ask? You don’t want to ruin the game for your companion by asking a simple question right at a suspenseful moment. Talking about simple questions, it can be difficult to learn when it seems like the answers to all your questions contain vocabulary words you’re not completely clear on. Words and concepts that are second nature to a sports fan, like offside, holding, second set, third and seven, or two and two, are not easy sailing if you don’t know what they mean. It often feels like a choice between pestering your companion incessantly or accepting that the sporting event can only be pleasant but indecipherable background noise.

Being the person who knows more about sports can also be tricky. Knowledge often comes from passion, so the person who knows more often wants to focus more on watching and less on talking. It can be legitimately difficult to explain the components of something you may have learned very gradually from an early age or from the altered perspective of being a participant.

It’s difficult to watch sports without understanding them but it’s impossible to learn without watching. It’s a Catch 22 of Hellermanian proportions — at least it was, until now. After four years of explaining sports online, Dear Sports Fan will be making its first foray into the real world. I’ve started a Meetup group called Dear Sports Fan Viewing Parties for people who want to watch sports with explicit permission to ask question and for sports fans who want to help create a supportive setting. Our first Meetup will be this Monday, June 8, at 7 p.m. to watch the U.S. Women’s National soccer team play its first game of the 2015 World Cup against Australia. We’ll be gathering at Orleans bar in Somerville near Davis Square. If you or anyone you know lives in the Boston area and would like to be a part of this experiment, let me know or sign up here.

Happy Mothers' Day 2015

In the sports world and also in the real world, Mothers’ Day is a great excuse to tell stories about mothers and how important they are to their children’s lives. Michael Farber wrote an excellent article for Sports Illustrated about hockey player Alexander Ovechkin’s mother, who passed down her athletic genes at birth (she was an Olympic basketball player) and has continued to nurture her son in her own distinctive way to this day. That way included being the primary negotiator of  his 13 year, $124 million contract with the Washington Capitals. Not bad. In the hopes that one day my mom or grandmother will negotiate a deal like that for me, I want to share some stories about them today. Jokes aside, I want to thank them for being a big source of inspiration for Dear Sports Fan. This site is the product of my love for sports and writing, both of which I can trace back through my matrilineage.

Before I could even walk, I was a soccer player. My mom would lift me up and swing me at a soccer ball, teaching me simultaneously how to kick and how to strive for skills just beyond my reach. Before I was old enough to play on a club team, my mom and I were an elite pair of soccer spectators, spending hours watching my brother’s team play. She coached our Saturday morning “house league” teams and helped manage our club teams. She quite un-ironically drove us all over the state to games and tournaments in her minivan. To this day, the term “soccer mom” in our family bears only positive characteristics. My mom got her love of sports from her parents. Her dad, my grandfather, was a member of the Italian-American Bike Club of New York (he was of Russian/Polish ancestry, but he sure could bike) and raced bicycles on the wooden velodromes of the city before World War II. During the war, he played soccer for an American military team who played against other allied teams in England as the soldiers waited to invade Europe. Back home, my grandmother was growing to love the sports her husband loved. The early days of their romance were full of sporting activities. He taught her to ski and to skate and to bicycle. Together they learned to play tennis and golf. They had season tickets to the New York Islanders throughout the glory days of the 1980s. Sports were a glue that bound them together through 50+ years of marriage.

Before I could even write, I was an author. For some reason (my brother claims I’m actually a lefty), I found the physical act of writing difficult. Gripping a pen was awkward, painful, and frustrating. When forced to write for a school assignment, I would do as little as possible, preferring to skimp on composition for the sake of convenience. Instead of trying to force me to write more, my mom developed a work-around. She would sit at the typewriter (later a computer) and let me dictate my homework to her. At times in my life, I’ve felt embarrassed by this luxury — how many other seven year-olds have a secretary? — but now I’m convinced it was a smart move. Without being freed from the physical act of writing, I don’t think I ever would have discovered a love for the mental aspects of composition. As for my Nana, well, I forget exactly when it began, but before Dear Sports Fan was even the germ of an idea in my mind, Nana had begun encouraging me. “You’re a writer,” she would say, or “One day, I’m going to see you in the back of the New York Times magazine.” These little remarks fostered a slow burning desire to write and a spark of belief that I could.

Of course, the content and style of Dear Sports Fan would be nothing without perseverance. The life of a blogger is not a particularly hard one, but you do need to keep plugging away at it, turning out two or three posts a day, week after week, month after month, year after year. I don’t have an enormous following, so most of the views I get each day are from people who go to Google, wondering about some aspect of sports. By writing every day, I make it more likely that I’ve written about what they’re wondering about and more likely that Google will favor my site in its search rankings. How do I keep going every day? It’s in my blood. My grandmother has been making art for decades and the thread that connects her printmaking to her sculpture to her haiku is a confident determination to always be creating something. My mom always has a project too. For over 35 years, it was inspiring classrooms of students to love nature and be creative. Now that she’s retired, she’s concentrating on different things, like taking care of her grandchild or cleaning out the garage (sorry Mom for all my junk in there).

The three of us enjoy sports together too. With the Women’s World Cup coming up, I was thinking about the finals of the last World Cup in 2011. The United States played Japan in the finals and I was in Long Island, watching with my Mom and my Nana. To be historically accurate, the three of us started to watch the game but my Nana decided to leave the room at some point in over time because she was getting too fired up! Today, on Mothers’ Day 2015, the three of us won’t be in the same place geographically, but sports might still find a way to bring us together. The U.S. Women’s National team will play against Ireland in a friendly World Cup warmup game. It will be televised live on Fox Sports 1 at 2:30 p.m. ET. Here’s a video of the team saying happy Mothers’ Day to their moms.

Happy Mothers’ Day, Mom and Nana, and to all the other mothers out there as well. Thanks!

Do you really always "play to win the game" in sports?

Sports are constructed universes that each have their own set of rules. One of the most attractive aspects about being a frequent visitor to a sports world is that it’s rules are so much clearer and more well defined than the rules of the real world. Each sport has a clear objective and every game that’s played has a winner and a loser. It’s no coincidence that virtually every sports arena has a large screen in it which shows the current score at all times. Unlike the other facets of most people’s lives — workplace dramas, romantic relationships, friendships, etc. — a sports fan always knows how their team is doing. Every game ends with a win or a loss. Every season ends with a championship or no championship. In a blurry, grey world, sports offers black and white contrasts. Fans, athletes, coaches, and general managers are free to pursue a single goal with an unwavering commitment rarely available or wise outside the realm of sports.

“You play to win the game.” If you were to watch ESPN 24 hours a day (not a real recommendation) you would probably hear this phrase at least four or five times a day. The phrase first assaulted the  sports Zeitgeist in 2002 when New York Jets head coach Herm Edwards said it in a post-game press conference.

The appeal of Edward’s rant is, at first glance, obvious. It’s a strident statement of the foundational truth about sports that we described above. Sports is objective. There is a winner and a loser and the goal is to be the winner. The second level of enjoyment for many people is in how dismissive and obnoxious Edwards is being towards the media member who somehow suggested that winning was not the ultimate purpose of sports. Bullying media members is, at this point in the United States, basically its own sport, and Edwards (who now works for ESPN himself,) is a champion at disdain. Forget those first two levels though, it’s the third level that we’re interested in today. The third level of interpretation reveals that this quote is complex. The thing about “playing to win the game,” is that it isn’t really true. Or at least, it’s a more paradoxical truth than it seems at first glance.

Today we’ll look at some of the ways in which teams don’t always choose to win games at all costs in two sports: NBA basketball and European club soccer.

NBA Basketball

Not trying to win or even trying not to win is one of the biggest topics in basketball right now. It’s seen as a crisis by many. There are two main ways in which teams subvert the single-minded goal of winning each game. The first is a strategy commonly known as tanking, where teams try to increase their chances of getting a high draft pick in an upcoming draft by losing as many games as possible in the current season. In an article on mathematical elimination, I described tanking as “a scourge to the sports world roughly equal to the flu in the normal world or sarcoidosis on House.” Tanking is trying not to win. The other focus of attention in the NBA is teams not trying to win an individual game by choosing not to play a player who is theoretically healthy enough to play that game. Unlike tanking, this tactic is used more by teams that believe themselves to be in championship contention.


More than any other team sport, basketball teams are only as good as their best player. If you start in 1980, and list out the NBA Championship winners by their best player, the names are almost all recognizable, even to non-sports fans: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Magic, Julius Irving (Dr. J), Bird, Magic, Bird, Magic, Magic, Isaiah Thomas 2X, Michael Jordan 3x, Hakeem Olajuwan 2x, Jordan 3x, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant 3x, Duncan, the exception to the rule that is the 2004 Detroit Pistons, Duncan, Dwayne Wade, Duncan, Paul Pierce, Kobe 2x, Dirk Nowitzky, LeBron James 2x, Duncan. Only once in the past 35 years has a team without a super-star won the championship!

The clear lesson for teams is that if they don’t have a super-star, their chances of winning a championship are drastically reduced. By far the easiest way of getting a super-star on a team is to draft him, usually with one of the first picks of the NBA draft. There’s some chance involved, but at the end of every season, the team with the worst record has the best chance of getting the first pick, the second worst team, the second best chance and so on. If a team is going to be in the bottom third of the league, there’s a clear incentive to be as bad as possible.

Teams pursue this strategy in a number of ways, most of which don’t involve actually instructing their players not to score. By far the most common form of tanking is for general managers to manipulate the chances of their team winning by trading its best players. The goal is to have a set of players and coaches that all try their hardest to win but simply don’t have enough experience or talent to do it. The current Picasso of tanking is General Manager Sam Hinkie of the Philadelphia 76ers. Hinkie, who was recently profiled brilliantly by ESPN writer Pablo S. Torre, is taking this strategy farther than anyone has ever taken it before. He’s drafted injured players so that they cannot possibly cause the team to win the year after they are drafted. He’s drafted players from Europe and the rest of the world who will not actually come to the United States to play for the 76ers for several years. One of his first moves when he got the job was to trade away the 76ers best player, Jrue Holiday, and just a week ago, he traded two of their best players away again, mostly for future picks.

It remains to be seen whether this strategy will work or whether it will be a complete disaster. It’s also unclear how much longer it will be possible. Tanking is odious enough to people in the sports world that the NBA is likely to make structural changes to how it decided its draft pick order to take away the incentive to tank.

Resting Players

Unlike tanking, where a team is eager to forgo winning games in one season for the potential of winning games in a future season, this tactic involves reducing a team’s chances of winning a game in order to increase the team’s chances of winning the championship that year. Increasingly, basketball coaches and executives are realizing that most players cannot play at peak effectiveness for an 82-game regular season and then a playoff run that could involve as many as 28 additional games.  Smart teams that hope to make it deep into the playoffs have adjusted to this knowledge by managing the number of minutes their players play during the regular season in the hopes of keeping them fresh for the playoffs. Often that means reducing a player’s normal time on the court per game from 35 minutes (out of 48) to 30 minutes over the course of the season. Other times, that might mean sitting a player for the entire second half of a game that is evidently going to be a blow-out win or loss by half-time. Even more blatant is the tactic of choosing not to have a player on the bench and available to play for a particular game.

Teams that choose to rest a player who isn’t seriously injured often choose one of the many small hurts that player is suffering from and use it as an excuse. A team might say, “Oh, So-and-So is out tonight because of a knee injury. They should be fine for the next game.” Usually the media knows this is nothing more than an excuse, but the gesture is enough to maintain the appearance that the team is optimizing to win every game. Some coaches, led by the example of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, don’t even bother with the excuse. They simply list players as “DND – CD” which stands for “Did Not Dress – Coach’s Decision.” Popovich famously thumbed his nose at the practice of using half-true injury designations to excuse coaches’ decisions to rest players in 2012 when he listed Tim Duncan as “DND – Old” for a game.

Resting players is not as noxious of a strategy as tanking, probably because the teams that do it are more well-respected (because they win) and because the future gain is so much closer and more concrete than the gains that teams tank for. The largest criticism of resting players is itself problematic. People often criticize resting players because the one game Tim Duncan sits out may be the only time a fan sees his team play in person all season or ever. By choosing to sit a player, a team is intentionally lowering the entertainment value of the game for its fans without a commensurate lowering of the cost. That argument make sense but only if sports is primarily entertainment rather than competition — and if it’s entertainment, then that in and of itself threatens the principle of trying to win every game. Uh oh, logical black hole alert! Let’s move on to soccer.

European Club Soccer

The structure of European club soccer creates a few scenarios where not winning is enough of a draw that even the most obsessed coaches are tempted to instruct their teams NOT to play to win the game. This subversion of what seems to be an obvious truth about sports is one of the curious and interesting things about learning how another continent organizes its sports leagues. Here are three common times when soccer clubs in Europe may be intent on something else more than on winning.

Balancing priorities

In American sports, there’s only one primary goal: win a championship. In European soccer, club teams compete for several different championships during a year, often simultaneously. A team may be playing in one or more domestic tournaments against teams within their country, an international club tournament like the Champions League or Europa League, at the same time as playing their normal league schedule against teams in their own country in their own league. This sometimes leads to conflicts of interest. If a player has a slightly injured ankle, will the coach choose to play him in a league game on Saturday knowing that there’s a Champions League game on Wednesday? What if the coach senses that the whole team is weary? Would it be better to lose in a domestic cup early on to clear the calendar for more rest days and practices? Will the benefit of rest and practice mean the difference between fifth and third place in the domestic league? Is that worth it? Which competition does the team have a better chance of winning? Which competitions are more lucrative and prestigious to do well in?

In American sports, coaches and teams don’t need to balance priorities like this, but in European club soccer, it’s a regular part of life. I wonder what a European soccer fan would think of Herm Edwards’ saying “you play to win the game?” Would they think it was funny because it’s true, funny because it’s not true, or just inaccurate and confusing?

The logic of aggregate goals

Many of the competitions that European soccer clubs take part in are tournaments. These tournaments often have a group round-robin stage and a knock-out stage, just like the World Cup. Unlike the World Cup and most other tournaments we’re used to, instead of one game against each opponent, European soccer clubs play two — one at each team’s home stadium. The team that has scored the most goals at the end of the two games (called aggregate goals) wins the matchup. The rules about breaking ties vary from tournament to tournament but they often have something to do with which team scored more goals when they were playing in their opponent’s stadium. The result of this is that teams pretty frequently go into games with goals other than simply winning. An underdog playing on the road in the first half of the two game series (often confusingly called a “tie”) may think that their best bet is to play defensively and try to leave with a 0-0 tie. A team that goes into the second game down a goal or two knows they need to not only win but to win by two or three or four goals. Likewise, a team going into a second game with the lead in aggregate goals knows they can lose the second game and still win the two-game series. They are not playing to win the game, they’re playing to win or tie or lose by a small enough margin to still win the series. Put that in your remix and smoke it!

When a tie is better than a win

Even in the most twisted of aggregate goal logic, it’s still always better to win than tie or lose but there is one situation when a tie is preferable than a win. Some tournaments, England’s FA cup being the most famous example, are set up as single elimination tournaments but, instead of overtime, if the score is tied after 90 minutes, the teams pack their bags, go home, and schedule a second game to decide who advances and who is eliminated. The second game is played in the stadium of the team that didn’t host the first game. Since the FA Cup is an association cup, open to every team in English soccer, from the rich, famous Premier league teams all the way to tiny seventh tier virtually semi-professional teams that no one has heard of, this leads to an interesting point. When a tiny team plays in a giant’s stadium, they get an enormous financial benefit from exposure, television money, and ticket sales. The bigger and more famous their host opponent, the more money they make. So, it’s often financially better for a tiny host team to tie a giant visiting team so that they get an extra game to play against the giant in the giant’s home stadium. Oh, sure, they’d love to beat the giant and move on to the next round of the tournament, but if they did that without ever playing at the giant’s stadium, especially if their potential opponent next round is not as rich or famous, they’ll really be losing out on an enormous payday. Small teams in this type of tournament have an incentive to tie, not win, games they host against storied opponents.

What should I watch now that football is over?

Dear Sports Fan,

What should I watch now that football is over?


Dear Leah,

Once the Super Bowl has passed, there is a period of about a month and a week that is very quiet in terms of sport. Oh, sure, there are lots of interesting sporting events if you’re a die-hard sports fan but none of them are truly vital. If you’re an unaffiliated sports fan, I can give a few recommendations for exciting events to watch. If you’re a sports fan living with a non-sports fan, my best advice is to give way in the entertainment choice arena.

If you’re a sports fan living with one or more non-sports fans, you’ve probably been a little selfish recently. Whether you’re aware of it or not, you (and the power of the National Football League) probably dominated in terms of choosing what was on the television over the last few months. You’re probably going to want to have your way again in a month or two when college basketball enters its conference championship season around March 11 and then March Madness begins on the 15th. Later in the spring, the basketball and hockey playoffs will be on. It’s time to, for the purposes of fairness and as an investment for future television domination, watch some other stuff! Here are some non-sports possibilities:

  • Downton Abbey is back! In some ways, this show is the antithesis of sports. It’s hard to imagine Lady Mary or her grandmother, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, putting on shin guards and cleats to play soccer. At the same time, it’s not hard to imagine David Aldridge doing a post-game interview with either of them after a social event. “You got a couple of real zingers in there against cousin Isobel. What were you thinking when you made your move?
  • Watch The Station Agent! I know, I know, it came out in 2003, but I just recently discovered it and it is wonderful! Not only is it an enjoyable and off movie (starring Tyrion from Game of Thrones) but it’s also one of the best representations of my home state, New Jersey, that I’ve ever seen.
  • How about BATTLESTAR GALACTICA? Another oldie, once you get past the title and the fact that it’s science fiction (unless you’re into that stuff) this show has everything you could wish for. Great characters, real issues, the fate of the human race, etc.!

The important thing is not what you watch, it’s that you make sure the people around you know that you appreciate their giving way during football season and that you are willing to pay them back now. Whatever they want to watch, give it a chance!

Now, if you are an unaffiliated sports fan or someone who got into football and is now wondering what other sports there are to watch, you’re in luck. Although the major national must-see sporting events don’t start back up for another month or so, there are lots of compelling smaller events between now and then. Looking at our handy 2015 in the United States of Sports map there are eight featured sports things between now and March Madness.

  • On February 13, the USA Sevens rugby tournament begins. This is an international tournament of the faster and easier to follow seven person version of rugby. It’s lots of fun to watch, although the U.S. probably won’t win.
  • The NBA All-Star Game and skills competition is in New York this year on the weekend of February 14 and 15. Although the game itself can barely be called a competitive sporting event, it often is good entertainment.
  • On February 18, the North Carolina Tarheels play the Duke Blue Devils in men’s basketball. Although this is just a regular season game, the word “just” can barely ever be used to describe the atmosphere when these rivals meet up. This year, both teams are very good, so the rivalry will be even more tense than normal.
  • If you’re into fishing or watching other people fish, the Bassmaster Classic on February 20 is the event for you. If you’re a fish, stay away!
  • On February 25, Rhode Island hosts the US Figure Skating Synchronized Skating Championships. This sport is surprisingly mesmerizing. If you’ve ever wanted to see what 15 Russian women dancing in unison on skates to Whitney Houston looks like, you’re in luck!
  • March 4 is the official start of college basketball conference tournaments, including the Women’s SEC Basketball Tournament in Arkansas.
  • The most famous dog sled race in the world, Alaska’s Iditarod, begins on March 7. If you’ve ever wanted a behind-the-scenes look at that race, you should read Brian Phillips’ piece on it from 2013.

There you go! Football may be over, but there are plenty of wonderful entertainment options in the sports world and beyond!

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

What is sportsmanship? When is it appropriate?

Mirriam Webster defines sportsmanship as “fair play, respect for opponents, and polite behavior by someone who is competing in a sport or other competition”. Sportsmanship is an interesting concept. In some ways, it’s like obscenity according to the Supreme Court. When faced with trying to “categorize an observable fact or event, although the category is subjective or lacks clearly defined parameters” you sometimes just have to say that you “know it when you see it.” We all know, of course, that this type of definition is not good enough. Different people view different things as obscene or not obscene and the same holds true with sportsmanship. I grew up playing soccer, just like lots of other people, but I gravitated towards playing defense and over time turned into someone who stayed in the starting lineup despite being slower than most of the other players by doing the little treacherous things, like knowing exactly how long I could hold a player’s shirt before I would get called for it and understanding exactly where to place my body so that an opposing player would stumble over it without attracting attention. I thought that type of infringement was breaking the rules but not breaking the ethic of the game. In other words, I thought I was still showing good sportsmanship. An attacking player would be more likely to try to draw a foul by taking a dive or feigning injury. I always thought that was bad sportsmanship but now that I view soccer as an observer and not a participant, I can see how people might have varying opinions. Sportsmanship is an important concept because it defines the cultural (as opposed to rule-based) norms of a game but it is hard to define and varies from sport to sport and participant to participant. In the past couple weeks, I’ve read a few articles on the topic of sportsmanship that I enjoyed and would love to share with you. I think they create a compelling conflict within and between sports.

Sportsmanship Captured at NCAA Cross Country Championships

by Alison Wade for Runner’s World

This article represents almost a control case for our investigation of sportsmanship. It’s a classic human interest story that lauds athletes who stop and sacrifice themselves to help an injured or disabled competitor. It’s actually more balanced than most, in that it points out that there is an NCAA rule against helping another athlete and by doing so, excuses some of the other runners in a video of the incident who did not stop to assist the falling runner. Still, there is no criticism of two women who do stop to help the fallen runner, quite the contrary.

“It does not surprise me at all that Kate would do that. She is all about team and loves the sport,” wrote Minnesota coach Sarah Hopkins in an email to Newswire. “She saw someone struggling and tried to lend an arm to get her to the end. This was her first national meet, and I am sure that somewhere in her head she thought how awful it would feel to not finish, so wanted to keep anyone from feeling that.”

Is Competitiveness Poor Sportsmanship?

by Sarah Barker for Deadspin

In this article, Sarah Barker discusses several incidents including the one described in the previous article and asks a few important questions: Could media (social and traditional) be driving athletes to help each other even at the cost of their own disqualification to their team’s detriment? Why does it seem like women are disproportionately in the news for showing this type of sportsmanship? Barker, a runner herself, gives us the benefit of her own experience to answer these questions as well as sharing answers from some of the runners and cross-country coaches she reached out to.

Sportsmanship has been a way to ensure that no one goes too far to win, that individual competitiveness doesn’t pass into the realm of cheating or impeding other runners. It’s been about fairness and honoring the efforts of all competitors, but has not, in the past, gone so far as to sacrifice one’s own result to help another runner.   Spectating at a girls’ high school cross country race in the early 2000s, a competitor collapsed right in front of me. Though apparently uninjured, she lay on the grass, sobbing, as scores of runners streamed by. I must say, it felt cruel not to reach out and help her up, but as I bent toward her, a race official appeared and warned me she’d be disqualified if I did so. Some of the other runners urged her on as they passed by, but no one stopped. Eventually, she pulled herself up and carried on. That was just one of several such instances at the same meet.

Volvo Ocean Race: Sportsmanship on the High Seas

by Aaron Kuriloff for the Wall Street Journal

This is a similar article to the first one. It absolutely praises the sailers who went off course during a race to their own detriment to provide assistance to a competitor’s boat who ran aground and was in distress. [The article is worth going to, even if you don’t read it, for the crazy video that captures the power of the ship running aground on a reef as well as the amazingly calm demeanor of the crew as they respond to mitigate the damage.] What I find most interesting about the way the author writes about this, is how clearly he describes the cultural clarity within sailing of going to a competitor’s aid. It seems obvious to me from reading this article, that no one involved with sailing would ever write an article arguing against doing so like TK did in the context of running. A basic rule of the sport and of the Volvo race: Never leave a competitor in danger… “There’s a code amongst thieves out there,” said Ken Read, who skippered PUMA Ocean Racing’s il Mostro team to a second-place finish in the 2008-09 Volvo. “One minute you’re trying to beat the guy at all costs, the next you’re his life raft.”