Change is coming in sports but it's slow, hard work

As with the rest of the world, sports cultures are constantly in flux. Nowhere is free from the push and pull battle between honoring and conserving the past and pushing the present towards what we think the future should look like. These three stories show different elements of that battle from sport to sport, region to region, and issue to issue. 

A Tactical Shift Sweeps Soccer, Only It Comes From the Police

by Sam Borden for the New York Times

For at least the past fifty years, soccer matches across the world have been popular vehicles through which to fight political or cultural battles. All to often these fights have literally been fights — mass mob violence. In an attempt to prevent violence at soccer matches, police have traditionally sought to overwhelm any trouble-makers with large numbers of well-armed and armored police. Just recently, some police forces have begun to take a more gentle and perhaps ultimately more effective approach.

The most dangerous factions of fans, security officials said, are generally the splinter groups or unaffiliated organizations that support a particular team. Many of these groups have political affiliations or ideologies, which can make their interactions more combustible.

While some cities — particularly in Eastern Europe, Mr. Martins said — have stuck to the older philosophy of using loads of officers carrying lots of weapons, a more peaceful strategy is growing in popularity. Instead of using “batons and barking dogs” to keep the peace, Mr. O’Hare said, the goal is to shepherd visiting fans to a particular area of the city and then help accompany the fans to the stadium.

The National Women’s Hockey League: Impatience Is A Virtue

by Kate Cimini for The Hockey Writers

Women’s sports have made an amazing amount of progress since 1972 when Title Nine went into affect, forcing all federally funded institutions (basically all schools) to provide equal opportunities for women. One of the largest deficits remaining is in the ranks of professional leagues for women’s team sports. The most successful of women’s leagues has been the WNBA which from its start was operated and subsidized by the men’s league, the NBA. None of the other major men’s sports leagues have followed suit by supporting a women’s league in their sport. Recently a group of people decided not to wait any longer for the NHL to initiate a women’s league but to do it themselves. I wish them luck and am excited that one of the original four franchises will be located in my new home town of Boston. I will be a fan!

The National Women’s Hockey league held its launch party Monday night at Chelsea Piers in New York City.

One thing was clear: the NWHL was born out of impatience. Impatience for women’s sports to be recognized as important, impatience for the next step, for women not only to have a place to continue to play hockey (as the CWHL allows) but to give them the ability to dedicate more of their time to it, as money affords time and opportunity.

Five gay college basketball coaches speak from the closet

by Cyd Zeigler for Out Sports

Despite rapid change in the outside world, the plight of homosexual men and women in the sports world remains annoyingly, frustratingly stagnant. Believe it or not, despite more than 300 schools competing in both men’s and women’s college basketball, there isn’t a single openly gay head coach. Cyd Zeigler, who does a wonderful job covering the gay sports beat, got a group of closeted gay coaches together and wrote their stories (while protecting their identities) of fear and anxiety with empathy and indignation.

Why would a closeted gay coach take a job where he had to sign an anti-gay lifestyle contract? College basketball coaching jobs aren’t exactly plentiful. There’s stiff competition for each opening from the head coaching spots on down the line. For someone recently out of college with no coaching experience, that first job is essential to his career.

Plus, his head coach knew Thomas was gay.

“It was the first question my coach asked me when he interviewed me,” Thomas said. The coach didn’t care as long as Thomas kept it quiet. “He needed a black assistant coach. I played at a high level. My knowledge of the game and skills-training were good. I was the one who related to the kids. He needed me.”

Fear of getting another job was pervasive in all of my conversations with these five coaches. There is a clear assumption — by them and the people in the profession closest to them — that by coming out publicly their chances of advancing in the profession will be dead.

Tragedy through the lens of sports

When people ask me why I’m so interested in sports, one of my stock replies is that I love games. I’m just compelled by competition driven tactics. I could easily have found myself as interested in politics or chess or Settlers of Catan or poker. And if I had found myself with a different passion, one of the key rewards I get from following sports would have been equally present: learning about the lives of very interesting people. If you get deep enough into any avocation, you follow what is written about it quite closely. If there are talented writers working on the topic, as there are in almost every area, but particularly in sports, it seems, then what you often get are amazing stories about people’s characters, about their lives, the things they create and the things that happen to them. This week, the two articles that popped through my screen and into my head were both articles about tragedies that ended in death. Both are fascinating and emotional but rewarding to read.

Jason Rabedeaux was here

by Wright Thompson for ESPN

We all know what happens to you if you succeed in sport; the champagne, the adulation, the screamingly high salaries, the respected position in society. What’s less frequently seen is what happens if you fail, especially after having some early success. Falling from grace in this way is always painful but for some people, it can be downright dangerous. That’s how it was for basketball coach Jason Rabedeaux whose life ended recently.

Saigon can be a dangerous place, not only because of what someone might do to you there but because of what you are allowed to do to yourself. People and their intentions come whole and leave broken. Every vice is for sale: cheap beer, snake liquor and easily scored hard drugs; private clubs where women are for rent hide above parking garages, and streetwalkers stand alone in the neon rot of crumbling doorways. There are still opium dens, like something from a 19th-century travel novel. Shame and regret grow faster than the mold creeping in wide tongues up the narrow slum alley houses. This is where the universe, with its vicious sense of humor, summoned Jason Rabedeaux in late 2011. It was the only coaching job in the world he could get.

War, Auschwitz, and the tragic tale of Germany’s Jewish soccer hero

by Brian Blickenstaff for Vice Sports

Sometimes people can be overwhelmed by events, like in our first story. Other times events strike with such force that personal character, strengths, weaknesses, even achievements like fame and wealth are swept away like they meant nothing. World War II and the Holocaust were events that swept through people’s lives and destroyed them with virtually no consideration for their individuality. We know that to be true but its still incredible to read about it happening to a true German soccer hero like Julius Hirsch.

Over the next five years, Hirsch, Fuchs, and another KFV player, Fritz Förderer, would become the country’s most famous attacking unit. They’d win titles and, with them, the loyalty of thousands of fans. They’d represent Germany in international matches across Europe, playing against some of their country’s biggest rivals, past and present. By World War I, they’d rank among Germany’s greatest ever sportsmen—and they’d return from that war as heroes both on and off the soccer field. But by World War II, Hirsch and Fuchs would be almost completely forgotten, their accomplishments erased, their lives discarded.

Fuchs and Hirsch were, respectively, the first and second Jewish players to ever represent the German national team. There have never been any others. Fuchs would escape the Holocaust. Hirsch would not. For years after his death, it was almost like he never existed at all.


Sports Lives, March 2015

Obituaries are a wonderful source of amazing stories about people you wish you had known more about when they were alive. That’s true in sports as in so many aspects of life. This week, I read three amazing pieces about recently departed sports figures.

The Hit

by Stefan Fatsis for Slate

In today’s climate of concern about brain injuries in football, it’s hard to remember that football’s culture was exactly the opposite for many years. Football glorified its violence for decades and in doing so, it made heroes out of players who injured another player in a particularly epic way. Chuck Bednarik became one of those heroes after he hit Frank Gifford in 1960. Gifford was injured so badly on the play that he missed the rest of that season and all of the next. Bednarik was glorified. This one incident became Bednarik’s main claim to fame and was (quite literally as we found out last week) in the first paragraph of his obituary. The hit unquestionably caused a terrible injury, but for the most part, the idea that it was a brutal hit remained unquestioned until Steven Fatsis researched it and wrote about it this week. What he found may surprise you.

So was it a blindside tackle to the chest? A right shoulder under the chin? Or a forearm to the chest? Was Bednarik moving at full speed? Did the blow itself knock Gifford out? Was it one of the hardest hits ever?

Let me respond to those questions: no, no, no, no, no, and no.

Patrick McDarby, Sport Logo Designer, Is Dead at 57

by Margalit Fox for The New York Times

Sports logos are so ingrained into the fabric of the teams that they represent that they’re almost invisible. You can’t think about the Toronto Maple Leafs without the leaf or the Oakland Raiders without their eye-patch festooned pirate. If we rarely think about the logos themselves, we almost never think about the people who design them. Patrick McDarby was one of those people.

Over the years, Mr. McDarby designed more than 200 logos. For each, he received a flat fee, no royalties and, by the nature of his craft, little public recognition…

The design of sports logos entails singular challenges. In a small space, and only two dimensions, the artist must convey a sense of movement, excitement and power. The design must be simple enough to be immediately interpretable but evocative enough to be enduringly memorable. Ideally, it should distill the very essence of the thing it represents.

Dean Smith requested $200 be sent to each of his former players in will

in Sports Illustrated’s Extra Mustard column

When legendary North Carolina basketball coach, Dean Smith, died last month, the sports world poured out an unbelievable slew of tributes to him. He was, by all accounts, a good person as well as a great coach. He was an early leader in integrating college basketball in his area. One of the things that made him special was the tight connection he developed with his players, which continued throughout his and their lives. This week we found out that it actually continued a little bit past Dean Smith’s life.

In the letter Smith’s former players received from Miller McNeish & Breedlove, PA, it was revealed that Smith requested each of his former players be sent a $200 check with the message, “enjoy a dinner out compliments of Coach Dean Smith.” The enclosed checks also included the notation, “Dinner out.”

Sports creates heroes of all shapes

It’s been a while since I cleared out my inbox of all of the best articles I’ve read. There’s so much good writing going on about sports and I love sharing it with people through Dear Sports Fan! The quality of sports journalism is one of those things that gets lost among the thousands of formulaic articles about games unless you’re a sports fan or have a highly curated newsfeed. Today, I though I’d share four amazing articles about people in sports who are heroic for one reason or another. Our first hero is a man who has persevered through a disease that cost him his hands and feet and (worse, in his mind, as you’ll find out) being cut from the Paralympic Rugby team. Our second hero is a deeply flawed man who has struggled throughout his life with psychological issues. He also just happens to be the best snooker player in the world. In the third article, we learn about a man whose behind-the-scenes contributions have been a big part of one of the most impressive streaks in modern sports history — the Detroit Red Wings streak of having gone to the playoffs for the last 23 seasons in a row. Our fourth and last heroic appearance is a writer, who through no fault of her own, was subjected to intense abuse — just for having had the temerity to voice an opinion about sports while simultaneously being female.

Take these broken wings

by Kim Cross for SB Nation

Don’t don’t call it inspiring but you can call it a come back. Delvin McMillian is attempting to make the U.S. Paralympic Rugby Team at the ripe old age of 35. Okay, fine, you can be inspired by this story if you choose — in fact, it’s hard to read it without being inspired, but it’s also got some great tips for how to think about athletes and other people with physical challenges.

“When you’ve had something in your life for so long, and the wind gets knocked out of you, you’ve got to pick yourself up. Because if you don’t, you begin to sink. And the further you sink into this hole, the further you have to climb out of it.”

I ask Delvin point-blank the question that has been burning in my mind ever since I realized he was a man whose greatest challenge is not what I assumed.

“When you look back at the things you’ve had to overcome—the psychological trauma of the team situation, the physical trauma of losing your limbs—what was harder?”

He doesn’t have to think long to answer.

“Probably being cut from the team.”

Follow the White Ball

by Sam Knight for the New Yorker

Snooker is a British game that’s a lot like pool on steroids. It’s played on a much larger table with more balls and smaller pockets. Like many games that most people play for fun, when played as a sport at the highest levels, it becomes a brutal psychologically challenging sport. That makes Snooker’s reigning champion, Ronnie O’Sullivan, an even more interesting figure.

When discussing O’Sullivan’s game, commentators and rivals often talk about his unusual sequencing—the way he links shots together around the table. Phil Yates, who was the snooker correspondent for the Times of London for twenty years, compares O’Sullivan to a savant, able to perceive mathematical solutions without knowing how or why. “I don’t think he can break down why he is as good as he is,” Yates said. “He just is.” According to Hirst, O’Sullivan often comes off the table in a fugue state: “I go, ‘What about that pink you potted?’ And he’ll go, ‘What pink?’ He’s blank. He’s totally startled. It’s like van Gogh. I go, ‘You did brilliantly there.’ And he goes, ‘Did I?’ ”

The Seeker: Scout Hakan Andersson a hero of the Red Wings’ playoff streak

by Michael Farber for Sports Illustrated

Sustained excellence in any pursuit is a curiosity worthy of investigation. How have the Red Wings kept being better than everyone else for more than 20 years? One of the answers certainly lies in Sweden, the country where the Red Wings have found more of their best players than any other team. This is the story of the man who found most of them.

At 5’ 10″ and 165 pounds, Holmström was barely a keeper when Andersson first saw him in 1991, at a training camp for 1973-born players. He was a clumsy 18-year-old winger who wasn’t the best skater but was dogged on the puck and eager to get to the net. Two years later Andersson asked a coaching friend in northern Sweden to name the best player in the area and was told it was Holmström, now two inches taller and 25 pounds heavier. Andersson remembered the aggressive teen and went to watch him again. “I mentioned him to our Czech scout, who’d seen him in a tournament there,” Andersson says. “The scout said, ‘I don’t know about that guy. His skating is pretty suspicious.’” On Andersson’s recommendation the Red Wings drafted Holmström in the 10th round in ’94. (There were 11 rounds then.) Holmström won four Stanley Cups, played in 1,026 regular-season games and scored 243 goals. He was known for screening goalies while getting whacked like a piñata and yapping in an incomprehensible linguistic blend that made him sound like a second cousin of the Muppets’ Swedish Chef. “That one,” Andersson says of the Holmström pick, “propelled my career.”

Women who write about sports, and the men who hate them

by Amy Bass for the Allrounder

Sports writers shouldn’t have to be heroes. There’s no logical reason why heroism should ever be part of the job description. Unfortunately there’s a bunch of hateful jerks who take it upon themselves to try to intimidate, abuse, and silence any woman who writes about sports. Luckily for all of us, most of those women identify what is happening to them and decide to add “hero” to their job descriptions instead of allowing themselves to be silenced. Amy Bass, the author of this article, is one of those women.

Women taking flack for opining on sports is part and parcel of how women have to live their lives every moment of every day. It is part of the same world in which women battle against domestic violence and sexual assault and the wage gap. It is part of the same machine that sees male politicians trying to legislate female bodies, corporations firing women for breastfeeding on the job, and male professors receiving better teaching evaluations than their female counterparts. I have earned my position in this world as an authority on sports. So to every single one of those commenters, I say: thank you for reading.

The best sports stories of the week 3.9.15

No theme this week, just a selection of wonderful articles about sports that I flagged throughout the week. One of my favorite parts of writing Dear Sports Fan is reading other great writers cover sports in a way that’s accessible and compelling for the whole spectrum from super-fans to lay people. Here are selections from the best articles of the last week on the subject of attitude:

Last Man Running

by Reeves Weideman for the New Yorker

Football is everywhere, right? And the Super Bowl is the biggest sporting event of the year. It’s virtually a holiday! Here’s the story of a small but growing group of people who engage in their own Super Bowl competition: who can make it longest without finding out who won. They’re called “runners” and losing, or finding out who won, is jokingly referred to as “dying” or a “death.” This is a great article.

Most of the runners, however, found themselves waking up each day in a cold sweat. “I feel like I’m being sequestered for the stupidest jury trial in modern history,” one competitor said. “It’s gotten to the point where three things may end me: recklessness, homesickness, or sheer boredom.”

“I’m starting to think that #DeathByGirlfriend is becoming a reality as she gets more fed up with me being anti-social,” one runner wrote on Twitter. A doctor feared going to the hospital, where he would have to make small talk with patients. A stripper in Los Angeles slept through the Super Bowl—most of the clientele was watching the game—but found the rest of her work week difficult: “Starting every conversation with ‘Don’t tell me who won the SB!’ is hilarious but not the best way to make money in a strip club.”

Do You Want Him on Your Team? The Vicious Brilliance of Ndamukong Suh

By Brian Phillips for Grantland

Now that the Super Bowl is won and gone, the biggest story in the sports world is… still NFL football. It’s now time for free agents to be wooed and signed by new teams. The biggest and best free agent this year is a ferocious defensive tackle named Ndamukong Suh. Suh is known equally for being an impactful player and a dirty one. In this article, Brian Phillips pierces through the first level of analysis and tries to get at what makes Suh the type of player he is.

We want football players to be blood-scenting berserkers half the time and upstanding sportsmen the other half; even if you don’t agree that the line is in kind of an arbitrary place, can you imagine how hard that would be to navigate, from Pop Warner on? You’re a big, fast kid who can hit people hard. You’re taken into a room and told, first of all, that this makes you special, and second of all, that your special self is subordinate to a team. You’re told that all your future specialness will depend on how completely you subordinate yourself. You’re told to give everything. Give your all. Leave it on the field. Never stop trying to win. Never stop trying to get better. You’re told that there’s no room for weakness. You’re told that there are no excuses. You’re told to make yourself a weapon. You’re told that the only thing that matters is beating your rivals. You’re told to call me sir. You’re told that what you’re doing when you’re playing defense is hunting. You’re told to seek out any edge, any advantage, any crack you can use for a toehold. If you win, the crowd roars your name. But the crowd will like you only if you’re humble. The crowd is screaming for you to kill your opponent. But do it at the wrong time, in the wrong way, and they’ll turn on you. Be a warrior. Be a killer. But be respectful. Give 110 percent, but hold yourself in check.

As a set of inputs, this is madness. What person’s brain could line that up into anything like coherence?

Death, brotherhood and sacrifice: N.J. hoops star haunted by loss of 24 friends to street violence

By Matthew Stanmyre for

Soon, college basketball will take over the sporting landscape as early March transitions into March madness, the NCAA men’s college basketball championships. As such, it’s time for the personal interest stories to start flowing. This story is a particularly excellent example of the genre. It follows Isaiah Williams, a junior guard for Iona, a small school New Rochelle that hopes to qualify for the tournament this year. Williams grew up in Newark, New Jersey, and has struggled during his college career with finding a balance between trying to help his family out of their socio-economic and violent plight, and personally protecting his little brother, Kevin.

Teammates wondered how Isaiah held it together.

“It’s not just like, ‘My best friend got killed,’ which is hard enough to take,” says Iona senior forward David Laury, Isaiah’s closest friend on the team. “It’s like, ‘One of my best friends got killed.’ Two months later, ‘Another one of my best friends got killed.’ Another month later, ‘Another one of my best friends got killed.’ These are kids that he grew up with from around, like, sandbox time. It was just ridiculous.”

The off-campus house Isaiah shares this year with seven students is quintessential college — dirty floors, a Fry Baby in the kitchen and a sign hanging in the foyer that reads “5 O’Clock Somewhere Ave.” He says he’s doing well balancing books and basketball as he works toward a degree in criminal justice and currently sports a 3.0 grade-point average thanks, in part, to Wednesday evening date nights with Menendez at the library.

The biggest difference between New Rochelle and Newark is obvious, Isaiah says.

“Here, you can walk outside around 11 o’clock and you don’t have to worry,” he says. “Back home, once the sun goes down, you need to be in the house. Not even — when the sun’s up, you still not safe.”

Even with Isaiah at school, his presence is felt in the family’s Newark home. His associate’s degree hangs next to the front door. The living room alcove is filled with 26 trophies and dozens of medals. Framed pictures of Isaiah dot the walls.

The best sports stories of the week 2.28.15

No theme this week, just a selection of wonderful articles about sports that I flagged throughout the week. One of my favorite parts of writing Dear Sports Fan is reading other great writers cover sports in a way that’s accessible and compelling for the whole spectrum from super-fans to lay people. Here are selections from the best articles of the last week on the subject of attitude:

How Madden Ratings Are Made

by Neil Paine for the Five Thirty Eight

Oh no! Not video games AND sports. It’s true, the subject of this article is the attempt to accurately recreate the strengths and weaknesses of real-world football players in the most popular football video game, Madden. One of the most fascinating aspects of this piece is the graphic showing how different strengths are weighted in importance for different positions. You can learn a lot about real football from how the game programmers decided to do this. For instance, look at how the importance of the pass blocking skill varies across the offensive line positions. It’s most important for the left tackle, who protects the blind side of all right-handed quarterbacks. Note that the tight end is the only offensive position where all the skills have some importance to the overall rating — the tight end is a hybrid position that does a little of everything.

There’s no good way to overcome the problem of simulating a quarterback like Manning, whose most important skills — reading defenses, calling audibles, seeing things on the field that no one else can, and making sound decisions — are instantly negated when a gamer picks up the controller.

“Quarterback decision-making is the most difficult thing to simulate,” Moore said. “We’re trying to simulate strengths and weaknesses as best we can within the game, but how you play the game is still you.”

Wasp species named in honor of Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask

by Carolyn Y. Johnson for the Boston Globe

Everything you need to know is contained in the headline of this article… but that doesn’t stop it from being a ludicrously fun short read.

“This species is named after the acrobatic goaltender for the Finnish National ice hockey team and the Boston Bruins, whose glove hand is as tenacious as the raptorial fore tarsus of this dryinid species,” the authors wrote in the paper, which has been accepted and will be published in April.

The name also fit for other reasons. The project that led to the discovery of the species was underwritten by the government of Finland, Rask’s home country. The wasp is yellowish and black, similar to the Bruins’ colors. The grasping front legs of the female have claspers that look vaguely like goalie gloves.

The battle within Larry Sanders

by Kevin Arnovitz for ESPN

Two months ago, Larry Sanders was the promising young starting center for an NBA basketball team. Now he’s unemployed after negotiating a buy-out of his contract. What happened and what does it mean for mental health advocacy in sports?

This presents a stubborn paradox for NBA teams: Mental health treatment for players can’t realize maximum effectiveness until there are first-class services in place. But it’s hard to sell owners, management and players on shelling out for first-class services until they’re proved effective.

All the while, NBA players struggle in the shadows. Virtually everyone in the league can rattle off names of current or former players who needed serious help but never found it. A player who is getting razzed on social media for pouting his way through a season is actually dealing with the sexual assault of a loved one who lives across the country. Another player who seems uncomposed on the floor and confrontational with teammates and coaches suffers from acute anxiety and the prescribed medications are having an adverse effect. Read deeper into any story about fragile team chemistry or “off-court behavior” and there’s likely a component of mental health embedded inside.

College football: If you can't beat them, make them join you

College football is a notoriously hypocritical business. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry but the people who are the main attraction and who take all the physical risk, the players, don’t have salaries. College football players are meant to be amateurs — college kids who also play football. That the NCAA and member Universities are able to maintain this fiction, despite all evidence to the contrary, is absurd. College football is big business. Being a college football player requires well over a 40 hour work week. And, although it varies from school to school and player to player, football is the primary focus for most college football players.

If we’re honest about it, playing football so intensely doesn’t leave that much time for academics. Now, you might be thinking that you didn’t spend that much time on academics when you were in college either. Maybe you spent most of your time following your favorite rock bands, crushing on your classmates, or exploring drugs and alcohol for the first time. Well, you weren’t as focused as most college football players, now were you? These athletes are basically holding full-time jobs down AND going to college while you were just messing around. It’s a lot to ask and frankly, there are lots of ways around it. Many big football schools find a way to make the academic side of college life easier for their football players. They get them private tutoring or help them figure out which classes are easiest to pass. There are also countless more shady means that universities use to help their football players concentrate on football while playing into the charade of academics that the NCAA requires of them.

This is all pretty stupid. The most obvious suggestion would be to divorce football from academia. Create a minor-league for the NFL so that young football players can concentrate 100% on developing their skills while also making a fair salary for the entertainment value they help create. For years, however, I’ve been fascinated by another option. What if, instead of divorcing football, universities embraced it even more fully? Create a football major and allow football players to major in their sport. You can already graduate college with a major in ballet or bassoon. What’s the difference? Like football, ballet is primarily a physical activity. Like football, the market for high-paying bassoon jobs is harsh and limited. That doesn’t stop either of those pursuits from being thought of as legitimate studies. If anything, I would argue that you could create an extremely interesting major around football.

For the first time, this idea seems to be gaining a little bit of mainstream attention, if not steam. Ben Strauss wrote an article in the New York Times about the idea recently. In the article, he quotes two key supporters of the idea, “David Pargman, a professor emeritus in educational psychology at Florida State University, and William D. Coplin, director of the public affairs program at Syracuse University.” I recommend reading the whole thing but here are some highlights:

Dr. Pargman, who started a doctoral program in sports psychology at Florida State and has written several books on athletes, proposes a sample curriculum for a sports performance major that follows two years of basic studies, including anatomy and physiology, educational psychology and a particular sport’s offensive and defensive strategies. By graduation, players would have taken courses in public speaking, nutrition, kinesiology and business law. Practices become labs, supervised and graded by their coaches, though grades wouldn’t depend on game performance — no A for scoring a touchdown.

Dr. Coplin, who has spent his career designing programs to serve students in the job market, believes the skills learned through sports — from highly specialized training to learning a complex playbook to simply being a good teammate— are more valuable to employers than classroom knowledge… He envisions a three-credit seminar in conjunction with an “internship” — a semester on the team. The course could require players to keep logs of what they do each day and write a self-evaluation on career-building skills. “Athletes sometimes don’t realize the value of the skills they’re learning,” Dr. Coplin said. “But employers do.” He argues that their skill set — competitiveness, drive, the ability to work toward a common goal and take responsibility — is particularly valuable in sales and business management. Another idea for the class: an Excel lesson in which a player tracks his performance using trend lines and percentage change.

In the uneasy marriage between higher education and football, divorce is more likely than a renewal of vows, but I am fascinated by the idea of the two sides embracing more fully. I’m a lover not a hater, I guess.

Football: the good and the very, very bad

It’s been a while since I cleaned out my short-term storage box of the best articles I’ve been reading about sports. Lately it’s been mostly full of articles about football, which is no surprise considering football is the most popular sport in the country and now is a particularly exciting time for both college and professional football. The articles that I was most interested in grouped roughly into two piles: those that make football seem interesting by revealing an unexpected facet of the sport and those that reveal the corrosive nature of football as a business, especially at the college level. 

What Cowboys Have in Common With Ballerinas

by Kevin Clark for the Wall Street Journal

The Dallas Cowboys were eliminated from the playoffs this weekend but it certainly wasn’t from a lack of athletic ability or fitness. In fact, the most single spectacular athletic feat of the weekend was probably Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant’s leaping almost-catch near the end of their game against the Green Bay Packers. Was he able to do that without injuring himself because of the Cowboys innovative use of an old, low-tech ballet apparatus? 

Stretching in the NFL is a shockingly archaic endeavor, possibly the only thing in this tightly controlled game that is left up to players. So, looking for an edge, the Dallas Cowboys changed it up this year. And they started with ballet bars.

“Yeah, it’s funny to see a 300-pound guy holding on to a ballerina bar, but in the NFL, if you are going to play for any length of time, you’ve got to take care of your body,” said linebacker Cameron Lawrence. “They don’t care that it’s a ballerina bar—if it helps them, they are on it.”

Confessions of a Fixer

by Brad Wolverton for the Chronicle of Higher Education

College sports are full of hypocrisy. The adults in the room — the coaches, universities, and governing bodies like college conferences and the NCAA — make gobs of money while the kids take all the risk and do most of the hard work. Players who work on football 40+ hours per week in one of the most highly competitive workplaces in the world are also expected to be college students, even the ones who could theoretically make a living in football already if it weren’t for an NFL rule that keeps teams from drafting them until two full years after their high-school graduation. These hypocrisies are already well known and the academic short-cuts or outright cheating that they encourage should not be a surprise to anyone. The most interesting part of this article for me is how you can read between the lines and see in this story, a larger story of how colleges themselves are in a race to the bottom to attract paying but students for online courses that might not actually serve the students all that well even if they were taken honestly. It’s a discouraging mess. 

The fixer’s name is Mr. White. His side business was lucrative. One year, he says, he made more than $40,000 arranging classes. But he says money wasn’t his motive. Part of it was about the players. He believes that many would not have earned a major-college scholarship without his help.

A coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference was recruiting one of the top junior-college players in the country, but the player was short on credits. The coach called Mr. White to “get him done.” He made some students believe they were completing the classes, handing them packets of practice problems he had picked up from the math lab at his community college and making sure they logged time in study halls as if they had done the work. After they finished the packets, he would toss them in the trash. Then he would log in to BYU’s website to complete the real assignments. That’s how some coaches preferred it, he says, as it assured them there wouldn’t be any slip-ups. That also meant that the coaches didn’t have to worry about retaliation. If the players had no knowledge of the fraud, Mr. White says, they couldn’t hold it against anyone.

The Men Who Protect the Man

by Robert Mays for Grantland

In football, the “man” is frequently the quarterback. The leader of the offense, the quarterback is the most important and irreplaceable part of a football team. That’s why he’s the most tempting target for defenses to try to hit hard enough to injure or dissuade him from continuing to play as well as he would otherwise play. This dynamic makes the offensive line, the group of players charged with protecting the quarterback from opposing defenders, the most interesting people on a football team. Grantland football writer Robert Mays spent some time recently with the offensive line of the Green Bay Packers who protect quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and wrote this article about who they are as individuals and as a unit. 

By keeping the same five linemen almost the entire season, the Packers have been able to build their vocabulary into an entire language. “We’ve got so many dummy calls,” Sitton says. “Half the shit we say doesn’t mean a thing. It’s pretty cool when you can evolve within the season, learning a whole new thing.” In past seasons, the line has been a band forced to replace its drummer or bassist every week. The entire offense goes from writing songs to relearning chords. This year, they can riff, take chances. They can be a 1,500-pound Radiohead.

“When you get a hodgepodge line that’s changing week to week, you just kind of have to go by the base rules on a lot of plays,” Rodgers says. “The base rules are decent, but when you can incorporate your own creativity to the plays at the offensive line positions, you can really enhance them. So the communication has been amazing.”

“If we were ’N Sync,” Lang says, “[Josh would] be Justin Timberlake. He’s Frankie Valli, and we’re the Four Seasons.” Bakhtiari goes on, thinking ahead an album or two: “If he wanted to, he could go solo, and we’d all fizzle out.”

USC Football Team Doctor Admits to Ignoring FDA and NCAA Painkiller Regulations

by Aaron Gordon for Vice Sports

Football players never cease to amaze with their fearless nature and their seeming invulnerability to pain. Surely they are among the toughest athletes in the world (along with ice hockey players and ballet dancers) but this article suggests that they are also much more commonly shot up with drugs before and even during games than we might expect. This is the story of one NFL prospect who is now suing his college team for giving him irresponsible medical advice and treatment which led not only to the demise of his professional dream but also to some very serious immediate medical risk.

In some cases, the use of Toradol was prophylactic—that is, given before games in anticipation of future pain, and not to treat current injuries—and accompanied by little or no physical examination of players… Although the Minnesota pregame shot provided temporary relief, Armstead was still in pain during halftime, at which point he said Tibone “poked and prodded my shoulder, and he stuck a needle in my shoulder.” Again, Armstead said, his pain became manageable for a brief period, but by the fourth quarter he was taken out of the game because his left arm hurt so much that he couldn’t use it at all.

After the season ended, Armstead reported to the University Park Health Center three times between February 4 and February 23 of 2011, complaining of constant chest pain… As a result of this diagnosis, two of Armstead’s visits to the Health Center resulted in additional Toradol injections. By the beginning of March, Armstead’s condition worsened. A MRI exam revealed that he had suffered an acute anterior apical myocardial infarction, more commonly known as a heart attack. Myocardial infarctions are specifically mentioned by the FDA as a possible risk of Toradol use, made likelier by repeated off-label use and combining the painkiller with other non-steroidal anti-inflammatories such as Ibuprofen and Naproxen, drugs that Tibone and USC training staff also had administered to Armstead during the season.

In his deposition, Tibone said he didn’t “agree with” FDA warnings about Toradol’s cardiovascular risks. He did not provide supporting evidence for his position, admitting that before and during the period he gave the drug to Armstead and other USC players he: (a) conducted no research or surveys on Toradol’s adverse effects; (b) read no peer-reviewed journal articles on the matter prior to Armstead’s heart attack; (c) did not investigate the drug beyond talking to NFL trainers he knew and having a brief, informal conversation with a friend who is a cardiovascular surgeon.

Old media covers sports in old age

Snarky headline aside, the New York Times and Associated Press really has been on a roll lately with their sports coverage of the elderly. Two recent articles celebrating people whose unique perspective on sports is only partially due to their long experience on our planet. My suspicion is that these two characters would have been interesting subjects for profiles twenty years ago, forty years ago, even seventy five years ago!

A Hole in One for a 103-Year-Old Golfer

by The Associated Press in the New York Times

Gus Andreone, an 103 year-old resident of Sarasota, Florida, recently became the oldest person to hit a hole in one. Two things popped out to me in this short profile. First, in hitting a hole in one, Andreone took the record away from its previous owner, an 102 year old woman. I’d like to know what her story was! Second, I love that Andreone claims to have hit eight holes in one since 1939 and that he seems to fully expect to hit another in his life. Let’s hope he does!

He said he used a driver on the 113-yard 14th hole of the Lakes Course, like he normally does, but then noticed something different. The ball hit the ground about 30 yards from the green and then rolled into the hole, he said.

His golf partners jumped up and down, but Andreone kept his cool.

“I can’t say that I felt any different about one or the other,” he said of his most recent ace. “I just felt another hole in one.”

At 107, a Buffalo Bills Fan Who Sees It All

by Andrea Elliott for the New York Times

There’s so much to love about this profile of Evelyn Elliott, a 107 year old Buffalo Bills fan. It was written by her granddaughter, Andrea Elliott, and Elliott’s love and familiar granddaughterly bemusement come through brilliantly in her writing. Evelyn Elliott, the subject of the piece, is an inspiring woman. Although her first date with the man who eventually became her husband was to a football game, it wasn’t until after he became sick, six months before his death, (and 65 years after their first football date,) that she got into football. Since then, she has been a true fan of the Buffalo Bills and nothing in this article suggests that will change any time soon. The Bills were eliminated from the playoffs last weekend, after this article came out, and I’m sure Elliott is disappointed but I’m equally sure that she will be in her living room to watch them finish out the year against the New England Patriots this coming Sunday. She’s a true fan!

I kept trying to discern what it was about the game that captivated Grandma’s mind. I knew she paid close attention to strategy.

“What do you think happens in the huddle?” I tried.

“They decide what to do,” she sniffed (in the tone of “Are you an idiot or what?”).

I have interviewed militant jihadists, prosecutors, drug dealers and counterterrorism specialists at the Central Intelligence Agency. None of them prepared me for the challenge of extracting personal information from my grandmother.

At the beginning of the third quarter last Sunday, with the score tied, 10-10, I started up with my questions again. She frowned.

“I can’t concentrate when people talk,” she snapped.

Grandma’s spectator style might best be described as Zen. She watches the game closely and calmly, getting neither flustered nor excited. This disposition mirrors her general approach to life.

“I just go with it,” she likes to say. “I take it as it comes. Let the best man win.”


Stumbling to the end… the NFL in 2014

The story of the year in sports has been the downfall of the NFL’s institutional standing at a time when it is still close to its pinnacle in popularity if not expanding. The NFL and the sports media companies that cover it have dealt with some serious issues this year, from domestic abuse all the way to child abuse with lots of other abuses between. At every step of the way, they/we have proven to be rigid, self-impressed, and unable to adequately or elegantly meet the challenges it faces. This year-long travail continued in the news this week with three new stories covering the poor treatment of NFL cheerleaders, a fan who finds himself unable to be a fan anymore, and some insight from ESPN’s ombudsman on his way out of the position.

Buffalo Bills Cheerleaders’ Routine: No Wages and No Respect

by Michael Powell for the New York Times

Mark Bittman wrote an op-ed in the New York Times yesterday where he argued that all of our issues from police brutality to minimum wage to climate change are all connected and should be confronted that way. I imagine he would draw a direct line from the casual and incomprehensible abuse of power between the NFL and its cheerleading teams to the other high-profile social issues of our times. For myself, I can say that I simply do not understand the NFL’s treatment of its cheer squads from a financial perspective. Paying and treating them fairly would have no negative impact on NFL teams’ bottom lines. It would be like a single drop escaping from a bucket the size of Rhode Island. 

The National Football League, that $10 billion “nonprofit” business, is the occasionally repulsive gift that keeps on giving. An all-American empire, the N.F.L. is structured with various and many principalities and emirates, and fixers who cushion the leadership from the unsightly details of league business as usual.

The team’s contractor handed the women a contract and a personnel code, and told them to sign on the spot. The team dictated everything from the color of their hair to how they handled their menstrual cycle.

The contractor required they visit a sponsor who was a plastic surgeon. He offered a small discount if they opted for breast augmentation and other services. Larger breasts, however, were not a condition of nonpaid employment.

The Jills’ subcontractor, Stejon Productions, readily acknowledges that it is a front operation.

The National Football League, as is its practice, has little to say on the question of uncompensated work by these high-profile women. Goodell offered his patented I-know-nothing routine.

“I have no knowledge,” he wrote in an affidavit, of the Jills’ “selection, training, compensation and/or pay practices.”

A contract surfaced that laid out the terms and was signed by Goodell. A league lawyer asserted that Goodell’s signature was affixed by a stamp.

Vijay Seshadri Struggles With Watching Football

by Liz Robbins for the New York Times

Vijay Seshadri is a poet who hurtled into the public consciousness when his poem, The Disappearances was published by the New Yorker in the issue following 9/11. In this small profile, Seshadri expresses feelings of conflict and loss over his Sunday routine which used to consist of football, football, football; no longer. 

I feel a little reluctant to tell you what else I do on Sunday. I feel bad about it now. I feel conflicted. Usually in the fall I would watch football. I was a Steelers fan. My parents still live in Pittsburgh and I went to high school there. I always felt like somehow that was one of the things in my life that ennobled me.

So this year has been very bad for me in terms of the normal rhythms of a Sunday. I can’t really comfortably sit down and watch the pregame shows. It’s weird if you’re a sports fan to have all this karmic weight bearing down on this experience that you approached with a certain amount of innocence.

Inside the ESPN Empire

By Chris Laskowski for Slate

Like many enormous companies, ESPN has an ombudsman, someone within the organization but independent from its normal hierarchy who can investigate disputes and, in the case of media organizations, comment publicly on them. Richard Lipsyte has been ESPN’s ombudsman for the last year and a half but has decided to leave the post. On his way out, he gave an interview to Chris Laskowski and Slate magazine. It’s a revealing look inside the sausage machine of sports news and surprisingly (at least to me,) Lipsyte flips the script and puts the majority of blame for the tenor of ESPN’s “see no evil, hear no evil” coverage on its fans.

The tension here isn’t just between ESPN and its business partners in the NFL, NBA, and MLB. It’s between ESPN and its viewers, who mostly don’t seem to care whether the leagues are doing evil.

Lipsyte says he received close to 20,000 emails during his time as ombudsman. Lots of viewers complained about specific on-air issues—why is this person still on the air, or why does ESPN hate my favorite sport, particularly if that favorite sport is hockey. But what really bothered ESPN’s core audience, Lipsyte says, was “the intrusion of what they called societal issues into what was, in a way, kind of a sacred place. People so often come to sports as this sanctuary from the real world, where they can sit in their living room with their family and not be assailed by anything that will upset them.” For some, that upsetting thing was the sight of football player Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend to celebrate being drafted.