The glass ceiling isn't breaking for female coaches but there is a crack

On August 5, 2014, the San Antonio Spurs became the first National Basketball Association (NBA) team to hire a woman as a full-time coach by hiring Becky Hammon as one of their assistant coaches. On July 27, 2015, the Arizona Cardinals, a National Football League (NFL) team made similar headlines by hiring Jenn Welter to their coaching staff. Just recently, the Oakland Athletics, a team in Major League Baseball (MLB) made their mark by hiring Justine Siegal to their coaching staff. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the glass ceiling preventing women entering professional coaching as equals is breaking all over the place — across the country and across many sports. Alas, it’s not true. The hiring of Welter and Siegal by the Cardinals and Athletics are vastly different acts than that of the Spurs in hiring Hammon. They’re not comparable in any way. If anything, these lesser hirings should show us just how radical, brave, and smart the Spurs are.

Welter was hired by the Cardinals to be an “assistant coaching intern for training camp and the preseason to work with inside linebackers.” She was one of four people to work with the team’s linebackers – who are a group of around eight to 15 on teams of 53 to 90 people. Come the regular season, and Welter was gone, having served her time. Siegal is likely to have a similar experience with the Oakland As. She was hired as “a guest instructor with [the As] Instructional League team.” The Instructional League is a place for very young prospects and injured or over-the-hill veterans to play. Its season lasts only for September and October, and is separate from the core minor league system. In other words, she wasn’t hired to coach the major league Athletics nor any of their seven full-time minor league teams.

Hammon, on the other hand, is one of six full-time assistant coaches on the San Antonio Spurs bench. She has already spent a full season with the team and is entering her second year. During the summer, she was asked to head coach the Spurs Summer League team, an honor typically given to a team’s top assistant coach. She led that team to the Summer League title. As premature as this sounds, there are already speculative articles being written about Hammon’s prospects as a head coach. Given the Spurs well-established record of stability, my guess is that she’ll stay with the team for at least a few more years. The speculation isn’t unwarranted though. As you can see in this chart, four former assistant coaches under Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich and an additional three players who played for him have become head coaches in the league. If Hammon continues on the path she seems to be on, she will become a good candidate for a head coaching position.

The problem is – will anyone team have the guts to hire her? As sad as this sounds, my guess is that her only reasonable chance is to stay in San Antonio and aim to be hired as Popovich’s heir when he decides to retire. Other teams just don’t seem to be up to it. Don’t be fooled by the other high profile female hirings in sports. Any movement toward equality is a good one, but it’s important to understand that they have been small head-fakes toward equality, while the Spurs move was a full-on slam dunk.

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 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!

What's so enjoyable about the NBA draft?

Dear Sports Fan,

The NBA draft is tonight, which means half of my friends will be glued to the television and the other half will be glued to their phones, getting constant updates and reading Twitter. I have to say, I enjoy basketball as much as the next guy but I don’t get the whole draft obsession. What’s so enjoyable about the NBA draft?


Dear Josh,

Sports fans come in many different flavors. Some people love a particular team but won’t watch a game between two other teams. Some people will watch any game but don’t really want to be bothered with having a favorite team. Some people care only about the on-the-court tactics. Some people love to watch beautiful bodies in motion. Some people follow a sport for the celebrity lives of its players. Somewhere in that mess of flavors, is a variety of fan who loves the draft. Here are some of the characteristics of that type of fan:

  • Love of the unknown – This is a key characteristic for most varieties of sports fan. Sports, after all, are one of the few types of entertainment (literally reality TV) where anything can happen at any moment. Still, during a game, the possibilities are limited by the players involved. LeBron James is unlikely to forget how to pass the ball. The New York Knicks aren’t going to miraculously become the best team in the league in an instant. Deron Williams isn’t going to dunk over Marc Gasol. During the draft, everything is possible, anything can happen, and it often does. Trades between teams involving picks and players happen frequently during the draft, as well as surprise player selections. Despite all the research, no one really knows how good each of the players eligible to be picked is going to be, so any pick could be the one that launches a team to the promised land of NBA greatness.
  • Hope springing eternal – For the type of fan whose primary focus is the fortunes of a single team, the draft offers the promise of success in the upcoming year. The pinnacle of this excitement comes when a favorite team has a high pick – one of the first five – or has stockpiled several reasonably high picks. The draft is set up so that generally teams who did worse last year have the best draft picks in this year’s draft. That optimizes the excitement of the draft for this type of fan.
  • Enjoys the setup more than the conclusion – For some fans, and I count myself in this category, enjoying the NBA draft is an extension of how they feel about all types of activities. Some people just like the setup more than the conclusion. I find examples of this all over my life. When watching movies or reading books, I gravitate towards beginnings over endings. For example, I love the first half of the famous movie, the Seven Samurai, with its long recruitment sections when each samurai is individually introduced, more than the final half when all the fighting happens. I love the first two thirds of the Usual Suspects for the same reason. It’s the same way with books. How about video games? I’ll start a dozen games without finishing any of them. Movies? Half the time, I spend more time browsing titles than actually watching them. Sometimes that’s all I do! The draft is all the setup with none of that pesky playing of games to get in the way of my enjoyment.

It’s also possible that your friends are college basketball fans in addition to being NBA fans. In that case, they have a vested interest in the draft because they already know the characters. One thing that almost every brand of sports fan likes to do is to think about who is better and who is best. The NBA draft is a form of ranking college (and international) basketball players from best to worst. Since that’s something college (and international) fans already do in their spare time, it’s fun for them to see if their instincts are similar to the collective wisdom of 30 NBA teams.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

What is the triangle offense in basketball?

One of the great things about watching sports is that they are multi-layered entertainment. The most casual fan can turn on a game and immediately enjoy the beauty of watching incredibly fit people do insanely graceful things with their bodies. Someone who doesn’t know anything about a sport but loves competition will find it easy to get engaged in a close game. A moderate fan starts to learn some of the characters in the drama – the players and coaches whose personalities influence the outcome of the game and how fans feel about it. An intermediate fan will learn about the many technicalities of the game, from rules to basic tactics. A serious fan of a sport or team will become an expert in history, know the background and personalities of all the players, and has a deep intellectual and instinctual understanding of how the game works from tactics to rules to strategies. Each sport has its own ladder of learning, something which we try to unravel on Dear Sports Fan. No matter how long you’re involved with a sport, however, there always seems to be another layer of the onion to peel; something else that remains unknown – something else to learn. In basketball, the very pinnacle of understanding, the single thing which remains unknowable to virtually all fans and even most players and coaches is the triangle offense.

Although it’s much less obvious, basketball teams, like football teams, have distinct offensive plays and strategies which vary from team to team. Although most offenses share similar concepts, like the pick and roll, each one is its own unique animal. In this animal kingdom of offensive strategies, the triangle offense is the panther – complex, mysterious, and totally dominant. The most winning teams of the past 20+ years of basketball history, the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s (six championships) and the Los Angeles Lakers of the 2000s (five championships) have used the triangle offense. Despite all that notoriety, the offense has remained literally invisible to casual fans and totally inscrutable to virtually everyone else. Without being able to understand how it works, people have taken to debating its existence. Is the triangle offense really what drove those teams to their success or is it a “MacGuffin” — a meaningless sleight of hand created by Phil Jackson, coach of both teams, to distract competitors and commentators from whatever his true strategy was?

In a truly brilliant New York Times article, “The Obtuse Triangle,” Nicholas Dawidoff, set out to discover, once and for all, the essential nature of the triangle offense, the unorthodox thinker, Tex Winter, who created it, and the enigmatic coach, Phil Jackson, who used it to such success. Here are some of my favorite selections from the story, but you should read it all. It’s bright and accessible to even the most casual basketball fan.

Dawidoff discovers that, as opposed to other offenses that are an accumulation of set plays, the triangle offense is a philosophy of interpretation that must be shared by all five players on the court inorder to be effective:

Winter empowers his players to read the defense and make situational decisions within the flow of the game, so the tricky part is that everyone must recognize the same opportunity and choose the same response. In effect, Winter wants five basketball Peyton Mannings on the floor, scanning the defense, deciphering its intentions, flashing around the court in well-spaced concert, exploiting vulnerability.

Part of Dawidoff’s investigative process was reading a book Winter wrote and published which detailed the triangle offense for all to read. Offenses are usually tightly guarded secrets, but as you’ll see in a minute, Winter felt comfortable sharing his for one very good reason:

When a Baltimore Bullets scout named Jerry Krause visited Kansas State, Winter gave Krause his book to read. Krause complimented the book, and Winter mentioned that he had sent copies to his rival coaches in the Big 8 Conference.

“I said, ‘Why are you giving away your secrets?’ ” Krause said. “He said: ‘I’m not. It’ll only confuse them.’ ”

Triangle deniers often point out that Jackson’s championship teams had first Michael Jordan and then Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neill on them. That’s three of the top ten players in the past 40 years. A big part of the article grapples with this question. The eventual conclusion seems to be that while no offense can succeed without great players, great players also can’t succeed (at least as consistently and frequently as Jordan, O’Neill, and Bryant did) without a great system.

Jackson and Winter’s thinking was that if they built more offensive options around him, Jordan would have greater reserves of energy at the end of playoff games. They told Jordan that for 20 seconds, the team would stay in the offense. If no clear scoring opportunities emerged, then he should create one. Jordan was skeptical; he called the triangle “a white man’s offense.”

Jordan’s teammate Horace Grant describes the give-and-take between crediting the offense and the star players:

“It was a smooth operating machine. Baryshnikov in action! Picasso painting! A beautiful thing! Having Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen helped, too. Shot clock’s at four, it all breaks down, then Jordan time.”

Enjoy the whole article here.

Is basketball the most selfish sport?

Dear Sports Fan,

What do you think of the NBA Finals this year? People seem to love watching LeBron James almost single-handedly beat the Golden State Warriors. They think it’s an incredible performance by James, and it is, but it also seems to confirm something I’ve not liked about basketball for a long time — that the individual is so much more important than the team. Basketball seems like an incredibly selfish sport. Is basketball the most selfish sport?


Dear Eduardo,

The skills and effort of a single person make more of a difference to whether their team wins in basketball than any other sport but that doesn’t mean that the sport is selfish. To answer your question, let’s examine why one player has a bigger impact on basketball than any other sport and then discuss whether that inevitably leads to selfishness. First though, we need to talk briefly about race.

Basketball has a complicated racial history in this country. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the sport was dominated by Jewish players, mostly from New York City and other nearby cities. Our current professional league, the National Basketball Association, was created in 1946 and so it caught the tail end of the Jewish basketball dynasty. The first basket in NBA history was scored by New York Knick, Ossie Schectman. A documentary, The First Basket, was named after this hoop, and describes the Jewish influence on the sport and league. Throughout the 1950s, Jews were replaced by African-Americans and by the mid-60s, most teams had close to a 50/50 split. From there, the league drew a progressively larger percent of their players from African-American households until it reached its current status as the professional sports league with the highest percentage of African Americans. According to the Race and Ethnicity in the NBA Wikipedia page, the NBA in 2011 was 78% African American. The reason why all of this is important is that race and racial stereotypes color the way many people describe activities, including sports. For the past 50 years of professional basketball in this country, that has unfortunately meant that the default criticisms of basketball players have mimicked negative stereotypes of African-Americans. Basketball players have been accused of being lazy and on drugs and they’ve been called thugs and yes, selfish. Compare that to what was written about basketball during the Jewish dominated 1930s, “the game places a premium on an alert scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart-aleckness.” Lazy? Selfish? Scheming? Smart-aleckness? It’s clear that we have to guard against racial stereotypes when we talk about the nature of basketball. We’ll proceed carefully.

A single basketball player can have a bigger impact on their team than any player in any other major team sport. There’s a simple numerical reason for this. Basketball is played five on five. Soccer is 11 on 11, football 11 on 11, baseball is nine (or 10 if you’re playing with and count a designated hitter), and hockey is six on six. Furthermore, a basketball player is able to play a greater percentage of the game than in most other sports. Football players play only on offense or defense, and often not even for all of the plays in either phase. Baseball players are limited to hitting once in every nine at bats and starting pitchers only pitch once every five games. Hockey is so exhausting that players are only on the ice for 45 seconds to a minute at a time before substituting. Soccer is the only sport where more players play a higher percentage of the game, but with 11 on the field at a time, it’s harder for an individual to dominate like a LeBron James can in basketball. The last, and perhaps most meaningful reason why it seems like a single basketball player can have a bigger impact on her team than in any other sport is how deliberate and individual offense can be. Basketball teams can usually create a one on one matchup for an offensive player, called an iso (short for isolation) whenever they want. The Cavaliers often default to this approach with James. That’s simply not true in other team sports. Hockey and soccer are too fluid and chaotic to ever consistently transform their sport into a contest of individuals. Any offense in football is evidently reliant on teamwork. The center has to snap the ball to the quarterback. The offensive line needs to protect him. The quarterback needs a wide receiver to get open and to catch the ball. Each part obviously relies on the other. In basketball, it’s easier for a team to transform a team sport into a contest between their best player and the opponent’s best player.

Being selfish has to do with motivation, not action. Google’s dictionary defines selfish as “lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.” The best basketball player on a team may do more than everyone else, but if he does it with the team’s goal of winning in his mind; if she does it because she wants her team to win, then he or she cannot be said to be selfish. One reason why people might think of the best basketball player on a team as being selfish is because the roles on a basketball court are so amorphous. We don’t call a starting pitcher in baseball selfish for throwing more pitches than any of the relievers on the team. We don’t consider a quarterback in football to be selfish because he barely ever lets anyone else throw the ball. It’s only in soccer, hockey, and basketball, where the positions all kind of look the same that accusations of selfishness come up. We’ve also been considering the best player on the team. What about the fourth, fifth, and sixth best players? The ones that are out there primarily to rebound and set picks? Just by being in the NBA, it’s safe to assume they were the best player on their middle school, high school, and maybe even college teams. They once were the ones doing most of the scoring and now their primary goal is to support the best on their team. There are more of those players than there are stars and they clearly cannot be called selfish, given how they give themselves up for the team’s good. Of course, it is possible for a basketball player to be selfish. She can refuse to pass to her teammates. He can shoot almost every time he gets the ball. For what its worth, LeBron James does neither of those things. He’s an excellent and willing passer. James could easily be selfish if he wanted to though, he touches the ball on most of the Cavaliers’ plays. Selfish players have an easier time being selfish in basketball than in other sports but that doesn’t make basketball a selfish game. It just makes it one where it’s easier to tell when someone is being selfish.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Why can't sports teams learn what a concussion looks like?

The sports world is supposed to have made progress on understanding and dealing with brain injuries and concussions. Leagues have implemented concussion protocols that mandate specific forms of testing for brain injuries before players are allowed back into play. Coaches understand that when it comes to concussions, they can’t put pressure on doctors or players to speed things up. Even players, long the most resistant population to taking brain injuries seriously, are starting to understand that a brain injury should not be played through. I think the sports world really has made progress… and then something mind-numbingly stupid happens and I wonder if we’ve made any progress at all.

Last night, the Golden State Warriors qualified for the NBA Finals last night by beating the Houston Rockets 104-90 in Game Five of the Western Conference Championships. They won the series with relative ease, four games to one but they didn’t get through unscathed. In each of their last two games, one of their best players was forced to leave the game with a head injury. In Game Four, it was league Most Valuable Player, Steph Curry. In Game Five, it was his backcourt mate, Klay Thompson. Their injuries, and the way they were handled by team physicians, make me think that despite all of the progress the sports world has made on the concussion issue, we still don’t have even a basic understanding of what a concussion-causing injury looks like. Gah! Let’s break this down.

Steph Curry was injured when he was fooled on defense by a clever fake from Trevor Ariza. Ariza was ahead of Curry but knew that if he moved to lay the ball into the hoop, he’d be at danger of having his shot blocked by the athletic Curry. So, he faked as if he was about to shoot the ball but kept his feet on the ground. Curry fell for the fake and leapt into the air. Unfortunately, this meant that instead of meeting Ariza in midair, Curry’s jump took him up and almost over a grounded Ariza. As he passed the peak of his jump and started coming back down, his momentum and Ariza’s body acted as a pivot, twisting Curry backwards so that he hit the ground upside-down and head first.

It’s a bad fall, to be sure, but despite Curry’s head hitting the floor, it’s not one that screams concussion. Why? First, Curry knows what’s happening. He can’t stop himself from hitting the ground, but he’s aware that he’s falling. It may not seem like there’s time to do a lot in midair but remember that basketball players are world-class athletes who are used to making decisions and acting on them during a jump. Curry is remarkable even in the NBA population. He knows he’s falling, knows which way he’s going to land. He has time to brace himself for the fall, and he does it extremely well. He takes a tiny bit of the fall on his hand, arm, and wrist, but not enough to break any bones. That’s smart. He also rolls as much as possible, continuing the motion of the tumble so take pressure off his neck. Although we can’t see it, he surely tensed up his neck and shoulder muscles to support his head as he falls. Perhaps the most important thing is that his head doesn’t twist or rotate relative to his body as he hits the ground.

Curry was helped off the court a few minutes after this play. He went to his team’s locker room where he was monitored and tested for a concussion based on the NBA’s concussion protocol. After passing the tests, he returned to the game and has had no concussions symptoms since then. Watch the fall a few more times. It’s a good fall.

Now compare that to Klay Thompson’s injury from Game Five. This time, the injured player was playing offense. He was in the act of making a shot fake — just like the one that Trevor Ariza made when he unintentionally became part of Curry’s injury. Thompson lifts the ball as if he’s going to shoot it and as intended, he tricks an opponent (coincidentally ALSO Trevor Ariza) into trying to block the shot. Ariza takes a running leap from the side to get his hand in front of the shot. Instead of jumping himself, Thompson stays on the ground. This puts him in the path of the leaping Ariza, who’s knee gives Thompson a glancing blow to the side of the head as he passes him.

It looks like nothing, or at least something much less dramatic than Curry’s fall, but it’s much more dangerous. Thompson does not see it coming. Oh, sure, he knows that a defender has been fooled by his fake and has “bit” enough to jump, but he doesn’t specifically know that a knee is about to hit him in the head. As such, he has no way of bracing for the impact. The impact, when it comes, twists his neck and head, as they rotate in response to the knee.

Thompson was taken to the locker room where he had a cut to his ear attended to. After getting stitched up, he returned to the bench and was reportedly cleared to play. In fact, a sideline reporter at the game reported that he hadn’t taken any concussion tests because he didn’t need them. After the game, Thompson complained of concussion symptoms — according to Jesus Gomez of SB Nation, Thompson couldn’t drive home and threw up. In the aftermath of the game, some uncertainty about what tests he was given and whether he passed them has either been revealed by more detailed reporting or (cynically speaking) was generated by the team in a CYA maneuver. Kevin Draper actually amended his Deadspin article on Thompson by writing that “the post has been updated to better express the uncertainty over exactly what tests Thompson did or did not undergo.”

I’m less concerned with a single incident than with what it reveals. Despite hundreds of thousands of words written about the topic, hundreds of millions of dollars spent in settlements with retired players, and hundreds of thousands of dollars paid annually to keep neurologists of staff, sports teams still don’t seem to understand what a dangerous head injury looks like. The mechanics of a concussion are simple: rotational force is more dangerous than a straight ahead blow. When an athlete sees a collision before it happens and has time to prepare himself, he is less likely to suffer a concussion. It would be better to play on the safe side and have treated both of these injuries as potential concussions but to go through the protocol for the less dangerous one and potentially skip it for the more dangerous one is difficult to understand or accept. It’s time for sports teams to learn what a concussion looks like.

Why are there so many injuries in the NBA these days?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why are there so many injuries in the NBA these days?


Dear Adam,

It does seem like every time you turn your head, another high profile basketball player goes down with an injury, doesn’t it? Just in this year’s playoffs, we’ve seen significant injuries to Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Korver, Chris Paul, Demarre Carroll, Dwight Howard, Paul Milsap, John Wall, and Mike Conley Jr. Just yesterday, the New York Times ran an article by Scott Cacciola entitled, As N.B.A. Playoff Injuries Pile Up, Team’s Are in Survival Mode. Before I launch into an answer, I’d like to stipulate that I don’t really know why there are more injuries. I’m not sure anyone does — at least, I can’t find anything definitive out there. There seems to be a consensus growing that the NBA would be a safer place for its players if it would shorten its regular season from 82 games to a number in the 60s or 70s. Implicit in that suggestion is the idea that what’s causing increased injury rates is the total number of minutes that players play each year. This belief is shared by coaches like San Antonio Spurs coach, Gregg Popovich, who carefully limit their best players’ playing time, even if it means holding them out of entire games.

Within every sport is long-running war between offense and defense. The battles in this metaphorical war are played out on fields and courts and rinks but they are fought not just by players but through rules, tactics, and strategies. In basketball, the war has long been slanted towards the offense but defense has slowly been pulling itself back into contention over the past twenty five years. As Bill Simmons points out in a column of his which addresses this question, the average number of points per game has fallen from 108 in 1998 to 98 in 2013. This rise in the effectiveness of defense has happened despite rule changes throughout the 1990s and 2000s that were intended to “open up the game”. How has it happened? The short answer is that a combination of technology and new analytic approaches to thinking about basketball have led coaches to invent more effective defensive tactics and demand consistent execution and effort from their players. As scoring has gotten harder, offenses have had to respond by becoming faster and more innovative on offense; using picks and other tactics to generate open shots. If you were to visualize the change the arms race between offense and defense has wrought on basketball from a bird’s eye view, you’d see that it’s made basketball faster and more chaotic with players banging into each other at higher rates and velocities. Basketball seems to have become a more dangerous sport.

If this is true, than limiting the number of minutes a basketball player plays in a given game or the number of games they play per year is very much the wrong thing to do. It may be effective in the short term — and San Antonio’s success with their minute-limiting strategy suggests that it is and has inspired many copycat teams — but it’s bad for the sport. Limiting players will only result in fewer injuries if they continue to play the way they have before, just for fewer minutes. This is not a given in the world of competitive sports, where winning is everything. For historic perspective, look at what happened to ice hockey in the 1920s and 30s as it transitioned from a game where the best players played all or a majority of the game to one where it was normal to play only a third of the game. Hockey players simply used their extra energy to go faster and harder. Nowadays hockey players rocket off their benches, play 45 seconds to a minute at a time, and hockey has become one of the most dangerous sports out there. In my series of articles on brain injuries and the NFL I argued that this same phenomenon is responsible for the danger in football. Too many substitutions and too little actual game-play has made football into a series of high intensity and high danger bursts of activity. It’s difficult to imagine how to make football safer at this point (I recommend reducing its roster size from 53 to 20) but it’s easy to see how basketball could become more dangerous in the same way. A vicious cycle that could take the sport there has already begun. Defense gets better, so offenses have to try harder and get trickier. This makes the sport more taxing and dangerous for its players. As a result, players play less. This allows them to play even harder, which makes it more dangerous, which players play less, which…

The future is a scary place but it doesn’t need to be that way. If NBA owners, coaches, players, and fans resist the urge to change too much, too fast, an equilibrium will probably naturally occur.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Dear Sports Fan turns four

Four years ago today, I published the first two posts on Dear Sports Fan. One, written by my friend, pseudonymously known as Dean Russell Bell, answered the question, “Can you explain the popularity of NASCAR? How can people watch a four hour race?” The second, which I wrote, answered the quite reasonable query, “My friend’s favorite team is out, why is he still watching so much sports?” For the rest of the month, a grand total of 15 people read those posts. The next month, Bell and I were joined by John DeFilippis and Lisa Filipek. We wrote 20 posts that covered topics from the arbitrary nature of basketball fouls to what being offsides means to whether a new father should try to become a sports fan. It was a lot of fun and we were thrilled with the response, not just from our friends and family who followed us on Facebook and Twitter but also from people who went to their computers, wondering something about sports, and found our writing through Google or another search engine. That second month, we got 1,227 views.

Today, Dear Sports Fan is a close to full-time job for me. I publish between two and four posts every day, although I do take weekends. Over four years, the blog has been viewed over 120,000 times and it keeps growing. Last week was my biggest week yet, with over 3,200 views. The traffic is still 90% from search engines although I have a wonderful group of people who interact with me on Facebook, Twitter, and the sports-only social network, Fancred. So both non-sports fans and fans alike enjoy reading our posts. I am thrilled by this discover and am continuing to try to figure out where Dear Sports Fan’s sweet spot is in this diverse audience. One thing is for sure. My passion for sports and desire to make the sports world a friendly, understandable world for everyone who ventures into it remain strong. In just the past couple weeks, here are a few ways in which sports has intersected in my life that have reminded me that the goals of Dear Sports Fan are relevant and worthwhile.

  • As a new resident of Boston, I’ve been looking to make new friends and business connections. So, I’ve been going to some Meetup groups. One of them was an entrepreneurs group that met at a candlepin bowling alley. Within five minutes of getting there, I was helping people understand how the scoring worked. After a pleasant evening of networking and bowling, I went home and wrote about how candlepin bowling works. Playing sports can create and cement friendships.
  • This week, I am spending some time with a sick relative. She napped most of the day yesterday, and was generally a little bummed out and distracted until late afternoon when her head snapped back and her eyes lit up, “What time is the hockey game tonight?” Following sports can be a passion throughout life.
  • Of course, it’s not always smooth. Living with a sports fan, as my girlfriend does (although, to be fair, she is also a sports fan, just one who spends less time watching sports on TV) can be a challenge. And even someone who thinks and writes about how to best cohabitate in a mixed-sports-passion relationship, doesn’t always get it right. Sports can bring people together but it takes thought and care, just like other parts of a romantic, familial, or work-related relationship.

Four years may seem like a long time but I hope it’s just the start of the journey. There’s so much more to explore and explain. In the next few weeks, I’ll be working on hard on the upcoming Women’s Soccer World Cup. The World Cup is an ideal event for Dear Sports Fan. It’s an international event with competition at the very highest level. The U.S. team is a wonderful group of athletes on a mission to recapture the first World Cup Championship since 1999. To date, I’m about half-way through profiling each of the women on the U.S. team (I’m attempting the rare feat of profiling female athletes only as athletes, with no reference to gender or gendered stories). So far, these profiles have been a hit. One athlete, Shannon Boxx, even retweeted my profile of her! This was awesome, because it helped me connect with a group of passionate women’s soccer fans. You can find all of the profiles here. I’m also compiling the material I’ve written over the past four years and creating a series of soccer email courses: Soccer 101, 200 level courses on soccer culture, crime and punishment, events and leagues, and positions, and a 300 level course. Keep an eye out for those in the next couple weeks.

So, happy birthday to me, and thank you for reading, doing social networky things, and above all, asking questions!


Appreciating styles in basketball: Memphis vs. Golden State

There are a few mathematical ways of comparing the complexity of board games. One method, called Game Tree Size, tries to quantify complexity by counting the total number of possible games that could be played. If you use at this method, Stratego shows itself to be the most complex game, perhaps because players can set up their pieces to start the game in many different ways. A couple positions below Stratego comes Go, the 4,000 year-old Chinese game, and then much lower down, Chess. As you would expect, the simplest games measured is Tic-tac-toe. Board games are not fun in direct proportion to their complexity — you’re not going to hear me say that Stratego is a better game than Chess just because it’s more complex — but it is an important factor. It’s good to feel like it’s possible to get better at a game, even to master it, without being forced into a single strategic direction. If a game is simple enough to have a clear winning strategy, then once you figure it out, it soon loses its appeal.

This is one of the reasons why sports are so much fun to play and follow — they are virtually infinite in their complexity. I can’t imagine how you’d even begin to calculate the complexity of a sport like basketball. Not only are there ten players on the court at a time, free to move anywhere in a large three-dimensional space, but each of them is an actual person, with her own abilities to see, move, shoot, or pass. That’s one reason why it was somewhat disconcerting to watch the NBA regular season this year. It seemed like teams had “solved” basketball and found a truly ideal way to play. Not ideal from an aesthetic point of view, but from a winning one. The formula, epitomized by the Houston Rockets, seemed to be, shoot nothing but three-pointers (ideally from the corner) and layups. During the playoffs this year, it’s been wonderful to see that there are still different ways of winning, that basketball has not (and probably never will) been solved. No playoff matchup exemplifies this better than the series between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Golden State Warriors.

The series between the Grizzlies and the Warriors is currently tied at two games apiece. These teams have beautifully contrasting styles that are easy to see and appreciate. Put simply, the Warriors play based on the idea that three points is more than two while the Grizzlies principle is that scoring is easier when you’re closer to the basket. The great thing is that both of these theories are correct! Both teams have an almost ideal fit between their best players and the way they play. The Grizzlies are the more physical team, the Warriors the more balletic. The Warriors best players are Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Curry is 6’3″ and 185 lbs and Thompson is 6’7″ and 205 lbs. Both can shoot almost inhumanly well. The Grizzlies best players are Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Gasol is 7’1″ and 265 lbs. Randolph is 6’9″ and 260 lbs. Both are among the best in the world at bullying their way close to the basket and then scoring from within the forest of arms trying to block them.

You can probably see the difference in styles just by watching these teams play but here are some numerical ways of showing it. During the regular season this year, Memphis scored the most points of any NBA team from the paint (close to the basket). To be fair, Golden State was also pretty good at this. Golden State was second in number of three pointers made, Memphis was second to last. Another excellent way of distinguishing the teams is by looking at shot charts that show where and how well teams or players shoot. I put together a few to look at using a great tool built by Austin Clemons. The first two show the Grizzlies and Warriors as a whole, the second two, just the star players already mentioned. Notice how many more of the Grizzlies shots come from in close and how many more of the Warriors shots come from beyond the three point arc. These differences become more dramatic when just looking at the star players.

Perhaps the most poetic way of understanding the difference between the two teams is by letting Grantland writer and narrative basketball poet, Brian Phillips help us understand. Phillips recently wrote articles about both teams. In his article on the Golden State Warriors, The Rise of Steph Curry, Phillips describes the subtle genius of Golden State’s most prolific and prototypical scorer:

He [Curry] just kept hitting shots, in his own little bubble of imperturbable cool. He had a gift for finding the little cracks, the little aerial wormholes only players with a certain kind of daredevil vision are ever able to see. He’d run off a screen, curl to the top of the key, catch the ball, pivot: swish, over a skyline of outstretched arms. Plant in the corner, catch the ball, flick a tiny hip-fake: swish, as his defender went rocketing past him… Curry exists on the plane where the impossible and the rational coincide — disarmingly natural. Smooth, even.

When writing about the Grizzlies, Phillips choses to focus, not on either of the Grizzlies big men, Gasol or Randolph, but instead on Tony Allen, a defensive specialist who has become an internet sensation during these playoffs. Allen, whose nickname is “The Grindfather” inspired Phillips to write The Grindfather’s House: Welcome to Tony Allen’s Playoffs. Here’s an excerpt:

Watching Tony Allen in 2015 is impossible not to enjoy. He’s like a combination of a professional wrestler, an elite superhero sidekick, and the dad from Finding Nemo… What Tony Allen does? It does not look fun. Murderous man-to-man defense, hyper-vigilant awareness of passing lanes, a willingness to chase your man from one end of the floor to the other, the tenacity to grind for 48 minutes against the other team’s best player … none of this looks remotely enjoyable.

Now that you’re armed with an understanding of how these two teams try to solve the game of basketball in entirely different but equally successful ways, see if you can witness it yourself in one of their next games. They’ll play each other on Wednesday, May 13, at 10:30 p.m. ET on TNT and Friday, May 15, 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN. If neither team wins both of those games, a deciding Game Seven will be needed on Sunday, May 17 at a time to be determined. Enjoy!