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 does it mean to roll with the punches?

Dear Sports Fan,

You know the expression, “roll with the punches?” It means to be adaptable to whatever comes at you in life. Is that a sports phrase? What does it mean to roll with the punches in a sports context?


Dear Sara,

The phrase “roll with the punches” comes from boxing, where athletes are literally in the business of punching and getting punched. Although many people think of boxing as the ultimate aggressive sport, defense is as important or perhaps even more important than offense. If a boxer can develop techniques to defend themselves from being hit or being hit hard by their opponent, they are well on their way to winning the fight. Rolling with the punches is one defensive option in boxing. What I love about how the expression has moved from its sports context into general use is how precisely the meanings line up with one another. The parallels are almost poetic once you see them. Here’s how rolling with the punches works in boxing.

Getting hit is inevitable in boxing. Oh, sure, boxers are taught to protect themselves with their hands, so punches land harmlessly on padded gloves instead of chins, noses, or stomachs. And yes, dodging a punch is a great idea too. But eventually, every boxer is going to get hit right in the head. This is when the smart boxer rolls with the punch. As they see or feel the punch coming, they move their head or body so that it’s moving the same direction as the punch. If a punch is coming at their head from their left, they move their head backwards and to the right. Watch Mohamed Ali demonstrate with two classic rolls:

This allows the body to arrange itself into an alignment that’s used to moving and proper for moving in the direction the punch will inevitably send it. This protects the boxer from the most damaging element of being hit – the sudden rotational force applied to the brain. This rotational force is what generally knocks a boxer out and causes the worst brain damage. If you watch fights, it’s usually the punch that a boxer doesn’t see and therefore can’t prepare for that knocks him or her out. The head snaps backwards or sideways and you know the fight is over.

Rolling the spot that’s going to get hit with the expected force of the punch protects a boxer from being surprised in this way. If you don’t believe me, take your hands and put them out and up in front of you with your elbows bent and your palms faced out. Get a friend to punch your hands a few times. Experiment with trying to keep your arms rigid (it hurts, right) and then letting your arms go loose and your hands give way as your friend punches them. It hurts a lot less, right?

The beautiful part of this is that in boxing, as in life, every one is going to get hit. If you can find a way to prepare yourself, not with fear or rigid resistance, but with calm acceptance, you can learn to live through most of what the world has to throw at you.

Thanks for reading,


Sports reads: Is winning everything? Is it anything?

The topic of winning is a natural one in sports. Sports are, after all, one of life’s few activities that have clear and objective winners and losers. That’s one of the appeals of sports. It’s therefore very interesting when things happen to subvert the reward of winning, even within sports. This week, we’re featuring four articles that approach the topic of winning from a different point of view.

Fuck Winning

by Albert Burneko for Deadspin

Burneko got his start on Deadspin writing about food and quickly became hotly anticipated must-read-out-loud material in my household. Recently he’s made the move to non-food commentary and his stuff is just as good. This week, he responded to James Harrison, and NFL veteran, who publicly and triumphantly returned a participation trophy that one of his children had been given. 

The big grown-up world is coming up behind my children—behind James Harrison’s kids and yours, too, if you have them. To sort them: those who will prosper, or falter; those whom the barbarism we have enshrined into our way of life will reward, and those it will devour; those who will strive with their whole selves to make their way in that grown-up world and then unknowingly choose to attend the same prayer meeting as Dylann Roof and be snatched out of it in violence and fear and confusion, whether they got trophies for participating in sports or not.

For now, for now, for as long as I can have it, the reason to do things—to play sports, to do work, to get out of bed in the morning—is because the privilege is a fucking miracle, because it might allow my children to be children now, now, today, before the least consideration of long-term goals and competition and getting ahead may intrude upon the impulse a little kid gets to put a balloon inside his shirt and make another little kid laugh.

Soccer’s Poor Little Rich Clubs

by Joshua Robinson for the Wall Street Journal

Although European countries tend to be more socialist than ours, European club soccer is way more capitalist. The movement of teams from one level-league to the next higher or lower carries with it incredible financial consequences. For smaller teams, just making it into the top league, even if they then lose all their games, is a giant victory.

Europe’s major leagues all operate on a system of promotion and relegation. The bottom two or three clubs every season are demoted to the division below and replaced by the best teams beneath them. In the richest leagues, it’s like a revolving door to the billionaires’ club… 

And as television revenue reaches new heights, the microclubs all make the same bet. A couple of seasons at their country’s top table can translate to years of financial stability. It isn’t about winning titles. It is about surviving—even briefly.

Roger Goodell vs. Tom Brady: The Ultimate Revenge-of-Mediocrity Story

by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone

In court, no one wins, not even the winner. That’s the message of this acerbic article about the continuing Deflategate “scandal” in the NFL.

If Goodell wins this court battle, sports pundits will line up to talk about what a “brilliant” PR strategist Goodell is, how he’s “masterfully” scored a public relations “knockout” of the once-iconic Brady.

Except this Iago-esque campaign of diabolical leaks, secret indictments and double punishments has been conducted against his most marketable player for…why exactly? What other business would spend such an awesome amount of time, money, and most of all cunning undermining its key employees?

It’s like concocting a brilliant plan to break into a supermax prison. Hey, you made it, congratulations, that’s a hell of a tunnel you built there. Now what was the point again?

Medieval Times: The Armored Combat League Makes Sport Out of Swords and Shields

by Jason Concepcion for Grantland

Concepcion spends a fair amount of time marveling at the wild sport that people have forged from a history of armored combat, but its his ironic take on the appeal of this history that caught my eye. 

Once upon a time, the subset of Americans who are drawn to the ren-faire-style wizards, wenches, and knights trappings of medieval Europe were looked upon by their countrymen with collective fascination, if at all. Such behavior existed under the general umbrella of Nerd Shit. But now, after the one-two punch of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Game of Thrones becoming a global phenomenon, a not-insignificant portion of Americans have a cursory knowledge of heraldry and feudalism.

For all its courtly affectations, Europe’s medieval period was essentially a religiously fractious, war-torn dystopia… Which is to say, its appeal has never seemed more obvious.

Showing emotion in tennis – a chicken or egg dilemma

If you watched the Wimbledon men’s semifinal today between Roger Federer and Andy Murray, you would have noticed a striking difference in behavior between the two men. Murray was emotional throughout the match, screaming, talking to himself, and banging his racket against the ground or his insteps. Federer barely uttered a word, except a few classic tennis “come ons!” His face registered neither fear nor excitement nor exertion. Federer showed no emotion, Murray showed lots. Murray lost.

Although Federer is an extreme example — he is one of the greatest winners in tennis history and he’s known for his monk-like disposition — the question of how outward displays of emotion effect a player’s chances in tennis is a real one. It’s particularly interesting to consider whether showing emotion is something that a player does when he or she is going to lose or whether it’s something that helps bring about the player’s demise. In other words, does the losing cause the emotional outburst or does the outburst cause the losing? It’s not just Federer. Some of the greatest winners in tennis are reticent. Rafael Nadal is the opposite of Federer when it comes to showing how hard he’s working during a tennis match, but they are similar in their ability to maintain emotional peace or an incredible facsimile of it. Nadal seems sure that he will be able to beat his opponent simply by working harder than them and he never seems to doubt that he can work harder. Take Novak Djokovic, the new reigning number one men’s player in the world. Early in his career, he was prone to losing matches that he seemed to be in control of. How did this happen? Something bad would happen and he’d lose his temper. He’d break rackets and curse at himself in Serbian. He’d hit himself in the head with his racket. Once he got his emotion under control, he started winning tournaments. Or, wait… was it the other way around?

My money is on the emotion being the egg and the winning being the chicken. Tennis is a uniquely psychological game. It’s intensely isolating for its players, who are not allowed to even talk to their coaches during major tournaments. It’s very intimate — when you’re at a tennis match live, even from the very last seat in the biggest tennis stadium (I know, I’ve sat there) you feel as though you can speak directly to the players. Showing yourself to be unflappable through all the ups and downs inherent in a tennis match has to unnerve your opponent. My guess is that players who learn to control their emotions and who develop great poker faces (maybe we should start calling them “Federer faces”) are able to win more than players with equal or similar skill levels.

Serena Williams, who will play in the 2015 Wimbledon finals with a chance to win her fourth straight major tournament in a row and her 21st major singles tournament overall, may be an exception to this rule. She is openly emotional on the court. She does show when she’s angry at herself and when she’s excited. It’s possible that she’s able to win despite giving up the advantage of unflappability because she and her opponents are women and they and our culture in general expect different behavior from women emotionally. It’s also possible that her skill level is so much higher than everyone else’s that she doesn’t need to sweat small advantages like this. A third possibility is that part of her tennis brilliance has come from taking a different path through the emotional forest. Maybe she unnerves people and strengthens herself by doing just the opposite of what works for everyone else.

The best sports stories of the week 7.7.15

Now that the excitement of the World Cup is beginning to die down, it’s time to empty my inbox of some amazing non-World Cup articles from the past couple weeks. Our first two articles are serious journalism about how sports can be an enormously positive part of living in restrictive environments. Our second two articles are lighter fare, concerned with the junction of sports and words. Enjoy all four of them.

Thriving in a Barren Land

by Jere Longman for the New York Times

One of the reasons why soccer is the world’s most popular sport is that it’s so universally easy to play. All you need is a field, a ball, and some friends/opponents. But what if you live in the Arctic and there is no grass, only tundra? And traveling so expensive that you can only reasonably find opponents once a year? Well, you’re going to have to improvise…

Assis, the chief referee, stood at the front desk of the Frobisher Inn, using a pair of scissors to make yellow cards and red cards from construction paper.

“Think FIFA does this for the World Cup?” he said, smiling.

Occasionally, travel in Nunavut called for extreme alternative transportation. In 2011 and 2012, a soccer team from the village of Igloolik traveled about four hours over ice to Hall Beach, riding in an oversize sled called a qamutik, pulled by a snowmobile and bundled in winter gear and caribou skins.

[Soccer] helped provide a year-round activity, a sense of community, a connection to the outside world and a distraction from social problems like alcoholism, domestic violence, sexual abuse and the alarming suicide rate.

Run on Sentence

by Rick Maese for the Washington Post

In this second story of the week, we enter an environment even more forbidding than the arctic; prison. In a handful of Utah prisons, sport is being used as the basis for rehabilitation. And it’s working.

[Kurtis Hunsaker] initially spurned treatment behind bars. [He] said he’d “rather pull my toes off with pliers” than attend AA meetings. He attended the initial Addict II Athlete meeting last spring and for the first time felt a sense of control. In contrast to programs that encourage patients to surrender to the addiction and call upon a higher power, he was in charge of his own workout, had an outlet for the pent-up emotions and anxieties and was part of a team. And perhaps just as important, he finally had something to look forward to each day.

Most games in prison have the familiar rules with minor wrinkles: In Ultimate Frisbee, for example, when a disc hits the fence, it sets off an alarm in the control room and is therefore considered a turnover; and in softball if the bat comes into contact with a person, the game is automatically over.

Where Ott and Orr Are Most Valuable: 15 Across, or Maybe 7 Down

by Victor Mather for the New York Times

They’re obviously nothing compared to living in the arctic or being in prison but for many of us, New York Times crossword puzzles are the toughest part of our week. One thing that makes them ever so slightly easier is the frequent reuse of some short, vowel-heavy names. Often, these are athletes whose crossword puzzle notoriety has outstripped their athletic achievements.

Of course, there is no conspiracy of delusional Ott-loving crossword constructors. Mel has gained his fame because of his last name, which is short and starts with a vowel. The clunky “DiMaggio,” with its double G, is much less useful to a crossword creator.

The Real Reason Americans Call It ‘Soccer’ Is All England’s Fault

by Tony Manfred for Business Insider

While we’re on the subject of words, if you grew up a soccer player and fan like me, you may have developed a slight inferiority complex about calling the sport “soccer” instead of “football” or “futbol.” Read this article and hold your head high evermore.

The interesting thing here is that Brits still used “soccer” regularly for a huge chunk of the 20th century. Between 1960 and 1980, “soccer” and “football” were “almost interchangeable…” [After 1980] British people stopped saying “soccer” because of its American connotations. So, no, it’s not wrong to call it “soccer” if you’re American.

"I believe that we will win" is inappropriate for the USWNT

Tuesday night at 7 p.m. ET, the United States women’s national soccer team will play against Germany in the semifinals of the World Cup. The game will be televised on Fox but I will not be watching. I’ll be at the game, wearing a U.S. jersey and screaming a lot. I am about as excited and nervous and full of dread as I can remember being the night before a sporting event. To prepare for the event, I’ve written a lot about the game. In this post, I comment on a common chant used by supporters of the U.S. team. I also wrote about dreading our opponent and previewed the game’s plot and important characters.

Impostor syndrome is a “psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved.” Although anyone can suffer from impostor syndrome, in our culture, it’s particularly something that women feel. It’s something that thoughtful organizations should be on the watch for so that they don’t inadvertently reinforce it by giving more opportunities to people (predominantly male) untroubled by self-doubt. Impostor syndrome is a pernicious little brain-worm that stops people from achieving everything they can achieve by convincing them they’re not worthy of attempting anything great.

One of the wonderful things about watching international women’s soccer is the sense you get that these women have escaped impostor syndrome. Here are women whose strength and self-confidence is obvious just from looking at them. The fact that they’re able to step onto the field in such a pressure packed environment and perform at a world class level must be evidence that they, unlike so many other women, have taken ownership of their abilities and accomplishments. Women’s soccer is wonderful to watch as sport but it’s also wonderful to watch for its aspirational message to women (and people) everywhere. “You don’t have to cut yourself down. You don’t have to apologize. Look at what is possible when you stop doing those things.”

That’s why it particularly irks me when I hear fans of the U.S. women’s national team chanting, “I believe that we will win.” This cheer comes from fans of the men’s team who popularized it during the 2014 men’s World Cup. The 2014 men’s World Cup captivated the United States like soccer has rarely done before. Bars and town squares were packed with cheering, patriotic fans. People wearing jerseys and scarves nodded to each other on busy city streets and in subways and busses. At the heart of that positive energy was the U.S. men’s national soccer team. The U.S. men’s team is known for its never-say-die attitude, its heroic goaltending, and its tilting at windmills. The U.S. men’s team is a real underdog in world soccer. It’s never won a World Cup and it doesn’t seem likely to anytime in the near future. Although its coach got some flack during the lead up for the 2014 tournament for saying his team had no chance to win, he wasn’t wrong. That’s why the team’s clarion cry, “I believe that we will win,” fit the team so well. Rooting for the United States in men’s soccer is an act of faith despite inevitable disappointment. Men’s soccer super powers would never shout something like this. German fans, Brazilian fans, Italian fans, would be more confident and more straightforward, like: “We’re going to win!” “You have no chance!” “Our team is the best!” “Why even bother!”

The United States women’s soccer team is to women’s soccer what Brazil, Germany, or Italy is to men’s soccer. We’re tied with Germany for the most World Cup championships, with two each. In six World Cups, we’ve never placed outside the top four, and by qualifying for the semifinals in 2015, that record is guaranteed to stretch to seven. The United States team is ranked second in the world by FIFA. It has athleticism and skill that few countries can match. It is, in short, a giant overdog in international women’s soccer. The women’s team deserves a more confident cheer — and a more demanding one as well. How about, “I expect that we will win?”

There is something charming about the “I believe that we will win” chant when applied to the men’s team. In the men’s game, the United States doesn’t have a lot of accomplishments to internalize. We aren’t obviously competent. The fact that fans still “believe” that the team “will win” despite all evidence to the contrary is one of the things that makes them such great fans. However apt it is for the men, the cheer doesn’t fit at all with the women’s team who do have accomplishments and skill that goes far beyond competence. If the genders were reversed, it wouldn’t matter as much, but applying the tentative, self-doubting men’s cheer to the women’s team inadvertently reinforces the idea that women should be apologizing for their strengths. Chanting “I believe that we will win” about the U.S. women’s national team reduces the impact the team can have on women who suffer from impostor syndrome. That’s not something to cheer about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Sports Fan,

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


Dear Emily,

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

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

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


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


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

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

Thanks for your question,

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 is there so little sports in coverage of women's sports?

The sports writer covering women’s sports has a problem. Write articles like people are used to reading about sports or about women? At Dear Sports Fan, we think the answer to that question should be to write articles about women’s sports the same way we would write about male sports. This isn’t to say that people should reduce female athletes to genderless passing, shooting, sweating sports-machines in order to be acceptable, but it does mean that articles which cover female athletes as women to such a degree that their athletic feats are reduced to an afterthought or forgotten entirely are bad. Sports writing that covers women’s sports but neglects the sports side of its subjects make the sports world as a whole less inclusive. One of Dear Sports Fan’s key goals is to make the sports world more inclusive. This is why we’ve been publishing gender-story-free player profiles of each of the members of the U.S. women’s national team in the lead up to the World Cup. It’s why I plunked down $12 to buy a copy of Equalizer Soccer’s 2015 World Cup preview. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees with our sports-first approach. I was disappointed by a recent issue of ESPN the Magazine that had so much promise but failed to deliver.

The June 8 edition of ESPN the Magazine showed up in my mailbox with a big picture of three members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team on the cover. With the World Cup in Canada quickly approaching, it makes sense for a sports magazine to focus on women’s soccer. I am extremely excited for the tournament. Not only is it an ideal subject for Dear Sports Fan but I’m personally invested in the U.S. team. I’ve followed them since what has unfortunately turned out to be their hey-day in the 1990s and am rooting for this group to reclaim the World Cup title after 16 years without one. I am hungry for knowledge about the upcoming tournament. Who is going to start? Who are the biggest threats to the American team? Are there any new up-and-coming players who could break out during the tournament like James Rodriguez and DeAndre Yedlin did last summer in the Men’s World Cup? I want to know all of that stuff. So, imagine my disappointment when I read the first paragraph of the first article about women’s soccer in the magazine: The Authentication of Alex Morgan by Janet Reitman.

Alex Morgan breezes into a Kansas City restaurant called Cafe Gratitude one early spring day looking perfect. Morgan is one of those people who can pull off appearing well-groomed even when drenched with sweat, and today she is casually, yet impeccably, attired in a long gray skirt, a black-and-white short-sleeved shrug and a white tank top, all of which she threw on after realizing she was half an hour late. She apologizes; she was trying to curl her hair. “I don’t know where my blow dryer is,” she says. There was also a minor crisis with her skirt, which apparently at some point was a crumpled mess. “I put it in the dryer for five minutes because we don’t have an iron yet.”

Okay, what? Alex Morgan is one of the key players on the U.S. team and, going into the World Cup, one of the biggest mysteries. She’s a star striker, who has been identified by many as the obvious goal-scoring successor to living legend Abby Wambach. Unfortunately, her last two years have been riddled with injuries and she’s missed most of the team’s recent games with a knee injury. A fully healthy Morgan would be a big part of the U.S. team but her health is questionable. She’s also more easily replaced than other stars on the team. Sydney Leroux provides a reasonable facsimile of Morgan and Amy Rodriguez or Christen Press could also step into her position. There’s so much good sports coverage to be had here but instead we get an introduction that focuses solely on Morgan’s appearance while also suggesting that she is ditzy in a stereotypically female way.

I move on to the second (and only other) article in the magazine about women’s soccer. This is an article about Hope Solo, the team’s long-time starting goalie. By Allison Glock, its headline is “Pride. Regret. Hope.” The article begins with a description of Solo’s home in Kirkland, Washington. We get a description of Solo’s “tasteful living room,” learning that it is “tidy, inviting” with its “plush beige couches” and “throw blankets [that] are draped over armrests.” Okay… We get a description of Solo, who is:

Tinier than you imagine. Lean, compact. The planes in her angular face catch what little light Seattle has to offer, her hair a Breck-girl wonder, her teeth white as the queen’s gloves.

When we hear from Solo herself, her first two quotes are about her husband, Jerramy Stevens. The first is, “He’s the neat freak.” The second, “I can’t even leave anything on the stairs.” Within four paragraphs, we have a description of Solo’s appearance, with reference to classic 1950s era shampoo ads, a description of her house which sounds like it comes out of an interior design article, and Solo herself speaking only about her husband. This article doesn’t even pass the Bechdel test so far!

All right, before we get carried away too far in our indignation about gender equality, there are some ameliorating circumstances and I am by no means out to hammer the two authors.

First, this is a magazine; a paper magazine. So, its articles have to be written and prepped far in advance. It can’t compete with websites in terms of newsworthiness, so it doesn’t try. Profiles are therefore a reasonable approach to take and the magazine frequently runs profiles of male athletes that also focus on their personal lives to some extent.

The second issue is the choice of subjects. The focus on Hope Solo’s family life is a legitimate, hard news focus because of a legal history that involves domestic abuses charges among other things. Of all the U.S. women’s soccer players, Alex Morgan has the most consciously constructed image. Her image is so carefully constructed that it’s hard to imagine writing about her without examining it. Solo and Morgan are both celebrities as well as athletes. Reitman recognizes this in her article when she writes:

If Hope Solo, with her complex personal life and frequent outbursts, is perceived as the Dark Queen in women’s soccer, then Alex Morgan is Snow White.

This is a hysterically accurate representation of how Morgan and Solo are viewed. So then, why choose those two? There are 21 other players on the team. Abby Wambach is the greatest goal scorer in international soccer history, men’s or women’s. Julie Johnston is a young player who is expected to play a major role on the team. Christie Rampone will be playing in her fifth World Cup. Why not profile athletes who are less set in the cultural understanding?

Admittedly, women’s sports is an active battleground in the gender-equality culture war, and its athletes consciously or unconsciously make and are seen as making statements about gender all the time. Ignoring the issue of gender completely (as I’ve chosen to do in my profiles) is sticking your head in the sand a little. As the articles go on, both authors make very clever and insightful comments about the diverging pressure women athletes are under to be feminine and win. Here is Reitman on Morgan:

Morgan has her own list of contradictions that don’t make her any less authentic: waving the flag for tween body image but contemplating breast implants; wanting her sport to be taken seriously while consciously leveraging her looks to attract male viewers…

In her article on Solo, Glock uses a quote from Solo’s teammate Carli Lloyd to describe the plight of being a world-class female athlete.

Lloyd has “felt pressure to be a certain kind of girl.” She too chafes at the double standard for women in sports, finding the impetus exhausting, if not impossible, to be sweet and approachable, to sand down every edge, to exist in a state of constant gratitude. “We live in a world where hair color and taking bikini selfies is more vital than stats,” sighs Lloyd, noting, “You can get shafted if you don’t play.”

The sad truth is that Lloyd is right. She has gotten shafted. She doesn’t construct a gendered image of herself as carefully as Morgan does or as Solo once tried to do, so she doesn’t get profiled in ESPN the Magazine. The editors of the magazine chose to focus on Solo and Morgan for a set of reasons. Their conventional attractiveness, enormous social media following, and status as known quantities in the culture were all part of that choice and all defensible to some extent. That’s kind of the problem with these types of social issues. A series of tiny defensible choices lead to the production of articles that focus almost exclusively on women’s athletes as women, not as athletes. That’s a shame.

I don’t mean to pick on ESPN. Some of their work has been excellent. ESPNW, its female focused branch provides consistently good coverage of the team.  The Louisa Thomas profile of Sydney Leroux on Grantland was excellent and even better is the series of articles about leading players from other country’s teams by Allison McCann. Five Thirty Eight, another ESPN property, is doing a statistical model of the World Cup just like they did for March Madness and other sporting events, male and female. In fact, this model was the only piece in the magazine aside from these two profiles to focus on the World Cup and it gives the U.S. a slight edge over Germany as the favorites to win it all.

I hope the team does win the World Cup, and if they do, I hope it nudges us a tiny bit closer to a world where we cover athletes the same way, regardless of gender. The U.S. women’s national soccer team plays its last warm-up game before the World Cup today against Korea at 4:30 p.m. ET. The game will be televised live on ESPN. If you’re looking for less gendered coverage of the team and the World Cup, (aside from this site, of course) I suggest purchasing a copy of Equalizer Soccer’s 2015 World Cup preview. Led by editors Jeff Kassouf and Ann Odong, this beautifully written and produced preview is chock full of coverage that’s sports focused.