One of my favorite parts of writing Dear Sports Fan is reading other great writers cover sports in a way that’s accessible and compelling for the whole spectrum from super-fans to lay people. Here are selections from some of the articles this week that inspired me. We think of sports as a meritocracy where the best athletes rise to the top, where the best franchises flourish, and where the rewards are mostly commensurate to the risks. That’s not always the case. This week, I chose four stories about elements of the sports world that didn’t quite work out the way they were intended.
Marcus Lattimore was a star among stars in the world of college football. As a running back at South Carolina, he ran around and over the competition like few can. That all stopped after his second catastrophic knee injury. Despite his medical history, he was drafted into the NFL by the San Francisco 49ers who felt his talent was worth the risk that he might never recover. This past week, Lattimore decided to retire at the age of 23 because of chronic knee pain he could not rehabilitate his way through.
Lattimore directly contributed 3,444 yards from scrimmage and 41 touchdowns to the cause, at the cost of countless hours of work and the unimaginable physical agony that comes with being the title character in a game of Kill the Man With the Ball. His efforts led to the Gamecocks’ first SEC East title, first two 11-win seasons, and first two top-10 finishes in the AP poll. They also led to a boost in recruiting3 that helped make that success sustainable.
So what did Lattimore get for his contributions? A scholarship that paid for most of three years of college and prevented him from seeing a dime from the sale of merchandise that bore his number and the sale of tickets and television carriage fees bought by people who wanted to see him play. The promise that his time would come when he cashed in with the NFL. And the knee injuries that left him physically unable to cash in once that time finally came.
When a person like Lattimore suffers a career-ending injury while serving his school for no pay, making him whole shouldn’t be an act of kindness or compassion, as it is here. It should be the norm. It should be required.
Chivas USA was one of the more interesting experiments in the U.S. professional soccer league, Major League Soccer (MLS). Chivas is the nickname of a Mexican league soccer team — officially called Club Deportivo Guadalajara. The owner of the Mexican team bought the MLS team to use as an American outpost and minor league version of his main team. The experiment didn’t go well and the team has now been bought and sold and part of that sale is an agreement to shut the team down for a year or two and then reopen it with a new name, brand, and location in downtown L.A.
Many bad decisions must be made for failure to arrive this spectacularly. These are some of the required ingredients, in short — a shared stadium and the second-fiddle perspective produced; an unclear identity; discrimination lawsuits and HBO investigative reports, league misstep after misstep; a few unremarkable teams. Eventually what’s left is desperate marketing ploys and cries of “Free tickets!” A good amount must go badly for a growing league to produce a team so haunted and solitary, and here, it did.
Some of the best Chivas games were two-goal losses, games when Wilmer Cabrera and his players hardly feared embarrassing final scores or the BigSoccer forum jokes that would follow. These were free-floating performances, runaway trains built from spare piston parts, heading for the cliff at high speed — because if you can’t beat them, then fuck it, still don’t join them – just play soccer of a more unhinged metaphorical sort. This identity wasn’t the troubled one Jorge Vergara and Don Garber had in mind, but somehow, it makes a lot more sense than any rebrand ever could.
One of the appealing things about sports is how clear its goals are. Winning is an objective thing. Statistics can be kept. This means it acts more like a true meritocracy than almost any other activity. Which is not to say that discrimination hasn’t and isn’t a part of sports. Black athletes in the United States were restricted from competing in the white professional leagues for decades and remnants of that discrimination continue today. What is usually the case with sports though, is that if a minority can get into a game, the game itself should be able to help prove their point about equality. One enormous exception to this rule has been transgender athletes, who continue to be barred from competition in many places. This article places a current legal battle in Minnesota in its historical context.
The reality is that even today, nearly four decades after Reneé Richards won the right to compete, trans people remain largely unwelcome in the athletic world—a world that is already well behind when it comes to LGBT inclusion. The NFL still hasn’t had an openly gay athlete on a regular season active roster. The NBA just recently had their first. Baseball and hockey remain a refuge for straight individuals.
Trans athletes strong enough to brave this harsh world are pioneers. Richards to Allums, Fox to Jönsson; unfortunately, they are sometimes also martyrs. As Leva and her ilk look to hamper competition, we should aspire to a world in which all athletes can perform free of hormone testing, “gender testing,” or the pseudo-scientific ramblings of the world’s Joe Rogans; a world in which all are welcome to compete.
Every profession has its unsung heroes. Carli Lloyd, a player on the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team is one of those heroes. This profile of her brushes the surface of why that might be but instead of getting caught up in that, it instead celebrates Lloyd for who she is, what she has done, and what she will do.
Lloyd is a two-time Olympic hero, scoring the gold-medal winning goal for the U.S. women at both the 2008 and 2012 Games. She is the only player in history – male or female – to score in back-to-back Olympic finals. She wears the 10 shirt for the national team (customarily given to the top field player on the team). And yet, despite her heroics, she is hardly the face of U.S. Soccer.
Lloyd isn’t shy about telling you that she trains harder than anyone, and she’s frank about her quest to be the best player in the world. She forever carries a chip on her shoulder, fueled by a crowd of naysayers whom Lloyd doesn’t specify, yet acknowledges their existence. Lloyd said she doesn’t play for accolades, but she’s only human. She sees marketing and advertisements that don’t involve her. In 2013 she was left off the NWSL all-league first and second teams, and didn’t make the first team in 2014 after carrying her struggling Western New York Flash club through the season. But Lloyd was traded to the Houston Dash in October. Two weeks later she won the Golden Ball as the best player of the qualifying tournament.
Her attitude is classic if not cliché New Jersey: Work harder, always. And Lloyd is proud of that, calling herself a “Jersey girl for life.” She lives a few towns over from where she grew up.