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 don't hockey teams announce injuries like football?

Dear Sports Fan,

Have you been watching the Stanley Cup Finals this year? I’m curious about the Tampa Bay Lightning goalie. He’s obviously injured but no one will say how. All they say is that he has a “lower body injury.” Why don’t hockey teams announce injuries like football?

Thanks,
Meredith


Dear Meredith,

I have seen some of the Stanley Cup Finals this year. They’ve been exciting! Among the most suspenseful parts of the series has been watching Ben Bishop try to play through whatever injury he has. During Game Two, he was forced out of the game twice. He made it through Game Three despite seemingly struggling to move side to side or get back up to his feet from the ground. He sat out Game Four completely and watched his backup, Andrei Vasilevskiy, play only moderately well in a loss. At the time of writing this post, his status for Game Five, tonight, is still unknown. Equally unknown is what, exactly, is wrong with him.

Information about injuries to hockey players is usually hard to come by. That’s never more true than during the playoffs. Since 2008, teams have not been required to give the media or the league any information about player injures although they are required not to release misleading information. Most of the time, teams do give out some information. The “lower body injury” language that you referred to in your question is a hockey classic. “Lower body” or “upper body”  is all we normally get. Sometimes, as is the case with Bishop, teams don’t even specify the hemisphere of the injury. The only thing the Tampa Bay Lightning have officially said about Bishop is that he has an “unspecified injury.”

Theoretically, the reason for this stonewalling is to protect the injured player. It’s commonly thought that if an opposing team knows that Player A’s left knee is hurt or her right arm, they will target that specific spot for extra abuse in the form of legal checks or illegally thrown elbows or slashing sticks. There could also be tactical considerations. Some injuries limit what a player can do on the ice — maybe a player with in injured wrist will have trouble lifting the puck on shots. If that news gets out there, the opposing goalie will know to concentrate on covering the bottom of the net.

Of course, with the availability and malleability of video these days, every play of every game can be dissected from any number of angles. If a player gets hurt in a game, it’s usually going to be obvious what limb or joint is the injured body part. Even when that is the case, most teams continue the upper body/lower body charade. I’ve seen obvious injures, like when a player blocks a shot with his left foot and then limps off the ice. What then, could be the point of classifying that injury as a “lower body injury” instead of a “left foot injury.”

In cases where the injury is obvious, the obfuscation can only be for one of three reasons:

  • As security theater. I don’t think players are dumb enough to believe that if their coach doesn’t tell the media the nature of an obvious injury, no one will know what it is, but it probably still makes them happier than hearing their coach talk about it.
  • It’s a way to create and maintain a team identity. Taking a stand against the media is a classic page in every coach’s book for creating a sense of team.
  • It’s easier. Instead of talking about the obvious injuries and going mute when a non-obvious injury happens, it’s just easier to say nothing about everything all the time.

The only reason we expect teams to go public with the nature of injuries is that the National Football League requires their teams to do so. Why? Is it for the enjoyment of fans? Not really. It’s all about gambling. Sports books cannot and will not set lines if they don’t know whether an important player will play in an upcoming game. Forcing teams to release injury information facilitates sports betting which always has been and continues to be one of the big drivers of attention to sports. Even though the NFL refuses to endorse gambling on their sport, their policy on injury information suggests otherwise. Betting on hockey is big business but it’s not nearly as big as football betting is, and perhaps the NHL doesn’t feel quite the same pressure to pander to the gambling industry.

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

Why isn't a shot that hits the post a shot in hockey?

Dear Sports Fan,

Over the past three years, I’ve become an ice hockey fan but there’s one thing that still really annoys me. Hockey fans and commentators often talk about “shots” as a meaningful statistic but it seems totally meaningless to me. Apparently a shot that hits the post doesn’t count as a shot — just the same as a shot that goes twenty feet wide. That distinction should mean something! What does the shot statistic means and why I should care about it?

Thanks,
Sonja


Dear Sonja,

Sports are full of statistics. From the outside looking in, it might seem like sports fans are just obsessed with statistics for no reason. That’s probably true for some sports fans but the purpose of a stat, the reason why it exists, is to represent some aspect of the game numerically so that it’s easier to know how well a team or player is doing. Stats are supposed to help the viewer understand what’s going on in a given game and to compare the performance of their favorite teams and players not only against their opponents but also against their own past performances. The sports world is in the midst of a thirty year statistical revolution during which many of the older statistics have been torn down and either replaced by new ones or simply discredited. Shots are one of ice hockey’s oldest statistic. Why don’t we examine what the shots statistic is, what it’s trying to tell us, and what some potential replacements could be.

The full name of the statistic which is commonly referred to as “shots” is “shots on goal.” In some ways, this helps explain what the statistic means and in other ways… well, in other ways, it probably serves only to further the confusion. “Shots” sounds like it should include any time a player winds up and shoots the puck, intending to score a goal, even if her shot is blocked or goes three feet wide. When you use the full name of the statistic, it becomes more understandable why shots that are blocked or miss the goal aren’t counted. That’s good — a stat’s name should reflect what it actually is. What you point out about hitting the posts or the crossbar is true though. Those shots are not counted in the shots on goal statistic even though they may feel like they should.

My totally unfounded guess about how this game about is that goalie statistics are a little bit older than skater statistics. Perhaps the shots statistic was created in response to an older goalie statistic. Saves — the number of times a goalie catches or deflects the puck away — makes sense. Want to know how active a goalie has been during a game? How many saves did he make? Shots seems like the reverse of saves plus the number of goals a team scores. Every time the goalie makes a save the opposing team registers a shot. Every time the goalie doesn’t make a save and a goal results, the other team registers a shot. Combining metrics like these would make the life of an early statistics keeper much easier. A shot that hit the post and didn’t go in is clearly not a save, so it didn’t get counted as a shot either.

The problem with the shots on goal statistic, which I think you are getting at by objecting to the way shots that hit the post are treated, is that it doesn’t do a very good job at telling us anything meaningful about the game. At first glance, it seems like it’s trying to show how well a team or player is doing on offense. Alas, it doesn’t distinguish between a puck that hit the crossbar and one that missed by six feet, even if those two acts are very different from a successful-offense perspective. It counts a harmless, non-threatening long-distance wrist shot but it doesn’t count a puck that nearly goes in before being blocked by a desperate defender. If a team wanted to inflate their shots statistic, they would just wildly throw the puck at the net every time they got near the offensive zone. That’s not a good offensive strategy for winning, so it seems like an offensive statistic shouldn’t encourage it.

Before we get to ideas for replacing this statistic, it’s worth mentioning that in real life, over a large sample size, which the 82 game regular season in the NHL is, shots is not a terrible statistic. Oh sure, in any given game it could be problematic for the reasons we just mentioned, but over time the better offensive players and teams do tend to generate more shots. This past year, the team with the most shots per game during the regular season was the Chicago Blackhawks, now playing in the Stanley Cup Finals, and the player with the most shots was Alexander Ovechkin, who also had by far the most goals. Shots don’t have to be a perfect statistic to be useful in part because no reasonable player or team actually modifies their behavior based on the shots statistic. It’s not perfect but I am still happier when the team I’m rooting for has more shots than the other team does.

One of the reasons players and teams don’t optimize for shots is because they probably don’t even use that statistic anymore. Although it’s still a mainstay of television production and newspaper columns, almost every team has its own group of statisticians who work for it. These folks create and keep much more meaningful proprietary statistics that they hope will give their team an edge over the competition. I have no idea what their statistics are but here are some other stats could replace or augment the shots statistic. In addition to shots on goal, you’ll sometimes see a “shots attempted” statistic. This counts any shot that misses or is blocked as well as ones that count as shots. That’s good because it’s basically not subjective and it’s process driven instead of outcome driven. A team that has the puck more and is playing better offensively will generate more shots, even if the majority of them miss or get blocked. Another stat that I like is “scoring chances.” This one is totally subjective. It counts any time a team looks like it legitimately might score, even if that moment doesn’t result in a shot. Virtually every time the puck hits the post, it would count as a scoring chance because if it had been an inch to the right or left, you’d have had a goal. Sometimes a scoring chance could happen without even an attempted shot. If a player is wide open in front of the net and whiffs on a pass to her and never makes contact with the puck, it’s still a glorious and missed scoring chance. The problem with scoring chances is that what you or I might think of as a legitimate chance, someone else who has more confidence in the goalie might consider a routine save and not count.

Statistics create a representational model of the sports they seek to quantify. Like drawing a stick figure, a statistic doesn’t need to be perfect, or even good, to be helpful. The shots on goal statistic isn’t a very good one, but when combined with others, it can give a general sense of how a game is going.

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!

 

Why do hockey sticks break?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’ve got a question here — why do hockey sticks break? It seems like they break all the time and whenever they do its bad for the player whose stick breaks and the team he’s on. Why don’t they just make stronger sticks?

Thanks,
Nathan


Dear Nathan,

Although hockey sticks don’t actually reproduce, you can think about their design as being under a type of evolutionary pressure. Professional hockey is an extremely competitive landscape, not just among teams, but among players looking to secure spots on one of the 30 NHL teams. Ineffective players will be dropped and replaced quickly. One thing that ensures that a player will be ineffective is a bad stick. Players who want to get and keep a job playing hockey have an interest in getting the best stick possible. Over time, what has generally been accepted as the best way to make a stick has changed.

The first hockey sticks were made of wood. This is traditionally the material we think of when we say the word, “stick” after all. Wood sticks remained standard throughout hockey until the 1970s when companies began experimenting with other materials like fiberglass and aluminum. Aluminum took over as the stick du jour throughout the 1980s. These sticks were made of two pieces, a shaft, and a blade that fit into the shaft. The benefit of the aluminum stick was that it almost never broke — one shaft might last the lifetime of several replaceable blades — and its production cost was much lower than the traditional wood process. The downside was that the sticks didn’t perform quite as well as wood ones. They produced less accurate and weaker passes and shots. The major reason for this is that aluminum is not as flexible as wood, at least not under the type of pressure that a hockey player can generate when shooting or passing. So, beginning in the 1990s, the favored material migrated once more from aluminum to a mixture of materials: graphite, carbon fibre, and titanium, among them. At first, these sticks followed the two-piece design of their aluminum predecessors, but soon their designers realized that they could use the extra malleability of the new materials to create a one-piece stick. The result was the one-piece composite material sticks that are most popular today.

These new hockey sticks have all of the benefit of wood’s flexibility and feel with significantly less weight. It’s also much easier to create batches of identical sticks when you’re creating them in a lab or factory than in a wood-shop out of natural material. Modern sticks are much easier to control. The only downside of these sticks is that they break. As you said, it’s pretty common to see sticks break in an NHL game. And when they do, it can be a big problem for the player and their team. Aside from goalies, it’s illegal for a player to play with a broken stick. This is pretty clearly a safety issue, even more so now with composite sticks than the original wood ones. So, when a player breaks his stick, he has to drop it immediately and his effectiveness on the ice is severely limited until he can get a new stick or get off the ice. I wrote a post a few weeks back about why you’ll sometimes see one player give her stick up to a teammate in this situation. A lot of people claim that the new sticks break more than the original wood sticks. The Wikipedia post on sticks denies this, claiming that wooden sticks actually had slightly shorter lifespans.

In any event, whatever the nature of the stick, the essence of your question is: why not design a stick that won’t break? The answer is that if you made it strong enough to never break, it wouldn’t make a very effective stick. A hockey player relies on her stick to bend, sometimes more than you would imagine it bending, especially when taking a slap shot. Unlike a wrist shot, whose strength is the quickness a player can release it with and its accuracy, a slap shot is a power tool. During the action of a slap shot, the stick bends against the ice and then springs off of it, more like a slingshot or a bow than a baseball bat. The ability to bend and therefore the risk of breaking is essential to a hockey stick’s utility. The best way to understand this is to watch it in slow motion:

Having a stick break in the middle of a game is a pain but it’s not as damaging as not being able to shoot it like that!

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

Aside from footballs, what else can be customized in sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

Okay, so… what with the whole Deflategate thing popping up again, I understand that in football each team is allowed to customize their balls within certain parameters, and the Patriots probably went too far. Honestly though, I was surprised that football teams could customize their balls at all. What else in sports is customizable?

Thanks,
Charlie


Dear Charlie,

I too was surprised when I first learned that NFL teams were allowed to customize the balls that they play offense with in each game. It seems unusual to give a team leeway over such an important piece of equipment. The ball is not customizable in any other sport that I’m aware of. Not in soccer, basketball, lacrosse, field hockey, volleyball, rugby, or even kickball. Perhaps it’s because in football, the ball is only used by one team at a time. Each team gets a turn playing offense with the ball while the other plays defense without it. When there’s a change of possession, there’s a whistle and the balls can be swapped in or out. Baseball is somewhat similar, although the ball is used somewhat equally by the defense (pitcher) and offense (batter.) It’s not surprising then that despite rules against any customization of the ball in baseball, it’s the one sport I know of where players (usually pitchers) are semi-frequently caught for trying to customize the ball to their liking. Pitchers won’t deflate the ball (it’s not inflated, so good luck deflating it) but they do try to scuff it up, spit on it, or rub sticky stuff onto it. That said, what you asked about were the elements of sports equipment that can be customized. Here’s a quick list off the top of my head of important elements of the five major sports that can be customized.

Soccer: Not much. But then again, there’s not much equipment in soccer at all, that’s one of its attractions. A player’s cleats can be custom-made although the materials used as well as the sharpness (they can’t be sharp) and the height (they can’t be stilts) are controlled.

Basketball: Again, not much here. A players shoes can be customized and if he’s famous enough, they will be to great profit for him or her and a shoe company. There was a fad a while back of players wearing full-length tights on their legs but the league put an end to that, not because it necessarily gave anyone an advantage, but because (I think) they thought it made their players look silly.

Football: Beyond the ball, there are a few things football players customize. Their helmets are remarkably unregulated — mostly because regulation by the NFL would theoretically further their liability for brain injuries incurred under their auspices. Face masks may be customized but cannot include tinted visors unless players ask for and are granted a medical waiver. The number of bars and their location is also regulated and some of the more crazy Hannibal Lector looking masks you’ve seen in past years are being outlawed. (Which is good, because their weight is likely contributing to concussions among the players who wear them.)

Baseball: Major League baseball players are allowed to customize their bats and gloves but within pretty tight regulations. Bats have a maximum diameter (2.61 in) and length (42 in) and must be made of a solid piece of wood. Players have been caught corking their bats (hollowing them out and replacing the center of the wood with cork to make them lighter and theoretically better) and punished before. Gloves have a complicated set of rules, but basically they have maximum dimensions (catchers and first basemen have separate limits from all other fielders) and have to have individual fingers, not a webbing.

Hockey: Now we’re talking. Virtually every piece of equipment in hockey, except for the puck and the goals, are customizable within limits. Goalies wear armor from head to toe that is carefully regulated but thoroughly customized. For other players, the most important thing is the stick. Players can and do customize the length of the stick and the curve of the stick’s blade. The maximum stick length, of 63 inches, can be extended by special waiver for players over 6’6″. The longest stick, is 65 inches long, and used by 6’9″ Zdeno Chara. The blades can be curved however a player wants them to be but at no point can the curve be deeper than 3/4 of an inch. This is a rule that’s broken with great regularity and almost never called even though at any point a coach or player can challenge another player’s stick and have the referees check to see if it is legal. If it’s not, a two-minute penalty is assessed and one team gets a power play. The most famous (or infamous) stick challenge came in the finals of the 1993 Stanley Cup. It’s interesting that, as opposed to the current kerflufle in football, no one really blamed the stick violator, Marty McSoreley, or his team, the Los Angeles Kings for cheating in this way. In fact, if either team was seen as guilty, it was the Montreal Canadiens for calling it out.

Generally, it seems as if the more equipment a sport has and the more its use is isolated to one player or one team, the more customization is permitted. Anything that can be customized is regulated but breaking these regulations is often seen as a normal part of the sport — perhaps worthy of punishment but not of scorn.

Thanks for asking about customization,
Ezra Fischer

What is a good foul?

Dear Sports Fan,

Here’s something I’ve been wondering about. Sometimes while watching a game on TV, usually basketball or hockey, I hear the announcer say something like “that was a good foul.” What does that mean? Is it a moral judgement? A stylistic one? What is a good foul?

Just wondering,
Ronnie


Dear Ronnie,

I love the idea of a foul being morally good. And while I’d love to invent scenarios where that is the case, the most common usage of the phrase “good foul” refers to a foul being good in a tactical sense. Tactically speaking, a foul is considered good if it benefits the team committing it by either increasing the likelihood of their scoring or more likely decreases the likelihood of the other team scoring.

Here are some examples of common good fouls from different sports:

  • In basketball, any foul that prevents a player who is close to the basket from making a dunk or a layup is thought to be a good foul because the team that has committed the foul trades a close to 100% chance of giving up two points for giving up two free throws. With the league average free throw percentage right around 75%, this clearly a good trade. One danger of trying to commit this type of good foul is that if the foul doesn’t actually keep the player from making that easy dunk or layup, they could be given the two points plus a single extra free throw. This is called an “and one” and a foul that results in this is always a bad foul.
  • In soccer, there are two similar but slightly different types of good fouls. There is a subtle, non-dramatic foul that stops a team which looks like it is about to generate a scoring chance in its tracks. There is also an obvious foul once a team has a clear and extremely threatening scoring chance. The first type is generally not penalized with a card, or if it is, it’s a yellow card, but the latter almost always is. Even if the player committing the second type of good foul gets a red card, and their team is forced to play a player down for the rest of the game, the foul is still generally thought of as good if it prevented a goal. That’s how important goals are in the low-scoring sport of soccer. These intentional good fouls are sometimes called “professional fouls” in soccer.
  • Good fouls in hockey are similar to soccer, with one additional category. In hockey, a violent foul that doesn’t affect a scoring chance may sometimes be called a good foul for reasons of morale. Hockey teams are often thought to run on emotion, maybe even a little bit more than other sports, and a player can stir up their team by roughing it up or even fighting with a player from another team. This type of emotional effort is retroactively judged to be good if it works, but if the player’s team doesn’t react or if the opposition scores on the resulting power play, it may be thought of as a bad foul.

The concept of a good foul in sports is an interesting one because it reveals that the rules in sports are not actually rules. They’re more like guidelines. The existence of set penalties in every sport — free kicks and yellow or red cards in soccer, foul shots in basketball, power plays in hockey — proves that these rules are expected to be broken. Rules in sports generally aren’t drawn on moral or ethical lines. No one gets mad at a player who takes a good foul in basketball and gives the other team two free throws. When you see athletes get mad, it’s usually because they feel that some unwritten rule has been broken — that a player has taken a good foul but done it in an unnecessarily violent way. As a character from one of my favorite P.G. Wodehouse books, Monty Bodkin in Heavy Weather says frequently, “There are wheels within wheels.”

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

The 'this game is important' playoff series trick

It’s playoff time in the NBA and NHL, so if you walk into a sports bar or, you know, your living room, you’re likely to bump right into a great basketball or hockey game. The basketball and hockey playoffs follow virtually the same format. Each has four rounds and each round is a seven game series where two games play each other for up to seven games. The first team to win four games wins the series. Once a team has won four games, the series is over (they don’t play seven games no matter what) and one team advances to the next round of the playoffs and the other team is eliminated. The games in a series are referred to by number: Game One, Game Two, etc. When you watch a playoff game on TV, you’ll almost invariably hear the announcers talk about a statistic that goes something like this:

Teams that win Game X win the series Y percent of the time.

This statistic bugs me because it’s misleading and a transparent ploy on the part of the television networks to retain viewers. Here’s why it’s misleading.

When we hear a percentage, we’re used to evaluating it as if either 0% or 50% is the baseline. If I hear that “people who eat apples at 2:03 p.m. get hit by cars within the next two hours 54% of the time” I’m going to assume the baseline is close to 0% and go out of my way to avoid apples at that time. If I hear that “teams that wear green win 49% of the time,” that sounds to me like the baseline is 50% and green is a slight disadvantage. The difference with this statistic is that the baseline is not 50%. Not even close! One win in a seven game series is a big deal! Teams only need to win four games to win the whole series. A victory in any game is a 25% contribution to the final goal. I don’t know exactly what the math is here (math friends, help!) but I’m going to say, since they’re 1/4 of the way to winning, let’s add 12.5% (1/4 of 50) to 50% and use that as the baseline. Just by winning a game (no matter what number game it is) a team has materially contributed to its own task of winning the series. Fine, you say, “but the statistics you hear are even higher than 62.5%.” Just wait, there’s more.

The next tricky trick trick in this misleading statistic is a problem with how the data is selected. In my last post about misleading statistics, the one on runs in basketball, I described a trick about including too little data in a statistic. Here we have the opposite problem. Instead of excluding data, the clever (and dramatic) people who create these statistics include too much data. Almost every year, there are at least a few seven game series in the NHL and NBA playoffs that are mismatches. The playoffs are actually designed to create this. The way they work is that the best team in the regular season (the #1 seed) plays the worst qualifying playoff team (the #8 seed) in the first round. #2 plays #7, #3 plays #6, and #4 plays #5. Now, these are professional sports, so usually the difference between a #1 and an #8 is not as great as you might see in March Madness. Still, some #1 teams are just way, way better than the #8 team they face. Maybe the #8 wins one game but loses the series 4-1. Not infrequently, a superior team will actually win four straight games, which is called a sweep.

Sweeps are legitimate playoff series, but they’re not usually all that suspenseful. In a matchup between a clearly superior team and a clearly inferior team, use of one of these statistics would be silly because the number of the game is immaterial next to the fact that one team is better. In the NBA, the Cleveland Cavaliers just swept the Boston Celtics. The Cavaliers have the best basketball player in the world, LeBron James, and their second and third best players are almost unanimously thought of as better than anyone the Celtics have on their team right now. The Cavaliers are better. The big problem with this, is that the data gets lumped in with all the rest of the data. When you add their data in, it’s going to inflate the correlation between winning Games One through Four with winning the series.

What the statistic is really trying to convince us of is that the specific number of the game is important — that this game is more important than the one before it or after it in the series. To do that, it uses too much data (including series between teams of very different skills) and also our own assumption about what the baseline of a percentage statistic should be. It’s possible that some number games do have more impact on the result of a series between two evenly matched teams than others and I’d be very interested in seeing a true analysis of that. Until then, ignore what any commentator tells you about the importance of a game. Unless, of course, that game is Game Seven, in which case, even I can tell you that the team that wins Game Seven wins the series 100% of the time.

Sport as an element of recovery

We all live with the nagging fear and sure knowledge that at some point, someone we love will be taken from us. If all goes well and the ideal, natural order of things comes to pass, this means we will lose our grandparents before our parents, and our parents before our children lose us. For many, that order is interrupted violently by disease, misfortune, or violence. Tradition and cultural institutions are a way to cope with loss and serve as both assistants and markers on the road to recovery. Today we have two stories of people who have turned to sport as a form of recovery. Our third story, just as a lighthearted bonus, is something completely different.

Shedding the Blockers

by Robert Mays for Grantland

The athlete who overcomes personal tragedy to accomplish great things in his or her sport is by now virtually a cliche. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good story though. People’s lives, situations, and characters are infinitely varied and interesting to learn about. Almost invariably, to learn about someone’s history is to develop a fondness for them. When the NFL draft comes around, I will be rooting for Danny Shelton to land in a good spot. He deserves it.

From the start, it was obvious to [coach Jeff] Choate what he had in the middle of Washington’s defense. In the Huskies’ season opener, a late-August game in Hawaii, [Danny] Shelton played 78 snaps. Even at 339 pounds — a number Choate calls “conservative” — Shelton was on the field for all three downs. He would finish the season with nine sacks, but his presence also created opportunities all over the Washington defense. Like Vince Wilfork — a player to whom Shelton has been compared often in the lead-up to the draft — single-teaming him with a center allows him to control both inside gaps, freeing up linebackers to worry about plays further outside. After the first series in Washington’s 27-26 loss at Arizona, Choate noticed the Wildcats were content to not double-team Shelton at all. Shelton finished the game with nine total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and a sack.

Away from football at Washington, he tried to be more of a Polynesian and a mentor with a 3.7 GPA than an athlete. This fall, he led a First-Year Interest Group on campus, helping mentor incoming students about the difficulties of the transition to college. He’s the first athlete Barker can remember asking to be involved with the program. Early on, when students would ask if he played football, he would lie. “I’d tell them I played tennis,” Shelton says. A few said he should give football a try. He told them he’d think about it.

Still in the Game

by Rick Maese for the Washington Post

While players, coaches, and owners get the spotlight, every professional team has dozens of stage-manager or techie type running around, doing incredible work to support them. These people, like Monica Barlow, who before her death was in charge of media and public relations for the Baltimore Orioles, are every bit as passionate about their teams as the people who wear the uniforms. Once in a very long while, we get a window into what it’s like to live for a team beyond simply being a fan. The view is as fascinating as the story of Monica’s death is heartbreaking.

Sports helps explain relationships. It connects generations, spouses, friends, parents and children. It becomes an expression of love and later a channel for grief. People etch team logos on headstones and sprinkle ashes on sports fields. For someone grieving a loss, a trip to the ballpark might offer a respite, a chance to escape their pain. For others, it’s a time to embrace their loss and feel closer to a loved one. For Barlow, it was everything. Baseball had dictated his routine for so long. Monica was gone, but the game would continue.

Predators’ Pekka Rinne Gets Puck Stuck In Pads For The Longest Time

by Darren Hartwell for NESN

After those two tear-jerkers, it’s good to cry with laughter for a change. A three minute delay in a hockey game because no one can find the puck… despite knowing that it went into the goalie and never came out? That’s a tear-jerker of a different sort!

Pekka Rinne doesn’t just save pucks. He makes them disappear. The Nashville Predators goaltender was his usual stellar self in Game 4 of his team’s Stanley Cup playoff series against the Chicago Blackhawks. With under six minutes remaining in the first overtime period, however, Rinne took his talents a bit too far.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yaqn-wHLg2M

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

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

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

by Sam Borden for the New York Times

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

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

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

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

by Kate Cimini for The Hockey Writers

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

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

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

Five gay college basketball coaches speak from the closet

by Cyd Zeigler for Out Sports

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

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

Plus, his head coach knew Thomas was gay.

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

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