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In case you needed another reminder that this coronavirus thing is dangerous

Here you go.

The Orlando Pride have withdrawn from the upcoming NWSL Challenge Cup after six players and four staffers tested positive for the coronavirus, a significant setback for a league attempting to become the first in American professional team sports to resume competition.

Orlando announced the decision Monday, six days before it was scheduled to play the Chicago Red Stars on the opening day of the tournament held in the Salt Lake City area. It said in a statement that all players and staff who tested positive remained asymptomatic.

“This was obviously a difficult and disappointing outcome for our players, our staff and fans, however this is a decision that was made in order to protect the health of all involved in the Challenge Cup,” said Orlando Pride executive vice president Amanda Duffy, who resigned as NWSL president in January. “While we were all excited to see the 2020 Pride on the field this weekend, our priority is now making sure our players and staff safely recover and providing any support wherever and however possible.”

[…]

NWSL teams were still in preseason in March when the coronavirus pandemic effectively shut down sports in the United States. After repeatedly postponing the start of its scheduled season, the league announced in late May that it would resume play with a tournament in Utah involving all nine teams.

Speaking at the time the tournament was announced in May, Dr. Daryl Osbahr, team doctor for the Orlando Pride and a member of the NWSL’s medical task force, said it was inevitable that there would be positive tests but that the league put protocols in place that it hoped would allow for “not shutting down the tournament or necessarily a team by one positive result.”

Those protocols, which called for contact tracing and quarantining what were deemed high-risk contacts, apparently made it unfeasible for the Pride to travel to Utah and begin play.

See here for the background. The rest of the NWSL is still on track to play, but this is a stark reminder that no matter what all of the leagues that are currently in some state of returning to play plan to do, it’s ultimately not in their control. Any or all of them may wind up shutting down again because the risk to player and other employees’ safety is just too great. Until there’s a vaccine, or at least a reliable cure, this is the reality we are in. Our plans are all written on sand.

Fauci and football

I hate to rain on your tailgate, but…

The NFL is planning to begin its season on time, but Dr. Anthony Fauci pulled the reins on that optimistic view Wednesday.

“Unless players are essentially in a bubble – insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day – it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall,” the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases said on CNN. “If there is a second wave, which is certainly a possibility and which would be complicated by the predictable flu season, football may not happen this year.”

The NBA and MLS are planning to resume their seasons in July with players in a bubble. So far, the NFL hasn’t publicly discussed that option. A bubble also seems particularly untenable for college football teams on school campuses.

“Dr. Fauci has identified the important health and safety issues we and the NFL Players Association, together with our joint medical advisors, are addressing to mitigate the health risk to players, coaches, and other essential personnel,” the NFL’s chief medical offers Dr. Allen Sills told ESPN on Thursday. “We are developing a comprehensive and rapid-result testing program and rigorous protocols that call for a shared responsibility from everyone inside our football ecosystem. This is based on the collective guidance of public health officials, including the White House task force, the CDC, infectious disease experts, and other sports leagues.

“Make no mistake, this is no easy task. We will make adjustments as necessary to meet the public health environment as we prepare to play the 2020 season as scheduled with increased protocols and safety measures for all players, personnel, and attendees. We will be flexible and adaptable in this environment to adjust to the virus as needed.”

The NFL has maintained that training camps will start in late July and its regular season will begin as scheduled with the Texans playing at Kansas City on Sept. 10.

Don’t anyone tell Greg Abbott or Ross Bjork about this. That story appeared a day before we got stories about MLB and NHL teams closing their training facilities following positive COVID-19 tests. We’ve already seen other stories about NFL and NCAA teams doing the same. It’s more than fair to ask if teams can even keep their own people safe, let alone their customers. I’m as ready as anyone to see my favorite sports leagues and teams again. I just want it to be done safely, and right now the evidence that can be done at this time is not abundant.

A few bumps in the road for the NBA

How’s that season restarting going?

A month ago, superstar players got on a Zoom call and reportedly created a united front to support a safe return to play. A lot has changed since. Last week, the 28 NBPA player representatives all voted in favor of the league’s proposal (which was approved by the board of governors the day before). But a closer look at the NBPA statement shows that the vote was strictly an approval of “further negotiations” with a caveat that “various details” were still to be negotiated.

Now that we’ve arrived at those various details, different parties have started to speak up with dissenting opinions. Last week, commissioner Adam Silver was fielding concerns about whether older coaches would be allowed to sit on the bench. On Wednesday, ESPN reported that a faction of players is hesitant to restart the season because of a policy that wouldn’t allow visitors until the first round of the playoffs, as well as a lack of motivation for teams unlikely to compete for the championship. Yahoo Sports reported Friday that a “significant” number of players were upset about not having a vote in approving the proposal and that some were reluctant to express their opinion to star players who want to play. Kyrie Irving, who is a vice president of the players union, was reported to be pushing for players to reconsider the planned restart.

[…]

One of the main concerns is that some players believe a return to play would detract from the current protest movement prompted by the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Some players have already participated in the nationwide protests, and many have spoken out against police brutality on social media, including LeBron James, who yesterday announced plans to form a voting rights group with other athletes and celebrities. Malcolm Brogdon said on The JJ Redick Podcast that there are players who are interested in sitting out the rest of the season as part of a protest. Garrett Temple, meanwhile, told The Ringer that he believed going to Orlando was the right move and that being there a month before tipoff would give players the opportunity to come up with a plan to send a message.

“When you take a stance on things, you do that to bring attention,” said Temple, who is also an NBPA VP and represented the Nets in the player vote. “Then, after that, you have to actually do something to cause change … so whatever we do, it needs to be something that can cause tangible change in our community, in our game, in our country.”

That initial agreement was reached almost two weeks ago. Players were also surprised to find that the Disney/ESPN quarantine “bubble” doesn’t include Disney/ESPN employees, who will come and go from the site as before. Sure looks like a bit of a risk factor there. Even Commissioner Adam Silver is saying there are still issues to work out, and maybe this won’t be for every player. It still seems likely that the NBA will restart, but (no pun intended) it’s not a slam dunk. Things change fast, and time is limited. Until the teams actually start practicing and games get put on the schedule, it’s not a done deal.

Since I mentioned MLB in that earlier update, which at the time looked to be providing a “don’t be like this” contrast to the NBA, here’s one more Fangraphs article to read about how much the players were willing to negotiate versus how much the owners were willing to negotiate. That forthcoming grievance is gonna be something else.

What kind of college football season will there be?

News item: Governor says to expect half-full stadiums for college football.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told athletic directors from the state’s largest schools to expect 50 percent capacity at football games this fall, USA Today reported, but Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork is remaining optimistic.

With more than 80 days to Texas A&M’s first scheduled game against Abilene Christian at Kyle Field, Bjork said this is no time for absolutes when determining college attendance in the late summer and fall, based on the global pandemic.

“As of today, we still have time on our side,” Bjork said Saturday. “And we will not make decisions based on incomplete information.”

USA Today reported that Abbott met with the dozen athletic directors from the state’s Football Bowl Subdivision programs via teleconference Friday, and “told them not to expect capacity at their stadiums to be above 50 percent this fall.”

“The governor was very gracious with his time and provided us with insights into the current situation,” Bjork responded Saturday. “It’s disappointing that information from the meeting leaked since the discussion was meant to be confidential, and I will not disclose the details of the conversation and violate Gov. Abbott’s trust.”

Bjork, hired by A&M a year ago from the same position at Mississippi, added: “As we’ve learned throughout this unprecedented situation, everything remains fluid, and there are a number of scenarios for attending upcoming pro and college sporting events.”

Bjork has expressed confidence this month that Kyle Field might be near its capacity of more than 100,000 as the fall schedule presses on. The Aggies are scheduled to host ACU on Sept. 5 in coach Jimbo Fisher’s third season.

Emphasis mine, and the Chron has a separate story expanding on Bjork’s rather optimistic hypothesis. Abbott had previously stated that he expected college football to be played, though he didn’t specify at what capacity the stadia might be. I will remind you that at this point, all of the professional sports leagues, from the ones that are now playing to those that are still planning their comebacks, are playing in empty arenas. It’s impossible for me to square that with the likes of Kyle Field at full capacity. They can’t both be right.

And on that note, we have this:

The University of Houston abruptly halted voluntary workouts Friday after six student-athletes tested positive for COVID-19.

In a release, UH said it was suspending workouts – which began June 1 with football and men’s and women’s basketball – “out of an abundance of caution.” The school said the six symptomatic student-athletes had been placed in isolation and contract tracing procedures have been initiated.

The announcement comes nearly two weeks since voluntary workouts began and as the Houston area has seen a recent surge in positive tests for COVID-19.

UH becomes the first school to suspend athletic activities since the NCAA cleared the return of student-athletes back to campus following a nearly three-month shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

UH only tested student-athletes that showed symptoms or came from areas that had a high number of positive cases, a person with knowledge of the protocol told the Houston Chronicle earlier this week. Athletic officials have declined comment.

In other words, there are others they didn’t test that might possibly be positive as well. The story lists fourteen other schools that have reported athletes with positive COVID-19 tests, including three in the SEC. It is very likely that all of these athletes will recover fully – I certainly hope they all do – and now that they have been tested they can be quarantined so as not to pass the virus on to anyone else. UH is the only school in this story that actually stopped its voluntary workouts as a result of this, which is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. My point here is that whatever the likes of Greg Abbott and Ross Bjork may say or do, they ultimately have very little control over this virus. And as I keep saying, they don’t seem to have much of a plan for it, either.

UPDATE: Welp.

Several Texans and Cowboys players have tested positive for COVID-19, including Dallas star running back Ezekiel Elliott, according to the NFL Network.

The players who tested positive reportedly weren’t in attendance at their team facilities, which have remained closed due to NFL restrictions limiting their use only to rehabilitating injured players during this global pandemic. Both teams have followed medical protocols.

[…]

NFL teams, including the Texans, have taken steps to ensure the safety of players, coaches and staff. The Texans created a new position, hiring a facility hygiene coordinator earlier this offseason. The Texans are believed to be the first professional sports team to add this type of specialized position.

The intention is to minimize the risk factor of getting or spreading COVID-19 and supervise the custodial staff, which is provided by Aramark.

I know, that’s NFL, not NCAA. My point is, it’s not just a question of whether or not it’s safe to have fans in the stands. There’s still the little matter of whether it’s actually safe to have the players practice and play together.

UT athletes take a stand

Good for them.

Several athletes at the University of Texas at Austin are refusing to participate in recruiting incoming players or show up at donor-related events if university and athletics officials fail to respond to a list of demands geared toward supporting black students, according to a statement posted Friday afternoon by dozens of the student athletes on Twitter.

Brennan Eagles, the school’s sophomore wide receiver, and Brandon Jones, a senior defensive back, were among the students who posted the statement, detailing a list of actions Longhorn athletes want the university’s athletics department to take. These include donating 0.5% of the department’s annual earnings to the Black Lives Matter movement and black organizations, establishing a permanent black athletic history exhibit in the Athletics Hall of Fame and renaming parts of the football stadium after Julius Whittier, the first black football letterman at UT-Austin.

In addition to demands specific to the athletics department, athletes also want UT officials to rename campus buildings named after Texans who were proponents of segregation or held other racist views, remove a statue of prominent segregationist James Hogg and discontinue the school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” which has ties to minstrel shows and was created during segregation. Other calls to action include requiring a module on the history of racism at UT and increasing outreach efforts to inner-city schools in Austin, Dallas and Houston.

“We, as student athletes, and collectively as the University of Texas Longhorn football team, are aware that we are an athletic department made up of many black athletes, and believe that it is time we become active on our campus,” the statement reads.

Athletes will continue to practice and participate in workouts and team activities this summer but are asking for a “plan for implementation” before the fall semester begins.

[…]

After a widely circulated petition and statements from more than 100 student organizations, the larger UT student body sent a letter detailing student demands to interim President Jay Hartzell earlier this week. Their requests mirror those of the athletes — students want UT to “acknowledge its racist history” by renaming seven campus buildings and structures, removing the Hogg statue and discontinuing the school song.

Additionally, they are asking UT to cut ties with the Austin Police Department and campus police and adopt inclusive practices in recruiting and selecting UT faculty. UT leadership said it would respond to those demands in the coming weeks.

“We are aware of three petitions created by students and look forward to working with them and the UT community to create the best possible experience on our campus for Black students,” UT spokesperson J.B. Bird said in an email.

Like I said, good for them. My guess is UT will concede on a few things but not everything. I have a really hard time imagining that “The Eyes of Texas” will stop being the school song, but you never know. I hope some other school’s athletes are looking at this and getting their own ideas. The Chron has more.

Here comes high school football

Surely you didn’t think that Texas’ favorite sport would stay on the sidelines for long?

More focus will be on instruction, caution and care than nailing the perfect squat rep when University Interscholastic League athletic programs return to in-person strength and conditioning training Monday.

Teams won’t be crawling, walking and then running through coronavirus-altered training this summer. North Shore football coach Jon Kay said “we’re really going to be sitting first, then crawling and then walking and then jogging.”

They have no choice, considering the thorough safety precautions.

The UIL’s outlined requirements for in-person weight training and sport-specific skill instruction include a maximum of 25 percent capacity at indoor workout facilities. It means approximately 36 people — including coaches and athletes — will be allowed in Dickinson’s weight room. Masks and face coverings aren’t required by the UIL but will be by Dickinson ISD inside buildings.

Social-distancing measures of at least 6 feet are required, and workout stations will be at least 10 feet apart. That has required some interior redecoration in places like Cleveland, where football coach Jason Fiacco said he and his staff have spaced out stations inside the current weight room and marked spots where players should stand during workouts.

“It’s going to be unlike any other lifting program anybody has really every devised,” Fiacco said.

The UIL is allowing one staff member per 20 athletes during workouts. Hand-sanitizing and washing stations are required, and every weight and bar will be disinfected before each use.

[…]

Coaches must be strict “because we’ve got to get this right,” Dickinson football coach John Snelson said. Coaches believe football in the fall hangs in the balance, as does, more importantly, the health of the athletes.

Kay mentions the University of Alabama, where reports say at least five football players tested positive for COVID-19 after a player-led workout session last week.

Teams must adapt on the fly because, as Snelson said, “there is no playbook.” What happens if an athlete gets sick or someone a coach has been around is sick? What happens if a coach misses a session? What happens if participation numbers are larger than expected? All UIL teams regardless of sport can open training Monday, but football is usually a behemoth of a production. Snelson expects approximately 250 football players in Monday morning sessions for ninth through 12th grade alone.

The UIL requires participation to be optional. Snelson expects some parents will be eager for their son or daughter to be somewhere other than home. Some parents will be conservative, which is understandable.

I mean, we’re all just taking it on faith that this will be fine. If we had better testing and contact tracing, I’d feel more confidence. Under these circumstances, it’s hard to imagine there won’t be a spike in COVID cases as a result. I just hope – that word I have to keep using since we don’t have a plan – it isn’t as bad as I fear it could be.

Coronavirus and Professional Bull Riding

Here’s how Professional Bull Riding managed to keep doing what it does during the pandemic.

The PBR went on hiatus March 15 at the conclusion of an Unleash The Beast event in Duluth, Ga., that was closed to the public. A COVID-19 protocol was then developed and implemented during three weekends of made-for-TV events at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Okla., that began April 25. CEO Sean Gleason said his team worked tirelessly on that plan, which has since been shared with over a dozen other sports leagues.

“The PBR team rose to the occasion, took a lot of common sense, thought through a lot of issues and have been able to get back to work and keep our riders earning some money,” Gleason said.

“The whole industry is dependent on PBR events, so to not have them would have been devastating to a lot of people.”

COVID-19 testing, RVs and the concept of “functional groups” have been the keys to the PBR’s stringent protocol.

RVs essentially became quarantine pods; each person stayed in one on the grounds of the Lazy E. Everyone was also tested for coronavirus and had to isolate in an RV for 24 hours while awaiting results. The PBR reported all tests were negative during the three events in Oklahoma.

Separation was created by functional groups. Each person was assigned to a group of less than 10 people, usually six or seven, and interaction was permitted only for members of the same group. Each group wore different colored wristbands and ate at separate locations.

Individuals were screened before entering the arena. Every person on site had to practice social distancing and wear masks.

Gleason said it was a challenge to sync up all the moving parts and to meet constantly evolving guidelines at all levels of government. The riders helped make it easier, though. All bought in to make it work.

“Every guy was more than willing to go through those protocols, just to have the opportunity to do what we love to do,” said Cody Teel, PBR rider and College Station resident.

It’s a good story, and kudos to PBR for figuring out something that worked. I don’t know how well this model can translate to other sports leagues, but I’m sure there’s something in their experience for others to learn from.

MLS agrees on its restart, WNBA still considering options

More sports coming.

The MLS Players Association voted Wednesday to approve a revised collective bargaining agreement with the league. The new deal will run through 2025 and clears the way for Major League Soccer to resume its 2020 season via a single-site format in Orlando, Fla.

“I can’t give any further specifics on that Orlando concept,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a video conference with media. “That was a very, very big part of our discussions with our players. …We were fortunate to be able to finalize an agreement, as the union announced early this morning.”

Garber said details regarding the competition in Orlando, including format and dates, will be released later, but it is expected to be a tournament lasting no longer than 35 days. It will be conducted at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex, which is where the NBA is planning to finish its season.

The commissioner also reiterated his commitment to finishing the season, even if that means pushing the MLS playoffs into 2021.

See here for the background. As noted, the NWSL is already set to return, on June 27. The NBA will be using the same ESPN facility, and I have yet to see how the logistics of that will be handled. I’m sure someone has a plan for it.

Meanwhile, the WNBA is still figuring things out.

The WNBA is considering playing its season at an MGM Resorts International property if it has a season this year, according to a report from The Associated Press.

The other location under consideration is IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

The league announced the suspension of its season in April amid the coronavirus pandemic and has not decided on a start date. Operational details of a possible start are not clear, but the league would use a single site — much like the NBA.

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told the AP on Tuesday that the league has discussed a variety of options but did not confirm whether Las Vegas or IMG Academy were possible locations.

“We’re looking at the pros and cons of a number of different locations,” Engelbert told the AP.

The WNBA hadn’t actually started its season yet – like MLB, it was still in its preseason when it suspended activities. If the WNBA chooses to play its games in Las Vegas, they may have some company in the form of the National Hockey League, which is considering Vegas among a list of other cities to play its games; like the NBA, the NHL season was suspended just before playoffs were to begin. Again, I’m sure someone will figure out how to handle multiple leagues and all their people sharing the same facility. I’m just trying to stay on top of the news here.

NBA sets a plan, MLB still working it out

Happening today.

The NBA is finalizing details of a plan which is expected to be approved by the league’s Board of Governors on Thursday, paving the way for a return from the coronavirus shutdown.

The board is poised to give the green light to commissioner Adam Silver’s return of basketball which would begin July 31 with a 22-team format, and end in mid-October with a champion being crowned, ESPN reported.

The plan requires support from three quarters of the league’s 30 teams in order to be approved.

The NBA suspended its season on March 11 because of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Nets and Orlando Magic currently hold the playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

The Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies occupy the postseason positions in the Western Conference.

Under the plan, each of the 22 teams will play eight regular-season games for seeding purposes for the postseason.

The 16 teams currently in the playoff picture will be joined by the New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference.

In the East, the Washington Wizards are also included.

[…]

All games are expected to be within the confines of Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando Florida, with all teams remaining on site to minimise risk of COVID-19 outbreaks.

See here for the background. ESPN adds a bit more:

Life in the NBA bubble will be governed by a set of safety protocols. While players and coaches will be allowed to golf or eat at outdoor restaurants, they will also need to maintain social distancing, sources told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne.

The NBA is planning to have uniform, daily testing for the coronavirus within the Disney campus environment, sources told ESPN. ESPN is owned by The Walt Disney Company.

If a player tests positive for the virus, the league’s intent would be to remove that player from the team to quarantine and treat individually — and continue to test other team members as they play on, sources said.

Employees at the Disney resort will have to maintain similar protocols. For example, no staff will be allowed into players’ rooms, and hallways will be carefully managed to avoid crowding, sources told Shelburne.

Weird, but the NBA had played the bulk of its season anyway, and the playoffs are always a different thing entirely. I just hope those employees at the Disney resort had someone thinking about their welfare as this deal was being hammered out. The Chron has more.

And then there’s MLB:

Major League Baseball has rejected the players’ offer for a 114-game regular season with no additional salary cuts and told the union it did not plan to make a counterproposal, sources confirmed to ESPN.

Players made their proposal Sunday, up from an 82-game regular season in management’s offer last week. Opening Day would be June 30, and the regular season would end Oct. 31, nearly five weeks after the Sept. 27 conclusion that MLB’s proposal stuck to from the season’s original schedule.

MLB told the union it had no interest in extending the season into November, when it fears a second wave of the coronavirus could disrupt the postseason and jeopardize $787 million in broadcast revenue.

While management has suggested it could play a short regular season of about 50 games with no more salary reductions, it has not formally proposed that concept. Earlier this week, multiple players told ESPN that they would not abide a shorter schedule, with one saying, “We want to play more games, and they want to play less. We want more baseball.”

See here for the previous update. If this sounds dire to you, let me refer you again to Eugene Freedman, who’s been around this block a few times.

Basically, it looks like the sides have agreed to the March deal, and now need to work out the safety and testing details, plus what to do if a player wants to opt out. Maybe the NBA getting set to start at the end of July will inspire them to agree on some version of their July 4 Opening Day season. Fingers crossed. The Chron has more.

NWSL will be the first American sports league to return to play

We’ll see how it goes.

The National Women’s Soccer League will become the first U.S. team sport to resume play June 27 with a month-long tournament in suburban Salt Lake City, and the rebuilding Houston Dash hope the unique format will give them a chance to succeed against more established rosters.

Wednesday’s announcement of the NWSL Challenge Cup gives teams four weeks to reconvene and resume training after the COVID-19 shutdown. Each of the nine teams will play four games, leading to quarterfinals, semifinals and a July 26 championship game at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah.

“It’s very exciting to be the first and really important that we showcase the league and the players to the highest levels,” Dash coach James Clarkson said. “The safety of everyone is the most important thing.”

While the league will be among the first pro team sports to resume play since the coronavirus pandemic stopped games in mid-March, it could be without some high-profile players from the U.S. Soccer’s women’s national team.

At least seven players on the 23-member national team roster have said they will not participate, the Washington Post reported. Others were said to be awaiting word on testing and safety issues before committing to the tournament.

[…]

Games in Utah will be played without fans present and will be streamed on the CBS All Access subscription service. The tournament opener June 27 at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah, and the July 26 championship game will air on CBS Sports.

The host Utah Royals FC will provide housing, training and game site needs for all nine teams and will create what it described as an “NWSL Village” in an effort to assure players’ health and safety.

With only nine teams, the logistics for the NWSL are a little easier than for other leagues, just because there will be fewer people involved. This is a great opportunity for the NWSL, as they will have the sports landscape to themselves for a brief period, but it’s also obviously a risk, as they could easily be the first league to then have to deal with a new coronavirus outbreak among their active players. Like it or not, by virtue of being first up, they get to be a test case for everyone else. I wish them luck. ESPN and Deadline have more.

Abbott expects there to be college football this fall

Pretty optimistic, if you ask me.

Gov. Greg Abbott said he believes college football will begin on schedule in Texas with some fans in the stands, he told KXAN during an interview Friday.

“My prediction is yes we’re going to have college football beginning as scheduled, on schedule, with at least some level of fans in the stands,” the governor said.

Abbott said what is unclear at the moment is what the capacity level would be.

“Would it be strategic and limited to ensure that we have safe distancing practices, there are factors we simply do not know at this time,” Abbott explained about the potential health risks of reopening UT football in the fall.

Abbott stated that the University of Texas at Austin’s athletic director needs a decision by early August. He said the state thinks it should be able to make a decision by then.

This isn’t out of the blue. In April, the chancellors of Texas A&M and Texas Tech said they expect there will be football when they reopen in the fall, though that story didn’t address the question of fans. ESPN quoted Abbott referring to the reopening plans of MLB and the NBA, though those sports and others like MLS are all talking about fan-free games, possibly at a single location. It’s one thing to imagine the games happening, especially if the campuses are open anyway. It’s another to imagine sixty thousand people or more packed into a stadium screaming their lungs out, especially if the pro sports leagues are still playing before nothing but empty seats. Texas A&M at least is thinking about what this might mean.

“We have not gone down the path of examining every section,” A&M athletic director Ross Bjork said of exactly how many fans Kyle Field will hold with mandated social distancing in place. “There are a lot of scenarios being discussed.”

Like that proverbial glass, Bjork prefers to envision a stadium as half full, not half empty, should restrictions be in place this season.

“We want a full experience, and we’re staying positive — that’s the approach we’re taking right now,” Bjork said. “We know we can pivot quickly if we have to, but we have not mapped that out.”

[…]

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has gradually reopened the state in the past month, but he has held off on potentially crowded events such as county fairs. With that in mind, what exactly would Kyle Field look like at, say, 25 percent capacity?

Roughly 25,000 fans would be spread throughout the stadium, and which fans would be allowed in would be determined in a potentially convoluted process.

“You’ve got 102,733 seats,” Bjork said. “Last year we sold about 85,000 season tickets, including right around 35,000 student tickets. That leaves you about 18,000 empty seats. The great thing about Kyle Field is we have a lot of space. So you would start with your infrastructure and analyze it from there, but we would not (ideally) want to decrease our season ticket base. …

“We have a huge footprint, and we just haven’t had to go down that (downsizing) path yet.”

Should social distancing be required at Kyle Field this fall, not only would fans be spaced at least 6 feet apart throughout the stadium, but multiple measures would be in place to try to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

That might mean everyone but the players and those on the sideline would be required to wear masks (further muffling touchdown celebrations and the Aggies’ tradition of kissing after a score); an abundance of hand sanitizers spread throughout the stadium; and scheduled times for different sections to enter the stadium so there is no squeeze at the gates, where body temperatures might also be checked.

Bjork added that it might be helpful for fans to bring their own beverage containers to limit the number of hands on a cup, making last year’s new policy of selling alcohol throughout the stadium a bit trickier. A&M and its concessions cohort made more than $1 million off alcohol sales at Kyle Field in 2019, according to the university.

“One of the things that we’ve had to do with the alcohol policy is have (employees) pour the bottle or can of beer into a cup (for fans); that’s an SEC policy,” Bjork said. “Does that need to change so you limit as many contacts as possible? Those approaches are being studied right now.”

So are the possibilities of limiting the university-sanctioned tailgating scene around Kyle Field, and the myriad activities in the Aggie Fan Zone on the plaza north of the stadium that create a festival-like atmosphere in the hours before kickoff.

“There’s nothing you can really put in writing right now or have a ‘backup’ plan yet, because there’s too much uncertainty, and it’s way too early,” Bjork said of the Aggies’ plans for Kyle Field starting with the Sept. 5 opener against Abilene Christian.

Which fans would get to attend would also present a knotty question for them. I do expect there to be a lot of pressure for playing college football, for various financial and social reasons. How that manifests remains an open question, and that’s before we take into account the possibility of a resurgence, in which case all of this will seem extremely stupid.

This is an issue that has more than the usual amount of resonance for me. As you know if you’ve been reading this site for awhile or know me in Real Life, I’ve been a member of the Rice Marching Owl Band (MOB) for many years. I don’t know at this point what Rice plans to go regarding its sports teams, nor do I know at this point what the MOB plans to do. (They’ve been busy with the usual end-of-semester activities, saying goodbye to graduating seniors and installing the new drum major and drum minor, that sort of thing.) I really don’t know what I plan to do just yet if everyone is going ahead like normal. On the one hand, we’ll be outside and there will be a reasonable amount of space for us all in the stands. On the other hand, there’s only so much social distancing a band can do and still sound like a band, the deep breathing that playing a wind instrument requires is an extra risk factor for COVID transmission, and everything else about the stadium experience will involve a lot of closer-than-I’m-comfortable-with contact with other people. Maybe if we’ve really got infection rates under control, or there’s true universal testing, I’d be willing to trot out there for another season like it was the Before Times. I’m not feeling that right now. Ask me again in August and we’ll see. The Chron has more.

The NBA inches closer to a return

We’ll know more soon.

NBA teams are expecting the league office will issue guidelines around June 1 that will allow franchises to start recalling players who’ve left their markets as a first step toward a formal ramp-up for the season’s resumption, sources told ESPN.

Teams expect a similar timeline from the league on when they’ll be allowed to expand individual workouts already underway with in-market players to include more team personnel, sources said.

The NBA suspended the 2019-20 season on March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The league is discussing a step-by-step plan for a resumption of the season that includes an initial two-week recall of players into team marketplaces for a period of quarantine, one to two weeks of individual workouts at team facilities, and a two- to three-week formal training camp, sources told ESPN.

Barring an unforeseen turn of events, many NBA owners, executives and National Basketball Players Association elders believe commissioner Adam Silver will green-light the return to play in June — with games expected to resume sometime before the end of July, sources said.

The NBA is still considering a two-site format for the return of the season, including Orlando’s Walt Disney World and Las Vegas, sources said.

See here for some background. That story was from Thursday. As of Saturday, things had progressed a bit further.

The NBA is going to Disneyworld. Or at least, it hopes to save its season and declare a champion in a single-site scenario outside of Orlando.

In the most public sign yet that the NBA is hopeful that it can resume its 2019-20 season amid the coronavirus pandemic, NBA spokesman Mike Bass said the league has begun exploratory talks with the Walt Disney Company about using its venue in central Florida to hold practices and games without fans present.

“The NBA, in conjunction with the National Basketball Players Association, is engaged in exploratory conversations with The Walt Disney Company about restarting the 2019-20 NBA season in late July at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida as a single site for an NBA campus for games, practices and housing,” Bass said in a statement.

“Our priority continues to be the health and safety of all involved, and we are working with public health experts and government officials on a comprehensive set of guidelines to ensure that appropriate medical protocols and protections are in place.”

The MLS is also looking at Orlando, at the ESPN Wide World of Sports facility. I don’t know how much that might complicate the logistics, but one presumes they will figure it out. The Chron had reported earlier in the week that the Toyota Center in Houston had been in the discussion as a potential venue, but that is apparently no longer in play. It’s possible the NBA will go straight into a playoff system, or it may play some more regular season games but eliminate the teams with the worst records to limit the number of people required to be there. I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

As you know, Major League Baseball has also been working on a season-starting proposal, though in typical fashion the owners are making up claims about financial losses in an attempt to back out of the previous agreement with the players and squeeze them on salaries. I suspect this will get resolved at some point, in which case we may suddenly have a lot of sports coming back to us. Assuming, of course, that there isn’t a big post-reopening spike in infections or other insurmountable obstacle. But if things go as the optimists hope, we could go from no sports to a fairly full slate in a hurry. We’ll see.

MLS has a plan to start its season

That’s Major League Soccer, and their plan may sound a bit familiar.

With no indications of when it could resume the season in home markets, MLS has proposed placing all 26 teams in the Orlando area this summer and playing competitive matches without spectators at the Disney sports complex and possibly other locations, multiple people familiar with the plan said.

The players, coaches and support staff, numbering more than 1,000, would live under quarantine at one of the large resorts near Disney World for an undetermined length of time, said those people, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.

Teams would practice and play primarily at ESPN Wide World of Sports, which sits on 220 acres as part of Disney’s massive footprint in central Florida. Disney-owned ESPN is one of MLS’s broadcast partners.

[…]

The league is expected to accelerate plans over the next two weeks and set the framework for resuming a season that, because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, was shuttered after two weekends.

In jurisdictions where such activities are permitted, several teams have begun voluntary individual workouts, including the Dynamo in Houston. The league has postponed all matches until at least June 8, though the realistic timetable stretches deeper into the summer.

MLS hopes to soon allow players to begin training as part of small groups in local markets, a step the Bundesliga took last month before ramping up operations. The elite German circuit, along with the country’s second division, will resume this weekend with matches played without spectators.

Other European soccer leagues have also made plans to restart their seasons in the coming weeks.

Under its Orlando plan, MLS would welcome teams for workouts and multiple matches per day, which ESPN platforms would carry. It’s unclear whether the league’s other TV partners, Fox Sports and Univision, would show games.

This story came from the Washington Post. This plan is kinda sorta like the original Major League Baseball plan, which would have had all the games played in Arizona; that plan has now morphed into something that would have games played in most league cities. As with MLB, this plan would include games in an empty facility, isolating all the players and other personnel needed for the games – which means they would be away from their families for several months – and regular testing, with some contingency in reserve for if/when there’s a positive test. Money will be an issue, and while the state of Florida is “reopening”, sports facilities like ESPN Wide World of Sports are not yet included in that. So, fair to say, there are still details to iron out. But if you’ve been waiting for news about a sport other than baseball, there you go.

The NBA takes a baby step towards coming back

This may not amount to much, but it’s a potential sign that there may be more like it coming.

The NBA is reopening team practice facilities beginning on Friday for players in states and municipalities that are loosening stay-at-home restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic, sources told ESPN.

Players can return to team facilities in states such as Georgia for voluntary individual workouts as soon as next week, which allows for NBA organizations to start allowing players to return to training in a professional, safe environment.

Teams will remain prohibited from holding group workouts or organized team activities, sources said.

In markets in which more restrictive governance of stay-at-home orders remain in place, the NBA is telling teams the league will work with franchises to help find alternative arrangements for their players, sources said.

The NBA’s decision to reopen facilities based on the loosening of local governmental policies isn’t reflective of a new timetable for a resumption of play this season, sources said. Commissioner Adam Silver and owners still believe they need more time for a clearer picture on whether, when or how they could possibly resume the season, sources said.

Many team executives have been clamoring for the chance to get players back into their facilities, which they believe to be among the safest possible environments around the pandemic. On a conference call with general managers and Silver on Thursday, some GMs said they had players asking about the possibility of traveling to Atlanta to work out in fitness centers with gymnasiums, an idea that concerned many team executives, sources said.

“If our players can travel and play at a 24-Hour Fitness in Atlanta, they should be able to have access to our facilities,” one GM told ESPN on Saturday.

With Greg Abbott’s announcement about a plan to “reopen the economy” coming today, we might see the Toyota Center among those facilities. As noted before, the NBA is still sounding a lot of caution about when or if it might be able to resume its season. Unlike MLB, they have not been floating various games-in-a-bubble scenarios. As such, I don’t think this is necessarily anything more than just the teams trying to provide a (hopefully) safe way for players to work out. It’s not hard to imagine how that could lead to something more, however. It’s also not hard to see how that could lead to more players getting sick. For right now, it’s a bit of news, and we’ll see where if anywhere it goes.

The NBA is still looking for its way back

Nobody really knows what the next couple of months look like.

On the eve of what would have been the start of the postseason, NBA commissioner Adam Silver on Friday said he could not predict when, if or how it would resume its season or even when the league might know.

“We are not in position to make any decision and it’s unclear when we will be,” Silver said after the league held its annual spring Board of Governors meeting on Friday.

“I don’t mean to send any signals about the likelihood or not of restarting the season. All I can say is we’re still at a point where we don’t have enough information to make a decision.”

Quoting Disney CEO Robert Iger, who made a presentation to the Board of Governors, Silver said decisions were “about data, not the date.”

With that in mind, Silver could not even predict when decisions would have to be made because of the uncertainty in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. He said many formats to play regular-season games and a postseason would be considered and that the league would be willing to delay the start of next season if necessary.

Still, even the factors that would have to be weighed to attempt to salvage the 2019-20 season showed how difficult it will be to resume the season that had been suspended on March 11.

“We’re looking for the number of new infections to come down,” Silver said. “We’re looking for the availability of testing on a large scale. We’re looking for the path we’re on potentially for a vaccine. And we’re looking at antivirals. On top of that, we’re paying close attention to what the CDC is telling us on a federal level and what these various state rules are that are in place.

“There’s a lot of data that all has to be melded together to help make these decisions. That’s part of the uncertainty.”

See here for some background. I’m less interested in the particulars, which includes something similar to the MLB games-in-a-bubble idea, than I am with the basic concept that no one has any idea when things will return to something sufficiently resembling “normal”. Right now, we’ve got the Governor talking about “reopening the economy”, and we’ve got whackjobs filing lawsuits and engaging in socially-undistanced protests over stay-at-home orders, all of whom want to more or less pretend that things are fine and we can all go back to going about our business. We also have these multi-billion-dollar enterprises, like the NCAA and major sports leagues, who would also very much like to get back to their own business of making money but have to take into account the very real risk to the health of their players, their employees, their fans, and so on. These leagues will act in their own self-interest, but that self-interest is balanced against other forces, which includes the players’ and officials’ unions, and the local governments where their teams are. The fact that a entity like the NBA, which is seeing the calendar run out on its current season, cannot say when it might be able to play its games again tells me more about our ability to “reopen the economy” than any crony-laden gubernatorial task force ever could.

Whither college football?

All NCAA spring sports were canceled due to coronavirus, beginning with March Madness and going through baseball and softball and soccer and everything else. Everyone has been looking forward to the fall when things were supposed to be back to “normal” again, but no one knows for sure what might happen.

NCAA Division I college sports in Texas is a billion-dollar business for the 23 participating schools, and athletic directors estimate 75 percent to 85 percent of that revenue is tied directly to football in terms of ticket sales, sponsorships, media rights fees and, for most schools, direct contributions from the students or the university.

All those revenue streams are in jeopardy with 20 weeks to go before the scheduled football season openers in late August, which is why college athletic directors are game-planning every potential scenario that comes to mind.

“The financial repercussions of not playing a football season are so significant there is going to be a way to do it and play it and do it responsibly,” University of Houston athletic director Chris Pezman said last week on KBME (790 AM), the school’s sports flagship station.

“If you don’t have that revenue stream that is associated with football, it gets dire very fast. … I am confident we are going to find a way through this and we’ll be able to play the season, whether it’s pushed back a little bit or the idea of playing in the spring.”

At Texas A&M, athletic director Ross Bjork is running through similar scenarios involving the mathematics of time and money.

Regular and postseason football requires four months with the addition of the College Football Playoff, and that must be preceded, Bjork said during a conference call last week, by a 60- to 75-day preparation period for players who have been outside the watchful, demanding eyes of strength coaches for several weeks.

John Sharp, Texas A&M’s chancellor, said last week October would not be too late to begin a complete 2020 season, which would presume a return of players, based on Bjork’s time model, in mid-July.

However, what flies in Texas might not work in other states.

As an example, the executive officer of Santa Clara County in northern California, which includes Stanford University and Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, said last week he did not expect “any sports games until at least Thanksgiving, and we’d be lucky to have them by Thanksgiving.”

A&M, Bjork noted, is scheduled to play Colorado at College Station on Sept. 19. There’s no guarantee, however, Colorado will be in the same stage of recovery as Texas by mid-September.

Accordingly, Bjork said he expects a “layered” approach to football’s return, based on the advice of conference and university leaders and local and state governments.

“There’s not one trigger point,” he said. “We’re all just guessing, really. We don’t know what the data will tell us. We can model, but until you know when you’re starting or when you can have togetherness, it’s kind of hard to predict.”

It’s hard to imagine how sports like Major League Baseball can contemplate their return if the start of the NCAA football season is in jeopardy. Of course, MLB has the “play their games in hermetically sealed stadia in a small number of locations with no fans” option, which college football does not. I don’t doubt the desire or the intent to bring the games back, even if starting the season in December and essentially playing a spring season is a possible way forward. But as with everything else, there’s only so long you can push back one season before you push up against the next one, and there’s no way to know what the effects will be on fans, who may not be ready to tailgate and pack into venues just yet. It’s good for the leagues to prepare for all possibilities. You never know, things might go better than expected. It’s just all so massively weird right now.

RIP, XFL

Tough break.

The XFL suspended operations Friday morning and laid off nearly all of its staff, multiple sources told ESPN. While a handful of executives remain employed, the league currently has no plans to return in 2021.

The league canceled its season last month after five games as part of a nationwide shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, pledging to return next year.

But XFL CEO Jeffrey Pollack changed course Friday, conducting a 10-minute conference call to inform employees of the news.

Commissioner Oliver Luck, hired in 2018 to guide the most ambitious spring football league in decades, did not speak on the call. It was not immediately clear if he is still with the league.

According to a prominent former XFL staffer who was on the call, Pollack stopped short of saying the league was going out of business. But the strong implication was clear. “It’s done,” the staffer said. “It’s not coming back.”

There was no immediate comment from the league.

I wasn’t a fan of the XFL. Nothing against it – it certainly wasn’t laughable the way the original XFL was – it just held no interest for me. From what I observed, they put out a reasonably entertaining product, and a few players like former Houston Roughnecks quarterback P.J. Walker made enough of an impression to sign with NFL teams. They seemed to be on the road to at least having another season, but that was not to be. Perhaps this means another league will give it a try down the line, as the proof of concept seems to have been a success. Just not enough of one to survive this pandemic, the main difference between the XFL and established sports leagues being the latter have a lot more cash on hand to ride things out for awhile. I am somewhat worried about other leagues, from minor league baseball to lower-tier leagues like the ones for rugby and softball, maybe even to the NWSL and MLS. As with so many other things, who knows what the landscape may look like a month or a year from now.

The NBA tries to look forward

Hope + uncertainty = where we are right now.

While expressing a hope that bordered on determination that the NBA would be able to salvage its season in some form, commissioner Adam Silver also said the unknowns in the COVID-19 crisis are greater than even three-plus weeks ago when he suspended the season and that no decisions will be coming soon.

“Essentially, what I’ve told my folks over the last week is that we should just accept that for at least the month of April we won’t be in a position to make any decisions,” Silver said in a Twitter interview with TNT’s Ernie Johnson on Monday. “I don’t think that necessarily means on May 1 we will be.

“That doesn’t mean internally and in our discussions with our players and the league we aren’t looking at many different scenarios for restarting the season. But I think it is just honestly too early, given what is happening right now, to be able to project or predict where we’ll be in a few weeks.”

Silver said he hopes “to try to finish a regular season in some form and then move on to the playoffs” but that the league has not made any decisions.

He said the NBA initially was considering options for regular and postseason schedules based on potential restart days but has learned that even hypotheticals were relying on excessive guesswork.

“We just have too little information to make those sorts of projections,” Silver said. “I will say, though, as we look out into the summer, there does come a point we would start impacting next season. Even there, a few weeks ago nobody thought we were talking about a potential impact on next season independent on what we might choose to do to finish our regular season and playoffs.

“I don’t want to leave anybody under the impression we’re not trying to do everything we possibly can under the right circumstances. Player safety and the health of everyone in the NBA family has to come first. That may mean there is a scenario we can play without fans. That’s something we look a lot at.”

As we know, MLB is also thinking about when it can begin again. Both of these followed a meeting of multiple sports commissioners with Donald Trump, who would really really like it if this coronavirus thing went away ASAP. Again, I’m happy that the leagues are thinking about how this might work for them, but I think May is an aggressively early timeframe for it. The NBA is in some ways more constrained than MLB precisely because they have to start worrying about their next season, which would start in September. If they’re not able to begin playoffs soon, who knows where they’ll be in the fall. It’s just that none of this is really within their control.

Congratulations, Rudy T!

Long overdue.

At last, the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame no longer will underestimate the accomplishments of a champion.

Rockets icon Rudy Tomjanovich will be named Saturday to the Hall of Fame Class of 2020, a person with knowledge of the voting said Friday.

While Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett undoubtedly will headline the class in their first season of eligibility, the coach who long had fallen short in the voting will receive the call his peers and successors had so badly wanted for him.

Tomjanovich, 71, received at least the 18 votes necessary from the 24-person Hall of Fame panel after he fell short of being a finalist last year and couldn’t garner enough votes in two previous seasons as a finalist. He had been the only coach to lead teams to multiple NBA championships and an Olympic gold medal who wasn’t in the Hall of Fame.

An All-American at Michigan and a five-time All-Star as a Rockets player, Tomjanovich will be inducted as a coach who long has been celebrated by his peers.

“Everybody knows when he said, “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion,” he was talking about his team,” former Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said. “But unfortunately, that’s what’s happened to him. Everybody’s underestimated him and his accomplishments and his heart and his class. To me, it’s an absolute shame … I hope they rectify.”

Besides Bryant, Duncan, Garnett and Tomjanovich, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey, former Kentucky, Arkansas and Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton, former Indiana Fever and Olympic star Tamika Catchings and Bentley coach Barbara Stevens were named as finalists.

That story was written before the formal announcement, which confirmed Rudy T’s enshrinement. If there’s one thing that cemented my identity as a Houstonian, it’s the 1993-94 Rockets’ championship run, which was just amazing to watch. (Their encore in ’94-95 didn’t hurt, either.) Great team, super coach, well-deserved honor, I’m overjoyed to see it. Congrats all around.

(By the way, kids, did you know that back in the year 1994, the first round of the NBA playoffs was mostly on pay-per-view? I watched several of those games, in ’95 as well, at sports bars because of that. It boggles my mind to think about it now, but that was the state of the NBA on TV at that time.)

In which I agree with Ted Cruz: Shame on the NBA

When he’s right, he’s right.

Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey has the support of some lawmakers in D.C., even as the Rockets and NBA have apologized for his comments supporting pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

Morey over the weekend tweeted and quickly deleted an image including the words “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong.” His comments were quickly rebuked by Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta and an NBA spokesman who noted they “deeply offended many of our friends and fans in China, which is regrettable.”

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz slammed the NBA, saying in a tweet “human rights shouldn’t be for sale & the NBA shouldn’t be assisting Chinese communist censorship.”

Cruz said he was proud to see Morey “call out the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive treatment of protestors in Hong Kong.”

“Now, in pursuit of big $$, the @nba is shamefully retreating,” Cruz tweeted.

[…]

Cruz is a well-known Rockets fan. But he wasn’t the only Texas politician voicing support for Morey. Democratic presidential hopefuls Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke also took to Twitter to back Morey.

“China is using its economic power to silence critics — even those in the U.S.” Castro tweeted.

“The only thing the NBA should be apologizing for is their blatant prioritization of profits over human rights,” O’Rourke tweeted. “What an embarrassment.”

Deadspin has been all over this, so start there and google around as needed. This is exactly the kind of craven behavior I usually expect from the NFL. For shame.

On paying college athletes

In case you missed this news out of California.

California is going to pass this likeness rights bill and boy howdy does the NCAA not like it

California Senate Bill 206, otherwise known as the Fair Pay to Play act, is rapidly approaching becoming law. The TL;DR of the legislation is that would allow athletes to monetize their name and likeness without penalty from the NCAA, something they currently cannot do. On Monday, the bill passed the California State Assembly by a 72-0 vote. On Wednesday night, it cleared the state senate. It is just waiting on the governor.

The NCAA responded on Wednesday with well, more threats. From USA TODAY:

“If the bill becomes law and California’s 58 NCAA schools are compelled to allow an unrestricted name, image and likeness scheme, it would erase the critical distinction between college and professional athletics and, because it gives those schools an unfair recruiting advantage, would result in them eventually being unable to compete in NCAA competitions”

As if this threat wasn’t enough, the letter also said the NCAA believes this bill is unconstitutional.

Ohio State and former UC Irvine president Michael Drake, in an interview with USA TODAY, echoed those threats, saying:

He said California schools “certainly” would be barred from participating in NCAA championships. Asked whether California schools would be able to compete against other NCAA schools at all, Drake said: “When the bill is passed and fully analyzed, we’d be more clear about its effect on other competitions. Let me say that I know specifically it would restrict their ability to compete in championships because the students would have been competing under a different set of rules.”

Let’s get one thing straight right now. The NCAA is not going to ban all the California schools

I get why they have to say this now, but this falls under a rich history of empty threats from university administrators, right up there with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney saying the Big Ten would drop to DIII if they had to share revenues with athletes.

Regardless of what NCAA rules state, lopping off California is a logistical and financial impossibility. Potentially locking themselves out of so many huge TV markets, plus losing so many potential teams for their marquee event, the NCAA Tournament (laugh all you want about the Pac-12, but California also includes regular NCAA participant Saint Mary’s, plus possible conference champions from the WAC, Big West, Big Sky and Mountain West), would make such a harsh penalty a nightmare for the NCAA’s business partners. Not to mention that penalty would also get thrown into the courts on antitrust grounds. USC and UCLA wouldn’t take that lying down.

If the state sponsoring this bill was like, Delaware, South Dakota, or Vermont, maybe the NCAA can get away with muscling them out. But not California (or Texas, or Florida, or any more major population center).

That’s from a newsletter published on September 11, so the bill is now law. There’s more there, and you can listen to a conversation with the author of that newsletter on the Slate podcast Hang Up and Listen (there are links with more info there as well). The podcast What Next also discussed it. The California law doesn’t take effect until 2023, in part to give the NCAA some time to address the issue on their own. It also means that other states will have time to pass their own laws, which may up the ante. Given the number of Division I colleges in Texas – I can think of at least 16 – our weird predeliction to be anti-California, and the stakes at play, I could imagine someone filing a bill to do the opposite here, to forbid any college athlete from making money in any fashion that isn’t currently allowed. Never underestimate our state’s ability to do the wrong thing. Anyway, I thought this was interesting. What do you think?

The MOB’s message to Baylor

I’ve been a member of the Rice MOB since 1988, when I arrived in Houston as a grad student in math. I’m especially proud to have been part of the MOB this weekend.

Rice University’s Marching Owl Band delivered a controversial skit and played pro-LGBTQ song “YMCA” by the Village People as dozens of students and alumni rushed the field with rainbow flags at its football game against Baylor University on Saturday night.

The skit comes as LGBTQ students and alumni fight to be recognized by the private Baptist college in Waco.

Chad Fisher, a spokesman for the Marching Owl Band, also known as “The MOB,” said he and his bandmates decided on a “Star Wars”-themed show months ago, but after learning about Baylor LGBTQ students’ ongoing fight to get recognition for their student group, they decided to incorporate that into their performance.

“Some of us did some more digging and found how deep it went,” Fisher said.

A Baylor spokeswoman confirmed that on Sept. 6, the college’s administration declined to officially recognize and charter Gamma Alpha Upsilon, an LGBTQ-student group on campus that has been fighting to be recognized since its inception in 2011.

The private Baptist university’s refusal to recognize Gamma Alpha Upsilon, or “GAY” in Greek letters, as an official student group has prevented them from receiving certain privileges, including the opportunity to advertise events on campus, reserve university spaces for meetings and receive funding through the student government.

Though Baylor President Linda Livingstone did not issue an official statement about the recent charter denial, the spokeswoman pointed to an Aug. 27 statement from Livingstone. In it, Livingstone said that “Baylor is committed to providing a loving and caring community for all students — including our LGBTQ students.”

But she also referred to the college’s “Human Sexuality” policy, which states that “the university affirms the biblical understanding of sexuality as a gift from God” and that “Christian churches across the ages and around the world have affirmed purity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman as the biblical norm.”

Baylor’s sexual conduct policy, also referenced in Livingstone’s statement, explains that it is “expected that Baylor students will not participate in advocacy groups which promote understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching,” including “heterosexual sex outside of marriage and homosexual behavior.”

See here for more on this. You can also see the full script for the show here, and the scoreboard display that accompanied the show here. It’s not just that I believe Baylor is wrong, it’s that I think Baylor, and other “Christian” leaders, politicians, and organizations completely miss the main idea of Jesus Christ’s teachings. It’s very clear, if you actually read what Jesus said over and over again, that Jesus taught we are all God’s children and we are all loved by God. Jesus made a point of associating with lepers and prostitutes, paupers and tax collectors, to emphasize that we are not judged by who we are, we are judged by what we do. In particular, we are judged by our actions towards “the least of these”. (Ever read the parable of the sheep and the goats? Of Lazarus and the rich man? It’s all right there.) It amazes me how often the most prominent “Christians” of our time act like the villains in one of Christ’s parables. But here we are.

The insistence by groups like Gamma Alpha Upsilon and individual LGBTQ people that they too are included in God’s grace also amazes me. I, personally, would take the hate and vitriol that comes from the “Christians” and say fine, I don’t want to be part of your stupid, immoral group, I’ve got plenty of love and acceptance over here. But these folks, so much more than Linda Livinstone and Ken Starr and the rest of that crowd, have taken Jesus’ actual words and teachings to heart. They believe it, they know they’re a part of it, and they won’t give up until everyone else knows that, too. I’m not a particularly religious person, but I find that so moving and inspiring, and I want them to have what they have always deserved. If making dumb Star Wars jokes in a silly halftime show at the expense of the Baylor administration helps them in some infinitesimal way, I’m happy.

Cricket in Fort Bend

The sport keeps spreading.

When Malay Vyas played cricket as a child, there were no fields near his home in western India. So he and his friends took to playing in the streets. He remembers getting grounded after hitting a ball into a house and breaking glass, and, years later, one of his own children broke a window in their home, while playing cricket inside.

Now, with the opening of the Jones Creek Cricket Park, Houston-area children will have a safe, convenient place to enjoy the world’s second most-popular sport. Vyas, the president of the Sugar Land Youth Cricket Club, said the proximity of the field will also encourage more families to get involved in cricket.

“The kids could only come practice when the parents had the time to take two hours out of their schedule,” he said. “What this will do is enable parents to bring kids to practices more frequently. “

Precinct 3 Commissioner Andy Meyers said the county acquired the Richmond park to expand recreational facilities and to attract more kids to the area. It was community members, such as Vyas, who urged them to add the cricket pitch.

As we know, there is already the Houston Cricket League, and a cricket complex being built in Waller County. There’s a large population in the region that plays and enjoys cricket, and this is just a matter of the facilities catching up to that demand. It’s cool to see.

The Houston Roughnecks

Meet your new XFL team.

When the XFL kicks off in February, the Houston team will be known as the Houston Roughnecks.

The XFL unveiled team names and logos for all eight teams in the league Wednesday.

The Houston Roughnecks logo is a bit reminiscent of the old Houston Oilers with an oil derrick featured prominently. The team opted to go away from the Oilers’ Columbia blue though, and went with a more Texans-like red and blue.

[…]

The Roughnecks will be coached by June Jones, who was an NFL head coach with the Falcons and Chargers as well as an assistant for the Houston Oilers and Houston Gamblers. The team will play at the University of Houston’s TDECU Stadium. Season tickets are available here.

See here for the background. There are eight teams, including one in Dallas, and each city with the exception of Saint Louis has an existing NFl team. (A sore subject in St. Louis, that.) I dunno what the market for not-NFL football outside of the usual football season is – the last league to try it didn’t make it till the end of their first season – but we’ll see. I’m all about basketball and spring training by then, but your mileage may vary. Texas Monthly and the Press have more.

Rock me like a Herricane

I had no idea this existed.

Photo: Courtesy Basia Haszlakiewicz

Rose Kelley was jogging through Memorial Park one summer evening when she saw a group of women practicing football. One of the women spotted Kelley, with her sturdy frame and strong legs, and figured her for an athlete.

The Houston Herricanes had found their latest recruit.

The year was 1978, six years after Richard Nixon signed Title IX legislation and five years after tennis star Billie Jean King bested Bobby Riggs in three consecutive sets in the “Battle of the Sexes” at the Houston Astrodome. The sight of women simply tossing around the pigskin was not exactly common. Lining up in full pads in an I-formation for a full-contact game? Unheard of.

But playing football was a lifelong dream for Kelley. Growing up in Brookshire to a large family — six brothers and five sisters — she would often play with the boys, who would impart tips on how to rush the quarterback, never figuring their little sister would put that advice to use.

“Five of my brothers played for the Army or Navy,” said Kelley, now 62. “I always said, ‘I wish that was me.’ I used to tell my mother, ‘Mama, I could bop ‘em.’ ”

When Kelley lined up at defensive tackle wearing No. 72 in what would be the Herricanes’ third season in the nascent National Women’s Football League, she was a force to be reckoned with. A natural pass rusher, Kelley specialized in terrorizing opposing quarterbacks, forcing fumbles and interceptions.

Four decades later, Kelley sat at a table at Harold’s Tap Room & Restaurant in the Houston Heights wearing the same maroon and white No. 72 jersey she proudly wore on the field, surrounded by 20 or so former Herricanes teammates reuniting for the first time since the team folded in 1981.

[…]

Before the NWFL, women’s tackle football in the United States was largely conceived as a novelty act. Sid Friedman, a talent agent, formed the Women’s Professional Football League as a gimmick in the mid-1960s. It was viewed as a Harlem Globetrotters-style barnstorming show.

That league would fold by the early 1970s, but the seed was planted for the NWFL to blossom. What began as a seven-team league in 1974 quickly doubled in size by the time the Herricanes emerged in 1976. There were three divisions across the country, with teams as far east as the Philadelphia Queen Bees and as far west as the San Diego Lobos.

“Most of (the teams) didn’t know each other; they had no idea how the league was structured,” said Britni de la Cretaz, who is writing a book about the NWFL. “They had really very little contact with other teams. They were siloed in that way, and even still there were hundreds of women doing this at any point around the country.”

Marty Bryant remembers reading a magazine article about the Columbus Pacesetters in the fledgling NWFL. An avid softball player, Bryant jumped at any opportunity to play team sports and immediately wrote a letter to the Pacesetters asking how she could form a team in Houston.

“We loved to play sports,” Bryant said. “If you’re an athlete, you’re an athlete. But you need the chance.”

With the help of a news broadcast by famed local sportscaster Anita Martini publicizing the tryout, dozens of women showed up at a Houston park in 1976 to join the Herricanes.

Basia Haszlakiewicz remembers turning on the televsion to see that broadcast and thinking the stars had finally aligned. A former flag football player at the University of Kansas, Haszlakiewicz thought her playing days were long over.

“And there was Anita Martini on the news presenting tryouts for the Houston Herricanes,” Haszlakiewicz said. “I just never watched the news. It was odd. I was like, ‘Okay, well, this was meant to be, obviously.’ ”

The team and the league lasted four seasons, though sadly no records from the games exist. The teams mostly had little money, and of course there was no TV coverage, though to be fair back in 1978 it was hard to find an NBA game on TV. The women faced a ton of sexist abuse for thinking that, you know, girls could play football, too. Normally this is where I’d say that it would be cool if some entrepreneurs took a shot at starting up another league, but given all the health risks we now know about football, I’m not so sure that’s a great idea. But at least between the forthcoming book and documentary, the NWFL can live on.

RIP, AAF

Maybe it’s only mostly dead, but it looks pretty dead.

After eight weeks of games and less than one season into Alliance of American Football’s existence, league owner Tom Dundon has decided to suspend all operations, league co-founder Bill Polian confirmed to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen on Tuesday.

“I am extremely disappointed to learn Tom Dundon has decided to suspend all football operations of the Alliance of American Football,” Polian said in a statement Tuesday. “When Mr. Dundon took over, it was the belief of my co-founder, Charlie Ebersol, and myself that we would finish the season, pay our creditors, and make the necessary adjustments to move forward in a manner that made economic sense for all.

“The momentum generated by our players, coaches and football staff had us well positioned for future success. Regrettably, we will not have that opportunity.”

[…]

Players are being forced to pay for their own travel back home, a source told ESPN, confirming an SI.com report.

Despite a litany of issues, ratings had remained fairly consistent for the league, with between 400,000 and 500,000 viewers often tuning in for games, according to ratings reports. And the league got a bump in attention after Johnny Manziel signed last month and was allocated to Memphis.

Manziel offered some advice to AAF players on Twitter with Tuesday’s news.

The league signed all players to three-year, non-guaranteed contracts worth $70,000 in the first year, $80,000 in the second year and $100,000 in the third year. The hope, Polian said, was that the league would send players to the NFL.

In his statement Tuesday, Polian said he’ll do “all I can” to help the league’s players achieve that.

“My thanks go out to all who made our football product so competitive and professional,” Polian said. “I am certain there are many among them destined for future success in the NFL and I look forward to doing all I can to help them in their quest.”

Ebersol told ESPN in January that they had structured the league around a “sober business plan” because he believed he had learned lessons from his father, Dick Ebersol, who helped run the first version of the XFL.

Problems, however, popped up surrounding the nascent league that was trying to be a complement to the NFL.

See here for the background. The AAF had its challenges, but I thought they’d at least finish the season. Who knows, maybe they could have gotten an infusion of cash afterwards, and been able to keep going. I feel bad for the players, who of course will get screwed out of their last paychecks and stuck with hotel, travel, and healthcare expenses, and at a much lower level for the fans in San Antonio, the eternal bridesmaids of pro football fandom. Anyone wanna lay odds on how long the rebooted XFL will last?

Will the AAF be one and done?

Could be.

The first-year Alliance of American Football’s inability to secure cooperation from the NFL Players’ Association to use young players from NFL rosters has put the AAF in danger of folding, Tom Dundon, the league’s majority owner, told USA TODAY Sports on Wednesday.

“If the players union is not going to give us young players, we can’t be a development league,” said Dundon, who in February committed to invest $250 million into the league. “We are looking at our options, one of which is discontinuing the league.”

The NFLPA had no official response to the accusations that their lack of cooperation is prompting the AAF to fold.

However, a players’ union official did express serious concerns about the risks of lending active NFL players to the AAF. The official requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.

The person said the players’ union is founded on the belief that using active NFL players and practice squad members for the AAF would violate the terms of the CBA and the restrictions that prevent teams from holding mandatory workouts and practices throughout the offseason. The limitations set in place are designed to ensure the safety and adequate rest and recovery time for football players. But there’s a concern that teams would abuse their power and pehaps force young players into AAF action as a condition for consideration for NFL roster spots in the fall.

The additional concern on the NFLPA’s part is that if an NFL player played in the AAF and suffered serious injury, that player would face the risk of missing an NFL season and lose a year of accrued experience, which carries financial ramifications for players.

Sorry, San Antonio. As For The Win notes, if the plan was to depend on NFL players to supplement the league, that plan was never going to work. The NFL might have an interest in having a feeder league available to it, but given the health risks of football, it’s not at all clear why any players that have a legitimate shot at playing in the NFL would go for that. What you’re left with is a bunch of lower-level players plus the occasional Johnny Manziell, and that adds up to a league that not many people have paid any attention to since their opening weekend. Even with better players available, you’ve got March Madness, the NBA and NHL gearing up for their post-seasons, and now MLB is back. That’s a lot of competition for a fledgling league. I figure as long as they have some TV money they can probably continue, but I don’t see much hope for their long term future.

“How Baylor Happened”

From Deadspin:

There’s not much to recommend spending four years in Waco. Driving into town up Interstate 35 from the south, the endless stretch of Texas nothing fills out slowly. It’s flat in the way you think Texas is flat. Empty fields give way to John Deere dealerships, then fast-food chains.

On your left, you’ll see the strip mall that housed the Twin Peaks biker gang shootout of 2015. Pass through the city’s squat downtown, and you can catch a glimpse of the grain silos that Chip and Joanna Gaines, stars of the HGTV smash Fixer-Upper, converted into the retail base of their reality TV empire.

But then, rising from the banks of the Brazos River, appears Baylor’s towering McLane Stadium. The building serves to announce the home of the Baylor Bears, Robert Griffin III, the Heisman Trophy, and a football legacy stretching back to, well, RG3 and the Heisman Trophy. But that’s the point. Baylor is here. Baylor matters, finally. The other campus buildings are tucked away in the short hills along the highway, but the stadium declares itself forcefully.

For most of its history, football barely registered at Baylor. Instead, the school cultivated its own culture, deeply rooted in the Baptist church. It banned dancing on campus until 1996. Until May 2015, its student conduct code listed “homosexual acts” and “fornication” as expressly forbidden behavior, alongside “sexual abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault,”and other activities. Sex outside of marriage is still forbidden. The university’s mission statement says it was “founded on the belief that God’s nature is made known through both revealed and discovered truth.” Even a teenager who’s been homeschooled her entire life can walk around Baylor, see the statues of Jesus and the sidewalks emblazoned with Bible passages, and feel safe that the university that speaks her language and shares her values.

Jane’s* parents celebrated when she was offered a soccer scholarship to Baylor. She’d be among other Christians, less than two hours away from their Dallas home. Alicia* was drawn to Baylor because she wanted something to bring her back to her faith. She wanted to attend chapel with her classmates, to feel the closeness of a religious institution. “I want to feel God on campus and in class,” she knew. “I want to come here to be with God in every sense of the matter.”

Melissa* had attended a small private Baptist high school in California. She was scared to attend a party school and was looking for a more conservative university. She liked how nice everyone at Baylor was, and that dorm visiting hours ended at midnight, even on weekends. Suzanne* was the daughter of missionaries. She grew up mostly overseas and spent a lot of time in Christian boarding schools in Papua New Guinea. College wasn’t something her parents expected of her—everyone in her family did church work—but she wanted to be a missionary doctor.

They all chose Baylor because it felt safe.

What they didn’t know when they enrolled was that the combination of Baylor’s culture and a set of newly-established ambitions had created a university that was unusually safe—but not for them. It was a safe place for football coaches who could do no wrong, for players whose transfers from other teams after being accused of violence were billed as the first half of a redemption story, for young men whose potential was prioritized over that of their female classmates, and for university leaders who prized their reputation over the safety of the women who studied there.

As Jane was beginning her senior year of high school, already committed to play soccer at Baylor in 2013, the university was breaking ground on McLane Stadium. Baylor had a vision for itself—to become the Baptist answer to Notre Dame—but accomplishing that would require money, a lot more money, and fast football success was also a fast way to excite major donors. Greed is not a Christian value, but as the world would soon find out, the school’s commitment to the religion of football would serve to undermine everything else that the university was supposed to stand for.

What follows is a long and detailed look into how Baylor, a small Baptist university where football was played, became Baylor, a blossoming national football powerhouse where female students were repeatedly assaulted by football players and no one cared until it finally became a scandal. I’m oversimplifying here, but that’s close enough for these purposes. Authors Jessica Luther and Dan Solomon have been the go-to reporters for documenting how and why it all happened, and you should read what they have to say.

MLS comes to Austin

Welcome to the big leagues.

After a long and often rocky courtship, Austin and Major League Soccer became a match.

The league formally welcomed Austin as its 27th franchise with a raucous downtown party Tuesday full of chanting and flag-waving, and Commissioner Don Garber calling the Texas capital a “perfect fit.” MLS said Austin will begin play in the 2021 season.

“We think of us being a league for a new America,” Garber said. “Austin is diverse. It has enormous energy. It has people who really believe in the city. … We need to be here.”

The move has been long expected as Austin became the target destination for efforts last year to move the Columbus Crew. The Crew instead will stay in Ohio under a new ownership group.

Austin recently signed a lease with Austin majority owner Anthony Precourt, a California-based investor, to provide land for a privately-funded $225 million stadium. The Austin venue will be an open-air facility with a grass playing field on land that has been vacant for 25 years.

“We’re going to unite this city. We’re going to fight for this city. We’re going to make you proud,” Precourt said.

Precourt’s attempts to move the Crew, a bedrock MLS franchise, drew fierce resistance in Columbus as fans rallied to save their team and state and local officials filed lawsuits attempting to block the move.

In Austin, a divided city council argued for months over the stadium deal before it was approved on a narrow vote. Instead of moving the Crew, MLS and Precourt agreed that team would be placed under a new ownership group that includes Cleveland Browns Dee and Jimmy Haslem.

MLS has long eyed Austin — although quietly until 2018 — as an expansion opportunity. Precourt’s initial purchase deal for the Crew included a promise to keep the team in Columbus for at least 10 years, but it also had a clause that would let him move to Austin. And before Precourt announced his desire to move, MLS had trademarked Austin FC and Austin Athletic as possible names for a franchise even though the city had not applied for expansion.

Here’s the official MLS story. I’m happy for Austin, but it turns out that not everyone else is.

Austin FC won’t join MLS until 2021, but it is already the league’s most-hated team.

[…]

So, why does everyone hate Austin FC? The answer is simple: Anthony Precourt.

Precourt owned the Columbus Crew, and announced in 2017 that he planned to relocate the club to Austin because Columbus would not provide a publicly funded stadium. By threatening the move to Austin, Precourt essentially held the club hostage until Jimmy and Dee Haslam partnered with Pete Edwards to save the Crew.

MLS saw the massive public outcry against Precourt’s ownership tactics and still rewarded him with a shiny, new franchise in the city of his choice — all while deserving cities like Sacramento, St. Louis and Phoenix are still vying for the last remaining spot.

Austin has a $225 million, 20,000-seat stadium slated for completion by 2021. Precourt Sports Ventures is funding that project after an agreement with the city.

We already know that Columbus will root viciously against Austin FC. It’s personal for Crew fans. But if MLS decides to stay firm on that 28-team figure, soccer fans from the left-out cities will be rooting against Austin as well.

Click over to see a sample of Twitter reactions. You can add soccer fans in San Antonio to that list, too. Well, it never hurts to have a rivalry in sports. I can’t wait to see how that plays out.

FIFA World Cup update

Still a year away from a decision.

Houston is among 17 American cities vying to become one of 10 host cities selected when the finalists are trimmed by 2021. The 2026 World Cup will also include 10 games each in Canada and Mexico. A host city would get six games during the 32-day event.

Bid committee president Chris Canetti is hopeful of Houston’s chances but sees the addition of [John] Arnold as another boon for the bid.

“One of the things that we’re going to need to do as a committee here and as a city is raise funds,” Canetti said. “So when you agree to host a World Cup, there’s an expense that comes with it. This is really the same exact formula that existed when the Super Bowl came a couple years ago, so to have someone like John who’s so well-respected in the community, so well-connected in the community … it’s really important to us to be able to open some doors.

“When you look at Houston as a package, we’ve got everything in place,” Canetti said, referring to the city’s recent history hosting national events and its broad infrastructure. “We look at it as, ‘What’s going to put us on top with the decision makers and let them know that Houston belongs.’ And we think being funded is a great thing.”

Committee members believe Houston’s preparation has helped distinguish the city from its competitors. Still, it’s a cautious optimism. And to an extent, they see the potential for collaboration.

“FIFA’s indicated that they have a preference for some geographic concentration to make travel easier for both teams and fans, so … Dallas and Houston can work together, and they can be complements rather than an either-or situation,” Arnold said, pointing to Houston’s relative proximity to Guadalajara, Mexico City, and Monterrey, three Mexican cities included in the joint bid among Canada, the United States, and Mexico. “The geographic spread of cities will be important, the amount of fan support and community support that each city can show and demonstrate will be important, and I think the culture of soccer that each city shows will be important in that process.”

See here for the previous update. Houston really does have a lot going for it, including a track record of doing well hosting other big sporting events. The World Cup would be bigger still, thanks to the number of matches and influx of international fans, but it’s nothing we can’t handle. Here’s hoping for the best.

The Karolyis and Larry Nasser

Ouch.

A report commissioned by the U.S. Olympic Committee into the USA Gymnastics sexual abuse scandal was strongly critical of the culture created by longtime coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi, saying that the atmosphere at the couple’s Walker County ranch gave disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar “broad latitude” to abuse young gymnasts.

The 237-page report compiled by the Boston law firm Ropes & Gray, which was made public Monday, also said that two top USOC officials, former CEO Scott Blackmun and chief of sport performance Alan Ashley, failed to take prompt action to protect gymnasts and others after receiving initial reports of allegations against Nassar in 2015.

[…]

The report is critical of what it described as USA Gymnastics’ lack of oversight regarding Nassar’s activities at the Karolyi Ranch between Huntsville and New Waverly, the longtime site of the USA Gymnastics women’s training center.

It also said the Karolyis created “an expectation of absolute perfection and a single-minded and exacting focus on an athlete’s training and performance-readiness to the exclusion of everything else.” This, combined with the ranch’s isolation, “gave rise to a perfect storm of circumstances that facilitated and enabled Nassar’s abuse of elite gymnasts” at the ranch.

Nassar, the report said, took advantage of a culture that was “intense, severe and unrelenting … (and) demanded obedience and deference to authority.”

Even one of the signature moments in the history of the sport — Kerri Strug’s vault at the 1996 Olympics, after suffering an injured ankle, to help the U.S. women win a gold medal — is cited as an example of an approach that emphasized results over athletes’ safety.

Strug’s vault, the report said, “has since become a source of national pride. And yet it also serves as a warning about the casual disregard for athlete safety by those entrusted with their welfare and the overwhelming pressure on athletes to persevere at any cost.”

[…]

Regarding the Karolyi Ranch, as well as the Karolyis’ roles as national team coordinators for most of the past two decades, “no institution or individual took any meaningful steps to ensure that appropriate safety measures were in place to protect the young gymnasts. And within the isolated and secluded environment of the Karolyi Ranch … Nassar had broad latitude to commit his crimes,” the report said.

The culture faced by gymnasts during the era when the Karolyis were influential, the report said, “normalized intense physical discomfort as an integral part of the path to success.” It also led to social isolation and encouraged gymnasts “not to rock the boat.”

“When those pressures were coupled with the harsh and isolated conditions at the Karolyi Ranch, they together gave rise to a perfect storm of circumstances that facilitated and enabled Nassar’s abuse of elite gymnasts,” the report added.

See here, here, and here for some background. The irony, of course, is that for the longest time that “expectation of absolute perfection and a single-minded and exacting focus on an athlete’s training and performance-readiness to the exclusion of everything else” was considered the Karolyis’ main virtue as gymnastics coaches and the fulcrum for all of the adoring press they’d received over the years. Turns out that kind of system has its flaws. The 237-page report is embedded in the story, but if you don’t want to read it you can instead read this ThinkProgress summary of it, which makes that case that the USOC should join USA Gymnastics on the junk pile of history. Deadspin has more.

Houston to get XFL 2.0 team

For those of you that need more football.

TDECU Stadium at the University of Houston will be the home field for Houston’s team in the XFL, the spring football league owned by WWE chairman Vince McMahon that will begin play in 2020, the league announced Wednesday.

Joining Houston among the eight XFL charter cities are teams in Dallas-Fort Worth, playing at Arlington’s Globe Life Stadium, plus Los Angeles (StubHub Center), New York-New Jersey (MetLife Stadium), St. Louis (The Dome at America’s Center), Seattle (CenturyLink Field), Tampa (Raymond James Stadium) and Washington, D.C. (Audi Field).

Houston’s team has yet to be named, but the announcement signals a return to the city’s football heyday of the 1980s, when the upstart USFL’s Houston Gamblers shared the pro football landscape with the established Oilers, much as the XFL now will do with the Texans.

Coincidentally, the announcement of Houston’s XFL selection came from the league’s president, Oliver Luck, who was a quarterback for the Oilers during the Gamblers’ 1984-85 run at the Astrodome.

“We believe the Houston-Harris County area is a fantastic place for one of our franchises, given the deep love and passion that people here have for football at all levels,” Luck said in an interview prior to Wednesday’s announcement.

“It was a pretty easy decision to place a franchise in Houston.”

[…]

Houston will be in the XFL’s Western Division with Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles and Seattle. New York, Tampa, St. Louis and Washington will comprise the Eastern Division. Teams will play a 10-game regular season, followed by two semifinals and a championship game.

Teams will have 45-man rosters with seven-member practice squads. A centralized “Team Nine” of players under contract to the league will be available to replenish rosters as needed.

While Luck did not offer details, he said the XFL continues with what he described as a “reimagining” of football as it awaits its 2020 debut.

“We’re looking at some of the administrative rules of the game – time outs and other things – and at what technology can do to improve and enhance the game,” he said.

“Our goal is to have a fast-paced, high-octane game with less down time – less stall and more ball. It will be a rock-’em, sock-’em, 11-on-11 game.”

See here and here for some background. All this sounds good, but in an earlier version of this story, there was this:

The new XFL, league officials have said, aims to offer an alternative to fans disenchanted with the increased length of NFL games and the social activism of some of its players. Games will last under three hours, and the league has said that anthem protests will not be allowed.

Yeah, I’m not going to support that. If you want a different option, there’s yet another league in the pipeline, and San Antonio is a charter member. There will be more than one way to get your extra football fix.

RIP, Bob McNair

The Houston Texans owner has passed away.

The death of Texans owner and founder Bob McNair rocked the NFL, the city of Houston and his players and coaches Friday, sparking rich remembrances of his life and legacy.

McNair was 81 years old and had battled skin cancer for years. He had been in poor health for several months.

McNair leaves behind a first-place AFC South franchise that had been entrusted by him to stable leadership provided by his son, chief operating officer Cal McNair, coach Bill O’Brien, general manager Brian Gaine and longtime team president Jamey Rootes.

From his instrumental role in returning the NFL to Houston after the departure of the Oilers to Tennessee to his philanthropic contributions and warm, approachable personality, McNair was recalled fondly upon his death.

McNair is a seminal figure in Houston sports for bringing the NFL back to Houston. It’s not often mentioned these days, but at the time everyone assumed Los Angeles was going to get the expansion franchise that eventually became the Texans. He’ll be long remembered in Houston for that, and for his longtime civic and charitable participation. He also had a long history in Republican and conservative politics, none of which was mentioned in this story. That’s a topic for another time. For now, my condolences to the McNair family.

USOC moves to decertify USA Gymnastics

About time.

On Monday night, the U.S. Olympic Committee made a long-overdue announcement: It is taking steps towards decertifying USA Gymnastics by revoking its recognition as one of the USOC’s National Governing Bodies (NGBs).

Now, what’s to come is not going to be an overnight fix. Decertification is a complicated process — one that involves a review panel, a formal hearing, and a finding-of-fact before it becomes official. But the USOC has stressed its commitment to making sure that athletes are well-served during this time and that all training and competitions proceed as planned in the run-up to the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. Additionally, the USOC plans to play a part in building and fostering a revitalized, athlete-centric governing body for the sport. It’s a significant step toward true accountability and change.

However, hold the applause. It’s crucial to remember that the USOC is not the hero of this story. That honor is reserved for the brave sexual abuse survivors who have been calling for drastic measures of this kind for years.

The USOC had numerous opportunities where they could have — and, indeed, should have — stepped up to protect the athletes over whom they has responsibility. Time and time again, however, the USOC decided to do absolutely nothing.

Just go read the rest. The entire story of USA Gymnastics and its utter failure to do anything to protect its athletes from the predation of Larry Nasser is more than enough reason to blow it up and start over. This time, maybe put some actual gymnasts in leadership positions. The Chron and Deadspin have more.