TIME NFL

The NFL’s Epic Breach of Trust

Baltimore Ravens v Dallas Cowboys
Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens sits on the bench against the Dallas Cowboys in the first half of their preseason game at AT&T Stadium on August 16, 2014 in Arlington, Texas. Ronald Martinez—Getty Images

The Ray Rice case is a colossal mess. What did the NFL know, and when?

The NFL is drowning in disgrace. The league has faced heavy criticism on any number of issues over the past few years, but the bungling of the Ray Rice domestic violence incident, by both commissioner Roger Goodell and the Baltimore Ravens, is a new NFL low. Right now the actual games, given all these off-field antics, seem pretty beside the point.

Sure, the Ravens cut Rice, and Goodell suspended him indefinitely. But only when they had no other choice. After a new video surfaced Monday on TMZ.com — showing Rice clocking his then-fiancee out cold in an Atlantic City elevator — there was no conceivable circumstance in which Rice could take the field after his laughable two-game suspension was up. It’s hard enough to expunge Rice’s punch from your mind. His return would serve as an awful reminder, every time he touched the ball, of his now very public crime.

The NFL patted itself on the back in late July, when V.P. of labor policy Adolpho Birch tried to justify the two-game penalty to ESPN Radio’s Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic. “The discipline that was taken by the NFL is the only discipline that occurred with respect to Mr. Rice in this case,” Birch said. “Were he not an NFL player, I don’t know that he would have received punishment from any other source.” Since the courts only gave Rice a slap on the wrist — Rice was charged with a felony, but was able to enter a pretrial diversion program to avoid jail time — the NFL actually thought it was playing tough guy. Roger Goodell also said that he was “impressed” with Rice’s contrition.

“The way the NFL has responded is alarming,” says Seton Hall University law professor Jessica Miles, who specializes in domestic violence law. “Anyone who knows anything about domestic violence would not be surprised that the prosecution did not pursue the case. As an advocate of victim’s rights, I’m disappointed that it appears that the abuser got away with it. But I understand where the prosecutor is coming from.” If the victim does not press the case – Janay Palmer married Rice a day after his indictment — prosecutors must keep her right to autonomy in mind, says Miles. Also, losing such a trial could have devastating effect. “Abusive men could feel empowered ,” says Miles. “It could really hurt future victims.” With the video evidence, it doesn’t appear that Rice has much of a legal defense. “But as we all know, jury verdicts can sometimes surprise,” says Miles.

Rice’s contrition shouldn’t count for much either. “The very first thing abusers do is apologize,” says Miles. “It’s very, very typical. The NFL showed zero understanding of domestic violence. It’s like they didn’t even Google it.”

A few weeks ago, Goodell himself did admit that Rice’s two-game penalty was a mistake. It was especially embarrassing given that Cleveland’s Josh Gordon was suspended a year for smoking marijuana, which is legal in two states. Goodell created harsher punishments for future NFL offenders. So now, we play a game of who knew what, and when? The NFL says that it never saw the tape of Rice’s punch before today. But at least one respected NFL reporter says otherwise.

In July, SI’s Peter King wrote that the NFL had seen the tape, but on Monday clarified his claim to this: he trusted a source who assumed the NFL had viewed it. King’s admitted “lapse in reporting” aside, if the NFL hadn’t in fact seen the tape, why wouldn’t the League immediately refute the writing of one of the most widely-read NFL journalists in the country? If the NFL hadn’t seen any other video evidence except the tape released in February, just say so when Rice was first punished. Everyone knew the elevator tape was out there — casinos do tend to have them. Simple transparency always helps.

And no need to applaud the Ravens for finally cutting Rice: the team has been tone-deaf and foolish. Even if the team did not in fact see the new video before it went public, the Ravens and NFL officials knew the full well that the elevator scene was ugly. In May, the team hosted an ill-advised press conference with Rice and his wife in which Janay apologized for her “role in that night.” The Ravens conveniently tweeted that out.

After Rice’s two-game suspension, a Ravens PR official wrote a piece, posted on the official team website, explaining his fondness for Rice. At the start of training camp, Ravens coach John Harbaugh called Rice a “heck of a guy” and held up Rice’s penalty as a moral lesson for children. “He makes a mistake, alright,” Harbaugh said. “He’s gonna have to pay a consequence. It’s good for kids to understand that it works that way, and that’s how it works. That’s how it should be.”

People can backtrack all they want. The League’s popularity and profits can keep ballooning. But the Rice case drives something home: Don’t go trusting the NFL.

TIME tennis

A Little More Magic From Roger Federer

2014 US Open - Day 11
Roger Federer shakes hands with Gael Monfils of France after their men's singles quarterfinal at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 3, 2014. Federer defeated Monfils in five sets 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2. Julian Finney—Getty Images

The five-time U.S. Open champ fights from two sets down, and staves off two match points, to reach the tournament semifinals

The New York City crowd wanted this one badly. When Roger Federer hit a ball into the net, fans shut their eyes, as if witnessing a wreck. When he won a big point, they high-fived their friends like frat boys. Federer is aging, and his most sublime tennis is behind him. And this could be his last chance to win one more U.S. Open; it would be his first since his winning five straight championships, from 2004 through 2008.

These fans left Arthur Ashe Stadium enthralled. Federer came from two sets down, and staved off two match points in the fourth, to beat surging Frenchman Gael Monfils 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 on Thursday night at the U.S. Open. Monfils, wearing matching neon green shirts and sneakers, was enjoying the defining run of his career. He was two points away from his first U.S. Open semifinal. But he couldn’t close out Federer, donned in his black evening wear. Not that Monfils should rue it too long. Roger, it turns out, can still be Roger.

In the first two sets, the mishits weren’t typical Federer. He had 13 unforced errors in each of the first two sets, but settled down in the third, where he committed just a single unnecessary mistake. The fourth set produced the drama. Federer broke Monfils first, to go up 2-1. But after Monfils broke right back, he screamed like a madman before starting the next service game. Federer switched rackets, perhaps to stall Monfils’ fury. When Monfils held serve with an ace, he screamed some more.

Monfils had two match points at 5-4, with Federer on serve. “When guys wish you good luck before the match,” Federer says, “that’s when you hope it kicks in.”

After Federer fought off the match points, the stadium gave him an extended ovation. “I must say tonight was actually quite emotional for me,” Federer says. “I really thought the crowds were incredible. They definitely got me through the match.” In the next game, Monfils double faulted twice, giving Federer a break. Monfils is famous for losing focus; he was right on script. Federer then closed out the set; the crowd screamed some more.

In the fifth, Monfils botched a return, giving Federer a 2-0 lead. He slumped his shoulders; his body language said the match was over. Federer ended the deciding set in just 27 minutes. Monfils said he tried to keep his emotions in check. But the mental effort left him fatigued.

“Roger just jumped on me,” says Monfils. “He changes so many times. He starts with chipping very well. I think I handed it good. So then he sticks with longer points. It was 50-50, and then he tries to come to the net very often. It was a bit better for him. Then suddenly he starts to mix everything.

“You know, that’s why he’s the greatest player. Because he can do everything.”

A rematch of this year’s Wimbledon final — Federer-Djokovic — looks likely. Federer will face Marin Cilic, from Croatia, in one semi; Novak Djokovic will play Kei Nishikori, of Japan, in the other. CBS will broadcast its last men’s final on Monday. Since 1968, the network has broadcast the Open; ESPN takes everything over next year.

If Cilic-Nishikori is CBS’s last U.S. Open match, execs will wail. The New York fans will wail even louder.

They want Roger.

TIME tennis

American Weakness Is Glaring at the U.S Open

A general view of Arthur Ashe Stadium on Day Eight of the 2014 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Sept. 1, 2014 in the Queens.
A general view of Arthur Ashe Stadium on Day Eight of the 2014 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Sept. 1, 2014 in the Queens. Julian Finney—Getty Images

For the second straight year — and just second time in history — no American men's player made the fourth round of the U.S. Open. Patrick McEnroe, America's chief talent developer, is out. What now?

Thursday night’s Roger Federer-Gael Monfils match, in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, should be a beauty. Federer, 33, is trying to give the New York crowd one final — maybe — ride to a title. He’s the sentimental favorite. Monfils, a thrilling player, is on the verge of delivering on his promise, and truly contending for a Grand Slam. Novak Djokovic and Kei Nishikori are already through to the semis. Marin Cilic and Tomas Berdych are fighting for another spot Thursday afternoon. There’s plenty of talent, plenty of reason to watch.

And not an American in the bunch.

American tennis, particularly on the men’s side, has been in decline for quite some time. But right now, it’s at a low point. Only twice in the 134-year history of the U.S. Open has an American man failed to make the fourth round — this year, and last year. The last American man to win a Grand Slam title was Andy Roddick, back in 2003.

The American women are more encouraging. Serena Williams, 32, is still on top, and she has cruised into this year’s Open semis. And while she was the only American woman to reach the fourth round, a stable of younger players offer promise. For example, 15-year-old CiCi Bellis became the youngest player to win an Open match since 1996.

Still, the overall lack of results are glaring. And someone had to pay. Patrick McEnroe, head of the United States Tennis Association’s player development program, announced on Sept. 3 he was resigning from the post. McEnroe is an affable TV commentator, but his media commitments were a sore spot. How can someone be fully dedicated to developing players while holding down such a high-profile second job? The USTA, a non-profit organization, was reportedly paying McEnroe top-dollar: Nearly $875,000 in 2012, according to financial documents, and more than $1 million for each of the prior two years.

The bottom-line: McEnroe wasn’t delivering on the investment. He lives in the New York, while the USTA’s main training center is in Florida. The USTA is building a new $60 million facility in the Orlando area, and even McEnroe admits that his replacement should be based in central Florida.

Whoever gets the gig faces a harrowing challenge. Young athletes see so many Americans thriving in other sports. So why pick up a racquet? “Success breeds success,” says former U.S. pro Justin Gimelstob, a board member of the ATP tour. “Doubt breeds doubt.” Gimelstob says he’s in no position to second-guess McEnroe. “I don’t believe that systems create stars,” says Gimelstob. “Star players are unique. We can’t be looking for the USTA to create a U.S. Open champ. But a system can nurture talent.”

Gimelstob, naturally, is confident. “It will turn around,” he says. “We have the resources. The tennis landscape has changed. More people are playing around the world — it’s gotten so much more competitive. We had been on top for so long. Now we just have to fight five times as hard to get it back.”

 

 

 

TIME NFL

Dallas Cowboys Sign Michael Sam, Save NFL From Stupidity

Michael Sam
Former Missouri player Michael Sam, left, waves to fans has he and former teammate E.J. Gaines, right, are introduced during the first quarter of the South Dakota State-Missouri NCAA college football game on Aug. 30, 2014, in Columbia, Mo. L.G. Patterson—AP

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, never afraid of attention, signs the NFL's first openly gay player to practice squad. The team needs him

The whole thing was starting to stink. Michael Sam, after performing well during the preseason, really wasn’t good enough to earn a spot on any NFL roster? Not even as a practice player?

Leave it the one NFL owner who doesn’t mind a media “distraction” — sarcastic air quotes very intentional — to step up and sign Sam, the NFL’s first openly gay player. According to multiple reports, Sam will be added to the Dallas Cowboys practice squad, as long as he passes a physical. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones relishes the media attention that many teams fear will accompany Sam into the locker room. This is a guy who wanted to draft lighting rod Johnny Manziel, before his son talked him out of it. He told ESPN The Magazine writer Don Van Natta that he still regrets passing on Johnny Football. He built a ridiculously lavish stadium. He signed T.O.

Even better, Sam is no carnival barker; he’s the anti-T.O. This isn’t a publicity stunt. Sam makes football sense for the Cowboys, who are weak at defensive line. Though he’s starting on the practice squad, don’t be shocked to see Sam get a promotion.

Sam’s release from the St. Louis Rams, who drafted the University of Missouri star in the seventh round, was never going to be a shocker. That team had well-documented depth at defensive line. But after an impressive preseason in which he recorded three sacks, it seemed likely that some NFL team would pick him up, at least for their practice squad. The odds looked very, very favorable.

This year, 41 players, including Sam, were selected by NFL teams in the seventh and final round of the NFL draft. As of early Tuesday afternoon, 80% of them were slated to start the season on an NFL roster. Twenty-one players made the 53-man active roster, six more made practice squads, and six were placed on injured reserve/physically unable to perform lists.

What’s more, Adam Schefter of ESPN noted the following:

Three other defensive ends were picked in the seventh round. One, Ben Gardner from Stanford, is on Dallas’ injured list. The other two did not come from major football schools. Terrence Fede, of Marist College, and Shelby Harris of Illinois State, made the active rosters of the Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders, respectively. Sam was the SEC co-defensive player of the year at the University of Missouri; Fede and Harris are more physically imposing than Sam (Fede is 6’4″, 282 pounds, Harris is 6’2″, 288 pounds, Sam is 6’2″, 261 pounds).

It’s easy to think that seventh rounders are long-shots to make NFL rosters. But no, not this year: over half the players made the active team, and only 20% of them, including Sam, were unemployed as of early this afternoon. So why was Sam among the jobless, despite his strong pre-season performance? Despite being a pass-rush specialist in a pass-happy league that puts a premium on quarterback pressure? Bleacher Report NFL writer Mike Freeman surveyed some front office executive, and his findings were revealing:

In interviews with a number of team officials, I can’t find one who will actually say to me, “He can’t play.” They all point to the media and say he’s too big a distraction.

One general manager told me, “Teams want to sign Michael Sam but fear the media attention.”

Ah, the “distraction” issue. What an awful crutch. Sure, the media hasn’t always behaved gracefully here — look no further than ESPN’s sloppy reporting about Sam’s showering habits. (Not that the shower issue isn’t totally irrelevant. If Sam was refusing to shower with his teammates because he felt like the locker room was homophobic, that is certainly important and newsworthy. The problem was that ESPN’s report was so thinly sourced that the information the reporter shared — an unnamed player speculating that Sam was waiting to take a shower so teammates weren’t uncomfortable — wasn’t worth airing.)

But that report aside, the Rams seemed to survive the preseason intact, despite the Sam “distraction.” If NFL teams were indeed passing on Sam for their practice squads for non-football reasons — sure seemed that way — what an ugly move. At best, the “distraction” excuse is cowardly. What, an NFL team can’t handle a few extra cameras in the locker room because of Sam, cameras that would surely thin out once the season began and Sam went about his business? It’s not like he’s extending an open invitation for the media horde to ask him questions. People just happen to be interested in him. Sam was going to be denied an opportunity for reasons beyond his control. The only decision he made to “bring on” this attention was a very admirable one: being open about his sexuality, and thus serving as a role model for others.

At worst, the media is just a scapegoat. Pure bigotry was at play.

For now, though, these issues can be cast in the background. Jerry Jones bailed the NFL out, temporarily at least. Sam will get another shot.

A well-deserved one.

TIME NFL

The Easiest Call of Roger Goodell’s Career

2014 NFL Draft
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who admitted on Thursday that his punishment of Ray Race for domestic violence was too lenient, at the 2014 NFL Draft. Elsa—Getty Images

Apologizing for the Ray Rice error, and stiffening penalties for domestic abusers, was a no- brainer. Now, the real work begins

National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell talks a lot about integrity. Do the wrong thing, PacMan Jones and Ben Roethlisberger and Sean Payton, and you will be sidelined.

So Goodell’s decision to issue a two-game suspension for Ray Rice — the Baltimore Ravens running back who was caught on film dragging his unconscious fiancé out of an Atlantic City elevator after an altercation — was particularly noxious. Especially in a league that hands down year-long suspensions for smoking marijuana, a recreational habit that is not only relatively innocuous, but legal in two states.

Goodell, in a league-wide memo circulated on Thursday, admitted that, in the Rice affair, “I didn’t get it right.” So he reversed course, and instituted a new policy that calls for much harsher punishment for players who assault women — even a potential lifetime ban for a repeat offender. But there’s no need to call Goodell’s move bold or stunning, or give him a standing ovation.

Because it was the easiest call of his career.

After all, if Goodell is going to preach integrity, correcting the indefensible is no act of courage. “The Ray Rice decision was offensive,” says Joan Meier, legal director of the Domestic Violence Legal Empowerment and Appeals Project, and law professor at the George Washington University Law School. Under the new policy, a player who assaults a woman will be suspended six games; the commissioner retains his right to add to that punishment if the incident includes “violence involving a weapon, choking, repeated striking, or when the act is committed against a pregnant woman or in the presence of a child.” A first-time NFL offender could receive a longer suspension if he had a prior domestic violence incident before entering the league. The lifetime ban for the second offense does come with a caveat: a player may apply for reinstatement after a year, though “there will be no presumption or assurance that the petition will be granted.”

“This is the most positive action we’ve seen by the NFL and Mr. Goodell,” says Ruth Glenn, interim executive director for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “My gut reaction was one of real hope – for the first time in a long time, the NFL seems serious about trying to fight domestic violence”

One fear, says Meier, is that harsher penalties could deter victims from reporting abuse. “If a victim is financially dependent on the abuser, and his livelihood is completely taken away, she could suffer harm,” says Meier. So Meier is cheering the NFL’s willingness to give second offenders a chance to re-enter the league after a year. “That’s enough time for the perpetrator to really get his act together,” says Meier. “If the penalties are too draconian, you risk punishing the victim.”

On paper, the NFL’s intentions seem noble. But penalties alone won’t solve the problem. The league must prove this is more than a PR move. “Good for the NFL, and good for Mr. Goodell,” says Glenn. “But we’ll be watching. This can’t just be a policy. Players have to be responsible, and their teammates and coaches have to come forward if they witness any abuse, or just know something’s going on. The entire culture has to change.”

TIME tennis

Men More Likely to Make Dumb Decisions at U.S. Open

Western & Southern Open - Day 9
Roger Federer of Switzerland returns to David Ferrer of Spain during a final match on Day 9 of the Western & Southern Open at the Linder Family Tennis Center in Cincinnati on Aug. 17, 2014 Jonathan Moore—Getty Images

In tennis, men's players embarrass themselves more often than their female counterparts, according to a new study that analyzed data from line-call challenges. The authors chalk up these gender differences to overconfidence, pride and shame

This year’s U.S. Open, which starts Aug. 25, is sure to surprise. The defending men’s champion, Rafael Nadal, has withdrawn from the tournament because of a wrist injury. Does Roger Federer, who won five U.S. Open titles in a row from 2004 to 2008, have one last run in him? Will Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic take his first title since 2011? Will a new player, like Milos Raonic, the 6-ft. 5-in. Canadian big server who’s looked strong in the hard-court tune-ups, break through?

On the women’s side, Serena Williams is the wildest of wild cards. She’s the two-time defending champ and still No. 1 in the world. But she’s been strangely inconsistent this season, and the U.S. Open is her first Grand Slam appearance since Wimbledon, site of her bizarre appearance at a doubles match with her sister. The sport is still buzzing from that incident, in which a dazed Williams couldn’t serve the ball over the net. It was equal parts strange and scary.

This year’s U.S. Open is pretty unpredictable. But if a new academic study, to be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Sports Economics, holds serve, this much is guaranteed: the men’s players will embarrass themselves more often than their female counterparts.

The study — conducted by economics professors from Deakin University in Melbourne and Sogang University in Seoul — examined line-call challenge data for 331 professional men’s matches, and 149 women’s matches, from 2006 to 2008. The major finding: as the competition got tighter, men were more likely to screw up. During set tiebreakers, female players were more likely to make the correct challenge call, and men more likely to make an incorrect call. (There’s a risk to making a challenge — if the Hawkeye system shows the ump was correct, you lose a challenge and the potential to correct a future call. In the U.S. Open, players are allotted three challenges, plus one extra during the tiebreak, per set.)

What’s more, during tiebreaks, 34% of men’s challenges are “embarrassing” — defined by the researchers as questioning a correct call when the ball is more than 50 mm off the line. Only 9% of women’s challenges are “embarrassing,” a statistically significant difference. Men are more likely to make these stupid challenges when the ball is on the other side of the court, which is a riskier call since the net impedes their view. The higher a man’s ranking, the more likely he is to make an embarrassing line-call challenge. For women, the opposite holds true: the higher the ranking, the more prudent the decision to challenge a call.

The authors chalk up these gender differences to overconfidence, pride and shame. Men are more prone to cockiness, and think that their perspective is always correct, even when the naked eye can see that a ball is in or out, they say. Men also possess a disproportionate amount of pride. They can’t bear to lose, and are more susceptible to making an irrational attempt to reverse an umpire’s judgment. “It’s an ego thing,” says tennis great Martina Navratilova, winner of 18 Grand Slam singles titles.

And if the crowd, and millions watching on television, see them making an embarrassing challenge, men won’t feel as much shame as women. They don’t see the same downside to screwing up. “Guys just don’t care as much about losing challenges,” Navratilova tells TIME. “Women are more concerned about being embarrassed.”

Or, as the authors of the study put it, “at crucial moments of the match, such as tiebreaks … male players try to win at all costs, while female players accept losing more gracefully.”

TIME Little League World Series

Chicago Team Could Be First All African-American Squad to Win Little League World Series

LLWS Baseball
The Jackie Robinson West Little League baseball team from Chicago participates in the opening ceremony of the 2014 Little League World Series tournament in South Williamsport, Pa., Aug. 14, 2014. Gene J. Puskar—AP

Jackie Robinson West Is Shooting To Become First All African-American Team to Win Little League World Series

Updated 11:15 a.m. ET

Mo’ne Davis is gone from this year’s Little League World Series. So now let’s talk a bit about a kid named Pierce Jones.

In any other year, when a girl isn’t throwing the first shutout in the history of the Little League World Series, or when she’s not becoming the first Little Leaguer to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated, Jones’ name would be much more familiar. In the opening game for Jackie Robinson West Little League, hailing from Chicago’s South Side, Jones smacked three home runs and a triple. He led off another game with a long ball a few days later. Jones’ Jackie Robinson team defeated Davis’ Taney squad 6-5 on Thursday, to put the kids from the Windy City in the U.S. Championship Game on Saturday. They will face the undefeated Mountain Ridge team from Las Vegas.

Jackie Robinson is trying to make a little bit of baseball history too. If the Chicago squad can get by Las Vegas and win the championship game on Sunday, it would become the first all-African American team to win the Little League World Series. “I don’t know anyone here,” says Chicago White Sox executive vice president Kenny Williams, “who hasn’t been watching them.” In fact, last Monday more than five times as many Chicagoans watched the Little League team on ESPN than watched the White Sox play the Baltimore Orioles on Comcast Sports Net.

The kids have given their city a nice psychic lift. “Unfortunately, we’ve woken up to bad news far too often,” says Williams. “Everyone is aware of the murder rate in Chicago, particularly in western and southern parts of the city. Yes, these things are happening, but there are so many superstar people in these communities doing so many positive things. People volunteering to help at-risk youth, kids playing and learning from sports. And these kids, playing baseball, have helped show this city in such a different light. They are changing perceptions.”

And they could give baseball a boost. “This is so great for baseball in so many different ways,” says Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig. “It’s really been a thrill to watch.”

It’s no secret that the percentage of African-American players in the big leagues has drastically declined: 8.3% of players on this year’s opening day rosters were African-American. Back in 1975, 27% of all players were African-American. (Though one baseball researcher, Mark Amour, says the highest percentage of African-Americans in the major leagues was 19% in 1986; Amour argues the 1975 number included all dark-skinned players, including Latino-Americans.) Though a single Little League team can’t singlehandedly reverse this trend, “everything that has happened, having these kids play in prime-time on national television, and getting exposure in different media outlets, is surely raising awareness about baseball in African-American communities,” says New York Mets right fielder Curtis Granderson, who grew up in the Chicago area and donated $5 million to build a baseball stadium at his alma mater, the University of Illinois. Curtis Granderson Stadium also hosts events for 38 youth baseball organizations in the area. “It gets kids’ attention,” says Granderson, who is African-American. ”Wow, there’s an all-black baseball team? I haven’t seen that before.'”

Baseball’s fight for the attention of African-American athletes — and fans — faces serious hurdles. Travel baseball, which is more important than ever on the youth level, is prohibitively expensive, and doesn’t have the same level of grassroots investments — read, sneaker company — as a sport like basketball to offset some of these costs. Then, there’s the “cool/marketing factor,” as Granderson puts it. Granderson points to social media: LeBron James has 14.2 million Twitter followers. Dwayne Wade has 4.38 million. At cafeterias across the country, young African-Americans are talking about LeBron and D-Wade, not Clayton Kershaw (202,000 Twitter followers) and Mike Trout (520,000). So as kids start specializing in a single sport at younger and younger ages, African-Americans are bound to pick basketball or football, both of which offer a quicker, more glamorous path to the pros. Play a little college ball in front of millions, and skip all the bus rides in the minors, which weed out tons of prospects.

If African-Americans no longer feels a connection to baseball, “you’ve got to put a question mark on the game’s status as the national pastime,” says Granderson. “I’m just very excited for these Chicago kids, it’s been amazing how they’ve showcased their skills. And hopefully, the conversation about African-Americans and baseball continues, and some positives for our sport will come out of it.”

TIME Baseball

Why Can’t Girls Play Baseball?

Mo'ne Davis
Philadelphia's Mo'ne Davis drives in a run with a single to right field off Pearland pitcher Clayton Broeder during the first inning of a baseball game at the Little League World Series tournament in South Williamsport, Pa., Sunday, Aug. 17, 2014. Gene J. Puskar—AP

Mo'ne Davis is the star of the Little League World Series. But odds are, she won't even play baseball in high school. Girls should have more opportunities to take part in the national pastime.

Be sure to watch Sports Illustrated cover girl Mo’ne Davis, the 13-year-old pitching sensation from Philadelphia who on Friday became the first girl to throw a shutout at the Little League World Series, while you can. Because if her baseball career follows that of most girls who love the sport, it will be over by high school.

For young girls playing sports like basketball, soccer, and lacrosse, there’s a traditional path to high school success: girls’ teams. In these sports, and others, athletes can even earn a college scholarship. But baseball, America’s pastime, is a strange exception. The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) is not aware of a single school-sponsored girls’ baseball team anywhere in the United States.

Sure, girls can play softball in high school and college. But while softball does have bats and bases and other similarities to baseball — consider it baseball’s close cousin — it’s a still a fundamentally different game.

“We’re fighting a culture that’s decided that softball is an equivalent sport to baseball,” says Justine Sigeal, founder of Baseball For All, a non-profit that provides opportunities for girls and women to play the sport. “If softball and baseball were equivalent, imagine changing [Major League Baseball] to softball. It’s a ridiculous idea.”

Siegal says there are 100,000 girls playing youth baseball. But according the most recent participation survey from the NHFS, only 1,259 girls played high school baseball during the 2012-2013 academic year — and all of them were competing against boys. “We know that 99,000 girls didn’t just lose their passion for playing baseball,” says Siegal. “Girls are not encouraged to play baseball. And if you tell a girl she’s not encouraged to play baseball, what else won’t she be encouraged to do?”

Just 0.27% of high school baseball players are girls, per NHFS data. Some of them do succeed against boys, and if an exceptional talent like Davis — who is slated to pitch on Wednesday night, in the U.S. semifinal — does decide to stick with the sport in high school, she certainly could keep thriving. But she’d be the exception. “So many girls are bullied off of teams,” says Siegal. “Sometimes it’s the players, but mostly it’s coaches and other parents doing the damage. Usually it’s the adults.”

Sarah Hudek, who just finished her junior year pitching for the varsity at George Ranch High School in Richmond, Texas, near Houston, get more stares than anything. “But I’m used to them now,” she says. “It used to bother me more when I was younger.” When she’s warming up at games, she can still see an occasional opponent laughing. “That just puts me in a good mindset,” says Hudek. “Get on the field with me, and see what you think after.”

On August 15, the lefty Hudek, whose best pitch is a change-up, announced a verbal commitment to play baseball at Bossier Parish Community College in Louisiana. “I love watching the kids go back to the dugout after she gets them out, and seeing the ribbing they get,” says Greg Kobza, Hudek’s high school coach. “It gets in their head, and really gives us an advantage.”

Throughout their careers, female baseball players are asked when they are switching to softball. “The question is more obnoxious than it is hostile,” says Dean Dinnebeil, whose daughter, Sara Tobias, is entering Berkeley Carroll High School, in New York City, this fall. She plans to join the baseball team there. Though many girls enjoy softball, others just prefer baseball’s longer bases, bigger fields, and smaller ball. Pitchers in particular often don’t want to switch, since they’ve spent years mastering a skill set. “Throwing underhand is very different from throwing overhand,” says Sara, 14. “When I was younger, a lot of girls were switching to softball, but I liked Little League baseball, and the boys were nice to me. I saw no reason to switch.”

Imagine a basketball player spending her entire life learning how to shoot one way, and being told that if she wanted to play for her high school team, she’d have to learn to shoot underhand because that’s how the girl’s game is played. If she didn’t, she’d have to compete against the bigger, stronger boys, diminishing her odds of success. Sounds absurd. But that’s essentially the choice many baseball players have to make. “I tried pitching softball, and it felt terrible,” says Hudek. “I’m more at home on the mound. It’s my natural place.”

In baseball, girls do have a better chance at succeeding against boys than they would in, say, basketball or soccer, since baseball is much less physical than these other games. Sure, a girl is much less likely than a boy to smack a 450-foot home run or throw 90 miles-per-hour. But if a girl has good location and movement on her pitches, or can make solid contact, or has a good glove, she can still be effective on the baseball field.

And if girls really want to level the playing field, they can do what Chelsea Baker did — learn to throw a knuckleball. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 6’3,” 225-pound dude or a 5’4″, 125-lb gal like Baker, who is going into her senior year at Durant High School in Plant City, Florida: if you can make that slow ball flutter, you can get people out. Baker went 3-0 during her junior season, with a 0.74 ERA. In June, the Tampa Bay Rays invited her to throw batting practice before a game. She gave a couple of guys fits.

At Durant, Baker changes in the boys’ locker room, but has her own storage room–with her name on the door–to give her the appropriate privacy. “I walk out, and I’m right there with everybody,” says Baker. “Inside, I have a mirror and stuff with hangers. They set it up nice, I like it a lot. I have a lot more room with my stuff than they do.”

Yes, girls can compete with boys on the baseball field. Still, many players would prefer traditional opportunities in high school — on all-girls teams. “It’s kind of frustrating,” says Kelsie Whitmore, a center fielder and pitcher who will be a junior at Temecula (Calif.) Valley High School this year. She plans on playing for the varsity. “There are teams for different genders in every other sport, but not for baseball.”

“It would just be easier,” says Hudek, who changes in the softball locker room at George Ranch. “As much as they try to make you feel like one of the guys, you can’t really be. You miss out on the locker room bonding.”

If there were girls teams, however, these players would surely miss bothering the boys. “Sometimes you get these rude kids, they get to the plate, and you just know that they think I’m nothing, that it’s stupid that I’m out there,” says Baker, the knuckleballer. “And my catcher goes ‘shut up, dude, she’s going to strike out you out.’ And then I do it. That’s got to be the best feeling in the world.”

TIME robin williams

Watch Robin Williams Explain Sports

Robin Williams at the Friars Roast for Whoopi Goldberg at the Hilton Hotel in New York City on October 7, 1993.
Robin Williams at the Friars Roast for Whoopi Goldberg at the Hilton Hotel in New York City on October 7, 1993. Walter McBride—Corbis

The late comic went on memorable riffs about golf, baseball, and other games

No one tackled the absurdity of sports quite like Robin Williams. Here’s the comic legend riffing on golf, baseball and other games during his stand-up routines.

(Warning: Lots of NSFW stuff here).

Golf

Oh, so that’s why the shots are called strokes.

The Winter Olympics

Put on a glove, man.

Football

What happens when Tom Landry coaches ballet, and a choreographer coaches football?

Soccer

Williams’ take on flopping and yellow cards, with a detour to Lance Armstrong — pre-PED scandal — and hockey.

Baseball

Baseball had a cocaine problem in the 1980s, and the third-base coach wasn’t helping.

TIME College Sports

Landmark College Sports Verdict: Harsh, but in the End Puzzling

Ed O'Bannon Jr.
Former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon Jr. sits in his office in Henderson, Nev., Sept. 18, 2010. Isaac Brekken—AP

The judge's injunction in the Ed O'Bannon cases leaves plenty room to further challenge the NCAA's business model down the road

Since the pace of change in college sports is glacial, consider the events of this year – even this past week – a revolution. The latest came down on Friday: a federal judge in the Northern District of California handed down her much-anticipated ruling in the Ed O’Bannon anti-trust case. In a crushing defeat for the NCAA, Judge Claudia Wilken picked apart the NCAA’s long-cherished – though clearly illogical – reasons for failing to fairly compensate college athletes in the sports that produce the bulk of the revenues. Big-time college football players and Division 1 basketball players are now able to earn a cut of licensing revenues from the use of their name, image, and likeness; schools can cap this pay, but the minimum cap is $5,000 per year. This money will be put in a trust that an athlete can access once he or she has graduated or left the school.

The NCAA will very likely appeal the ruling. “We disagree with the Court’s decision that the NCAA rules violate antitrust laws,” NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said in a statement. Wilken said that her injunction could not be stayed during any legal challenge, but would not go into effect until beginning of the next football and basketball recruiting cycles, which get going during the summer of 2015. If the case survives appeal, all future athletes who leave school having earned at least $20,000 during a four-year career owe a debt to O’Bannon. The former UCLA hoops star, who won a national title in 1995, first brought the case forward in 2009 after noticing that his image was being used in a college basketball video game, yet he didn’t receive a dime.

The NCAA has been smacked around. The courts – and some of the schools themselves – have recognized the fundamental hypocrisy of college sports: revenues have soared, and coaches can make millions, while compensation for athletes is limited to a scholarship. Free tuition, room and board is valuable, surely, but many players are worth even more. Wilken also determined that the NCAA could not cap direct compensation below the cost of attendance, which is an extra $2,000 to $5,000 above the athletic scholarship grant covering personal expenses like transportation, clothing and entertainment. The schools, however, had already moved on that one: the NCAA voted on Thursday to allow schools in the Big 5 power conferences – the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC – to set some of their own rules, and these schools are prepared to offer their athletes these cost-of-attendance stipends. Schools in the other Division 1 conferences are welcome to join them.

In March, a regional director for the National Labor Relations Board ruled that football players at Northwestern University are indeed employees, and directed the school to hold a unionization vote. The board’s national office has yet to weigh in on the school’s appeal. Unions could help players gain than even more money at the bargaining table.

“If you look at the Northwestern union decision and the O’Bannon case, here you have two significant departures from the way judges and the government traditionally view at the role of student-athletes in college athletics,” says Gabe Feldman, director of the Tulane University Sports Law Program. “If this is the trend, it could be the beginning of the end of the NCAA’s model,” Feldman added.

Wilken’s injunction alone did not entirely blow up the NCAA’s business. Schools can still cap trust payments at $5,000 per year and prevent athletes from receiving third-party endorsements. But her condemnation of the NCAA is sweeping, and almost invites a future plaintiff to try to tear everything down and create a true open market for college athletes.

Some damning examples from the text of the ruling:

  • “The evidence … demonstrates that student-athletes are harmed by the price-fixing agreement among FBS football and Division 1 basketball schools.” In other words, if you’ve played big-time college football or basketball, particularly during the extreme growth period of the last decade or so, you’ve gotten totally screwed. In this section, Wilken notes that the NCAA’s own economic expert called the organization a “cartel” in a textbook he wrote. The NCAA’s effort to keep operating as-is comes off as desperate and silly.
  • “Although the NCAA sought to establish the importance of these restrictions by asserting that they increase consumer interest in FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) and Division 1 basketball, its evidence supporting this assertion is unpersuasive.” Finally, we can put to bed the defense that paying college players would cause fans to stop watching games or going to them. After all, what else are you going to do on fall Saturdays? Plus, tailgates are a way of life, and fun as hell. Wilken cites the Olympics and Major League Baseball to back her up. People fretted about allowing professionals into the Olympics, and fought baseball free agency, under the guise that more money for athletes would ruin everything. Yet, the Olympics remain extremely popular, and baseball is economically strong.
  • “The number of schools participating in FBS football and Division 1 basketball has increased steadily over time and continues to increase today … Although [NCAA president Mark] Emmert and other NCAA and conference officials say that this trend is not the result of increased Division 1 revenues, but, rather, because of the schools’ philosophical commitment to amateurism, this theory is implausible.” Translate ”implausible” from the legalese and you have a much stronger word: a federal judge has officially called B.S. on amateurism, which has pretty much been the bedrock of the NCAA’s existence. Schools clamor to play big-time sports to win games and raise a school’s profile and attract more money. If they truly cared about some idyllic, love-of-the-game “amateur” ideal, they’d move down into Division 3. Of course, no schools have done that, and wouldn’t take such action if they had to pay players more, despite protests that these payments are too expensive. “The NCAA’s assertion that schools would leave FBS and Division 1 for financial reasons if the challenged restraints were removed is not credible,” Wilken writes. Ouch, more rough rhetoric. How does Wilken know that FBS schools will still play on? One of the NCAA’s own witnesses, University of South Carolina president Harris Pastides, said as much, testifying that his school “would probably continue to compete in football and men’s basketball” if current compensation caps were lifted. The NCAA has a witness problem.

One key question does arise from Wilken’s finding: If the NCAA’s current payment cap is anti-competitive and harms athletes, why is the cap on a trust fund, somewhat arbitrarily set at $5,000 per year, not anti-competitive? While Wilken goes on for pages ripping apart the NCAA’s arguments with strong evidence, the support for her own assertion that compensation limits are justified is far less convincing.

In the ruling, for example, Wilken addresses the main concern about a true open labor market: “These administrators noted, depending on how much compensation was ultimately awarded, some student-athletes might receive more money from the school than their professors. Student-athletes might be more inclined to separate themselves from the broader campus community by living and socializing off campus.”

Wilken then brings up the flaws of such thinking. “It is not clear that any of the potential problems identified by the NCAA’s witnesses would be unique to student athletes.” Yup, there are plenty of kids on college campuses with lush trust funds and nice cars and access to spending money on college campuses. Most of them haven’t earned it. That’s fine. But if a kid who has worked his tail off playing football or basketball, who might be from a poor family, who’s helping generate millions for the school, is paid a market wage and sets foot on campus with some cash? That’s somehow offensive.

The judge goes here with her line of questioning. “In fact, when the Court asked Dr. Emmert whether other wealthy students – such as those from rich families or start successful businesses during school – raise all of the same problems for campus relations, he replied that they did.” What, really? Haven’t heard of the rich-kid scourge tearing apart college campuses. Wilken continues: “It is also not clear why paying student-athletes would be any more problematic for campus relations than paying other students who provide services to the university, such as members of the student government or school newspaper.”

In three sentences, Wilken legitimizes the arguments pay-for-play advocates have been making for years. So her big conclusion is … “Nonetheless, the Court finds that certain limited restrictions on student-athlete compensation may help integrate student-athletes into the academic communities of their schools, which may in turn improve the schools’ education product.”

What? Here’s another way to read this part of the ruling. Wilken: “Athletes should be paid. Athletes should be paid. Athletes should be paid. So we’ll pay them, but set limits. Why? Err … well, because, ‘nonetheless?’”

After this puzzling paragraph, she does site some justification for her finding. She refers to a survey in which many respondents said they would be less likely to watch college athletics if players were paid $20,000 or $50,000 per year. Wilken supposes that respondents would say they’d keep watching college sports if they had been given a lower figure in the survey – like, say, $5,000 per year. Wilken might be correct. But assumed answers to a survey is pretty weak evidence to support a legal ruling.

She gives some weight to the testimony of Stanford Athletic Director Bernard Muir, who said, “Where I set the dollar limit, you know, that varies, but it does concern me when we’re talking about six figures, seven figures in some cases.” Muir, however, is far from an independent witness. Stanford is a member of the NCAA. So we’re setting compensation caps because an employer would rather not pay an employee big money? Of course Muir is not comfy; he’s management, and every employer on the planet tries to keep labor costs as low as possible. And by the way, would a six, seven figure paycheck be as concerning to the athlete who actually received it?

Plus, by bringing up baseball to knock down the NCAA, Wilken undermines her own arguments. Yes, free agency showed that players making money would not destroy the sport. In fact, free agents compete in an open market, make millions and millions of dollars – and baseball is still popular. So why wouldn’t college sports still be popular, if the athletes – most of whom would make far, far less than pro baseball players – had the opportunity to maximize their wealth?

Such unanswered questions could be tackled by future plaintiffs – and their lawyers. Wilken, maybe by design, has left grist for more legal challenges to the college sports model. One suit already filed, and likely boosted by the O’Bannon ruling, is an anti-trust claim led by high-profile sports labor lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, who helped NFL players gain free agency. He’s essentially seeking the same for college players.

The next Ed O’Bannon, now’s your time.

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