Friday LinkThink

Current goings-on and other interesting things.

  1. What will the Ivy League’s fall sports decision mean for college football?
  2. A W.N.B.A. Owner Clashes With Players on Protests
  3. Big Ten Will Play Fall Sports Only Within Conference, if at All
  4. Stanford Permanently Cuts 11 Sports Amid Coronavirus Pandemic
  5. Scrabble players move toward banning 200+ slurs from tournament play (kinda surprised many of these were allowed, but can’t say I know much about Scrabble tournaments)
  6. Questions emerge about sports draining public resources

The Washington NFL Team Gets a New Identity. Finally

It took long enough, but it looks like it’s finally happening: the Washington, DC NFL franchise is abandoning its racist name and visual identity. This is a good thing and long overdue. Pressure to ditch the slur/name has been mounting for decades, but the team and Dan Snyder, their notoriously unlikeable owner, have long resisted, even trotting out dubious surveys to claim that “hey look, Native Americans are OK with this!”

Movements to change Native/Indigenous mascots have gained steam in recent years, especially at the scholastic and intercollegiate level, both in the US and Canada. Of course, there are critics, who claim that such imagery honors Indigenous peoples and that changing names and mascots is just another manifestation of over-reaching political correctness. To these critics I say: nope, move along. Native imagery in sports and popular culture has very real consequences for Native/Indigenous youth, the most vulnerable population of our most vulnerable minority group. Here’s the abstract from a paper compiling four research studies, led by Stephane Fryberg, currently at the University of Michigan:

Four studies examined the consequences of American Indian mascots and other prevalent representations of American Indians on aspects of the self-concept for American Indian students. When exposed to Chief Wahoo, Chief Illinwek, Pocahontas, or other common American Indian images, American Indian students generated positive associations (Study 1, high school) but reported depressed state self-esteem (Study 2, high school), and community worth (Study 3, high school), and fewer achievement-related possible selves (Study 4, college). We suggest that American Indian mascots are harmful because they remind American Indians of the limited ways others see them and, in this way, constrain how they can see themselves.

full article here.

We can complement this research with some common sense: social enterprises shouldn’t have racist names, mascots, or imagery. Simple enough. American pro sports organizations aren’t traditional “firms”, with mere fiduciary duties to shareholders. They are the beneficiaries of public monies for stadium construction projects, a variety of special legal dispensations at the state and federal levels, and built their empires via generous deals with a publicly regulated broadcast system. On top of tall that, they are vastly influential, especially to our youth. Maybe they shouldn’t be, but they are.

Some related notes:

  • The Cleveland Indians also seem to be moving toward a name change. The Atlanta Braves say they won’t change their name, but are revisiting the use of Native tropes, such as the Tomahawk Chop. The Chicago Blackhawks say they won’t change their name.
  • The NCAA banned Native mascots 15 years ago, but a handful of special exemptions have been granted. Things get murky here, as some schools essentially buy tribal endorsements, as is the case of the University of Utah (the Utes) and Florida State University (the Seminoles).
  • For a great read on this complex subject, check out: Billings and Black, Mascot Nation: The Controversy over Native American Representations in Sports

The Risks of Putting Our Faith in Sports

We often like to put the sports world on a pedestal, pointing to they ways in which sports lead the way in social change. Perhaps most famous is the story of Jackie Robinson and the integration of MLB, which came well before the peak of the larger Civil Rights Movement. When the history of our current era is written, I expect that the protest movement launched by Colin Kaepernick will be framed as a critical juncture.

A few months ago, it felt like many of us began taking Covid more seriously in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s positive test and the mid-game stoppage of the NBA season. If healthy athletes were at risk, so were the rest of us. But perhaps our faith in sporting institutions can be misplaced: I fear that the steady march of professional sports leagues attempts to resume play instilled a false sense of confidence in the public at large. If it could be safe to play, then it must be safe for the rest of us to resume life as usual. Today, with the virus raging across the country, it’s clear that many of us were too quick to restart. And with a slew of positive tests emerging from across the sports world, it looks like the leagues were pushing too hard as well. If these leagues, with their near-infinite resources, can’t contain this thing, what does that mean for the rest of us? The leagues are still pushing forward, but maybe they shouldn’t be.

We long for the return of games as a symbol of a larger return to normalcy, but there has been nothing normal about the structures put into place for safe return to play. And those structures aren’t working. I understand the myriad motivations for the return to play, but it pains me to say that we probably shouldn’t be, save for the precious few sports that can truly pull it off safely. Given their influential place in American society, the most ethical thing these organizations could have done was to press pause for the year and direct their resources to serving their communities. But it’s a business and I get it. My hope now shifts to transparency, that seeing the lengths leagues and teams have to go to approach safe operations offers lessons to the rest of us about how seriously we should be taking things. I hope that the truncated seasons go off without any major catastrophe and I hope that we learn from their struggles as much as we enjoy their programming.

Holiday week downtime: Sign up for the Weekly Review!

On account of the holiday and some summer school work, I’ll be taking a bit of a break from the blog this week, but I’ll be back on Monday July 6th. In the meantime, please consider signing up for my newsletter, the SportsThink Weekly Review. Each week, I share my top 5 sports reads of the week, as well as a digest of the week on SportsThink, and other news, notes, and recommendations. The newsletter goes out every Friday, but will reach inboxes on Thursday this week, with an absolutely massive, 4th of July special edition, featuring links to stories and videos of some of my favorite sporting Americans. It would mean the world to me if you’d subscribe and possibly share the link with another sports fan or two.

Happy 4th everyone, stay safe!!

Team Sports Return Tomorrow, Here’s What Comes Next

Just a quick update on the sports calendar as we know it…although surging US COVID cases may alter this in the coming weeks. Women’s pro soccer is the first team sport to return, with the NWSL kicking off their Challenge Cup tournament in Utah. Of course, golf, NASCAR, the UFC, boxing, and the PBR are already back. Here’s the timeline of other expected returns:

July 5: Formula One

July 8: MLS is Back Tournament

July 10: NHL training camps open

July 23-34: MLB Opening Day

July 24: WNBA expected to start abbreviated regular season

July 25: Premier Lacross League’s Championship Series tournament

July 30: NBA expected to restart the unfinished 19-20 season.

Is the Absence of Live Fans Helping Golfers? Who else might it help?

Photo by Veronica Benavides on Unsplash

An interesting short piece from Axios. In short:

In the two weeks since the PGA Tour returned, players have recorded notably low scores, suggesting the fanless environment could be helping them focus.

I certainly think that this is a factor, but I also wonder if the extra time off has also been helpful. Even if they kept up with their regular training, a lack of travel and other activities likely means that the golfers are simply better rested than usual, which can be a huge difference maker.

It will be interesting to see how these two factors play out in other sports as they return without fans. For example, the soccer world has attributed lackluster World Cup performances to players who played a high volume of games in the preceding club season: if your team went deep in tournament and cup play–on top of the rigors of the regular season–you might just be physically spent by the time the big tournament rolled around. I’m quite curious as to how the extra time off will impact NBA minutes and shooting accuracy late in games, as well as pitcher’s stamina in MLB.

As for the lack of fans in team sports, there are a variety of implications. Some athletes will likely focus better in the fanless environment, while others may struggle if they are accustomed to feeding off fan energy. Early results from German soccer suggest that empty stadiums have neutralized home field advantage; such an advantage is already out the door in the “bubble” format being pursued by the US pro leagues. Finally, in addition to fan energy (or a lack thereof), there is a physiological factor at play: what players’ see as they play the game will be radically different. The parallel here is the NCAA basketball Final Four, where poor shooting is often explained by the games being played in retrofitted non-basketball facilities, making for radically different optics. Thus: will seats without fans cause issues of depth perception, undermining years of muscle memory and eye coordination, and bring down shooting percentages? They might, but it certainly won’t stop us from watching whenever things start back up.

Congrats to Ryan Murtha!

Hats off to UT PhD student Ryan Murtha for winning this year’s R. Scott Kretchmar student essay prize from International Association for the Philosophy of Sport, one of the most prestigious awards in sport academia. Ryan won for his paper entitled, “Untangling the Differences Between Live and Filmed Sports, or Why Are Sports Movies Bad?” I’m proud to say that the paper began its life in my graduate ethics course, so I’ll take 1% of the credit here! Ryan’s win is all the more impressive because it is outside his primary field of history. You can follow Ryan on Twitter and should definitely check out his blog, Talkin’ Bout Praxis.

LinkThink Special Edition: Sport and Geopolitics in the Arab World

A couple months ago (or what feels like a decade in pandemic time), UFC head honcho Dana White made the headlines with the idea of a “Fight Island,” ostensibly a private island where the organization could return to producing events as quickly as possible. While this never took off, it has now been reconfigured, with next month’s series of UFC events in Abu Dhabi now dubbed “Fight Island.” This is not the manifestation of White’s early-pandemic vision of some quasi-dystopian oasis of violence: what most are calling Fight Island is Yas Island, a man-made resort island in Abu Dhabi, a locale that has previously hosted multiple UFC events. The buzz surrounding the upcoming fights, as well as Saudi Arabia’s contentious bid to take over Newcastle United FC in the English Premier League, offers a chance to reflect on the growing role of sports in the Middle East.

As the slew of links below suggest, there is much to think about in this context. But first there’s the question: why are these countries so focused on building their sports portfolios, whether in the form of foreign team ownership or mega-event production? The answer is two-fold and unsurprising: money and politics. First, there is the obvious economic angle: as the world grinds away from oil-dependency, these rich states are scrambling to diversify their interests, in part by reinventing themselves as tourist destinations with a range of cultural offerings. It’s not just spending on sports, but a range of arts, entertainment, and leisure investments. Second, the sports diplomacy and soft power angle: sports are a key means of building an international reputation and positive “brand” image, one often reliant upon the seemingly global acceptance of the shaky idea that sports are somehow above politics and other ugly stuff. In hosting big-time sports events, nations bring themselves positive international PR, an excuse to bring influential people together (again, in allegedly apolitical contexts), and attract international investment and partnerships in large-scale infrastructural projects (yes, this circles back to the economy, as most things do.).


  1. Starting with the topical: here’s a really nice overview of the UFC/Yas Island project, including fight details, corona protocols, and a history of the UFC at the site. Here’s the latest on the Saudi takeover attempt of Newcastle United, which had hit a roadblock due to an ongoing piracy scandal/proxy battle with Qatar (about which I wrote a short post about previously).

  2. To dive deeper into the background of sport and soft power in the region: here’s a timely overview of soccer-specific efforts across the region from USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy. For Saudi Arabia specifically, there’s this piece I wrote last year, when tensions arose around a WWE event in Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Khashoggi scandal. Qatar, while not in the headlines at the moment, has been a major player in this realm, having successfully secured the 2022 FIFA World Cup, an event that is becoming a bigger and bigger deal as sports will remain decidedly abnormal for at least another year. (If you’re wondering how the Gulf State somehow secured the crown jewel of the sporting world…there are serious allegations that it was not all above board.) This overview from the Middle East Institute is a nice introduction to the country’s strategy.

  3. Even when mega-brands and wealthy nations are involved, plans don’t always materialize. To wit: Spanish soccer club Real Madrid’s ambitious and failed attempt to place a branded luxury island in the emirate of Ras al Khaimah. If you have a subscription to the Athletic, this is an excellent deep dive on how things fell apart. If you don’t, this article will suffice.

  4. It is hardly a surprise that not everyone thinks this is all fun and games. Critics accuse the Gulf States of “sportswashing,” a neologism coined by Amnesty International. The term means what it sounds like: using sports to obscure an undesirable reputation, particularly in the realm of human rights. The journalist Karim Zidan is probably the best author on the subject. Here’s his take on US-Saudi sports relations and a detailed critique of Morocco. If you’re in more of a listening mood, here’s a recent podcast featuring Zidan, wherein he covers a lot of this territory in only 20 minutes. Worth it for the background alone, even if you don’t accept the sportswashing critique.

“Stadiums Are Good For Business”…sometimes

An interesting paper in the Journal of Sports Economics by Geoffrey Propheter: “Does Proximity to a New Sports Facility Affect Existing Businesses’ Survival Time?” Abstract as follows, my emphasis on the key finding:

Existing literature on the economic impact of sports facilities fails to consider whether new facilities positively affect existing businesses. To fill this gap, data on existing establishments in Sacramento, CA, active from 2004 through 2018 were collected. The outcome of interest is existing businesses’ survival time. Using an accelerated failure time model in a difference-in-difference framework, retail establishments within a half mile of the Golden 1 Center are found to have survival times 53% shorter than otherwise similar retail establishments further away. Models also reveal existing establishments in other industries complementary to sports are not affected by the arena.

Full paper here, you’ll likely need institutional access though.

Wednesday LinkThink

It’s a bit of hectic week for me, but that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty going on!

  1. Major League Baseball–especially the owners and commissioner Rob Manfred–are blowing it. For a league whose average fan is 57 years old (up from 50 at the turn of the century), the long-term effects of these grinding, bickering negotiations are potentially disastrous.

  2. The English Premiership is back today! Rory Smith has a nice piece on what we can learn from the past few months, where there was no soccer to watch, yet the sport was still front and center in the English national conversation.

England reveres the Premier League, relishes its status and revels in its supremacy — particularly in relation to other leagues — but it resents its scale and its prominence and its self-importance. It is addicted to it, hopelessly so, but it is repulsed by that addiction. It is a relationship of love and self-loathing.

  1. Speaking of the EPL’s time off, it was great to see 22-year old Marcus Rashford lead the charge to pressure the UK government to extend it’s school meal program into the summer.

  2. Similarly, on our side of the pond, we’ve begun to see a political awakening and mobilization by college athletes. Tensions are high at Oklahoma State. Meanwhile, at my place of work, I’m proud to see Longhorn student-athletes standing up for what they believe in. To critics who say “why are they speaking up now?”, I’ll offer the friendly reminder that many of these campuses and athletic departments were still segregated two generations ago, and that the student-athlete experience has long been contingent on keeping a low profile off the field. Or, perhaps more simply, “Why NOT now?”