The SportsThink Weekly Review #61

October 1, 2021

Welcome to the latest installment of the SportsThink Weekly Review, a newsletter compiling my favorite readings on sports (and sometimes on other topics). Most articles are recently published, but some are not; the only rule is that I’ve read them within the past week. Some are relevant to my day job as a professor teaching courses on the business, history, and philosophy of sports. Others are just plain interesting, relevant to my life-long obsession with the games we play. The newsletter is free, but comes with two requests. 1. I’m always open to suggestions, so send me the good stuff that you read! 2. If you enjoy the newsletter, please share it with other folks who might enjoy it as well. Finally, I try to focus on non-paywalled writing, but if you find yourself unable to access anything, just hit reply to the email and I’ll do my best to get you a copy. Thanks for reading!

Number 61! I didn’t do this on purpose, but my favorite stories this week are definitely off the beaten path of sport: polo, free diving, and greyhounds. For something more mainstream, I’ve got a round-up of what will likely be a landmark week in the history of college sports. Enjoy the reads!

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If you only read one sports thing today, read this one:

The Cowboy and The King, by Alvin Townley, via Truly*Adventurous. I really enjoyed this story, one I had never heard of before. The tale of Cecil Smith, a Texan horse trainer who rose to the highest ranks of American polo. I don’t know enough about polo to say where this story ranks in the annals of the sport, but it’s a great underdog story and well worth the read.

And a couple more I really liked:

The Secrets of The World’s Greatest Freediver, by Daniel Riley, via GQ. A great profile of Alexey Molchanov, whose feats are somewhere between insane and unreal. Any sport that consistently involves the risk of death offers a chance to explore more existential territory, and Riley does a nice job of balancing that exploration with Molchanov’s story. Long, but pretty good throughout.

Gazehound, Greyhounds, and Bloodhounds, by Brad Bolman, via Cabinet. Greyhound racing probably stretches most definitions of sport, but I’m not sure if there’s a better category for it. A fascinating and challenging piece on life after racing for dogs and the ethical tensions surrounding the practice of canine blood banking.

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Catching up on the NCAA

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve seen a lot of references to a quote attributed to Lenin: There are decades where nothing happens; and then there are weeks where decades happen. Ok, it’s been a bit overdone, but what better way to sum up the past few days in college sport?

Back in the spring, I shared several stories on the increasing visibility of inequities in women’s college sport, especially in regard to the women’s basketball tournament, which you might remember was NOT allowed to be called “March Madness.” The NCAA had its usual, nebulous reasoning for this, but it basically came down to protecting “the brand.” On Wednesday, the NCAA did the right thing, and as of 2022, madness will no longer be a solely male condition. In another positive development, there is the possibility that the men’s and women’s Final Fours will take place in the same venue, instead of being played in separate cities. This can only be good for the growth of the women’s game, even if the earliest it could happen is 2027.

These developments are certainly important, but were promptly overshadowed by even bigger news that came out later on Wednesday:

College football players and some other athletes in revenue-producing sports at private universities are employees of their schools, the National Labor Relations Board's top lawyer said in a memo Wednesday that would allow those players to unionize and otherwise negotiate over their working conditions.

NLRB general counsel Jennifer Abruzzo also threatened action against schools, conferences and the NCAA if they continue to use the term "student-athlete," saying it was created to obscure the employment relationship with college athletes and discourage them from pursuing their rights under the National Labor Relations Act. Abruzzo notes that the act and NLRB law "support the conclusion that certain players at academic institutions are statutory employees, who have the right to act collectively to improve their terms and conditions of employment."

In other words: unionization and direct payment of athletes by schools is suddenly very much on the table. To be clear, this is a memo, not binding legislation, but still very strong guidance. The NCAA responded as the NCAA does, by trotting out their favorite hoary old chestnut, the flaccid reminder that college athletes are students who simply also play sports with some of their time:

NCAA member schools and conferences continue to make great strides in modernizing rules to benefit college athletes… Like other students on a college or university campus who receive scholarships, those who participate in college sports are students. Both academics and athletics are part of a total educational experience that is unique to the United States and vital to the holistic development of all who participate.

Here are those quotes in context, in a useful summary from ESPN. And here’s more of the same with some analysis from USA Today.

As for the practical implications and what to expect next? I’m not totally sure. This will go to to the courts, that much seems inevitable. This article practically salivates at the political potential of a college athletes’ union as a driver of social justice. It certainly could be, but maybe that’s not the athletes’ burden? Maybe the union could start by looking out for the athletes’ interest, as unions generally do. There is also the question of what this means for public institutions. I’ve seen some sports law commentators suggest that the structure of conferences might open the door for this perspective to extend beyond private schools. I’m sure there might be other mechanisms as well.

In summary: this is a big deal. More to come, I’m sure.

Tweet of the Week

One for my fellow Longhorns, but also some history on the forward pass and why we call it the “gridiron.”

As always, thank you so much for reading. Just hit reply to the email if you have feedback or articles to share, and please, consider sharing the newsletter with others who might enjoy it.

See you next week,