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The SportsThink Weekly Review #92
August 11, 2023: Goodbye Vlatko, Farewell Conferences
Welcome new readers! The SportsThink Weekly Review highlights my favorite sport-related reading of the week. 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 lifelong obsession with the games we play. I also occasionally share articles and assorted musings on Twitter. 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!
Hi folks, happy Friday. For anyone keeping score, it is still Very Very Hot in Texas. It wasn’t by design, but this week’s content closes some loops I opened last week. Two articles worth your time this time around.
Alright, let’s get it out of the way: my prediction that the American women would win the World Cup didn’t come true. But you gotta stand by your team!!
Losing to an excellent Sweden side and being on the wrong end of an all-time goalkeeping performance from Zećira Mušović is not catastrophic in and of itself. But crashing out in the round of the 16 certainly feels catastrophic when you are the overwhelmingly dominant outfit in the history of a sport. Of the many post-mortems written about the team’s tournament performance, this piece by Murray was my favorite. She rightly acknowledges that, for all the factors at play, much of the blame should land on coach Vlatko Andonovski (who will be gone at some point.) She’s spot on here and provides a relatively lengthy list of questionable-to-bad decisions he made during his tenure and this tournament. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but fair is fair, he just wasn’t good in this role.
Bundled with the analysis of this particular team’s failure have been the many declarations that era of American dominance in women’s soccer is now over. Too soon to tell of course, but it does seem like the world is catching up. And, as this piece by Henry Bushnell details, our youth development system is a hot mess.
As for who to root for now that the Americans have been sent home? I’ll go with Colombia, who have had a great run and are the biggest underdogs left in the tournament. If you want to back a contender, Spain were a joy to watch last night and seem to be the real deal.
Last week, I joked a bit about the chaos in NCAA conference realignment. The dust has mostly settled and things are, well, different than before. Those of you who follow college sports are familiar with the outcome, those of you don’t, I’ll spare you the granular details, but it can simply be said that the major college sports conferences (leagues) have effectively stopped pretending to be rooted in any sort of regional geography. Why does this matter? Well, there is the sense that we’re losing something in the fundamental fabric of college sports, one of our most unique (peculiar?) institutions. (I feel like I should note that all of this is all mostly about football, but necessarily has implications for athletes in every NCAA sport.)
On the one hand, the cynic in me wants to point out that this latest shakeup is just the logical evolution of things. Money—as it so often is— is at the heart of the current “crisis.” While things haven’t always been so openly about the money, the money has always been there, especially for the media, schools, coaches, and administrators. Amateurism in college sports has always been a bit of sham, or at least an anachronism, as historian Ron Smith has long argued. And so on. We look back at the history of college sports and are nostalgic for a time that never really was. I’ve personally dug through telegrams and letters from the turn of the 20th century where college officials were effectively facilitating transfers and buying and selling players. (Things along the lines of, “Will send you two good men for football season, need them back in time for baseball. Will require $100 dollars, second class train fare, a case of port, and three tins of your finest moustache liniment.”) And so on. The conferences we grew up with seemed like permanent institutions, but they have changed and shifted with more regularity than we’d like to remember. Most bowl games have been rendered meaningless. Athletes can now legitimately make a few (or many) bucks. And so on.
On the other hand, this most recent round of changes just feels like too much, at least in the immediate wake of things. Like we are punting one of the best traditions in American culture, as imperfect as it may be. I’d say more on this perspective, but Matt Brown really nails things in the linked article. Highly recommended.
But, all of that said, we’ll keep watching and supporting! All of us! I guess what’s fascinating to me is how most of us have been able to reconcile all of these things over the years. Just like pro wrestling fans aren’t bothered by the fact that the sport is “fake,” most college sports fans know the score and still find the threads of romance and entertainment required to keep things palatable. There’s something in there about our role in creating, sustaining, and legitimizing our institutions. If there was a fixed Truth in the value and meaning of college (or really any) sports, surely such radical changes would have an impact. But we find a way to change with the games and the times and take the bargain we’re offered, because it’s fun to root for our teams and say things like Hook ‘Em and Woo Pig Sooie with a straight face. Tailgating, melting into the couch on a fall Saturday or a weekend in March, and witnessing the occasional amazing human performance? It still seems like a pretty good deal.
Is there a limit to the change we’ll accept? Sure (probably). Are we actually near that limit? I don’t think so.
As always, thanks for reading. Please share the newsletter and send me any good articles that you’ve read.
See you next week,
P.S. Hook ‘Em