S1: The following podcasts contains naughty language.
S2: Hi, I’m Josh Levin Slate’s national editor and the Sun’s hang up and listen for the week of September 27th, 2021. On this week’s show, we’re going to talk about Kyrie Irving and the anti-vaxxers of the NBA and what the league should do about them. Molly Hensley Clancy of The Washington Post will also join us to discuss allegations that the Washington spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League have a misogynistic work culture. And finally, Joel Bardenwerper will be here for a conversation about his piece for Harper’s on the potential death of Minor League Baseball in small towns. I’m in Washington, D.C. I’m the author of The Queen, the host of the podcast One Year. Also in D.C., Stefan Fatsis. He’s the author of the book Word Freak A Few Seconds of Panic and a book written while Minor League Baseball was still alive. Well, then outside. We’ll get. We’ll get to that later. Stefan.
S3: Yeah, I got three things to say, though. One. While the outside finally getting its its segment to do on the show, too, there was a Division two college football game over the weekend. Myles beat Central State. The final score was fifty five to four. So for all of you, score Gomi fans fifty five to four. That’s insane. And three, we should go back to. I want to go back to our conversation last week about the Erskine College football team and their original nickname, The Cedars. It does turn out that we were informed by a listener and I and I looked up that the sisters refers not to the Civil War, but rather to. Yeah, well, my literally doesn’t refer to refers to them by the Church of Scotland. And as the set, the great secession from the Church of Scotland in 1733 by a group of Scottish dissidents led by Ebenezer Erskine. But yes,
S2: it’s in school. They know where their school is located geographically
S3: at a time where there might added a second meaning and the double entendre was allowed to live on.
S1: OK, yeah, I’m sure it had nothing to do with the Jim Crow South. We have another
S2: with us from Palo Alto. Media critic host of I don’t know if that’s media criticism. The criticism is a nickname. The same nickname critic host of slow burn season three and the upcoming season six on the L.A. riots. It’s Joel Anderson Joel. Congrats on your alma mater! Not allowing SMU to plant the flag at midfield. Just a strong, strong defensive performance.
S1: Yeah. How does it feel that you know LSU’s best quarterback, T.J. Finley, is playing for Auburn to, by the way, but that that was that for you
S2: guys that you deflected now in the same way I did during week one, feel like we’re glad to be back on even terms with you, my friend.
S1: Look, we do. Who protected our house in a manner of speaking. We should also.
S2: That’s we should also mention that among Stefan impressively long list of addenda did not know that UConn is not even the worst team in the country anymore. According to Bill Connelly, they went up to number one hundred and twenty nine after barely losing to Wyoming. So congratulations to New Mexico State for now being number three, proving my point,
S1: proving my point why the bad teams tend to stay bad.
S3: And the 1926 Erskine’s the is looking to hang on to their their their claim as the worst team in the history of college football.
S2: And if you thought this introductory chapter was over, you’re sadly mistaken because Stefan, the listeners are surely wondering why we haven’t mentioned the 66 yard field goal yet. We will do an entire bonus segment on Justin Tucker’s record-setting field goal, but just four for everyone. Give us one sentence here to kind of what our appetites.
S3: The ball hit the crossbar and flew 10 feet into the air from 66 yards away. Oh my god, I am so happy
S2: to hear more. Stating Later for the better segment.
S1: The NBA’s league mandated preseason media day is usually a perfunctory affair. The soft launch of the new NBA season, but is a record this segment Monday morning. It’s hard not to see Media Day as a prelude to a season long drama starring Kyrie Irving. Kyrie didn’t show up today because of New York City’s health and safety protocols. He later addressed the assembled media via Zoom, and here’s what he said. In the
S4: spirit of not putting limitations on the future, do you expect to play in home games in New York considering the rules in the state
S1: again? I would like to keep all that private. Please just disrespect my privacy.
S3: Like all
S5: the questions kind of leading into what’s happening, you
S3: know, just
S1: please. Everything will be released at a due date and
S5: once we get this cleared up.
S3: As of right now, just please respect my
S1: privacy regarding anything or home games was happening. Vaccination, please. Do you have another question like, I love the answer very private matters and whether or not Kyrie shows up for Nets home games. But reporters and NBA fans have been champing at the bit to hear from Kyrie in the wake of an explosive article that was published on Rolling Stone’s website over the weekend. In that piece, journalist Matt Sullivan wrote about the behind the scenes power struggle between the NBA and the league’s contingent of anti-vaxxers. And at the forefront of the vaccine deniers seems to be Irving, who also happens to be a vice president on the Executive Committee of the Players Union. Irving didn’t personally comment in that article, but his aunt did, and she suggested that maybe he could skip games, particularly in places like New York and San Francisco that have employer vaccine mandates. So Stefan Kyrie Irving obviously isn’t the only player at the center of this fight between the league and vaccine deniers. And obviously, we’ll get to the others here in a little bit. But Irving is clearly the most prominent. So where should the league in the Nets go from here, if anywhere?
S3: How about get vaccinated or lose your job? That’s what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar says in the Rolling Stone piece. I mean, it’s obvious to us that the policy that the NBA, like other businesses ought to be implementing is that one. But as in the rest of America, there appears to be in the NBA, a vocal minority of vaccine deniers or resisters or anti-vaxxers who insist on putting their co-workers in a position of inconvenience, discomfort and physical risk. Kyrie, as you said, isn’t alone. Joel Rolling Stone said. There are 50 to 60 estimated unmatched players. It’s not even confirmed that Irving hasn’t taken the shot. You know, he might just be trolling us or being difficult with his answers like the one we heard at Media Day. And it’s easy to mock Kyrie Irving because of his flat Earth comments and other bad takes, and also to praise him for a progressive and smart actions on things like social justice issues. This isn’t any of that. Irving is one of the best players in the NBA. He’s a leader in the players’ union. He’s in a position to influence and negotiate player action vis-a-vis the league. His opinions and behave behavior matter here. And as it’s outlined in the Rolling Stone piece, they appear to be anti-science and anti-public health, to say the least. The story says that Irving has been following and liking posts from some anti-vax conspiracy theorists online, so it’s just so weird. Isn’t that Josh?
S2: We tend to come down on the side of. Player empowerment. And players having a say in issues that matter to them and that matter to their sport. And in this case, it’s the kind of awkward position of feeling like we know bring back some old school sports authoritarianism and have the leagues tell these guys what to do. I guess Joel the question is, does it feel OK or reasonable for us to be like, Yeah, we like it when the league tells the players what to do, when it’s the things we think are important? And is there a way to to draw a bright line there?
S3: Wait, I’m going to jump in here, because why does it have to be the league that tells the players to do this? Why shouldn’t the players union? The vast, vast majority of which are willing to give vaccinated? Why can’t the players union be the one taking a stand for the entire rank and file of the league?
S1: Yeah. I mean, I think you guys both raise interesting questions there because, you know, the league can’t make the players do anything technically. I mean, maybe David Stern was a, you know, a very effective bully, and he made it seem as if he could rule by fiat. But you know, it’s a partnership with the union. And if the union doesn’t step in and say, OK, Kyrie is irresponsible here, he doesn’t speak for us. And you know, you know, we’re for vaccination and we’re, you know, we want all of our members to be vaccinated. You know, that would seem to be the best course of action here. I mean, it’s a
S2: fight that the league could pick Joel. They could say, we want to institute mandatory vaccination and the union is refusing and we are going to like, put that out there and make them look bad. They could do that if they wanted to.
S1: They could, but they don’t want to have that fight. I don’t, you know, and I think that, you know, we’ve seen over the last couple of years that that’s not a fight that they want to engage in and that Adam Silver is, you know, much more of a consensus builder, you know, than somebody that’s an authoritarian, right? So I don’t I I think that he’s hoping that persuasion can work. And, you know, I just saw a quote earlier this morning on Twitter above Grizzlies guard Kyle Anderson, who used to play for the Spurs and said that, you know, Coach Popovich getting vaccinated influenced him to get his own vaccination. So I mean, there are ways in which it’s still possible to convince people, although, you know, it’s tough to know how hard line a lot of these holdouts are at this point. But I think that that article in the Rolling Stone really raises an interesting point was that it may give a clue as to why the union hasn’t weighed in in this way. LeBron James, Giannis they haven’t spoken up and said they haven’t. You know that any sort of public effort in encouraging people to get vaccinated, which is sort of a surprise given especially for LeBron, who sort of positions himself, as, you know, a public role model, somebody you know, an activist, an organizer, you know, somebody that’s sort of at the forefront of progressive politics, and he’s not been anywhere. And so it makes me think that the people that are against a vaccine mandate are among the most powerful in the league and that that’s just a fight that the union is either sort of having behind closed doors or that they just have not been able to reconcile quite yet.
S3: It does presuppose that that eighty five percent, if 85 percent or more of the NBA is vaccinated at this point, that some large number of those players did it reluctantly and are not willing to go public, that they’re just doing it so they can get on with their jobs, which fine, honestly. But the problem that we’re starting to see with Kyrie in particular is that this is already off the rails. I mean, you mentioned that his aunt was quoted in this story, and she said as if this was a logical argument that Kyrie could just not play at home in New York or in San Francisco or other cities that require indoor vaccinations. And then she said
S1: it was totally in keeping with Kyrie, though, right? Like he goes to games when he wants to and Mrs. Games, which I was going to say Joel.
S3: But she said that she was outraged that the Nets might consider this to be an unreasonable workaround. And the team might say, Hey, if you don’t get the vaccine and I’m quoting here, then you can’t be a part of the franchise that you fucking helped build fucking helped build. The Irving missed a quarter of the Nets games last season and 72 percent the previous season.
S1: You know, Mr. Piscataway right there.
S2: I was surprised that the Nets didn’t announce a media day that they’re going to have a throwback season in New Jersey. Just, you know, like, maybe we just weren’t playing in New York at all to cater to our franchise player. I mean, Joel, I think the time for persuasion is over. Like if you’ve read stories for this entire, you know, year going back to the previous season, the NBA had, like the best experts, speak to teams and anyone who is not kind of persuaded by the science and the public health reasons here. I think the only reason or way that they will get vaccinated is, as Stefan said, that it’s just like so massively horrible and inconvenient for them not to do that. They just will like a side to it. I mean, that’s what we saw with Isaiah McKenzie, the Bills player who was part of the like bizarre kind of buffalo anti-vax NFLX brigade where the NFL find him for not wearing a mask in the facility. And he is like, posted a, you know, a photo of the fans like fine U.N. NFL and he, you know, got got his first shot. And so there is a possibility, I think. There will, you know, get closer to 100 percent because of that, but that’s like a long distance from what you were saying to all of like LeBron and Giannis doing a PSA, and it was interesting. And it’s Kanter was kind of a little bit outspoken in that piece, but it was Kareem, the like NBA legend retired player who did do a PSA. He’s like the only basketball player in that piece. He’s like really raking these guys over the calls and saying, like, this is not only terrible behavior to knock it backs, but Kareem is like saying it’s actually like a dereliction of duty of your responsibility as an athlete and a celebrity like not to be outspoken in favor of this, like because of the importance and like, you know, for black Americans to get vaccinated. I mean, like, Kareem is pissed.
S1: All right. Yeah, I mean, it makes you want to sort of recalibrate the idea that a lot of these guys are role models. I mean, you know, I mean, this has been an ongoing issue as long as I’ve been alive about how much what’s the value in hearing from professional athletes. And you know, their role is, you know. You know, I guess people that people look up to in the public. And I mean, Kareem has always been great at that man in terms of his activism. I mean, he boycotted the Olympics. He publicly converted to Islam. You know, early in his playing days when that was a much more, you know, challenging conversion back in the day. And then he’s always just been sort of at the forefront of all these other like social issues. And then you have a generation of people that inherited this great work that he did to build the game, become a star, make the league stable, you know, broadcast it to people all over this world. You got people that have, you know, come up on the back of that work and they’re not willing to stand up and and and do what is effectively the right thing. And so maybe what I was saying, Josh is not persuasion, because I think you’re right. The time, isn’t it? Time isn’t ripe for persuasion, but I think peer pressure and public pressure would be really useful here that that might be the only way that they can get them to live up. They can live up to their public status of their celebrity status and make make these people uncomfortable. Call them out. And if Kyrie is uncomfortable, will fuck it, man. I’m sorry. You know, like you want, you want to have the platform when it works for you and when it’s good. But now that people are holding you to account, you’re uncomfortable with it, but not fuck that. Like it’s I mean, it seems like it’s about time for people to start going hard after him. And if he doesn’t want to answer questions, if he’s uncomfortable with it, great. I mean, because that’s I mean, you know, there is no such thing as a private, as a private matter in a public health crisis.
S3: The NBA is not being soft on this, either. I mean, you know, you talked about the NBA being reluctant to issue some sort of mandate because they do have to negotiate with the union. But the NBA denied Andrew Wiggins of of the Warriors in San Francisco a request for a religious exemption.
S2: There has been no explanation, by the way, publicly for what religion he is. He’s asking. And I should also note that Kirk Cousins is upset that he didn’t think of trying to ask for a religious exemption, but that was innovative on Andrew Wiggins as part, even though it was denied.
S3: Denied. And it’s an issue with the Warriors, because San Francisco, like New York, as we mentioned, has a has an indoor vaccine mandate to attend large events. Yeah, and it doesn’t seem like players like Wiggins are going to be persuadable. Like we’ve just discussed now, the Warriors apparently put him in touch with a doctor in Oakland who explained the basics of this pandemic and talked to him about death and suffering and hospitalization.
S2: Wiggins did say in March, Stefan. I don’t really see myself getting it any time soon unless forced to somehow. So. It just depends on what your definition of persuasion.
S3: This might be his last appeal to the Supreme Court. It’s like, oh, religious exemption, let’s try that. And then if it’s well, you can’t play. Maybe he’ll get it. So, yeah, the hammer.
S2: But back to the fact that we like back to the fact that we praise NBA players or other athletes when they like, say things on issues that we agree with. It’s like if you invest too much kind of hope in any person in the world, whether it’s a politician or an athlete, they’re always going to let you down like LeBron James or Kyrie Irving. They do a lot of things that are admirable, and they sometimes do things that aren’t admirable. And I think Kyrie just to focus on him because he always manages to bring attention to himself, even when he doesn’t want to. Like he is an imperfect spokesperson for good causes. Like when he speaks out in favor of things that we agree with just because his, you know, his personal behavior like, it seems like he’s just a really bad coworker like, you don’t want to have to like, he’s just a guy that you can’t count on. He often seems like he’s in it for himself. And sometimes the things that he is on for things that we should support. But in this case, he’s an imperfect spokesperson for a bad cause. Like, he’s not even right. He’s not even the person you want to speak up for you if you’re like an anti-vax person. But you know, that’s that’s the Kyrie Irving experience. Matt.
S3: And that which leads me to ask Joel, is there a tipping point here? Howard Bryant tweeted on Sunday that a prominent NBA or just texted me that Kyrie Irving is a contrarian without a cause. And you know, at what point does the patience run out here? At what point do players like in Contar and others who are frustrated by this begin to speak up? I mean, maybe they don’t. But I would imagine that there’s going to be some upset on teams that are going to lose players for, you know, half their games, at least and more if they can’t be, you know, in the arena, in their cities because of vaccination mandates.
S1: Oh, I imagine that pressure gets ratcheted up as soon as they start losing home games because Kyrie is not playing right. I mean, I think that that’s probably the most compelling argument, and that’s the way the NFL has been able to get people. If you test positive, not only are you going to miss games you, you place in jeopardy like, you know, a record for the season because I think that’s right that the NFL would, you know, make a team forfeit if they were found to be responsible for an outbreak. So I think that that is what is ultimately going to carry the day. Here is when Kevin Durant is like, Hey, motherfucker, like, I need you to play against the Sixers on Thursday. Are you going to be here at not? You know? Well, the
S2: Nets can win a championship without Kyrie. They don’t. I mean, they certainly have a better chance to win with him. But I bet you they would be moving to New Jersey if Kevin Durant was like, I’m not going to get vaccinated. But the thing is the thing. The thing is that they’ve shown no willingness to publicly. We don’t know what conversations are having with Kyrie privately, but there’s been no public break break, like during last season when Kyrie was on his walkabout. They were all just very kind of understanding about about what it was that the Kyrie was, was doing. And it seems like, you know what the bargain that the Nets have made as a franchise is that they’re going to be a place that is incredibly attractive and congenial to star players, and that’s going to probably redound to their success and it’s going to bring them championships, but maybe it won’t.
S1: Yeah, I mean, like I think that that that front only works for as long as they’re a contender and they look really good, but as soon as things get hard, I mean, there’s no it’s not a given that they’re going to be Championship contenders this year. Anything could happen. Right? And the Bucks are still really good. Who knows what the Sixers are going to be? The Hawks are going to be back the Lakers, a presumptive favorite. So as soon as things get dicey, there’s no saint like you, said Josh. They don’t necessarily need Kyrie. They could easily try to trade him. Although God, who would they trade him for? Who would even want that headache right now, right? So, yeah, I don’t. I mean, I don’t.
S2: And Kyrie is probably the only guy in the league that as we’re sitting here right now, you’re like, he might actually just not play at home games like that. It doesn’t seem like Andrew Wiggins is going to get vaccinated. Like we can’t predict the future, but like the word, the warriors are not going to like him. I mean, he was good for them last year, but like, come on, like Andrew Wiggins. But Kyrie, like he is a guy who does not want anyone to tell him what to do or thinks he’s smarter than everybody else. And the Nets have not shown a willingness to throw him under the bus. And it could he he could sit out. I mean, I don’t know if it’ll be all season, but he could just do it to make a point, the point of which I’m not sure what it would be. And maybe only he would understand it. But it doesn’t seem crazy to me to think that he just might like roll with this and just see what happens.
S1: Yeah, no, it all anti-vaxx. I just like I just like you’d imagine a Duke student would be right if you had to, you know, boil down like what you thought.
S2: Maybe the phrase just might be that might be this might be the first time ever that somebody said something like, you might be being unfair to duke there.
S1: In the next segment, we cover the abusive workplace culture of the Washington spirit with Molly Hensley Clancy of The Washington Post.
S3: The Washington spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League is I think it’s safe to say, the most dysfunctional franchise in professional sports right now. In August, the team’s head coach resigned after The Washington Post revealed that he had verbally, emotionally and repeatedly abused players and made racially insensitive comments. The newspaper quoted one player saying of the coach, Richie Burke, He made me hate soccer. This month, the post followed up with another blockbuster story detailing a misogynistic old boy’s club culture inside the team that marginalized and degraded women. Among the details, the team’s CEO said one player should be nicknamed dumb, broad and called another employee Mexican mama. Now there’s a public battle for ownership of the club between the male majority owner Steve Baldwin and a woman co-owner that he brought in last year. Why? Michelle Kang. And on top of all of this, the spirit had to forfeit two games for violating league COVID protocols. Molly Hensley Clancy of The Washington Post has been breaking these stories about the spirit, and she joins us now. Welcome to the show, Molly.
S6: Thanks for having me.
S3: Your reporting has prompted the NWSL to conduct an outside investigation of the spirit. The results are expected soon. What’s jarring and also sadly unsurprising in all of this is that there is a cultural expectation. I think that women’s sports should and will elevate women. But what you’ve detailed is a women’s team owned and operated largely by men, almost at the expense of women. How did you get onto the story and what so far do you think it has revealed?
S6: Yeah, I mean, this isn’t an issue, I’m a I’m a big women’s soccer fan, and I think it’s an issue that’s kind of been an undercurrent for a while in this world. But for me there, it started out with me finding out that a player had left the spirit because of issues with the coach. And I kind of just started digging in and talking to former players and and getting a sense of how he had treated them. And, you know, he had, as you said, behaved really abusively. And that kind of just opened this door into looking at this team’s whole culture. And I think that I think a lot of people would say that this while this is kind of embodied by this one team, it’s it’s a problem that exists in the league more broadly in many ways that the league has really been dominated by men. A lot of male coaches, there have been many issues prior to this with misogyny, with coach abuse, all that kind of stuff. So this just kind of I think it was finally the right time. Especially, you know, there was one player, McCullough, who was willing to go on the record with me, and that just made a world of difference in terms of getting people to really believe her and listen to her.
S1: Oh, Molly, you you just mentioned Kaiya there, and she’s obviously one of the players that reported the culture of abuse and said that early in her tenure with the spirit, she she wondered how Richie Burke had been hired. So do you have an understanding of why he was hired in spite of this history of allegations?
S6: Yeah, I mean, it actually kind of all relates to this old boys club culture that women at the Sprit told me about Richie Burke hadn’t ever coached women professionally when he was hired by the spirit. But he came from this world of youth soccer in Virginia and Maryland that the owner’s daughter also came from. And I actually think The Athletic reported that at one point he had coached the owner’s daughter, which was something I hadn’t known. But you know, the the number two executive, the one who made those comments, he he also had coached the owner’s daughter. So they all came from the same universe. And I think what I heard was they came in and they were very set on. This is who we want to hire. And even though employees at the time raised concerns, saying This guy has this history of being abusive, you know, I talked to a former executive at the Sprit who said he told Spirit Leadership at the time that this guy had used the f word. The homophobic slur was young male players, and they just kind of decided to go ahead with it anyway. They were already set in that. So I mean, I think it from the beginning, it kind of set the tone of how this team was going to operate from what I’ve been told.
S2: So in this league, you have players who are among the most famous and highly compensated women athletes in the world. Then you have rank and file players who are making what are they? What are they making money?
S6: About twenty two thousand dollars a year.
S2: So there’s a kind of, you know, big disparity there in terms of the fame and, you know, power level among the players. And it seemed like the players who took the brunt of this abuse in the spirit were the ones whose positions were the most tenuous. And I’d imagine that that’s probably not a coincidence.
S6: Yeah, definitely not. I think that it actually, you know, right now the players are fighting for their first CBA and they’re trying to increase that pay. And it all really relates back to to everything else because, you know, the players I talked to felt, you know, their contracts could be ended at any moment. And, you know, it’s not like they they basically would have had no savings. You know, they all kind of work second jobs or like side hustles, they call it, to kind of make money. So, you know, for them, losing that job, it would have been kind of an, you know, it would have been kind of the end of their career for a lot of them because, you know, there isn’t another league in the U.S. they would have had to go abroad and some couldn’t do that. So I mean, the stakes are really high and the NWSL, the amount of control that that the league kind of exerts over players, there’s no free agency, even a player like Carli Lloyd or some of the most senior players on the national team who’ve been playing for 10 years in the league. They are still basically, you know, their rights can be traded at any moment and they have no say. And we’ve seen that happen. So it really is not a player, a league that that really prioritizes players rights. I would say, at least up until now,
S3: what has intrigued me and sort of troubled me in this story has to do with the ownership in the front office. Clearly, the guy that is the majority owner is Stephen Baldwin. He’s a tech executive from Virginia. He bought the team in 2018, and he took over from another white male executive who had at one point refused to play the national anthem to keep Megan Rapinoe from kneeling back in 2016. Baldwin, very cleverly, I think, encouraged a group of women investors to join this team. Chelsea Clinton, Jenna Bush Hager, Briana Scurry, the former U.S. World Cup star have all joined this team. And then last year, probably sensing, I imagine that there were problems in the front office brought in this woman, Michelle Kang. American Woman founder and CEO of a health care tech company and described her as an inspirational figure. And it seems like all of these were sort of token thoughts on Baldwin’s behalf to try to get the team to look more women inclusive when in fact, the team just kept being run in the way that you described as this old boys network. What Kang has done, though, is seems fight back. Is that a fair assessment of what’s going on here? Because you reported this morning that she issued a letter calling on Baldwin to sell her, his shares in the team and to get the team to move forward.
S6: Yeah. I mean, I think that is accurate. The context is I think that she has actually kind of been pushing back against Baldwin for a long time. Like we report in our story, and she kind of confirmed this in her letter that she went to him in April with a lot of concerns about how the team was run, including, she said, or, you know, someone told me she had said with concerns about this one executive who I later reported had made these these sexist comments. And she says in her note that he didn’t listen to her changes weren’t made. And since June, the spirit has lost 40 percent of its female staff, so it’s only female head coach. Last three of its five female department heads have left, so this has all kind of fallen apart since she went to Baldwin with these concerns. And you can kind of see the consequences of maybe not taking action when he was told this culture is not working well.
S1: And in fact, Molly, in addition to not doing anything to address the culture of abuse, it seems like he retaliated against or helped participate in some way in retaliating against her in ways that, you know, not just stripping her of her shares or whatever, you know, isolating her from, you know, decisions within the department. But it seems like he actually, like, figured out a way to to to try to get to make it seem as if she was the source of the problems there, right?
S6: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know who was the cause of of what, but what I did report was that his number two? Steve? Sorry, Larry Best filed an anti-discrimination complaint against her with the league, and the same journalist who reported that this complaint existed also had a very bizarre report. Basically, the team had just had a COVID outbreak, and he reported that Michelle Kang was Asian-American had been the source of the COVID outbreak at a dumpling making party that she hosted for players. I don’t know who gave that to the to the journalist, but certainly that it was not. It did not turn out to be true that the dumpling making party had caused it. The spirit has a lot of unvaccinated players. Pretty, pretty surprising number for the. And obviously we know of at least four. And that was, of course, the reason they had an outbreak. They weren’t vaccinated. So yeah, I mean, I would I don’t know who did that, but I it certainly from the outside, it didn’t look great and it looked like someone was trying to attack her.
S3: And I know you can’t, but I’m going to say here that the leak of that story and similar stories, it’s like some local radio guy. I mean, this is not like someone is, you know, did not feel like a credible journalistic endeavor to verify these claims.
S6: No. And certainly, you know, had I would say he’s never reported on women’s soccer before, ever that I’ve seen. So that’s usually a red flag that journalists, when you see that, you’re like, why would you go to this person with this information? Do you want them to ask questions? Probably not.
S2: So there have been issues with institutional, horrifying institutional cultures with the New York Mets, with the Washington football team, with the Dallas Mavericks. And each of those situations is unique. And some of the the allegations there are similar and some are very different from what we’ve seen with a Washington Sprit. But I think in all those cases, you could argue that like these are leagues and sports that have generations worth of like toxic male energy imbued with another man and within these organizations. And that’s why we often hear with any kind of legacy organizations of any kind. It’s like, Oh, to change them, we’ve got, you know, all these people here and we need like a new generation of leaders to come in to get more like gender parity or more racial parity or or whatever it is. But in this case, with the spirit and with the NWSL, you have this entity that didn’t exist that long ago that was created because of excitement and enthusiasm around women’s soccer in this country and a sport that has just amazing and well-known and powerful leaders who are women. So I guess my bigger picture question is like, how did this happen in this league where you can’t use any of that other stuff as an excuse?
S6: Well, I think that unfortunately, if we look at soccer as a whole like soccer, culture is very male dominated and also very white that, you know, especially in women’s soccer, the diversity is just not there, even among players. It’s definitely gotten better. But there’s this long history, and I think that, you know, some interesting kind of back story of how the NWSL was started. There was actually a league prior to that that was basically taking women’s professional soccer. It was basically taken down by another abusive owner. This guy on this team, Magic Jack, and he was a crazy ESPN story about the stuff he did to players. He would make them call him daddy. I mean, it was awful, awful stuff that ended the last league and then the NWSL started. So I mean, unfortunately, this just like it’s not that different from what I’ve seen, except for, you know, the players are obviously different. The players are these big leaders, but when they have no power in the league, then then you kind of end up in a similar situation.
S2: But you do have more women taking roles within these teams, like why Michelle Kang like I mean, Stefan mentioned some of the famous names. I mean, you have Naomi Osaka investing in the League of the L.A. team like it does seem like there is the possibility for a change, given that a lot of these folks are playing, don’t want to be associated with this and probably don’t want to stand for it.
S6: Yeah, I mean, I think Angel City, the team you mentioned in L.A. like they were, I think the first majority female owned team and they came into the league last year. So I do think that you’ve seen some significant changes already. And I do. And I think that maybe this prompts some owners to get more invested, you know, like if Naomi Osaka, Iman, Naomi Osaka has a lot of other stuff going on. She’s she’s busy. But you know, there are certainly a lot of opportunities for women to kind of get engaged in ways that could change the culture. I just think where it started was not great, and I think one difference here is the pressure from fans is really huge. You know, like the Spirit supporters group actually stopped chanting and flying banners and they got they stopped playing drums and they said they’re not going to basically do any supporters activities until the team is old. So, you know, they’re they’re pretty emphatic about this, too, and it’s going to be interesting to see whether the league kind of response to that pressure as well.
S3: Well, it’s to me, it’s sort of like a message to the league and the commissioner and the people that direct this that look, if you haven’t figured out a up until now that you need to actively do things to reverse the sort of abusive coaching culture and toxic male dominated business culture in sports, you know, then that should be your budget, be your main priority. I mean, it is clear that that’s what’s needed here and certainly on other teams, too. But as Josh was saying, you know, this is a league with intentionality. This is a women’s sports league that was created recently and that has a sport that has made female empowerment, women empowerment like a cause. And maybe that’s why it’s just so sad to see this happening, like you expect better, but then you’re you realize like now the world hasn’t changed that much.
S6: Yeah, I’m in your thinking. I think your point about it having to be really active is kind of the thing that the lesson they’re learning. I think that maybe the assumption was because we were Women’s Sports League, we’ve got some women in power. We’re better than maybe some men’s sports leagues. We don’t. We’re doing good enough and not just, you know, they didn’t have the we didn’t have like a real anti-harassment human resources policy in place that players knew about until this year. So, you know, they have to they really have to be active about it. And as soon as they’ve started being even remotely active, you’ve seen, I mean, the spirit coach, there have been two other coaches that have left and above all, recently that have had sort of allegations of previous improprieties with players like this is a league wide thing that’s been happening with coaches leaving the teams.
S1: You know, and I have a question, I mean, beyond sort of the the the sexism and misogyny and the like general bigotry. This also seems to me like a story about the abusive culture of coaching, and it got me thinking about like how many athletes you know, you mentioned Kyrie McCullough, how many athletes have been ruined in the history of sports just by abusive coaches like, you know, like Burke and management teams like the spirits who’ve ruined these players? You know, they may have had an opportunity opportunity to flourish. You know, in sports, but they run up against somebody like, you know, Richie Burke or whatever. It just seemed like to me, Molly. And I don’t, you know, for whatever reason, I created a circumstance in which you actually played professional soccer yourself. I don’t know. I don’t.
S3: Why? Not that I
S1: know. Do you like it? But but I just I don’t. Did that ever come up at all about just like why? You know, because the original allegations against Burke were against young boys when he was coaching, you know, youth soccer for boys. So I’m just sort of curious about like how often it came up about the people that he ruined along the way, getting to that job.
S6: Yeah. I mean, it’s I think it’s so normalized, and what he did is really is awful. It’s also not it’s not that abnormal across women’s sports, across men’s sports. I think that’s part of why it was kind of allowed to persist for so long as there was this feeling of, well, you know, he’s getting results on the field. So it works. And for some players, it it does work. I mean, there were there were plenty of spirit players that liked Richie. You know, it’s not it wasn’t all of them. He he also treated some of them differently. But I mean, I think that’s, you know, I’m sure that there are so many stories about Richie. I mean, I heard some after I wrote, I heard stories of people who quit soccer because of him. But I’m sure there’s so many other coaches out there. And Kyrie, I thought, was really interesting. What Kaiya said was, you know, she had had coaches like this as a youth player, I think. And then she went to college and she had this woman coach at UCLA who was not like this. And what she told me was this made me realize like, I deserved it. I shouldn’t be treated like this, you know? And I think that if you don’t have a coach like that, or if you don’t have a moment where you kind of realize, I don’t, I don’t deserve this, you know, you can kind of just be told to suck it up. And women especially feel this pressure to kind of not, you know, to be tough and not to not to fit stereotypes of women. Basically, they told me that that they felt like part of this was, you know, I mean, I guess men face those stereotypes, too. It’s all just so corrosive.
S3: Molly Hensley Clancy is a national sports reporter with The Washington Post. She focuses on investigations and accountability. Molly, thank you so much for coming on the show.
S6: Thanks for having me.
S3: Coming up next, a conversation with writer Wil Bardenwerper about the Appalachian League in Minor League Baseball.
S2: Earlier this year, Major League Baseball announced a new minor league system, one that Commissioner Rob Manfred said prioritized the qualities that make the minor leagues such an integral part of our game while strengthening how we develop professional athletes on and off the field. MLB touted the fact that Triple-A affiliates would be closer to their major league clubs. The players throughout the minors would get higher salaries and that facilities and working conditions would be upgraded and modernized. What MLB was less excited about broadcasting was that it was dropping 40 affiliates and essentially killing three whole leagues. The New York Penn League has been totally eliminated. The Pioneer League has gone independent and the Appalachian League has been converted to a summer college league. Will Bardenwerper wrote a feature about the Appalachian League and what’s become of it for Harper’s Magazine. He joins us now. Well, thanks for being here.
S5: Thank you for having me.
S2: So will you spend a lot of time in Pulaski, Virginia, home of the Polansky Yankees? Because you were interested in writing a book about the Appalachian League at a time when it seemed under threat? And now, unfortunately, it looks like you are not going to get a chance to write that book because Major League Baseball made good on that threat. But back in the beginning, what drew you to the idea of going to Polansky, going to the Appalachian League and writing about what you saw there?
S5: I think it was just curiosity. I remember reading the initial reports that Major League Baseball was considering contraction. And, you know, I had played baseball as a kid, had a rather undistinguished two year college career, but have always been a fan. And I was just curious and I knew I just kind of knew instinctively and from some minor league games, I’d been to the importance of some of these clubs to these small communities. And so I just kind of had a sense that this wasn’t going to be a great development for a lot of the places in question, and I decided to go and take a look.
S1: I actually had two questions for you. One of them maybe a little ridiculous, but what was the second place city for this project if it were not picked up?
S5: That’s a good question. So well, you know, as as you mentioned, this was originally going to be a book in which case I was going to choose more than one place. A plastic was going to be one of them. And I was focusing on Johnson City and Elizabethtown, which, you know, basically they’re within 10 miles of each other. So there’s two teams there that I could have covered. And then I was somewhat less certain of the third place, but I think it was going to be Burlington, North Carolina. They seemed to enjoy, you know, a lot of popular support in the community. There was a really rich history of baseball in that area. I think they had 55 semi-pro teams at one point in the 1950s, just within a few county radius. So those those were going to be the three places I was going to focus on.
S1: Well, can you just go for the people that don’t know a lot about, you know, minor league baseball at that level or even that part of the country? Do you mind because I thought the way that you described and talked about the people and the place of Pulaski to be like really moving in a lot of ways, just like a throwback to sort of a different era of America, right?
S5: Sure. Yeah, I mean, I think what I hoped would come across in the article was, you know, I don’t even really think of the article so much as as a baseball article, as as an article about, you know, the people in the place, the places and the history and the culture, you know, kind of the way Friday Night Lights. I mean, yes, it’s about high school football, but it’s more about sort of life and small-town West Texas. And that was kind of my approach to this. And you know, what I discovered very quickly was that, you know, yes, baseball is important. That’s what draws people, you know, to the park. But what really happens there on a, you know, a daily basis all summer is it’s like a family. It’s kind of like a hybrid between a family picnic and a, you know, a community or a family reunion and a community picnic. Everyone knows each other. Most of the people go, you know, just about every day and see their friends and their neighbors. And it just serves as kind of a place to bring everyone together to relax and have a good time. And, you know, made that. I think even more important with some of these communities have struggled, you know, economically over the last few decades. And then, you know, that was even more pronounced in recent years where, you know, politically our country has, you know, had sort of a toxic sort of atmosphere. And then COVID, you know, compounded a lot of these stresses and a lot of different ways. And so this was this is kind of the one place where people could gather and relax and, you know, kind of put a lot of that other stuff, you know, behind them and just enjoy life.
S3: You know, some of those same qualities as well were what drew me to the miners back in the mid 90s, and I wrote this book Wild and Outside as our listeners now following the what was the second year of the independent Northern League in the Upper Midwest and history repeats. I mean, the Major League Baseball took this step two to act for. Thirty teams and scaled back the miners and make it look very structured and organized than with even numbers and proposals to do this have been around since the 1980s, and when I wrote my book about the miners, the league in question was was was inspired by the collapse of negotiations between the majors and the miners because the majors wanted to basically suck out more revenue from the minor leagues. Because Major League club owners were envious that Minor League Baseball had exploded in the 1980s through things like the Durham Bulls and growing popularity in other cities. So this tension has always existed and and you know, what you’ve unearth here is, I think the you know, what’s happened here is the the the culmination of four decades or more of bad blood.
S5: Mm hmm. And no, you’re right, and I sense that, you know, this may not be the end of this, you know? You know, speaking to some folks, both on the MLB side and the minor league side, you know, there was almost a sense that they were being magnanimous Levin as many teams as they did, you know, so it was like they cut whatever it was 40 and they left whatever was left, but 120. Yeah, exactly. And I think though, that that sort of reading between the lines, it would not be a surprise to see more of this in the future, especially as I pointed out, the minor league franchises themselves now are going to be less valuable because MLB could essentially just say, OK, we’re going to, you know, offer you x dollars for this team. If you don’t sell it to us, we’ll just cut you out of the next agreement. And so they have a lot more leverage. There was a quote in my article that one of the managers of one of these clubs said, which is that if you go into a negotiation and one group has 10 demands and they get all 10, that’s not a negotiation. That’s a hostile takeover. And that’s basically what happened here. MLB came to the table with a list of demands, and they achieved every single one of them without exception,
S3: which is exactly what happened in 1990 before the Northern League was created.
S5: Mm hmm. Mm hmm.
S2: So I know. It’s not popular to speak up for management consultants, but I think that right now, but I actually do think that there is some logic to this from a player development standpoint. And unsurprisingly, Joel Houston Astros were kind of the first to realize that the way that Minor League Baseball, an affiliate affiliated baseball works, isn’t necessarily how you would design it if you were designing it from scratch, with the only goal being to get as many players developed for the majors as possible. Like, you would probably have some like Walt Disney World style, complex and like have all of the players under one roof with the best scouting and the best technology. Like one of these driveline baseball type places where you could analyze their launch angles and spin rates, and that would probably be a better and more efficient way to go about developing baseball players. But due to the history of baseball and how it’s developed and America, that’s not the system that we have. And so there is this tension here, right? Well, where like with the G League, for example, in that in the NBA, like they have this G League select thing now recognizing that the best players you know and and basketball who aren’t quite ready for the NBA, they’re not going to want to go on the like long bus rides or whatever you just like recruit them and put them in this like place where only the good players are with the best coaches and that the best training. But you know, that’s not what baseball has, and any kind of move to get more towards an efficient model is going to create upset and anger and these small communities.
S5: I mean, you’re exactly right, and that is very much the the, you know, the prevailing, I think sentiment at least among a number of the major league, you know, general managers and you know, a few of them or would, I think, suggest exactly what you said, you know, it’s a lot more efficient for us to do this kind of talent evaluation at a complex in Arizona or Florida. We don’t need, you know, we don’t need this vast infrastructure of teams scattered across the entire country to do what we could do down there. I think from a pure, you know, talent evaluation standpoint, that argument has some validity, although I think there will always be an important place for guys like Ray Smith, who I profile in the article, who spent 40 plus years with the twins. They called him the prospect whisperer because so many players that came through Elizabethtown when he was there ultimately made the big league club. And I think that, you know, yes, you can do a lot of the evaluation, you know, through sophisticated quantitative assessments, like you mentioned. But I think that still only gets you so far and that there’s there will always be an important place for just kind of the having someone like Ray maybe take that into consideration, but also be able to to kind of assess the intangibles of of a player. And so yes, but but I think that’s important. I think though more of equal importance is what I hope to introduce in the article, which is, you know, does kind of the question of what what is baseball, you know, is it just a business or is it does it occupy sort of a more exalted place kind of in the American fabric? And I guess my observation would be that they can’t have it both ways in that you can’t, on the one hand, appeal to this kind of Norman Rockwell sense of Americana like you’ll see on, you know, MLB commercials or when they did the Field of Dreams game. But at the same time, act, you know, sort of like a ruthless, you know, McKinsey inspired corporate consultant, you know, trimming fat wherever you can. It’s those two things are in tension with each other, as you pointed out.
S3: And I would add to that well and to push back against you a little bit Josh that baseball wasn’t like basketball. I mean, minor League Baseball players often go straight out of high school. They’re 18 years old, they are fully fully undeveloped, and it takes as long as eight or nine years to make it to the big leagues. And sure, there are too many players, probably, you know, the needed, you know, that are occupying spots in the system to to to to the number of players that that are unexpected major leaguers is few. But at the same by the same token, those players are central to major league rosters. There’s no doubt. That players who came into the minor leagues as children, basically by the time they are in their mid 20s, they have developed to the point that they are major leaguers. You don’t see that as much in the NBA and in other sports, but more to Will’s point. I mean, the the dissolution of this bond between teams and towns and Major League Baseball franchise franchises and small towns is one that is deteriorated for, you know, for more than half a century. I mean, there were there were almost 450 minor league teams in nineteen, forty nine and fifty nine different leagues. I mean, they were considered civic operations. Minor league attendance, though, crashed from like a peak of 40 million that year to less than 10 million in nineteen sixty three until sort of reviving in the 1980s. So how does Baseball’s view the minors is? I think the central question here and baseball, I think, is kidding itself. If it believes that, you know, TV does everything that if we get rid of the majority of these of of these, these affiliates, it’s good for the game somehow. And you know, let’s let’s not forget that this is like the minors are rounding error on Baseball’s $10 billion of revenue annually.
S5: Exactly. I mean, it ties back into that Save America’s pastime act that I think went through in 2018. And what was so, you know, disingenuous about that is the fact that baseball MLB said, we need to essentially, you know, be allowed to pay these guys less than minimum wage to save these cash strapped franchises, kind of implying that they were that the minor league clubs themselves were unable to pay, you know, a wage that that would be fair. But in reality, the MLB was the one responsible for paying those salaries, and they had plenty of money to do it. And and so you’ve seen, I think, you know, a pattern of of this sort of misdirection on the part of MLB at the expense of, you know, minor league players and franchises, you know?
S1: Well, this story got me thinking about the gradual hollowing out of the semi-professional leagues. You know, I think of the basketball minor leagues of my youth, the CBA, the umbrella football there was the World League and the AFL and AFLW too, and even a few international leagues. It just kind of feels like there’s not a real opportunity for people that are something more than weekend warriors, but not quite professional level athletes anymore. So what is going to happen to all of these players that don’t really have a shot anymore to do this sort of, you know, competition?
S5: I mean, I think that’s a great point because one of the arguments that MLB put forth, as far as you know, pushing the contraction was the fact that, OK, well, now we can pay a tiny bit more to those, you know, the existing players that we have. But, you know, I think that overlooked two important points. One is that they could just simply pay everyone that they have a little bit more rather than cut in, you know, twenty twenty five percent of the workforce, the money is there. And secondly, like you said, you know that argument, the contraction argument that they presented, they were kind of doing it like this is in the best interest of minor leaguers. And sure, maybe it is in the best interest of those who are lucky enough to continue to play, even though it remains to be seen how much more they’re going to really get paid. But you’re also a limited in opportunities for for hundreds of players that used to have them. And I think another, you know, there’s other second and third order effects that I don’t know if they’ve been thought through too carefully, but one of them is the racial diversity of baseball. Because if you think about the fact that you’re replacing 40 minor league teams with, in this case, a college would bat league. College players are predominantly white, whereas these Appalachian League rookie teams were very diverse and featured a lot of Latin players from from overseas. And so if you think about that, you know, are you in fact, kind of perhaps unintentionally removing an opportunity for foreign born minority players to make it to the extent that they had been before? And I think connected to that from the talent evaluation standpoint is the fact that if there’s a smaller draft because the draft now is is is less because there’s less places to play, it may be the case that major league clubs are going to be less inclined to choose sort of an unrefined, you know, very talented but but not very polished player from Latin America, as opposed to a product of a college in America who’s had the benefit of playing more organized baseball at a higher level. In which case, again, I think, you know, you may see, you know, more white players with a college background and fewer. Latin players who may have a lot of raw talent but haven’t had the opportunity to develop in places like the Appalachian League, so I don’t know if that’s necessarily the case, but it could be. It could be, yeah.
S3: But the one thing we haven’t touched on is that how what baseball really wants to do ultimately is outsource a lot of this to and that’s how the independent leagues that have no affiliation with the majors that are responsible for paying players that they recruit on their own and then creating the sorts of environments in towns that will attract fans. That’s why they exist. Baseball.
S2: But I don’t think that’s a terrible option, actually, and I think that it’s not. It is sort of funny to me that baseball has been struggling, I think, to build and sustain its fan base. We’re all familiar with that. And just by like an accident of history, they’re just like teams all over the country that are just like built into these communities and Baseball’s. And there is just like, let’s get rid of them. I mean, that makes it that makes no sense. But I actually didn’t find it convincing, will that it’s like a huge deal, that it would be a huge deal, that the Polansky team is like not the Pulaski Yankees, that it’s like the Pulaski, whatever. Like, I think that maybe the answer that would kind of split the difference would be for there to be more teams like instead of getting rid of them, have more and have the connections to Major League Baseball exist, but just be looser. And so just have them sponsor the teams and have them have some whatever connection that would be, whether they would be providing some financial support or providing what, whatever it is. But just be like we are spreading the game all over the country and we’re like excited to bring it to even more communities rather than coming in like the Grim Reaper and being the bad guy and the villain. Because what baseball needs is good PR, and they need people in these communities to, like, have good associations with the sport and the organization. But like what?
S3: But what evidence do we have? Well, or Josh that baseball is interested in doing that, but it’s I don’t think they are doing the game in these places. If that were the case, if they wanted to spread the love and spend some of their revenue supporting Minor League Baseball in as many far flung towns as possible. They can do
S5: that. Well, I mean, in MLB’s defense, in the near term at least, they have provided financial support to stand up. College would bat league in these communities. And actually, you know, interestingly, this past summer attendance was was pretty strong. However, I think, you know, I’m somewhat skeptical as far as the long term ability of that league to endure. I think they benefited in large part from the fact that there really hadn’t been baseball in nearly two years. And so people were just desperate to get out of the house and basically watch whatever was out there.
S2: That’s the that’s the idea. Baseball, every other year, that’s the solution.
S5: And you know, MLB has in fact provided some degree of support to get a new league stood up. The quality of play, I don’t think, was anything close to what they had, you know, advertised it as being. And they did benefit to some extent, like I said, from the fact people just wanted to get out and do something. So we’ll see. I mean, it may it may thrive. I hope, you know, for the sake of the communities who I think deserve quality baseball that it does well. But we’ll just I think I think only time will tell whether whether it’s actually going to last will.
S2: Bardenwerper wrote about the Appalachian League for Harper’s Magazine will link to his feature in our show notes. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for having me. Now it is time for after balls and coming out of our conversation about the AP League Stefan, there are some team names and team nicknames that caught your attention.
S3: The team that will focused on was the Pulaski Yankees, and a lot of the teams in the league were just named for the major league affiliate. But now that they are no longer affiliated with major league teams and they’re becoming a college league, they’ve all picked new nicknames. So the Polansky team is the river turtles. But I liked the the team in Burlington, which was the royals for many years, and before that it was the Indians who they are staying in this league and they’ve been renamed the sock puppets. The Burlington Sock Puppets
S2: beat out the Burlington trolls, the Burlington Dockers.
S3: It’s a, you know, it’s a it’s a reference to the region’s proud textile past.
S2: What about the Civil War? Any any connection there?
S3: Apparently not. I will say the Burlington team was for many, many years owned by Miles Wolfe, the founder of the Northern League that I wrote about in while and outside, and Wolf just gave up full control of the team. This past February, as this hammer was coming down from from Major League Baseball.
S1: Yeah, the funny thing, by the way, about all of these little towns is that, you know, it’s like all of remote minor league towns, Americana and like all the teams that will mention, they basically have HBCU’s right in the middle of them that they have these very remote black colleges out there, right in Appalachia. So a lot of phone
S3: black colleges and Burlington, the hosiery capital of the south. The team decided when we when we started discussing a name, everyone continued to say that we wanted something to own something unique that no one in the United States could say they had. And with that, a sock puppet textile themed identity was born. Josh What’s your Burlington sock puppet?
S2: On Saturday in Nashville, the University of Georgia put a beat down on Vanderbilt, the likes of which you don’t often see in major college football. And yes, Vanderbilt does count as a major college football. Georgia was beating Vandy, 35, to nothing with three minutes to go in the first quarter. Vandy had just 77 yards for the whole game, barely more than the number of points that Georgia put up and shutting out the Commodores at 62 to zip. So that was bad. But if you go to the lower divisions of college football, you can find a lot worse. In 2014, to Scholem College out of Tennessee, beat College of Faith out of well, we’ll get to that part in a minute by the score of 71 to nothing. Ryan Nanay of SB Nation did a drive by drive breakdown of that game in 2014, which began with College of Faith losing 18 yards on a punt for a safety after four drives. College of Faith was actually up to minus eight total yards on the game. But then they fumbled another punt, putting them at minus 53 on the game. Their seventh drive of the game went Rushford. Three rushed for loss of two, sack for loss of seven, team rush for loss of 19 safety under five 12. They lost another thirty five yards and got another safety on another punt. We really need an oral history of the College of Faith punting from this game. But after Drive 14, it was blessedly over with College of Faith that quote unquote gaining negative 100 yards and negative one hundred and twenty four rushing yards. So not a great performance. College of Faith was actually a pretty big story. Pretty well covered. In 2014, NPR ran a piece about it on Morning Edition. In this clip, the coach of the team, Dale Richardson, talked about the advantages their opponents have.
S5: You have a campus, they have weight room, they have a full time staff, you know, they have full time coaches. We don’t. It is what it is, you know?
S2: So yes, years before Bishop Sycamore College of Faith was an online school that barely existed except for sports purposes. That NPR story, reported by Michael Tomsic of the radio station WFAA, reported that players paid five hundred dollars a year to enroll in the school, which was at least in that moment. Based out of Charlotte had about 60 students working towards non-accredited online degrees in ministry and sports management. In 2015, Evan Demirel did a long feature about College of Faith for SB Nation, in which he reported that it was actually multiple colleges of faith with independent campuses in Arkansas, Florida and North Carolina. Demirel wrote that College of Faith was barely even a school, that it was actually an online extension of a ministry that’s technically a church. And yet, he continued, despite all the things the College of Faith does not have. What it does are athletes who believe players more than willing to deal with these shortcomings and even pay for them all just to play the game. They live a little longer. That 2015 story noted that the guy who came up with College of Faith, Sherwin Thomas, wanted to open at least 10 colleges of faith, each playing the others in the regular season and then vying against each other for an interesting golf championship in multiple sports. As of November 2015, according to another long feature in the New York Post, the various colleges of faith had played a cumulative 19 games and lost them by a combined score of 19 games. Guess what? The combined score was seven Fatsis UGA 19 games.
S3: What’s 19 times, seven times seven, sixty three? One hundred and fifty one, I’m going to say to zero.
S2: You think they only gave up seven points a game? Be nice for them.
S3: But no, no, no. All 19 games. I’m sorry. Oh, wait, let me try 19 times. 70 is what I meant. One thousand five hundred and ten. Twenty one.
S2: What do you think, Josh?
S1: I was going to go somewhere like. 850 to like 30. Yeah, like they lost 850 to 30, Joel was like
S2: very slightly closer, but you guys were like kind of split the difference. The combined score was 11 hundred and fifty nine to six.
S3: Yes. I really don’t to give them a little credit, more credit.
S2: But we really need an oral history of as the six points. So OK, back to this idea of an interesting golf championship in multiple sports, I’m guessing the quality of play in that league would not have been super high. But it seems like we may not ever know. A post on Reddit, which has done a lot of sleuthing about College of Faith, indicates that they did not play any of their scheduled games in 2016, and it doesn’t look like they played any in the year since either. In 2015, which I think is the last year College of Faith took a football field. A division two linemen who played against them did an AMA and ask me anything on Reddit. One of the questions was Did you feel bad at any point? His answer Yes, they were that bad. One player took snaps at quarterback and it did tackle. They had hurt, though. I have to give them that. They were excited whenever they made tackles dot dot dot, even when it was sixty one to nothing in the fourth quarter.
S1: Johnny Jolly would be proud. Johnny Jolly, a Texas A&M fan who we mentioned last week who was on the wrong end of a 77 to nothing loss against Oklahoma, who celebrated a tackle at the end of that game. So, yeah, all right.
S3: I’d like to go back and correct my math. I said 19 times seven, and I came up with like 5500 for 70. I Matt like, that’s actually 13 hundred, but I’m going to stick with my 500. Can’t go back and change it.
S2: Thank you for doing that. Stefan because most of our listeners come and come here for a mathematical, you know, practice. We’ll add that to the flashcards. That is our show for today. Our producer, Kevin Bendix, Pilsner, Pasha’s and subscribe. Or just reach out. Go to Slate.com. Slash hang up. You can email us and hang up at Slate.com. Don’t forget to subscribe to the show rate and review us on Apple Podcasts for Joel Anderson and Stefan. Fatsis Josh Levin remembers Elmo, Baby. And thanks for listening. Now, it is time for our bonus segment for Slate Plus members. The long awaited bonus segment about Justin Tucker’s record smashing, game winning 66 yard field goal. Stefan, the floor is yours, my friend.
S3: I’m not going to ask me a question, I just get to talk about how happy that made me. All right, I’m going to set my own personal. How did I experience this moment? I have been out. I walked back in. I checked my fantasy results and I have a raven. So I went to the Ravens game and I noticed that there were seconds left in the game and I turned on the television and Justin Tucker was lining up.
S7: If it’s good, a 66 yard drive doctors kick is on the way. It is the crossbar ready to through. It is good. Time has expired. Justin Tucker Sprit the longest field goal in NFL history. The head is in the board and it may have on the
S3: field and the announcers on CBS did a really bad job both of hyping the moment and of explaining the moment for those of us who may have just tuned in. So I don’t know how long this kick was. And I deduced because it seemed to be very far that it looked like it was, you know, one yard passed a five yard line. So I’m thinking, Oh, maybe it’s a sixty one.
S2: The last time he was in Detroit, he beat the Lions, a game winning sixty one yard field goal. As far as I thought.
S3: So I think and maybe a sixty one. And then it goes up and it doesn’t quite get there. I’m watching it and I’m thinking, maybe it’s not sixty one. Maybe it was farther and then it hits the the crossbar and bounces up. I mean, it was incredible how far it bounced up. It bounced up like ten feet and then went in the right direction into history. As I wrote for Slate
S2: Joel, do you want to just give us a minute by minute breakdown of where where you are or do you want to ask Stefan question?
S1: Well, you know, I like a lot of people experience NFL through Red Zone, and it was very dramatic. You know, I’m typically not a person in unfortunately Stefan. I’m like, Oh God, you guys are bailing them out. You know, you settle in for a field goal. Be more aggressive. But obviously, this wasn’t a situation where that was possible. So yeah, this is like one of the field goal attempts that I’ve most been excited about in my life. You know, just a, you know, just yeah, I mean, just the history of it. I mean, I know it’s kind of funny in a way like hyping up a sixty six yard field goal. But like at this, I mean, that is history. Like, I vividly remember the Tom Dempsey kid playing over and over again as a kid watching football games and to see something like that happen. And it determined a game like, it’s not like this happened in the second or third quarter, is that it was like? It’s such a display of like strength, skill and like kicking under pressure, we, you know, kickers just get the worst of it. You know, my my big thing is college football and kickers just get the worst of it. It’s like college kickers or whatever. And then you see, you know what it looks like when the best guy to ever do it does it on the line near the end of his career. And that was like, that was pretty amazing, man.
S3: I got what I probably said second or third quarter. This would never have happened in the third quarter, right? This only happens at the end of the half or the end of the game because coaches, for obvious reasons, can’t risk giving up field position that you know that they’re attempting a 65 or even longer kick would do. And the interesting there are a couple of interesting things here that I pointed out in the slate piece Josh. One is that the final score was exactly the same as the Tom Dempsey kick in 1970 19 to 17. The opponent in that game also was the Lions, as it was with Tucker’s 61 yard winner a few years ago. So you had those parallels and the intervening kicks that that that matched Dempsey. There were three sixty three yard ers that matched Dempsey, won by Jason Elam. My the kicker in on the Broncos when I when I was there and the others by Sebastian Jan Schakowsky and David Akers, those were at the end of the half, so they weren’t clutch end of game kicks. And the record breaker prior to this 64 yards by Matt Prater in 2013 also was at the end of the half. So this was like and this extended the record by two yards, which is a lot, and it was by Justin Tucker who deserves it because he is a remarkable.
S2: Yeah, I mean, Andrew been in the Wall Street Journal, had a bunch of really interesting stats, the one that I had never heard before was that there’s apparently data on how close you are to the center of the uprights and uncorks between 40 and 49 yards. Tucker misses the center by just one point one five yards. And on this kick, he hit the upright like right in the middle, like right in the middle.
S3: Ridiculous but hit, though. Hit the crossbar.
S2: Right? Right? Hit the crossbar in the middle. That’s what I meant. So the thing that I was really curious about Stefan and you wrote about this in the piece and Tucker talked about it after, is that he didn’t kick this like a regular field goal. He actually, like, very consciously tried to kick the ball as hard and as violently as he could, which I guess I found a little surprising because in baseball, for instance, you hear hitters say, like, you know, I hit the ball furthest if I take like a smooth and easy swing and if I try to hit a home run, I’m not going to hit one. Did it surprise you to hear him talk about how he was just like, All right, I’m just going to boot the shit out of this rather than like thinking, I’m just going to do my regular kick and like, I have a really strong leg. And if I hit it, like if I hit it right, it’ll just go far.
S3: No, because these guys all know exactly what strength yields, what distance and what they need to do to get a ball to where they want it to go. Chris clearly pointed out on Twitter, the former NFL punter that this is about Force Vmax mass. I mean, this is like they know that impact matters here. But when you kick a longer ball, yeah, it’s a different approach. The hold is different. You want the ball actually tipped a little bit farther forward than you would normally, which will create a lower trajectory more of a line drive, as opposed to a higher arc that would assure you of getting the ball over the line. There’s always more risk of a block on a long kick because kickers are trying to drive it more like a line drive. So they are, you know, these guys are are precision animals, right? They know exactly how far what they need to do to kick particular distances. And Tucker has said before that he’s made one from from what? Seven? He made one line in practice.
S2: He made us want a Pro Bowl practice. There were 75 yards, and he told Kevin Clark for The Ringer, I think in 2017 that he once hit the crossbar in Denver on a kickoff. And so he thinks he could make like an 85 yard field goal and in Denver if given the opportunity.
S3: Yeah, he said he’s hid it from. He told Kevin, he said it from 79 in practice. And my best guess is I can hit an 84 yarder in Denver, and that doesn’t surprise me at all. I mean, the eighty four is a lot. I mean, it does come off a tee, obviously so jaded. There’s a difference between kicking off a tee and kicking off of the ground with a holder. But the vast majority of kickers in the NFL can make a field goal from 70 or 75, even in practice with no line, you know, either the ball held by a little kicking finger, a tee or by another human. But to do it in a game is obviously a very, very different thing. And what distinguishes Tucker is, you know, you mentioned the accuracy Josh, but it’s also just the makes. He’s made ninety point six percent of his field goal field goals in his career. And he has made more than 90 percent of field goals. As Andrew Beeton pointed out in that piece from between 40 and forty nine yards, which is like two plus percentage points more than the next kicker.
S1: Yeah. I mean, it must be a real relief for kickers to be known for something other that I could. I mean, I’ll break it down this way. So either you have it one in the Adam victories of the league, which is basically one guy like, I mean, he’s the kicker, at least in my lifetime that is known for being clutch and automatic and great and pretty much a surefire Hall of Famer. Then Justin Tucker is like the second guy. But then you’ve got like the collection of kickers as a football fan or football player that just basically like the bane of your existence. As a Houston Oilers fan, for instance, I remember Al del Greco when they in 91 Houston in the Washington football team, known by their other name at the time. I think they were like both 11 and. At the same time, and Al del Greco missed a field goal at the end of the game and that denied the the the Oilers a chance to beat the Washington football team.
S3: I can’t believe we’re here denigrating kickers when we should be celebrating them today. Josh Come on now.
S1: It’s great. It’s great that you know that people get the experience. You know this kicker at a moment of triumph rather than thinking about all the ones that have tormented your teams over the years. So that’s typically the way football fans, kickers you think. I think your thought do this and it’s supposed to do right, right? But usually that’s sort of the
S2: name for a kicker that you don’t like.
S1: Yeah, don’t think I’ll do. A Greco was actually a really good kicker, but he came up short in this big game and it was like one of the most crushing losses. As a Houston Oilers fans, I can remember because he missed like a thirty seven yard field goal against the, you know, the Washington football team.
S3: So what happened, you know, in the intervening 30 years is that people like Tucker, who are making 90 plus percent of their kicks or eighty five plus for the run of the mill kicker, they’re expected to make everything. And you know, that’s why the NFL is made kicking harder. That’s why the extra point gets moved back. That’s why there’s been perpetual talk for years about narrowing the goalposts or widening the hash is to make it more challenging. And Tucker, because of his consistency and his strength and his closeness. I mean, does stand out in a profession that is harder and harder to stand out in because everybody is so good.
S2: I mean, Stefan Justin Tucker is kick is the greatest in NFL history by by yardage. But Dempsey’s kick has to be the greatest feat in single feet in NFL kicking history, given that he beat the previous record by seven yards. Given the conditions that it was outdoors, given the relative lack of accuracy by kickers back then, given that he was missing toes on his foot, and we should also note that Don Dempsey died of complications of COVID last year, so does want to give some respect. I mean, you can’t argue with that, right? Seven.
S3: No, no, no, no. I mean, and the video of it is just so cool to watch.
S2: I remember that I roll that video and that was the cool thing. Always like when kickers would attempt a long field goals is that they would show that old footage of Dempsey coming on straight on to that. And so I miss like seeing that every time there’s like a long field all the time. That’s sad that we don’t see that anymore.
S1: I have two questions, actually, because I was going to say that for Josh like that had to have been like the best national memory of the Saints at that, you know, for a number of years because, I mean, you know, they were a terrible team. But then they had this triumphant moment where they kept showing the Saints winning, you know, under this incredible kick.
S2: But they ran the opening kick of their first ever game back for a touchdown. That was a touchdown was the the only other good thing that’s instead besides their field goal.
S1: Oh man, shout out to John for Cade Stefan. Give me your top three kickers of all time
S2: and will end it there. Go Stefan.
S3: All right, we’re going to Terry because of the Super Bowls and what separates Vinny Terry is opportunity, right? He had chances to prove his greatness. One. Jason Elam Because he’s my friend and I liked him, and he was a wonderful guy to to do what I did with and incredibly accurate for his era and consistent over many, many, many years. Justin Tucker we’ve already established. I’m already. That’s three already. Is that three years that two? You got three? That’s three. All right, I’m done. Tucker Military. My Buddy Elam Thank you.
S2: Stefan Congratulations Stefan. Congratulations Justin Tucker and thank you.
S1: Congratulations, go go.
S3: Just all of the Greeks
S2: just just for being you. And thank you. Slate customers will be back with more next week.