The Serena’s Coach Tells All Edition
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The following podcast contains explicit language. Hide your children.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Hi. I’m Josh Levine at Slate’s national editor. And this is. Hang Up and listen for the week of September 6th, 2022, on this week’s show, Rennae Stubbs of ESPN and Racquet magazine will join us to explain what it was like to coach Serena Williams during her grand sendoff at the U.S. Open. Alex Kirshner of Slate and Split.
Stefan Fatsis: Zone duo will.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Also be here to assess the opening weekend of the college football season and the decision to move from a four team to a 12 team playoff. And finally, Juliet Macur of The New York Times will come on to discuss her story, The Keeper, the harrowing personal story of how the Afghan women’s soccer team fled the country to escape the Taliban. I’m in Washington, D.C. I’m the author of The Queen and the host of the podcast, a one year new episode this week from the one and Only Joel Anderson subscribe because you don’t want to miss that on Thursday. Also in D.C. is Stefan FATSIS. He is the author of the books Word Freak A Few Seconds of Panic and Wild and Outside. Hello, Stefan.
Stefan Fatsis: Hey, Josh. Congrats. Can’t wait to hear Joel. I mean, love you too, but can’t really. Can’t wait to hear Joel.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: It’s a really, really good episode. You have good taste.
Stefan Fatsis: Awesome. I want to I want to offer a little correction from last week. We heard from a couple of listeners who noted that we did not note that Ryan Reynolds, the actor who was bought Wrexham with Rob McElhenney, is Canadian. We called them American’s apology to Canada, to Ryan Reynolds, to any listeners who might have been offended. I thought I needed to say that.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: I also have a correction because when we were talking about Susan dominance, the story on Coco Gauff, I said to learn more about how you have to go to Tik Tok. You corrected me at the time, but I do want to note that I was very wrong about that, that there is an extended section in that story about Coco Gauff on on TikTok. So that’s my correction in our Slate Plus segment this week, Rennae Stubbs, who we’re going to talk with in one moment about Serena Williams. She’s going to stick around to have a conversation with us about Frances Tiafoe, who we were so thrilled and delighted to see beat Rafael Nadal at the U.S. Open on Monday. If you want to hear us talk with Rene about Frances, you need to be a slate plus member. You get that bonus segment, you get other bonus segments on this and other shows. You get the show ad free and you get to support us, which will make you feel great. Slate.com slash hang up. Plus, to sign up that Slate.com slash hang up.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Plus, we knew a couple of things for certain going into the opening rounds of the U.S. Open. Serena Williams would be there and it was going to be a spectacle and a celebration. But I didn’t fully grasp how much of a spectacle and a celebration I was going to be one of the biggest I can remember in all of sports, and deservedly so. And no matter what you thought was going to happen, it was hard to anticipate what we saw in Serena’s three singles matches, two stirring victories and one enthralling defeat. Joining us now is someone who saw it all from up close. Rennae Stubbs helped coach Serena at the U.S. Open and sat in her players box during those matches. Renee is a four time Olympian, six time grand slam champion in doubles and mixed doubles, former world doubles, number one. You can hear her tennis commentary on ESPN and on the indispensable Rennae Stubbs tennis podcast, which is put out by our friends at Racquet magazine. Renee, thanks so much for being here.
Speaker 3: Thanks for having me, guys.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: So the first question is, how did this happen? How did you end up becoming part of Serena’s team during this incredible week?
Speaker 3: We’ve always had a really good relationship as far as, yeah, we are friends first and foremost. Secondly, we’ve always had a good relationship when it comes to her tennis. And, you know, we’ve spoken to through the years really about her tennis. So I’ve always sort of shot her text here and there about things that I see on the court or things that she could do better. She’s always been somebody who’s been willing to listen, and she’s always been very appreciative of that and those conversations.
Speaker 3: And then so Cincinnati rolled around and I went and saw the match, and there were just some thoughts that I had on how I thought she could certainly improve and get better because really I really wanted her just to have a good memory from the US Open. I really wanted her to play well because I knew how much it meant to her. And so I just sort of threw out a few few thoughts and she came back with a text and just said, I’m actually hanging around Cincinnati if you want to come out and observe my practice. So that’s kind of like a hand to say, Hey, can you maybe give me a hand or give me some thoughts to help me play a little better at the U.S. Open? And so that’s how it came out. I went on the practice court within the next day and I was on the court with her pretty much every day leading up to the the U.S. Open.
Stefan Fatsis: Well, what were some of those things that you observed that you felt Serena could need some help with over the couple of weeks before the U.S. Open?
Speaker 3: Well, it was pretty well-documented, but the most important thing for me was I. I felt like somebody as great as her. She usually comes into a tournament or Grand Slam not needing to practice with other players, and every other player will will play practice sets leading into a tournament. It’s just a normal thing, something that most players do just because you can’t replicate a match in practice just by hitting tennis balls.
Speaker 3: Now you can work on things. You can say, okay, my forehand crosscourt, you know, I’m struggling with that. And you can do a thousand forehand crosscourt in practice so you feel better about it. Or you can say, My serve isn’t going well, so you can maybe spend another half an hour on your serve. But for me, it wasn’t hitting the tennis ball. That was mostly the problem. Even though she hadn’t played a lot, it was it was playing matches and she hadn’t been playing any matches in a year. I mean, she, I think leading into the US Open, I’m trying to remember now, I think she played three matches since Wimbledon last year. That’s just not enough, particularly for anyone, but but even for Serena.
Speaker 3: So I suggested her to play as many players as she could in practice practice sets. And the only way to replicate the feeling that she would have in a match is to have that anxiety of having a break point on a player or serving out a set or all those things. You can’t replicate that just by practicing, quote unquote, with your hitting partner who’s most of the time going to do what you want most of the time. Hit it where you want, maybe not overstress you, whereas another player wants to beat you in practice.
Speaker 3: So you had I just suggested, look, you’re not going to get the matches now going into the U.S. Open that you want it. So let’s play as many practice matches as and practice sets as possible. And she was really I remember that she she said, I agree, let’s do it. Which she has never done. And I think those two sets against Sofia kenin, maria sakkari. She played a couple of times. ONS jabeur leading into the US Open. These are the players that she actually practiced against and she was she was, you know, toe to toe with them in practice. And I think that might have helped her mindset going into the US open to say look I might not have had all the matches, but if I play the right way I know I can at least stay with them or beat them. And so I think she went into the U.S. Open, at least having a few more practice sets under her belt. And I’m not saying that that’s the reason why she won those matches. I think her greatness shone through when she walked on the tennis court, but I think it helped her at least be a little more settled.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: So one of the just truly wonderful things, just as a fan watching this tournament, is seeing all those montages on the plate, on the scoreboard and ash, and that played on our television screens for those of us who weren’t there. And the image of her at 17 winning the US Open with the beads in her hair, it’s really emotional. I mean, it’s moving to to see and just see where she was and where she is now. I mean, speaking of it, just in more kind of practical terms rather than emotional ones, she’s a very different person and player than she was when she won the US Open in 17 as a coach and and part of her team.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: How many kind of allowances are you making to the fact that this is a 40 year old woman and she may be doesn’t move around the court as quickly as she did? I mean, her serve, I think, is probably better than it was when she was a teenager. So, like, how much are you thinking about like the Serena who’s standing before you now versus the champion of years past?
Speaker 3: Yeah. I mean, look, we had to take it. We have to always take in consideration you no matter what, who you’re coaching. But certainly at 40, almost 41 years of age, knowing that her body’s over the last couple of years has suffered some you know, some so has had some issues, particularly her knees. So we were very cognizant of, you know, okay, has she hit enough today? Should we back off? Because Serena is also the type of person that doesn’t voluntarily say, yeah, I’m going to just going to take today off and I don’t feel great. She’ll push herself. And that’s what’s really made her so great through the years is that she’s the first one to say no, no, one more.
Speaker 3: So that we were aware of that both Eric and I, about how much, you know, should we hit today or should we go an extra half an hour? We were really very, very cognizant of not over, you know, making things too strenuous for her body, knowing that it was going to be a full on. And it was. And we saw that like after the first match was very emotional. Clearly, the second match was incredibly tough physically. And then, you know, the match against Isla was the longest match she’s ever played, the U.S. Open. And so, you know, the the first question asked of her every day, even after practice, was, how’s your body? How are you feeling? You know, because we did have to you do have to worry about those things. And, you know, we didn’t want to have the last thing we wanted to do is have that incident at the at Wimbledon, where she was seen walking off the court with the hamstring injury that was devastating to her career last year.
Speaker 3: So, yeah, we’re aware, but as I said, she prepared as well as anyone has. She pushed herself tremendously hard in practice. Leading into the US Open. And you know, we saw the benefits of that because she outlasted Kontaveit and you know, she was right there toe to toe with Ajla Tomljanovic, who really her improvement in her fitness has skyrocketed. So it was great to watch after 3 hours and I know I spoke to Isla the following day and she was hurting the next day. So when you think about someone who’s her age at 20, whatever she is, 28 years of age compared to 41, we all know how much different it feels in your forties to wake up after a, you know, a big day physically. So, yeah, it was incredible to see her fight the way she did.
Stefan Fatsis: And you didn’t mention that in between two of those matches, she played doubles with Venus, adding I would think to some of her some of the stress. But I left that last match, which of course, as for everyone was so emotional, so wonderful, I’ll was so eloquent and generous and gracious afterward. And Serena with Serena. But part of me was like, oof, on some level, I had to think like, Serena, the competitor must have been a little bit mad. Like, I could have won that match. I should have won that match. Why she.
Speaker 3: 100%. I mean, it was the one thing that, you know, even and your me being I was very competitive tennis player myself. And, you know, my first thought was, oh, my God, she should have won that match, though. You know, I mean, the Serena involved would have served out the first set at five three. You know, the Serena that was uber confident, you know, beating Maria Sharapova in the greatest match I ever seen anyone play the gold medal match at the Olympics. I mean, Serena would have served that that match out easily and serve that set out in the first set would have closed out the second set a lot easier, which taxed her going into the third set.
Speaker 3: So, you know, it was unfortunate, but it also showed in some respects that she’s human and that maybe it was time because she wasn’t able to serve it out. But also, you know, her mentioning maybe I should have started three months earlier was probably true as well to get another couple of matches under her belt so she could serve out those sets. So yeah, absolutely still pissed about it the next day about not closing out the sets when she should have.
Speaker 3: But also, I think all of us, even though we all felt that as well, it was one of the first things all of us said to one another was, Oh, but she should have won. But also you can step away going, man, did you give it everything, though? So there was that juxtaposition that we all felt, including Serena, about, you know, the loss in general. But I think she was very content and happy to have played at least a really great, entertaining match to walk away, because that’s what she deserved. And yes, Isla was incredible.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: And we’ve seen that many times since she came back from having Olympia. I mean, Serena was the greatest closer in the history of the sport. And she has made four major finals since having her child and hasn’t won any of them. And I’m sure that that galls her and rankles her. But as she said in the lead up to the tournament, she didn’t have anything to prove to herself or to anyone. She’s won more titles and had enough accolades for multiple lifetimes. And so to think of those losses as failures would be absurd. And yet, I think to be a great champion like her, you kind of have to in some sense, look at anything that’s not complete victory as a failure to drive you to be the great champion that you are.
Speaker 3: Absolutely. One of the things that Steffi Graf told me years and years ago was that she said one of the regrets that I have is that I didn’t enjoy the wins more. But, you know, my first reaction to that was, yeah, but that was what made you great, because I think some of these players that win a Grand Slam now so happy and they feel almost like they’ve reached the top and the pinnacle. And then they just some of them have gone and fallen over the other side and they’re still rolling down the hill.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Well, Kyrgios has said if he wins, he’s going to quit forever.
Speaker 3: Yeah, I’ll believe that when I see it. But yeah. So. So let’s hope. Let’s hope he just keeps making finals because, you know, he he is as controversial as he is. And as much as people can either love him or hate him, it’s bloody good for the sport. But you know, with Serena and with and I mentioned Steffi, is that the reason why they were so great and able to win 20 plus Grand Slams is that they consistently put themselves on the line and want and wanted more. And you hate you know, they hated losing more than they loved winning and everybody loves winning.
Speaker 3: But I also think not being satisfied is the mark of greatness. And so many of these players that have won Grand Slams almost feel satisfied that they’ve done that in their career and how lucky they they feel when they’ve done it. And it’s like, Oh, I don’t need to prove anything to anyone anymore. Oh, my God, I’m a Grand Slam winner. Whereas, you know, someone like Serena is like, Yeah, yeah, great one. I want to. Yeah, great. Two. I want three. I want four. I won’t fight. I mean, she was like Steffi, just all she wanted to do was win those titles, and if she wasn’t winning them, then she was going to be gone. And so, you know, I think physically, obviously, and wanting to have another family is the only reason why she’s not still trying to do that.
Stefan Fatsis: And I wanted to ask you about that particularly, you know, some players, as you just alluded to, seem satisfied with one retiring early. We saw Ash Barty retire at a really young age in her mid-twenties. Serena, in that Vogue essay in which she announced her retirement, basically said, yeah, if it wasn’t for this, I wouldn’t be considering retiring regardless of how she is looked or felt or her age, as, you know, as someone who has coached other players, who have had children while and come back to stay on the tour. How do players sort of evaluate that and what is different now with the better players versus, say, 20 years ago?
Speaker 3: But as far as having children.
Stefan Fatsis: Again and sort of making that decision, making those. Assessments. I mean, that obviously is going to vary from player to player.
Speaker 3: Yeah. I mean, clearly, look, you know, Kim Clijsters, for example, had she had a child and came back, was actually a better player. I think she looked at the world a little bit differently. I think she saw that, you know, losing is not a failure, that winning is joyful, and that in the end, you get to go home and see your kids. You know, I mean, the first one of the first things that Serena had was Olympia come into the room after she was done. And and she didn’t show any regret or sadness. She was happy. And, you know, telling Olympia that mom, mom still win. And, you know, all those things like your life changes when you have kids. So I think that was seen, you know, more players have children.
Speaker 3: And also the money is so good now that they can have kids and come back and realize that they can still have success with Serena. Clearly, money is not an object, so it’s not an option for you. She doesn’t care about the money. It’s more about I think she really wanted to show Olympia that she was a champion and a winner. And that’s one of the reasons why she came back after having Olympia, is that she felt like, you know, I’d like to show my daughter that what a champion looks like. And she did that.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: I don’t know if you had this experience, Stefan, but like hearing Rene just talking about like I texted Serena and her friends, it just feels weird because she’s such an icon. And just to think of her doing like, normal things feels abnormal to us. And I just wondered, Rene, if you can talk a little bit about what the experience was like for you being in that stadium? I’ve been in Ashe and seen Federer play Djokovic. I’ve seen Serena play there. I’ve experienced what it feels like to have all that kind of adulation pouring down from the stands under the court. But this just felt like it was on an entirely different level from anything I’ve ever seen before. Almost like, what was it like to kind of both be thinking about Serena, the person that you know and trying to help her win, but also just feeling the amount of love and respect and adoration from all these people, just kind of pouring down from like from on high and Ashe Stadium.
Stefan Fatsis: And if I could add to that, if you had not been asked by Serena to join the team for a few weeks and sit in the box, you probably would have been interviewing her on the court.
Speaker 3: Yeah.
Stefan Fatsis: Different experiences.
Speaker 3: Very different experiences.
Speaker 4: Serena, this has been your stage. This is your moment. What would you like to say to your family, your friends, and all the millions of fans that.
Speaker 5: Are watching you around? Oh, my God.
Speaker 4: Thank you so much. You guys were amazing today.
Speaker 5: I try to just play it a little bit better. Thank you, Daddy.
Speaker 4: And now you’re.
Speaker 5: Watching. Thanks, Mom. Oh, my God. I’m. I think everyone that’s here that’s been on my side so many.
Speaker 4: Years, decades, my gosh, literally decades. But it all started with my parents and they deserve everything. So I’m really.
Speaker 5: Grateful for them. Oh, my God. These are happy tears, I guess. I don’t know.
Speaker 3: I would have had a really hard time doing those interviews because I think I really would have had a hard time getting the words out. I fear that I would have had a few tears in my eyes. I know that Mary Jo said that she was happy she got through that interview with Serena and didn’t lose it. It’s hard to quantify really how incredible it was to be a part of that experience and that journey.
Speaker 3: And one of the things that was discussed after she was done and by her team and by those closest to her was the just the. How magnified. The response of people all around the world has been to her. I could not walk by somebody that couldn’t tell me. Please tell Serena how much we love her. Please tell Serena how much we’re going to miss her. Please tell Serena how much she’s made a difference in my life. Please tell me it’s incredible how many people recognize me in that space of a week just to tell me that Serena’s coach, please tell her we love her. It’s just incredible.
Speaker 3: And one of the things that was discussed, know we had a team lunch was we wanted her to know how much she’s loved and how much people love her. And sometimes when you’re out there, you don’t feel it and you don’t see it. And I just think it’s tremendous where it started. And I was there when it started her career. And I know how on how non welcoming people were towards her and her family and then to to to go through this 20 plus year career and where she ended up and how people embraced her and loved her and her family. And I think that is a story that cannot be told enough about what they went through at the beginning and where it ended up. And I’m so thankful that they got that feeling in the end that they were universally. And I say that because Venus I put Venus in there universally loved by tennis fans and and just people everywhere, all around the world.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Rennae Stubbs helped coach Serena at the U.S. Open, and you can catch her on ESPN and on the Rennae Stubbs tennis podcast. Thanks so much, Rene. That was great.
Speaker 3: You’re welcome.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Up next, Alex Kirshner on the start of college football season and the new 12 team playoff.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The first full week of the 2022 college football season began with traditional rivals Pitt and West Virginia playing for the first time in more than a decade. It was 2012. I think that West Virginia left the Big East for the Big 12 and Pitt went off to seek its fortune in the SCC. When they did get reacquainted last week, it was in the interest of money and ratings on ESPN on Thursday night. Both teams were led by transfer quarterbacks who started their careers at USC in the product, and the end was pretty damn amazing with Pitt winning by seven. With the help of a late pick six. And I guess the replay the interminable replay review was not amazing. But this is sports in the 21st century.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Joining us now, it’s Alex Kirshner. He’s a contributing writer for Slate and one of the hosts of the best college football podcast in the Land. Split Zone Duo. Hey, Alex.
Speaker 6: Josh Stefan, great to be with you and thank you.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: I drew that Pitt West Virginia stuff from a piece you wrote for Slate headlined Rumors of College Football’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated. You went on a fact finding mission to the backyard brawl between Pitt and West Virginia. Did you or did you not find that college football had achieved its demise from the stands in Pittsburgh?
Speaker 6: I found that it has been successfully staved off the demise of cholesterol has been has been allayed at least for now. And, yeah, it was a wonderful night. I think that spending a day at that game and, you know, not only being in the stadium, it was the largest crowd in Pittsburgh sports history. So that includes the Steelers. Wow. Wow. Being there and being it was like 70,000 people. It was a big crowd. And being in the parking lots and seeing the entire tailgating scene that unfolded throughout the day was kind of a nice tonic. I think if you are a bit put off by some of the developments in college sports, college football in particular over the last couple of years, if you think that it’s become an overly corporatized, non regionalized product that has strayed from its roots, I think I think that to feel optimistic again, there was nothing better that you could have done than to go and spend a day at the backyard brawl.
Stefan Fatsis: Well, and it being non regionalized, this argues against that. I mean, how many years have they agreed to do this? Was this a one off or did they sign the contract?
Speaker 6: They they agreed to do this for three more years after this one. And then I believe they’ve got another four games, sat on the docket for some years off into the future. I think there might be a few years in between where there’s, again, not a game, but there never should be pitched in. West Virginia, I think should play football every single year. Wanted to play twice a year. That would be fine, though. We don’t really do that in college sports and college football in particular. But yeah, they’re going to get back together at least on a somewhat regular basis.
Stefan Fatsis: And of course, they could end up in the same conference tomorrow.
Speaker 6: Who knows? You never know. You never know what might happen to the SCC or Pitt plays, what might happen to the Big 12 or West Virginia plays? Those conferences are certainly not paragons of stability, given the headwinds that realignment has brought on them over the last 12, 14 months. So I would never say never to Pitt in West Virginia, reuniting as they were for so many years in the Big East.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: So we could talk about the kind of grand sweeping, you know, march of history in the part. And maybe we’ll get to that when we talk about that playoff. But the thing that struck me the most, just as a consumer of this product, was Iowa seven, South Dakota three, and North Carolina. Was it 63 to 61? Yes.
Speaker 6: Yes.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Over Appalachian State. Just the remarkable range in terms of quality, in terms of what the sport actually looked like was was never more on display than in week one of the 2022 college football season.
Speaker 6: No, it’s a nice thing about this sport is the diversity of scheme, the diversity of playing styles.
Stefan Fatsis: The diversity of skill.
Speaker 6: The diversity of skill. Certainly, college football is never going to have the caliber of play of the National Football League. It’s never even going to be close. Even when Alabama plays Georgia, it’s just never even going to be close to even an NFL preseason game. But what college football does have is Army running the triple option and carrying the ball 90% of its plays throughout a game, playing at the same level, nominally speaking, at least as Alabama, doing what Alabama does, or even, you know, to use a polar opposite example, Washington state throwing the ball 60 times a game under Mike Leach or whatever you might have. I think that it’s a charming part of the sport, but it certainly can lead to some fascinating box scores and even more fascinating when you look at the differences between them, like what happened in Boone between North Carolina and State, and what happened in Iowa City between Iowa and South Dakota State.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Stefan The seven points with two safeties and a field goal must have been the goal of the greatest moments of your life.
Stefan Fatsis: My heart was so warm. Iowa touchdown called an Iowa touchdown. That right. My heart was very, very warm. I only wish the game ended at five three, but the seven three does have a bit of beauty there because you have to be sort of in the know about how they achieved this this great feat. I mean, even more incredible in that game was the punting. I mean, this guy combined the 21 times.
Speaker 6: Iowa’s punter is one of their most valuable players, Tori Taylor. I mean, basically I was I think that if I was defense were to play, I was on offense on 50 straight downs from let’s say midfield. The chances that Iowa’s defense what outscore Iowa’s offense on those plays high probably a 70% chance.
Stefan Fatsis: A combined 936 yards in punting Iowa’s punter, a guy named Terry Taylor, a reporter named Sean Bock, noted on Twitter, had punts down at the one, two, six, eight, eight and 12 yard lines. He had 479 yards total, 193 yards more than the total yards between the two offenses in the game combined.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Am I missing anything? Alex, we might have to fill out of Mount Rushmore here. Three obvious entries are the Virginia Tech Wake Forest game that ended zero zero in regulation that led to Frank Beamer lifting his arms and triumph meme and underrated and not only ended one into tied zero zero the it ended six three. Still no. Still no touchdowns even in multiple overtime periods. Then obviously the classic Auburn three Mississippi State two game. Yes. From. Yes, I think that was 2008. If we add the Iowa touch, the famed Iowa touchdown seven three game. Does anything come to mind as the fourth to fill out our our Mount Rushmore of recent college football offensive travesties?
Speaker 6: Wasn’t there a Penn State Iowa game that was 6 to 4 in 2004, as I recall. I mean, Iowa’s been here before. Yeah. Iowa beat Penn State 6 to 4 in October of 2004. And the box score from that game is, you know, basically as graphic as the one from this.
Stefan Fatsis: I think it was a two field goals and two safeties or was it five safeties?
Speaker 6: So it was. Penn State lost with two safeties. Iowa, one with two field. Okay. Yeah. Iowa, basically, Penn State led this game to nothing. Fell behind three, two, then fell behind six two. Penn State was able to get back into it with another safety in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit in half, but obviously did not have the field position to get the necessary safety to force overtime.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: So what do you guys feel about a rule where each successive safety in a game would be worth one more point? So the second safety was worth three.
Stefan Fatsis: Love that idea.
Speaker 6: I actually have a different concept about safety, but I think that safety is I’ve thought about this for years and actually wrote a story about this couple of years ago, one of my old jobs. I think a safety should be worth 11 points. And I have risen through that four, four in a number of different respects.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: But I was going to say five. But 11 is a good radical.
Stefan Fatsis: Why 11?
Speaker 6: Here’s why. 11. It’s a much more rare play and a much more difficult play to pull off and a touchdown. It should be worth more than a touchdown. It is objectively harder to achieve to back a team up into their own end zone than it is to take the ball into it when you have it much more difficult. And if you look at other sports, the rarer, more difficult thing to achieve is typically rewarded with a higher points value. A Grand Slam is worth more than a solo home run.
Stefan Fatsis: Three point shot is worth more than it’s worth going to.
Speaker 6: Yeah, but a safety being worth just two points is if like Steph Curry pulls up from beyond half court and you give him one, it just doesn’t make.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: That was a conversation ender. I agree.
Speaker 6: It just doesn’t make sense. And also, there’s no particular I went through and looked at this. There’s no particular reason in the annals of the sport that a safety is worth two points, like the gods of football never agreed that a safety must be two. I think Walter Camp, back in the 1890s, he publishes this big book of college sports. That’s what it’s called. And it’s kind of the foundation for the rules to come that are in college football. And he has nothing there to say about a safety needing to be worth two points. He says it will be worth two points, but he has no reasoning behind it. He has no justification, just picked it.
Stefan Fatsis: Well, that’s what they did with all of this. I mean, touchdowns were not always worth six. They were worth three and then five. They’re different numbers. It’s all fluctuated. So there’s no reason that we can’t change the value of the safety, is what you’re saying?
Speaker 6: Absolutely. And the touchdown being worth a hair over twice as much as a field goal makes decent sense. It’s intuitive, a safety being worth less than either of these, even with possession coming back to you the other way is not intuitive, especially because the average points per drive, you know, getting the ball back after safety, it does not compute for the value difference between a touchdown and a safety.
Stefan Fatsis: So I’m sure Kirk Ferentz, the head coach of Iowa, is listening to this podcast and should be sending an email right now to the powers that be. Iowa scoring 20 to 33, 44 points a game.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: We’ve got to leave a little bit of room to talk about the expansion of the 12 team playoff. But before we get there, we must talk about LSU, Florida State against my well, against my well, but we must talk about it. Alex, you tweeted that the advanced college football tasting palate can differentiate between bad football that is bad Iowa seven, South Dakota State three, and bad football. That is amazing. Whatever you’d call Florida State, LSU. Can you give us a little bit more from your advanced tasting palette to explain the situation? I mean, I didn’t think that that was amazing. But maybe other people well.
Speaker 6: Hard to believe that the Louisiana boy did not think that that that game was amazing with the way that it ended. But I thought that. This was a fun contest, particularly in the last couple of minutes. This game looked over. It ought to have been over because Florida State was winning by a touchdown. LSU muffed a punt in the shadow of its own goalpost the second time of that game. Josh, sorry to drag you through it again.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: I know. I don’t think that was that was accurate.
Speaker 6: Yeah. Dropped it. It’s recovered. Florida State. All they really have to do is kill some clock punch in either a touchdown or a field goal. And the game is over. And for state fumbles again, Florida State gives the ball right back to them. LSU marches down the field in haste. Quickly, they get all the way down the field. They score what should have been the game tying touchdown? And then to see that the perilous swing back in FSU’s direction, the extra point gets blocked. And I know that Louisiana college football fans are familiar with this. This happened to the New Orleans Saints many years ago in a game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, by the way. Regional similarities there for a state not too far from Jacksonville.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The Saints one was even crazier somehow because they came off a play that I’d like 500 million laterals.
Speaker 6: Yes. It came off one of the most memorable plays in recent NFL history. Like other than the Music City Miracle, the Titans pulled off. It’s kind of like the iconic lateral play of the last 20 years. And I think the the Dolphins pulled one off against the Belichick Patriots as well. It’s pretty rare. And then LSU’s field goal protection unit left it at the end of the game.
Stefan Fatsis: Don’t blame the kicker. Not the kickers.
Speaker 6: Fault. It was not the kickers.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: I appreciated you doing the research. Like asking your your followers. Alex Because LSU’s field goal an extra point protection in that game just called into question like how do you how do you protect against people trying to run in and block the kick that it seems like they can just run right in there and just get right like it’s like it’s like they were unaware of the concept of of attempting to block kicks. It seemed like this is a problem that’s been pretty effectively solved in the sport.
Speaker 6: It has been pretty effectively solved. I think the schematic thing that LSU didn’t do is they didn’t block inside first. And what I mean by that is Florida State overloaded one side of the field trying to just create a numbers advantage. And they basically did. If you look at the end of LSU’s line, where they’re snapping the ball to to take the extra point, there’s three garnet jerseys and two white jerseys on the very edge there. That’s a free runner for Florida State.
Stefan Fatsis: Because three is more than two.
Speaker 6: It’s kind of is more than two. It’s very interesting, but it’s not supposed to matter because it’s supposed to happen so quick that if you force the extra guy to take the long way around the outside, he’s just not going to get there in time to block the kick. One of LSU’s big guys, instead of taking the inside lane away, took the outside lane away. That left a much more direct.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: For the second time during the game.
Speaker 6: LSU special teams did not distinguish themselves in this regard.
Stefan Fatsis: Are message boards calling for Brian Kelly to be fired? The Brian Kelly air to end Louisiana.
Speaker 6: They’re probably calling for worse than that.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: I was just developing a concept. Well, we’re all familiar with the idea of copious, of course, that the only reason that this doesn’t that this doesn’t work is because there’s no such thing as that copious. But if there was and Louisiana would it be. Cope to? Would it be coppelia or would it be Coke? Dewey. What do you guys think the coke to fag here is that. Oh Nick Saban.
Speaker 6: Like it. Gum. Come up with that work.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Go, go, go. We can take it. We can take a vote. But the coke to Faye here, the Coca-Cola here is that Nick Saban lost to UAB in 2000. He was the coach from the Midwest and went on to great success coach from the Midwest who loses the game in embarrassing fashion.
Stefan Fatsis: Yeah, it’s part of the tradition.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: It’s part of the tradition. Exactly.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: All right. Let’s talk about the 12 team playoff, Alex. This came out last year that this had been decided on and ultimate and ultimately it didn’t happen. And then like all of a sudden, maybe it wasn’t all of a sudden for you if you’re following it. But but for me, it was like all of a sudden this thing that had come out and was supposed to happen and it didn’t happen then like all in one day, everyone, every commissioner, every person in this committee now, like, supports it wholeheartedly. Like what? What happened?
Speaker 6: Sure. I think there’s a cynical version of what happened, and it’s the one that I subscribe to, which is this was in the the late spring, early summer of 2021, that a couple of conference commissioners, the Southeastern Conferences, the Mountain West Conferences and the Big 12 Conferences Commissioners get together, I think was some input from Notre Dame, if I’m not mistaken, and put forward a 12 team college football playoff model that has six automatic qualifiers for the top six rank conference champions. That’s seen as a big win, by the way, for the conferences outside the power five because six is more than five. So it guarantees at least one so-called mid-major will be in the playoff every year.
Speaker 6: And this was going to be the plan, it seemed, because typically the way things work in college sports is that when administrators announce something that they’re planning it, it usually means they think they’ve got the votes, the support to get it done. It didn’t happen. And I think the reason that didn’t happen is that a couple of weeks after this plan came together and became a public thing, the S.E.C. raided the Big 12 to take the University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas. And I think that hurt a lot of feelings. I think it certainly hurt feelings between SCC commissioner Greg Sankey and former now Big 12 commissioner Bob Busby, who had worked together on the playoff.
Speaker 6: I think that a lot of people around college sports in particular the PAC 12, the Big Ten and the SCC who form this very funny alliance they called it, which also didn’t last much longer for related reasons, said, all right, let’s pump the brakes, let’s slow down. I think feelings were hurt. The alliance itself fell apart because the Big Ten just took a couple of teams from the PAC 12, USC and UCLA. And I think that now you’re a year and a half or so, almost later than the initial time that this plan came out. Everyone’s feelings have been hurt enough. They have delayed enough that the people who didn’t come up with the idea cannot pretend that they were thoughtful about it, that they deliberated, that they were heard. And so, yes, the plan is basically the exact same as it would have been a year and a half ago. But now the people who are mad at other people get to say that they gave it a good, hard look. And sure, that’s fine.
Stefan Fatsis: I mean, isn’t the great irony here that come on, we’re talking about 12 team playoffs and 16 team playoffs 25 years ago before all of these iterations. I mean, this has all been this incrementalism on the part of university presidents and athletic directors to get to a place the college football could have been at a long, long time ago.
Speaker 6: Certainly so argument arguing about playoff formats is nothing new in college football. It’s been going on for many, many decades. A colleague of mine, Matt Brown, who writes a really good industry newsletter called Extra Points, actually wrote about this maybe this morning as a record on Tuesday. This has been happening in forever. Basically, every argument that we have in college football has been happening forever, and this one is no exception. So why did it happen now? I think it happened now because the television money becomes overwhelming and everyone realizes that each conference can take home, you know, multiples more money by expanding this thing from four teams to 12 teams. And money runs sprints pretty much. Television money runs pretty much everything in college football, which conferences the teams play and who they play in non-conference and certainly what the playoff looks like.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: So this definitely is happening in 2026. It could conceivably happen sooner and whether it could have or should have happened sooner, I think it’s worth just stopping and pausing and noting that this will fundamentally change the sport way more than the four team playoff Bill Connelly of ESPN that are really good analysis. If you simulated this over the past eight years, 41 different teams would have made the playoff. That’s a third of the teams in FBS.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Think about these programs. Penn State, Washington, Wisconsin. We don’t think of those as being programs that we think of them as being a kind of middle tier. They’ve had some success in the last eight years. In this universe, they would have made half or nearly half of the playoffs. They would be looked at as like programs and great runs of triumph. This allows all sorts of schools to be in the running. It wouldn’t just be 12 teams. It would be 20 teams or 25 teams. As the season winds down, that will be in contention and there will be fewer players opting out. Probably there could be a three loss champion. I mean, these are as far as on the field stuff goes, Alex. These are enormous changes to the sport.
Speaker 6: They are big changes. I suspect that at the end of the day, the teams that are actually winning national titles are going to be the same teams that have been winning them previously. You know, I don’t think that you’re going to see some 12 seed work up their way to knock off Alabama very often. I don’t think it’s likely. I think that the Alabama’s the Georgia’s the Ohio States are still playing from a stacked deck of cards because of the way that they recruit and also the way they develop talent and the resources they have behind their programs. So I don’t think it’s going to change who’s the king of the hill at the end of the at the end of the year. But I do think that it’s going to make more things matter.
Speaker 6: I put air quotes around that make more things matter, quote unquote, because of the way that the playoff has come to dominate the discourse around college football. And I think that’s just largely the doing of ESPN, which has had a real commercial stake in that as the the sole owner of the playoffs broadcasting rights for the last nine years or whatever it’s been. My hope is that in this 12 team playoff, maybe. There will be a little bit more.
Speaker 6: All right. You know, let’s smell the roses and just kind of appreciate the sport for what it is. I don’t think that’s where it’s going. I think now that the toothpaste is out of the tube, I think the playoff is going to be all that a lot of people want to talk about. And so since we’re stuck in that loop forever, let’s give more teams access to it. Let’s make more teams have a theoretical chance to be in it, and let’s make more things feel important in this playoff dominated world then feel important right now.
Stefan Fatsis: And maybe if the as it will, the revenue for a playoff, you know, goes into the multi billions, it’s going to change the conversation around paying players. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh just this past week said, I do believe the players should receive a revenue share from the massive TV deals that have been worked out. Speaking of the new playoff and he said all for it.
Speaker 6: He said all for it are great. Would love to see his boss or his boss’s boss figure that out because the head coach doesn’t decide. I think Jim scored a lot of points with that. He occasionally likes to make a big, bold political stand, for better or for worse, depending on the issue, I think. And great. It’s good that he feels that way. I think that ultimately this is going to be with university presidents and with conference commissioners who take marching orders from those presidents. Whether or not or how quickly college sports moves towards actually sharing some money with the players, because it’s easy for Jim Harbaugh to say that. A lot of coaches say things like that. They say, oh, it’s great. The players can make money now from name, image and likeness. They should get more. You know, we should. These are basically professional athletes now. We have to do as much as we can for them. It’s easy to say when you are the head coach, hopefully someone in a position of more power will actually do something about it.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Read more about Jim Harbaugh and Ben Mathis. Lili is hot new book, The Hot Seat. Alex Kirshner. You can read his writing in Slate. You can listen to him on the Split Zone Duo podcast. Alex, thanks, as always.
Speaker 6: A pleasure. Thank you.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Up next, Juliet Macur of The New York Times on her story about the Afghanistan women’s national soccer teams escape from Kabul.
Stefan Fatsis: To begin her goodbye. Fatima stood inside, her family’s walled in courtyard in Kabul, Afghanistan, shovel in hand and pierced the patch of soil with the tip of its sharp blade. Fighting back tears, she began to dig. Those are the opening lines of New York Times sportswriter Juliet Macur riveting 8000 word story, The Keeper about the escape by Fatima, a 19 year old goalkeeper and her teammates on the women’s national soccer team after the fall of the Capitol to the Taliban one year ago. Juliet Macur is in Washington and she joins us now. Welcome back to the show.
Speaker 3: Thanks. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Stefan Fatsis: Well, in that opening scene, Fatima or Fatima is digging a hole to bury the soccer jerseys and trophies that could have identified her as a female athlete and therefore an enemy of fundamentalist Islam and the Taliban. Before leaving the airport to try to flee, it’s one of many small and moving details in your deeply reported narrative, which goes far beyond any of the media coverage that the team has received. And it’s received a bunch of media coverage. The editor’s note says You spent a year working on the story. Tell us first about FATA and what made you decide to invest the reporting, time and resources to tell this story in full?
Speaker 3: Yeah, I didn’t really it was none of my resources. Of course I was. The New York Times luckily had had my back throughout this whole process. And right after the Taliban took over Kabul in August, I became interested and in the team when I read a bunch of news stories about their dramatic escape and the fact that they went to Australia and my parents were refugees after World War Two from Poland and they were sent to the United States with with nothing and had to start a new life.
Speaker 3: And I thought, Wow, where are these girls going? What are they going to do and what is their life afterwards? Which is the story we really never hear about refugees. And I talk a little bit about it in a Times Insider that ran today about just sort of how the story came together. But you just see the refugees, you know, trying to run through a war zone or on on boats or in planes trying to escape. But you never really see what happens next, which is what I wanted to find out.
Speaker 3: So I tried to reach out to one of the players right away, and that was not happening just because they were well, one, they were in lockdown in Australia for COVID, too. They were still experiencing their trauma, which of course is still lasting today and most likely last forever, unfortunately. And they’re also afraid of talking to the media because of what what the Taliban might do to their families back home. So I was hitting a brick wall time after time, but just kept reporting, just kept calling people who were involved in the evacuation, just trying to get closer and closer to the to the players who eventually agreed to talk to me. And the first phone number I got was for a player named Fatima, who was a team captain and the perfect person. I felt like she had been waiting for me the whole time.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: So let’s rewind a couple of years. And if you were telling this story before the return of the Taliban and the, you know, the fleeing the country, and this could have been a story about promise and and openness and women’s rights and Fatima kind of being able to do things and experience things in her life that her mother hadn’t. So so what did that story look like if we started it a couple of years ago?
Speaker 3: Yeah. Fathi is in many ways, like any teenager you might know here in the U.S. she liked to watch Marvel films, which is how she learned English. She likes to dance and sing with her teammates, but her family was pretty challenged when it came to having jobs and having money. Her mom was illiterate, like many, many women of that generation didn’t go to school because they had grown up with the first regime of the Taliban. She wanted more for her family. She wanted to to be successful, to bring them money to lift their status in Afghanistan.
Speaker 3: So she went to university, decided to try to play soccer during during high school, when her friends called her over to play to play soccer and started eventually traveling internationally for the national team. People knew her in the country, as is one of the captains of the national team. So she made a name for herself and was I would say things were were pretty good.
Speaker 3: But it’s still living in Afghanistan. You know, when the when there are bombs every day and roadside explosions or people are being shot all over the country. So playing soccer for her, even even before the Taliban took over in last August was was pretty challenging. The culture, really. Even without the Taliban or the extreme fundamentalism, they didn’t like that girls played sports. They thought that girls maybe, maybe some of them said girls should go to school. But most people in that culture said, you know, in the end, a girl or a woman will get married and she’ll stay at home, she’ll raise children, she’ll make dinner, and she’ll do that kind of have that kind of role in the family. And and that was it for girls. So 40 was very different when it came to that kind of role in Afghan society.
Stefan Fatsis: You know, the idea of empowerment for someone like father seemed just so pronounced in your piece, and that factors into her escape and her reestablishing her life with her teammates in Australia. But in that, in that pre fall time, I mean these are women that, you know, struggled to find good coaching. There were foreigners who would help or exiled players that would help the team. They couldn’t play at home, you say in the story. So they traveled to places like India and Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and had to play better teams on better fields.
Stefan Fatsis: As you write with better coaches, they finally won their first game in 2019. And, you know, overall, the national team’s record was, what, 416 and to 15 goals allowed, 15 goals scored, 115 allowed. So this was not like a high level soccer. And I think it’s important to put that into context because, you know, we’re used to you know, we just saw the euros and we see the U.S. national team. But the struggles for it, for for players in a place like Afghanistan to become competent players are enormous. And yet there is this perseverance that factors into the story before the escape and after.
Speaker 3: Yeah, there I mean, I didn’t detail this in the story, you know, just how how challenged they were when it came to coaching and and facilities and, you know, really just what they’re eating, how they’re training, you know, they would get walloped quite a bit, as you pointed out. Thank you very much for when they went overseas to play. But, you know, for them, it was much more than that.
Speaker 3: Well, right. Let me just take a step back. They wanted to win. I mean, these are competitive girls and women who want to win every game. So I don’t even know if they if they realized that they were at a huge disadvantage in just getting out there and playing a somewhat of a competitive game was was a success. But it was also used to show girls and women in Afghanistan what women could do if they had the power to do anything. Know, a lot of women and girls were too afraid to play soccer because they would get you know, people would throw stones at them. They would spit at them when they went to practice, they would threaten their their brothers and fathers saying, well, your daughter, you’re allowing your daughter to go against Islam. So, you know, we’re going to threaten threaten you, whether it’s, you know, just threaten to beat you up or threaten to kill you.
Speaker 3: So they played for a different reason. They played for winning, but also played for her for women’s rights. And they love talking about it. That was one of the things that Fathi always said was every time she was interviewed for a soccer game, she really wanted to focus on women being able to do what they wanted in a society that didn’t allow women to do whatever they wanted.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: And when Kabul fell, I think there was a mass societal impulse for people to escape and try to get out. But these these athletes, these women, including Fathi, had reason to believe that they would be targeted in particular. And the story that you tell of their escape and trying to get their families out as well is told in such detail. And it’s heart stopping. Just wondering if you could talk a little bit about the reporting there and how you were able to tell that story. And also just kind of how it felt to hear the story is read the accounts, see whatever it is that that you saw because it is just a truly terrifying but and ultimately for for some of them kind of incredible story of escape.
Speaker 3: Yeah. I mean, I’ve written a lot of stories about trauma and people going through war, people going through sexual abuse. It’s always really hard to be a reporter on the other end of the phone or sitting across from somebody who’s telling their stories. But and it was especially hard with 40 because for the first many months we were just doing Zoom calls because Australia was locked down because of COVID, they weren’t allowing any international travel.
Speaker 3: So I met her over Zoom one night, I think it was past midnight when we had set something up because of the time difference and we talked for 4 hours. Just I don’t think we talked right away about what it was like to to escape, was trying to get to know who she was and. That took a long time. And to get all these details about the escape was took months and months and months because you know they’re still going through this trauma. And it’s not like you could sit down and say, tell us from A to Z what happened there. I mean, sometimes they want to talk about one particular detail or they go off on a tangent because that’s where their mind is taking them.
Speaker 3: I think it was cathartic for her to talk to me about it at that point. I don’t think many of the national team players were talking to anyone about what had happened. So, you know, every every night or every couple of nights we’d get on the phone for several hours and she would unravel these details from inside her brain. And, you know, with me typing and recording and for me, it was fascinating and also heartbreaking. I mean, she’s just a kid. I mean, just a teenager who’s now in charge of her three siblings. You know, she has one younger sibling back in Afghanistan. Her parents are not with her anymore. And it’s pretty hard to hear, but I think it’s pretty important because her story is the story of so many millions of refugees all over the world. And their stories often get lost as soon as their dramatic escape is over.
Stefan Fatsis: Their escape was the result not just of their individual bravery, which was profound, but also this complex assembly of lawyers and soccer officials and human rights activists. It was this incredibly, intricately coordinated effort that ultimately came down to luck getting to the airport and being in the right place and having an Australian soldier see someone and grab them and drag them inside or climbing over, as you describe a couple of police vehicles that were a barricade. I mean, it is just it’s just it is just, as Josh said, heart stopping and, you know, cinematic is not right. But, you know, but it feels almost unbelievable the horror of what they must have gone through in the strength that they must have demonstrated in those hours and days.
Speaker 3: Yeah. Fathi always tells me when I you know, when I ask her about how how tough things are or, you know, I say it’s okay to show your emotions sometimes. And she says, you know, that’s not how it works in Afghanistan. Juliet you know, athletes in Afghanistan, we can’t do that. We don’t show emotion. You know, we go we do things because we have to and we try not to be emotional about it. But Fathi was given one of the roles as a leader during the evacuation because she had this really calm sense about her when the whole world was falling apart.
Stefan Fatsis: And she spoke good English, too, right.
Speaker 3: Her English was was great because she had watched all these Marvel films, which I thought was amazing. And she she told me that her and her sister would watch, you know, stream Marvel films every couple of nights, and they would convince their mom that it was purely educational. Mom, we have to watch this for school. But in the end, it helped her because she was able to communicate with with Haley Carter, who was an assistant coach of the Afghanistan national team years before Fathi was was on the team and they were able to Hayley Carter was a former Marine who was giving 40 instructions on where to go, how to get around the Taliban checkpoints or how best to travel safely. And those Marvel films really did help in the end, in a way that I bet her mother or 40 never expected.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: And another person that helped them was a woman who had been the captain of that team who had left the country because she had exposed the sexual abuse scandal in Afghanistan, received death threats and left the country. And so she was helping from afar as well and kind of helped broker this deal that got them to Australia in a significant way, right?
Speaker 3: Yeah.
Speaker 3: A woman named Khalida Popal was one of the founding members of the Afghan Women’s National Soccer Team. It was in 2007, and she left the country in 2011 because she had been so outspoken about women’s rights. And as it turned out, in 2018, there was a huge sexual abuse scandal within the national team where the president of the Afghan Football Federation was found to have sexually abused and raped players. And she was the person who brought it forward. She interviewed all the players and went to FIFA with it, went to the government with it, and turns out that these men were prosecuted, which was rare in Afghan society.
Speaker 3: So she had made all these connections during this sexual abuse case with lawyers abroad, with Fifpro, which is the International Union of Professional Soccer Players, with, like I said, human rights lawyers, immigration lawyers that are trying to get these these abused girls out of the country. And so she she was the real folk. The point of of the whole evacuation. She made it happen. She made the right phone calls. She knew the right people from this sexual abuse case. And all those same people went into action over really just, I would say, just several days of running around trying to figure out where these players could go, how they would get out, who’s going to get them visas. And they made it happen when thousands of people were running for the airport trying to save their lives.
Speaker 3: So it’s it really is it’s an astonishing story of perseverance and and resilience, especially this woman, Khaleda Popal, who when she makes a phone call, things start happening. I feel like she has everybody on her in her contacts list, everybody who’s who’s anybody in the soccer world.
Stefan Fatsis: One group that seems conspicuously absent from this story is FIFA. You only mentioned FIFA twice in your 8000 word piece, once during the escape, when the women are still in Kabul and leaders of the effort tried to reach FIFA, but they didn’t respond. You’re right. And then once the women get to Melbourne and resettle in Australia and try to re-establish a team and FIFA refuses to recognise them as a national team in exile, why is that? Why is FIFA so glaringly missing from supporting these women both in their time of of of escape and danger and seemingly now?
Speaker 3: That’s the million dollar question. Where was FIFA in the beginnings of all this? They probably will tell you something different than what I’m going to tell you. But the players in Carlito, people will say that FIFA wasn’t working fast enough. Listen, Calida was trying to to have anybody and anybody help. She didn’t care if it was FIFA, you know, other organizations, other human rights organizations, anybody to try to help her. I don’t know where FIFA was in the next several months after the evacuation. They helped a bunch of athletes get out of Afghanistan. But in those really crucial first days of the women’s scrambling to to save their lives because they were really some huge targets on the team, including one woman named NIE Lab, who was extremely outspoken about women’s rights. And, you know, she’s she’s the type of woman who the Taliban, you know, she’s not going to make it in under the Taliban regime. She has really short hair. She has all these tattoos. She she.
Speaker 3: She says, and does what she wants. She’s just an amazing person with amazing amount of confidence. And, you know, she was she was the person who called the team and said, listen, I have this anonymous phone, anonymous text that came in there. There after me there said, they’re going to kill me and tie me up like a dog. And and she said, Girls, they’re going to kill the athletes. We have to escape.
Speaker 3: And where where was FIFA during all this? I have I have no idea. So the good thing is, is that there are other people who filled those shoes and were able to do something that FIFA was unable to do, which is save the lives of dozens and dozens of people and their families in those initial couple of weeks. So the credit does not go to FIFA in this case.
Stefan Fatsis: You know, FIFA talks the game of, you know, how important soccer is to global humanity and, you know, bringing people together. But it really was jarring to me to sort of like, okay, they’re confirming their priors. That’s FIFA. And now that they’re in Australia, we didn’t talk about sort of them reconfiguring and how they’ve put their team back together, their plan, these women are back together. How many of the original escapees are together in Melbourne and where where does their where their playing career stand.
Speaker 3: Yeah, I just wanted to step back, just say one thing about the lack of FIFA’s presence in those first couple of days and weeks fifpro, which is the union for professional players. So they’re not even you know, they have nothing to do with the Afghan women’s national team. You know, they were they were the they were that was the organization. And and Jonas Bear Hoffmann, who is the general secretary. There was was the person who really pushed Kaleido people to, hey, let’s try to do something. I think we could do it. I mean, they are much less powerful than FIFA. FIFA had the money and had the knew everybody around the world had connections everywhere. They could have done something in a snap. But Fifpro, which had no no real official ties to these girls, is the organisation that really should get the kudos for for saving lives when when it was needed.
Speaker 3: But yeah the girls are in Australia, they’re, they had just finished their season, they were playing just at a state, state level soccer league which you know, I would say it’s much less competitive than what they were seeing internationally. They were supported by a professional team called Melbourne Victory which which did amazing things for the players, I must say. They gave them these fancy jerseys that were branded Melbourne Victory but had a little Afghan flag on the back. They gave them fancy cleats. I was there that day where they were. They laid out all these cleats and had the girl girls try on all these really super expensive cleats the top of the line. And and the girls were I can’t even explain what their faces were like because they were astonished, astonished, but also very picky. They wanted they were like trying to get the best ones, trying to get the ones that like Messi wore, you know. So they’re also teenagers, right? A lot of them were teenagers, so they want the best gear.
Speaker 3: But Melbourne Victory really treated them well, giving them vans to and from practice. You know a lot of the team lived outside of Melbourne so they, they picked them up in the vans, brought them to practice, brought them back, had trainers, had a coach, Jeff Hopkins, who had just won the club championship for for Melbourne Victory. So they got the top of the line of everything after years and years and years of not getting anything in Afghanistan, you know, getting the, you know, the bottom of the barrel of everything. So I know 40 was so excited that their first day where they got all their gear and she leaned over to her friend Barbara and said, Oh, how professional. And so yeah, they were treated like professionals, but they had a great season and and now they’re, now it’s off season. They have to all figure out what they’re going to do in the next couple of months.
Stefan Fatsis: Juliet Macur is a sportswriter for The New York Times in Washington. Please go read her story, The Keeper about Fatima and her teammates from Afghanistan. We’ll post a link to it on our show page, as well as a link to her Times insider conversation about how she did the story. Juliette, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Speaker 3: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I really, really am grateful for the time.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: And our design for After Balls sponsored by Bennett’s Prune Juice, endorsed by canny sailors. He says it was okay. Serena Williams has won a lot of matches in her career Stefan, including two at the U.S. Open. She also lost a handful. And who among us has now lost a handful of tennis matches? The first match that she played as a pro was a loss. It was a 1995. Serena was 14 years old and she lost to an 18 year old, an ancient 18 year old, someone who was Coco Gauff said. Can you imagine being that old named Annie Miller now goes by Amy Borus? The scoreline was What was the scoreline? 6161 and Serena got $240 for losing in the first round. Andy Miller now goes by.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Andy Borus, Josh Robinson of The Wall Street Journal did a little kind of mini profile of her, a piece about that match and how Annie looks back on it all these years later kind of ends with the quote I was optimistic that I could do okay, but I think everyone had an idea that the Williams sisters were going to be amazing players. There was definitely an aura around them. It seems accurate. Stefan What is your. Andy Borus.
Stefan Fatsis: Celtic and Rangers are by far the two most popular and successful football clubs in Scotland. They first met in 1888. They’ve played each other about 600 times since then, including 431 in major competitions. Rangers hold a slight edge, 168 wins to 162 with 101 draws. The clubs together are known as the old firm, either because 19th century newspapermen said they were like old firm friends or because of a 1904 cartoon satirizing their football dominance.
Stefan Fatsis: Like a lot of non-North American soccer rivalries, Celtic Rangers was rooted in more than jerseys religion. Celtic Catholic Rangers, Protestant national identity, Celtic Irish Nationalism, Rangers, pro-British and Northern Ireland. Politics to which I can’t really summarize in one or two words. Some of that has ebbed in modern times. For instance, Rangers signed its first Catholic player way back in checking 1989. That actually doesn’t seem that long ago, but some of it lingers in the latest installment of the old firm Derby this past Saturday. First place Celtic playing at home in advance of hosting Real Madrid in the Champions League on Tuesday, trounced second place rangers for nothing.
Stefan Fatsis: After the game, a Scottish actor and Celtic fan named Douglas Henshall tweeted It’s always a good day when the Huns get humped is an old slur against Rangers fans possibly having something to do with Rangers players allegedly refusing to fight in World War Two or Rangers fans in the 1960s, causing disturbances on the road a la Attila the Hun. Commenters called Handel’s use of the word bigotry and sectarian antagonism and he deleted the tweet and apologised to anyone offended by it.
Stefan Fatsis: A more familiar type of fan controversy also surfaced after the game, this one involving America. Specifically, the three American players on the two teams, Cameron Carter-vickers of Celtic and James Sands and Malik Tillman of Rangers. On Twitter, Rangers fan ad underscored Jordan, 72, whose Avatar is a photo of Tillman celebrating one of his two goals for the club, posted a picture of the three Yanks together, post-game at a restaurant wearing hoodies, shorts and sneakers sans and Tillman going for dinner with them after we’ve just been pumped, that is beaten severely, underscored Jordan, 72, added a woozy face emoji.
Stefan Fatsis: Sports fans can be dumb about a lot of things, but there are two things that they are especially and hilariously dumb about. One is that athletes who have just lost a game should never be seen so much as smiling. They need to be emotionally and psychologically devastated. Turn their attention immediately to correcting their errors and preparing non-stop for the next game. Anything else implies a lack of loyalty, dedication and focus. The other is that players should never fraternize with the enemy, especially after a humiliating defeat to a huge rival, like a40 loss in the old firm Derby underscored Jordan, 72.
Stefan Fatsis: His tweets about Rangers normally get single digit likes. This one about the traitorous fans. And Tillman, though, has more than 2000 likes and 600 replies. Some commenters were not pleased. Ad Free Firth wrote, If this doesn’t bother you, then you’re supporting the wrong team. Simple as that. If you play for one of the old firm clubs, the most bitter rivalry in Europe and you get.
Stefan Fatsis: Absolutely. Fingered by the other side. You don’t go out for a wee dinner date with the lads who just gave you, said fingering. Another fan added, It doesn’t really bother me any other time, but I’ll not accept after an old firm and especially after a performance like that, said a third. Explains a lot. £10 million for two players that clearly don’t get it. Not for me. And finally, at CARSEN 19, twelves back. If that’s tonight, then chase them. Don’t care what they have done for us this season. That’s a kick in the guts to every Rangers fan. Carson, 1912 is back, would, however, delete his tweet calling for the clubs to fire Samson. Tillman, presumably after he saw others in the replies, reveal the identity of a fourth man at the dinner table.
Stefan Fatsis: U.S. men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter Berhalter was at the Celtic Rangers game as part of a tour scouting Americans in Europe who have a shot at making the World Cup roster. As commenter Adam Moskowitz explained in defending Sanz, Tillman and Carter-vickers, all three are on the fringe for the U.S. national team. This was their last chance to talk with Slash impress the coach, the bald guy before the final friendlies. The bald guy? Would he call Pep Guardiola the bald guy? I don’t think so. A little respect for Greg, please.
Stefan Fatsis: But Adams was the same response, of course, and others acknowledged that professional athletes do a job and have friends on other teams and need to eat dinner, especially with the bald guy who can put them on the plane to Qatar. I’ve said this before, but pros don’t linger nearly as long on the outcomes of games as fans do, largely because they’ve played hundreds of games, and if they remain talented and healthy, will play hundreds more, even if the game is a blood feud involving clubs, founded 135 and 150 years ago.
Stefan Fatsis: Anyway, Cameron Carter-vickers grew up in England and has been with Celtic for two seasons. Quick aside, he’s the son of Howard Heisey Carter, who played for LSU Josh in the 1981 final for a couple of seasons in the NBA and then in Europe. James Sands grew up in New York and has played in 23 games for Rangers over two seasons. Malik Tillman grew up in Germany, is on loan to Rangers from Bayern Munich and has played a total of nine games for Rangers.
Stefan Fatsis: These guys couldn’t give a toss about religious divides in a city they’re passing through. A wise twitterer named Paul Mcclory wrote Hope that helps. It does. And yet, after the account USMNT, he only tweeted the photo. Even some American fans seem to side with the idea that the player shouldn’t break bread with friends who play for clubs that have some weird, old, incomprehensible religious slash political rivalry. Time and a place at Whiz Kid 301 wrote Greg should know better. The replies to that were pretty good. What day would work for you? One guy said. At another. Yeah. Greg not clearing this through. Whiz Kid is a massive oversight.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: The one word that you got wrong and that entire after ball is incomprehensible. Seems pretty comprehensible.
Stefan Fatsis: Yeah, true. I mean, to them, it might not be very comprehensible, though, which is the point I was trying to make.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Indeed. Point well made. That is our show for today. Our producer is Kevin Bendis. Plus, in the past and subscriber just reach out to slate.com slash hang up and you can email us at hang up at Slate.com. And don’t forget to subscribe to the show and read and review us on Apple Podcasts. For Stefan Fatsis, I’m Josh Levine remembers. I’m 80. And thanks for listening.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Now it is time for our bonus segment for plus members. And back with us is Rennae Stubbs. Hey, Renee.
Speaker 3: Hi, guys.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: And Stefan and I are huge Frances Tiafoe fans and we were delighted to see him beat Rafael Nadal in the round of 16 on Monday. He is 24. An incredible story about where he came up, where he came from and how he has come up. And, yeah, I haven’t felt I mean, I was a different kind of joy, I guess, from watching Serena. But just like seeing him. Seeing Francis succeed on that stage just brought me tremendous amount of joy. I’m wondering kind of how you felt about that match and what you think about Frances Tiafoe.
Speaker 3: I don’t know if there’s enough words to describe how much I love Frances Tiafoe. I don’t know if there’s enough joyful words to describe him as a human being, him as a family person, him as a as a boyfriend. All the things. He’s just the kindest, nicest. Funnest guy to be around. He is so loved in the locker room. He’s so loved on the tour. He’s the one guy. I mean, last year at Wimbledon, when we were all in a bubble, he was like the mayor of the hotel. I mean, there was not a person that would walk by that he was hugging and high fiving and smiling with. And I think this year the difference is comparative to what we saw of him last year was that he was wanted to be accepted and loved and liked and now he wants and is all those things. But now the tennis is there and he’s settled into yes, I’m a showman.
Speaker 3: Yes. I like to have fun on the court. Yes, I like to smile, but I actually really, really am good and I want to win. And we’re seeing that maturation right, with Wayne Ferreira and what he accomplished yesterday against Nadal to finish that match off the way he did was quite spectacular. He talked about it in the post-match interview with ESPN, how when he won that game, he was it was up a break and he won that, the four three game. And he said he could barely feel his legs. That’s how nervous he was and how excited he was to try and close that match out.
Speaker 3: But the way he handled it, he may have folded the year before. He might he may have sort of gone for a shot that wasn’t on. He may have tried to hit a, you know, a particular shot, or he might have gotten a little bit too much energy from the crowd. He’s starting to learn how to how to be the showman and be the guy that everyone likes and actually win matches. And that win that he had over Rafa yesterday was just incredible. And the match before, you know, I mean, he’s just playing such good tennis and he’s he’s a definite threat to win this tournament.
Stefan Fatsis: He is such a genuine, lovable person. The interview he gave with the ESPN crew after the Nadal match was just so tender and so touching. He seems so humble and so aware of what he has just simply achieved from his background. I mean, he is the his parents were from were immigrants from Sierra Leone. He grew up at a tennis center in Maryland. His father was the head of maintenance there. And I’m just trying to picture like a ten year old kid in this center of privilege, I’m guessing, with these other kids that are being shuttled to and from their suburban homes to try to become great tennis players. And he goes back and lives with his, you know, living there with his dad, who takes care of the place.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: And the story is that he has a kind of funky forehand because he would just pick up whatever rackets and whatever grips. And so it’s really kind of amazing, Renee, that you can kind of see that history from where he came from still today, just in the way he swings the racket.
Speaker 3: Yeah, I interviewed him for my podcast earlier this year when he was coming back from injury and he was he played in he was in Miami, but he yeah, we have a bit of a joke about his forehand. And did he just watch EARNEST Gulbis? Is that the only video that he pulled up on YouTube because of that funky forehand, the way he hits it, but his racquet head speed on it is just outrageously good. And, you know, it doesn’t use his legs very much on his serve, but yet can hit it down at 130. No problem. So there’s the technical things in his game that probably a lot of people would have tried to change if he’d gone to a USTA program early on or something like that.
Speaker 3: I mean, you all know the forehand should be like this. That just shows you that tennis is for everybody. But you don’t have to have the perfect strokes to be a great tennis player. Not everybody looks like as beautiful as Roger Federer when they hit a ball. But what what matters is that you love the game and you have passion for it. And there’s no it’s unquestionable that he has the most amazing passion for this game, that he was around at Young as a kid and wanted to be on the test court and yes, surrounded by people that probably didn’t look like him. So I just think he is the epitome of just if you love something that much and you can be really successful, it doesn’t matter what you look like. It certainly doesn’t matter how you hit a tennis ball. And so he’s just yeah, it’s I just hope he keeps believing in himself enough to to keep going in this tournament.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: Yeah. And being able to get over the finish line against one of the big three has been a thing that so many players have tried and failed to do. Tailor Fred. So Wimbledon against Rafa, who was way more physically compromised than Rafa at the U.S. Open, just couldn’t do it and just felt sick about it afterwards. Think Rafa was so physically compromised he couldn’t even play the next match. And so, like you said, you know, Francis saying his legs felt like they were in cement. Yeah. Just getting over that psychological barrier. I don’t know if you have something that you can remember from your own career, but just can you explain, like, what it feels like not only to be able to make the quarters of the U.S. Open. Our stadium, but to beat one of these legends of the game, well.
Speaker 3: I don’t know how to do either of those things, as I didn’t sadly reach a quarter as a singles and I didn’t. I almost beat Steffi. One time I lost seven five in the third.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: So where are your legs? Like some end.
Speaker 3: Exactly. But, you know, achieving obviously winning my slams when I did it was it was a matter of me believing really, truly believing in myself. And also to not allow myself to go down the negative path and, you know, and be self-destructive. That’s that was where my default bad default lied was, you know, being self just tearing myself up and being too hard on myself.
Speaker 3: And I think with Francis, it’s a little bit of it’s the opposite. I think he as I said, he loves to entertain. And it’s more about the entertainment factor in his mind about like, you know, people liking him on the court and all this sort of stuff. And I think what he’s done over the last, you know, particularly last couple of years, but obviously in the last few months is really recognize that maybe, you know, he he he’s starting to believe in the hype and the talent that everyone has been talking about. And there was no question he was going to be a little bit better in his mid-twenties. And now he’s using all of his game and he has every stroke and he has as athletic as you can get around the court. So his fitness level is there. So now I think it’s just a belief.
Speaker 3: So I think with him, it was right at the end really believing in himself and actually not doing anything other than winning the tennis point ahead of you and not trying to show the crowd too much. So he’s just doggedly determined now and that you have to learn and now that he’s done it, that now that he’s opened the door now to knowing what he has to do, whatever it is, whatever his default was of a negative, he learned how to put that aside yesterday.
Speaker 3: And that’s an incredibly tremendous thing to be able to do. It’s kind of like building. I talk about it when I coach. It’s kind of like building a house. Okay, you’ve got the brick walls. We’ve got to find the front door. Okay, now we’ve got to put the roof on this. That’s. It’s like making a tennis player. It’s like building a house and every little bit of the structure. And then once we get the house built, then we’ve got to open the door, and then we’ve got to put furniture in there. So there’s it’s a saying. It’s like, okay, what do we do today? We put the brick wall up. And I think for Francis yesterday, he put the roof on the house yesterday and he closed the door. And that’s incredible now. Now, everything after this is putting the furniture in the house. And how can he keep building on that? And how many things can you put in that house? And so so for me, I think he learned a huge amount, a huge lesson for himself going forward yesterday. And hopefully he can learn from it, too. What he can do to win a huge tournament like this. The US Open with Serena.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: I bet you’re like, all right now we got to put in the poor for the pool has no way.
Speaker 3: Serena, it’s like we’ve already got the house. We’ve already got the furniture, we’ve got the cars, we’ve got everything. Now, how do we manage? Just keeping it all in the house. And, you know, my my big thing with Serena was we’re not reinventing the wheel here. We’re just trying to make you feel be happy on the tennis court. That was a very big difference. It’s like you’ve got the house, you’ve got the pool. Now let’s go and play in them.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: That’s great for folks out there listening. You can tell what a great personality Renee has. And if you want to hear what a great personality that Francis says, listen to him on his podcast or put a link on our show notes. Rene, thanks so much for the time. It was really a pleasure.
Speaker 3: You’re welcome, guys. Thank you.
Josh Levin, Josh Levine: And thank you, Slate. Plus members will be back with more next week.