There are worse things than losing to Illinois. You could lose to Kansas, for example.
This isn’t to say anything positive about No. 6 Wisconsin’s 24-23 upset at Illinois, which maims the Badgers’ hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff, puts a dent in the perception of the Big Ten and removes every ounce of excitement surrounding that matchup with No. 4 Ohio State to end October.
That the Badgers are going to plunge in the next Amway Coaches Poll, issued on Sunday, is a justified reaction to what just occurred: they lost to Illinois. Wisconsin was a 30.5-point favorite. Illinois hadn’t beaten a ranked Big Ten team since 2007, a 28-game stretch that stood as the second-longest such streak in the Bowl Subdivision. (Behind Kansas, of course.)
Since opening the season with a win at home against Akron, which remains winless, Illinois had dropped games at Memorial Stadium to Eastern Michigan, Nebraska and Michigan. Meanwhile, Wisconsin had pitched four shutouts in the year’s first six games, the first time the program had done so since 1930, and had allowed just 29 points, the fewest by any team through six games since Florida State gave up 29 points in 1993.
The Badgers hadn’t trailed all season — and didn’t trail Illinois until kicker James McCourt made a 39-yard field goal as time expired. (From the perspective of timing, if the game-winning attempt came with zeroes on the clock, did Wisconsin technically lead for the entire game? If so, the Badgers still haven’t trailed through seven games despite holding a loss.)
DESERVED LOSS: No. 6 Wisconsin didn’t play well and Illinois beat them
SCARY SCENE: Oklahoma’s Sooner Schooner crashes on field
BAD MOVE: Clemson player ejected after throwing punch at Louisville player
The loss has the secondary effect of hurting the reputation of the Big Ten, which before this weekend could tout overall depth — there were six Big Ten teams in this week’s Amway Coaches Poll — along with three teams still in contention for the national semifinals, with the Badgers joined by the Buckeyes and Penn State. Not that it would matter in the end: Ohio State won’t be held out of the pflayoff because Wisconsin lost to Illinois.
As of Saturday afternoon, the Badgers’ only path demands not one but two wins against Ohio State, one in October and the other for the conference championship in early December, along with the predictable sort of chaos that ensues across the Power Five during the year’s second half. It sounds doable, sort of, except that the team that lost to Illinois would have no chance against the Buckeyes.
Here are the rest of Saturday’s winners and losers in college football:
The 35-31 win at No. 23 Washington keeps the No. 12 Ducks very much alive in the playoff hunt: Oregon is now 6-1 overall and 4-0 in Pac-12 play, with the one loss coming on a neutral site against No. 11 Auburn. While he struggled against pressure, Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert completed 24 passes for 280 yards and four touchdowns, giving him 21 touchdowns against one interception on the season, and showed why he’s viewed as one of top NFL prospects in the country.
STILL ALIVE: Oregon in playoff mix after road defeat of Washington
Bronco Mendenhall and the Cavaliers bounced back against Duke and made a case for returning to the Top 25. After dropping consecutive games to Notre Dame and Miami (Fla.), Virginia led 17-0 at halftime and 41-7 at the end of the third quarter in a 48-14 win. It helps to force turnovers: Duke turned it over five times while Virginia had five scoring drives of 40 or fewer yards. It still counts.
The Cavaliers’ Commonwealth Cup rival pulled of a 43-41 win against North Carolina in six overtimes, the longest game since the FBS enacted new overtime rules designed to shorten games that go into extra frames. Beginning this season, teams will begin attempting two-point conversions beginning in the fifth overtime. Exciting! Virginia Tech won on backup quarterback Quincy Patterson’s short scoring run in the sixth to move to a surprisingly positive 5-2 after losing early to Boston College and Duke. Painfully, UNC is 3-4 with the four losses coming by a combined 12 points: 24-18 to Wake Forest, 34-31 to Appalachian State, 21-20 to Clemson and 43-41 to the Hokies.
Matt Rhule is moving to the front of the line for some end-of-year coaching accolades. Even after losing senior linebacker Clay Johnston, the heart of an improved defense and an All-America candidate, Baylor pulled off a 45-27 win at Oklahoma State to move to 7-0 heading into winnable games against West Virginia and TCU. After winning just one game in his 2017 debut, Rhule has the Bears in contention for a New Year’s Six bowl.
Since losing by a nose to Baylor on Sept. 28, Iowa State has rolled off three convincing Big 12 wins in a row against TCU, West Virginia and, on Saturday, Texas Tech. In doing so, the Cyclones have painted themselves as perhaps the second-best team in the conference, trailing only Oklahoma. (We’ll find out for sure when the Cyclones meet Texas.) The three-game streak, capped by Saturday’s 34-24 win at the Red Raiders, also helps to erase the sour taste of narrow losses to the Bears and rival Iowa.
Here’s a fun one: Miami lost 28-21 in overtime to Georgia Tech, which earlier this season lost to The Citadel and hadn’t come within 16 points of each of its first three opponents in ACC play. The Yellow Jackets aren’t very good, you see, even if the team’s struggles were expected under first-year coach Geoff Collins. The Hurricanes’ new coach, Manny Diaz, now heads into the home stretch at 3-4 with five games left. Of that group, four come on the road: Pittsburgh, Florida State, Florida International and Duke.
«This is a rebuild,» Diaz said after the loss, which is laughable. The Hurricanes won 10 games just two years ago and were 49-29 across the previous six seasons — not great, but not rebuild-worthy numbers — while the program had inked top-25 recruiting classes in three of the past four years. To call this a rebuild is a desperate and transparent attempt at spinning a season that has spiraled out of control.
Meanwhile, in the MAC … Toledo has careened off the tracks in back-to-back losses to Bowling Green and Ball State, quickly transforming the Rockets from conference favorite to one of the more mystifying teams in the FBS. The loss to Bowling Green came as a heavy favorite. Saturday’s loss at Ball State might’ve been worse: Toledo gave up 374 yards rushing on 7.5 yards per carry, allowed 12.1 yards per pass attempt and had just 309 yards of offense in a 52-14 loss.
Missouri lost 21-14 to Vanderbilt, which one week ago lost 34-10 at home to UNLV. College football is not supposed to make sense — and it rarely does — but this is particularly strange, given that Missouri had made a quiet case for the Top 25 while the Commodores were supposedly circling the drain under embattled coach Derek Mason.
Jamal Crawford Wants His Melo Moment
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When Carmelo Anthony makes his expected Portland Trail Blazers debut on Tuesday night in New Orleans, Jamal Crawford will be back in the Pacific Northwest, tweaking his daily workout routine to mix in some TV time.
Crawford typically heads to the gym twice daily in Seattle to keep himself sharp while waiting for the kind of call Anthony just got from the Trail Blazers. But some games in mid-November are must-watch — and Blazers at Pelicans suddenly qualifies as worthy of schedule shuffling.
“I’m rooting for Melo big time,” Crawford said.
Like Anthony, Crawford has no shortage of supporters openly wondering when he will be summoned back to the N.B.A. No less a legend than Bill Russell tweeted in support of Crawford on Nov. 8, tacking on the hashtag: #getthismanajob.
Crawford turns 40 in March, but admitted he was “shocked” his phone didn’t ring with more interest in the off-season after his 2018-19 stint with the Phoenix Suns. He didn’t have a job with the Suns, either, until the night before the regular season started — but Crawford finished the campaign with a 51-point flourish in Dallas on April 9.
It was one of the most remarkable regular-season finales in league history. In Dirk Nowitzki’s last home game of his Hall of Fame-worthy run with the Dallas Mavericks, in which he scored 30 points on 31 shots before closing out his career the next night in San Antonio, Crawford arguably upstaged him. In Game 82 for the Suns, Crawford scored 51 points on 30 shots in 38 minutes 8 seconds — off the bench.
From a selfish perspective, it was the sort of one-of-a-kind occasion that helped me make up for some internal conflict that still lingers from the final day of the 2015-16 season. I was in Oakland, Calif., that night to see the Golden State Warriors beat the Memphis Grizzlies and clinch a record-breaking 73rd victory against just nine losses, but that meant I could not be in Los Angeles to see Kobe Bryant score 60 points on 50 shots in his Lakers farewell after 20 seasons.
The stark difference from that wild and unforgettable occasion, of course, is that everyone knew Bryant was retiring before he walked onto the Staples Center floor and proceeded to riddle the Utah Jazz for sixty. Crawford does not want to retire.
In a phone interview, he made it clear that he remained determined to find a new team and rejected the notion that walking away after such a monumental game, à la Kobe, would make for the perfect send-off.
“I know that it was historic in a bunch of ways,” Crawford said of a performance that made him the oldest 50-point scorer in league history, as well as the first to do so as a reserve — and to do it with four franchises (Suns, Warriors, Knicks, Bulls).
“But I honestly thought more so along the lines of: ‘I’m re-energized. I’m ready for the next chapter.’”
Crawford’s detractors assert that he is bound to surrender more points defensively than he could ever score at this stage of his career. But he doesn’t fire back at them. Insistent on positivity even though this is the first November since his lone collegiate season at Michigan in 1999-2000 in which he did not hold an N.B.A. job, Crawford appears to have taken on the role of spokesman for the various veteran free agents who, like him, have been unable to find a new employer since last season.
“Take myself out of it,” Crawford said, before proceeding to list several peers in a similar bind: Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah, Kenneth Faried and J.R. Smith. Crawford also mentioned Jeremy Lin, who signed with the Beijing Ducks of the Chinese Basketball Association when he could not land an N.B.A. contract over the summer.
“You still have a ton of quality guys out there,” Crawford said. “That’s something that’s a little alarming for me.”
The past week, though, has been a source of encouragement. The Nets signed Iman Shumpert in response to Caris LeVert’s need for surgery on his right thumb. Then the Blazers, however desperate they looked at 4-8 when their Anthony interest went public, ended Melo’s yearlong wait for an opportunity to go out in circumstances more befitting of a 25,551-point scorer.
Things are starting to happen for the veteran set.
“I honestly don’t think it’s anything personal,” Crawford said of the fact that he remains unsigned. “Obviously I can still play.”
When I jokingly reminded Crawford that he’s averaging 51 points in his last one game played, he quickly volunteered: “And I averaged 31 points for the month of April. I just had the highest scoring month in my whole career after not really playing that much all year.”
It’s true. The Suns went 2-2 in April in the four games Crawford played, with the three-time winner of the N.B.A.’s Sixth Man Award scoring 19, 28, 27 and, yes, 51.
Crawford understands that he is not guaranteed a Melo moment. He knows — as Anthony surely grasps better than any vet looking for work — that prospective teams are generally more inclined to focus on the things that free agents in their twilight years can no longer do rather than what they still can.
Yet Crawford refused to believe that Melo was out of options after his Houston flameout. Nor is he listening to anyone who suggests that all 30 N.B.A. teams’ doors are closed to him.
“In my heart of hearts, I feel like it’ll happen,” Crawford said. “I just don’t know when.”
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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at email@example.com. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.)
Q: Are the Heat for real? — John McDonald
Stein: I’m not totally sure what your definition of “real” is. But I’m answering yes.
I was confident Jimmy Butler would be a stealth candidate for the Most Valuable Player Award on South Beach because he was destined to flourish with such strong backing from the Miami leadership duo of Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra.
I also had a strong feeling Goran Dragic would fare well in his new role off the bench — which is why I picked him as my Sixth Man Award favorite coming into the season.
But I would be fibbing in the extreme if I told you that I anticipated Kendrick Nunn and Bam Adebayo quickly establishing themselves as top contenders for rookie of the year (Nunn) and most improved player (Adebayo) honors. Nunn’s rise was forecast by precisely no one — and Adebayo has responded to his failure to make U.S.A. Basketball’s squad for the FIBA World Cup in China in the best manner possible. We so often talk about the boost players get after playing for the national team; it appears, in Bam’s case, that the snub was a spark.
The East has actually been deeper than advertised, with Boston off to such a strong start and Toronto following up its championship run by stubbornly refusing to pout over Kawhi Leonard’s free-agent defection to the Los Angeles Clippers. But Miami clearly looks like top-five material — with Butler sure to be offended that I didn’t say top-three.
Q: Is the Celtics’ great start really as simple as just swapping Kyrie Irving for Kemba Walker? It also feels like they benefited from getting rid of a gunner like Terry Rozier. Now they don’t have quite so many guys who need the ball. — Sam Chadwick
Stein: It is not that simple, Sam. It rarely is.
But there’s no denying that all the tension and questions surrounding Kyrie’s leadership qualities and his impending free agency last season foisted a weight upon the Celtics that is noticeably absent this season. It’s an undeniably happier group.
It’s too easy, though, to pin the middling seasons of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown solely on the Kyrie Factor. Tatum, Brown and Marcus Smart have all seized bigger roles, but they’ve got to own their share of Boston’s struggles last season.
We should also throw in the usual disclaimer about how early it is to draw conclusions. I think Brad Stevens would readily concede that the Celtics have also benefited from what ESPN ranked as the league’s fifth-easiest schedule in terms of opponent winning percentage (.468) through Sunday’s games.
But the opening-month returns in Boston are certainly encouraging. As much as Brown resisted my attempts in October to paint all that time he spent in China with Walker, Tatum and Smart as a huge head start for the post-Kyrie Celtics, it sure appears to have helped.
Q: How antsy is Dallas is to bring in a bona fide third star? A lot of voices around the league seem to think it’s a necessity, but this obsession seems ill-conceived, especially when talking about Dallas. The Mavericks have a plethora of solid role players, like Delon Wright, Jalen Brunson, Tim Hardaway Jr., Seth Curry. — Andrew Hudgins
Stein: I don’t sense that the Mavericks are antsy at all in this regard. They believe they can make the playoffs as constructed and won’t rush the search for the so-called Next Michael Finley to complement the modern answer to Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash.
If there is any uneasiness in Dallas at the moment — meaning within the organization — it centers on the ups and downs of Kristaps Porzingis’s comeback and trying to fast-track some chemistry in the former Knick’s partnership with Luka Doncic.
The Mavericks aren’t going to worry about a third star until they have a clearer picture of how Doncic and Porzingis will function at their peak as a duo. And they are still figuring things out.
As covered last week, Dallas wants to deploy Porzingis differently than he has ever been used, asking him to keep himself stationed beyond the 3-point line for long stretches and make floor-spacing a nightly priority. It has been a significant adjustment for Porzingis, who is also still getting his legs underneath him after missing 20 months after a serious knee injury.
You’re right about the supporting cast, though. Coming into the season, I remember hearing a lot of skepticism from rival talent evaluators about dependable depth being a problem for Dallas in its quest to return to the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. I frankly questioned it, too. That hasn’t been a problem yet.
The Mavericks have a number of quality role players. They could certainly use an additional shooter or two, but who couldn’t?
Portland’s signing of Carmelo Anthony will take the number of active players from the league’s 2003 draft class from two to three. The No. 1 overall pick LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers) and No. 51 selection Kyle Korver (Milwaukee) are the only others still playing. Anthony was chosen third among 60 draftees.
James Harden is averaging 39.2 points per game for the Rockets this season — despite shooting what would represent a career-low 34.0 percent from 3-point range. Harden’s heavy usage inevitably turns some fans off, but it’s difficult to quibble when the Rockets — who began the season with no shortage of skeptics after trading for Russell Westbrook — have won eight games in a row.
Only twice has a player averaged 40 points per game or better for an entire season: Wilt Chamberlain both times in 1961-62 (50.4 P.P.G.) and 1962-63 (44.8 P.P.G.)
The hosts for four last-chance qualifying tournaments for the Olympic men’s basketball tournament in Japan next summer, as chosen by FIBA, are Croatia, Lithuania, Serbia and Canada. Each of those four countries will host a six-team group that will send its winner to Tokyo. The draws for the four mini-tournaments will be held by FIBA on Nov. 27.
The eight countries that have already claimed spots in the 12-team Olympic men’s basketball field are: Argentina, Australia, France, Iran, Nigeria, Spain, the United States and the host Japan.
A bonus sixth entry this week: Sacramento (0-5) and Indiana (0-3) combined for an 0-8 start after the teams shared a preseason trip to faraway India — but both clubs have rallied for a 13-5 record since. The Kings are 5-2 this month, and the Pacers have won eight of their past 11 games despite their ongoing wait for the return of the All-Star guard Victor Oladipo. A knee injury has sidelined Oladipo since Jan. 23.
In José Mourinho, Tottenham Takes a Leap of Faith
José Mourinho has been keeping himself busy. It has been almost a year since he finally checked out of the Lowry Hotel, his tumultuous, compelling and not entirely unsuccessful time at Manchester United at an end. He had not necessarily planned a sabbatical, though by the time he left Old Trafford, he rather gave the impression he might welcome one.
Still, Mourinho is not the sort to sit on his hands. He started to appear as a studio guest on beIN Sports in the spring, sparring with his old foe, Arsène Wenger, across the desk on Champions League nights. Then, last summer, he agreed to a more permanent arrangement to appear on Sky Sports’ coverage of the Premier League.
He has agreed to a number of promotional gigs, too, most recently an advertising campaign for a bookmaker in which his bit centered on highlighting how frequently the bookmaker paid out on wagers. “I know what it takes to be special,” he intoned. Winning a jackpot, the joke went, is so common that it is not special at all.
It is strange to think, really, that it is 15 years now since Mourinho came up with that line in his inaugural news conference in England. Even after all this time, that phrase — the Special One — is still indelibly associated with him. It is his public persona, both self-styled and externally imposed, both his catchphrase and his nickname, an accepted substitute for his name when newspapers indulge in elegant variation.
It has survived the unhappy denouements of his last three jobs: at Real Madrid, a return to Chelsea, and then United, three clubs at which he lost first his players’ faith and then control. It has endured an ever-decreasing trophy return and his failure to live up to his own guarantee of success. It has lasted even though, rather like Neil Armstrong, he never actually said it. “I think I am a special one,” was the direct quote.
It has done so because English soccer is addicted to Mourinho — hopelessly, forlornly, destructively in love with Mourinho, unable to form a lasting bond with anyone quite so intensely as Mourinho.
His glittering record, of course, explains part of that fixation, but there is something else, too. Mourinho bridges the divide between the old conception of what a manager should be — an omniscient potentate, his fingerprints on every aspect of day-to-day life at a club, not answerable to a sporting director or a recruitment committee — and the more modern vision of what one should look like: handsome, charismatic, all brooding intensity.
He is box office, too, the quality the Premier League prizes above all others. He is a recidivist for mind games — that puerile playground taunting that falls somewhere between boxers’ trash talk and a movie trailer — and, when no particular foe presents themselves, he is more than capable of arguing with himself, his players, even his owner. There is nobody better at keeping the plotlines bubbling in a quiet week.
And so it was inevitable that, at some point, Mourinho would be a participant once more, not merely an observer. Mourinho fluttered his eyelashes at Arsenal, where Unai Emery is embattled, but it is Tottenham who seduced him first, jettisoning Mauricio Pochettino only months after he took Spurs to the Champions League final. Daniel Levy, the Tottenham chairman, has always had eyes for Mourinho, by all accounts. Of course he has. He is only human.
The fit is not, on the surface, an obvious one. Mourinho has always had nothing but contempt for those of his peers who talk airily of philosophy and long-term planning; he separates the world into people who win — him, and a couple of others who he is willing to tolerate — and everyone else, who doesn’t. (He and Pochettino are close, though his predecessor always seemed to fall into the latter camp.)
At United, Mourinho fell out with his superiors over a failure to invest heavily in the squad. Though he resents the idea that he does not develop young players, he has always been plain in his belief that what matters most is winning now.
Spurs, where Levy is famously parsimonious, refusing to approve moves for anyone too old to maintain a resale value, where several current players are considering their next move, and where Pochettino had identified a need for a rebuilding job, does not immediately look to be a natural home for the new boss.
The appeal, by contrast, is easier to comprehend. For all the progress Pochettino made, transforming Spurs into a genuine contender both domestically and in Europe, he did not win a trophy. That is one area where Mourinho cannot be questioned. He has won everything: three Premier League titles, two Champions League trophies, La Liga, an unprecedented treble in Italy.
The question mark is how relevant any of that is now. Since 2012, he has won one Premier League, two League Cups and the Europa League (a competition he had previously disdained). It is better than most coaches have done, of course, but it is one national championship in seven years. Mourinho is, undoubtedly, the finest coach of his generation. What is not clear, at this point — and what his time at Spurs may answer — is whether that is the current generation or not.
Levy has gambled that Mourinho is not yesterday’s man, but that is not the only risk he has taken in appointing him. There is another, one that has a resonance beyond Tottenham, beyond London, beyond this season.
Levy has made, in his mind, a cold, calculated business decision — the sort he is employed to make — but he has done so in an environment that is neither. For more than a decade, Mourinho has been Spurs’ foe, both at Manchester United and, in particular, at Chelsea.
Tottenham has not always been the chief target of his animosity — Mourinho regards Liverpool, in particular, with much more consistent spite — but his association with one of the club’s great rivals means there has never been much affection. When Pochettino’s Spurs beat Mourinho’s United at Old Trafford last year, the Spurs fans taunted him that he was “not special any more.” “They didn’t have that song when we beat them at Wembley a couple of months ago,” he replied.
Now, those same fans are being asked to sing his name, to throw their weight behind his team, to assume that their enemy has always been their friend, that we have always been at war with Eastasia. They are being asked to reassess their understanding of reality, to wipe out 15 years of enmity, to accept what once would have seemed unthinkable.
And they are not the only ones: Chelsea fans, too, some of whom remain faithful to him, despite all the heartbreak, must make the reverse journey. Mourinho has said, previously, that he would never coach Spurs, such is his fealty to Chelsea, the club that first won his heart in England.
In the soap opera of the Premier League, they too are being asked to act like everything that came before was just a dream. Both are being asked to test their loyalty to the limit, and all because, when any elite club in England starts to struggle, thoughts inexorably drift to Mourinho, to the Special One, to a love that conquers all, an addiction that cannot be beaten.
When It Comes to Being Gay-Friendly, Women’s Sports Are Ahead of the Game
This past June, as the US women’s soccer team was dominating the FIFA World Cup finals, player Megan Rapinoe offered one possible explanation for their success: “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team,” she said. “It’s never been done before, ever.”
The comment was a hat tip to Pride month, but it also acknowledged something significant: In this year’s women’s World Cup, there were more than 40 openly gay players and coaches—more than double the number who were out in 2015. (Homosexuality is criminalized in several of the participating nations; otherwise, there might have been even more.) At the last men’s World Cup in 2018, however, none of the players were openly gay.
This imbalance isn’t limited to soccer: The NHL, which began its season last month, has never had an openly gay player. The NWHL, on the other hand, not only has a number of out players, but an official policy to accommodate transgender players (although it’s not completely inclusive—it still limits the use of testosterone). When then-NBA player Jason Collins came out in 2013, he became the first and only openly gay athlete in the major US men’s sports leagues; no other NBA players have come out since. But in the WNBA, many prominent players identify as gay—including league star Elena Delle Donne, who helped lead the Washington Mystics to victory in the finals last month.
The trend continues at the Olympic level: At the 2016 Rio Olympics, where there at least 55 out athletes—more than at any Olympics before—44 were women.
In other words: When it comes to queer inclusivity, women’s professional sports leave men’s in the dust.
The lack of LGBTQ visibility in most men’s sports reflects the hyper-masculine, homophobic culture of that world. “In competitive sport, male athletes who appear to lack aggressiveness…may find themselves labeled a ‘pansy’ or a ‘queer’ by their coaches and teammates,” writes professor of sports communication at Clemson University, Bryan E. Denham in the 2010 volume Sociology in Sport and Social Theory. Queerness is wrongly equated with physical weakness: In American sociologist Eric Anderson’s 2005 book In the Game, he quotes a football player who told him, “My coaches try to motivate us to hit harder, crunch more, or throw farther by calling us fags all the time. And if you can’t do something, or mess it up, you get called a fag.”
“Words like fag…are used to belittle players, to weaken and feminize them, because hockey is hyper-masculine, meant for the manliest of men,” wrote Brian McGillis, a gay former semiprofessional hockey player, in a 2016 essay. The Canadian was closeted during his hockey career, and his struggle with his sexuality had serious consequences for both his physical and mental health. “I tried to isolate myself from my teammates,” he wrote. “The depression was constant and I often found myself crying for what seemed like no reason at all…. It started to manifest in my play and I was constantly injured.”
A study by a researcher at the University of Alberta earlier this year suggests that even though more openly gay players could engender a more open hockey culture, professional players not only fear intolerance; they also feel an “overriding threat of becoming a distraction” if they were to identify as gay in public.
The stigma doesn’t affect women the same way: While cis male athletes may be afraid of being feminized if they come out as gay, being gay isn’t seen as a negative for cis women athletes. Given that sports, by their very definition, are about physical prowess, girls and women who play are more welcome to reject patriarchal notions of females as delicate. (It’s important to note, too, that trans and nonbinary athletes are still discriminated against in many sports.)
In 2016, sportswriter Jason Page offered another theory as to why gay women athletes were so much more likely to be openly LGBTQ: because they are ignored. The spotlight on professional men athletes, by comparison, is intense. Page writes that cultivating an image is a crucial part of the agent’s job, which includes a social media presence and endorsements: “Does an agent want the ‘headache’ of trying to represent a player that might be living an ‘alternative lifestyle’?” His educated guess is no, which is largely down to management and ownership of teams that are still “old guard.”
Women’s sports are indeed neglected. A 2015 infographic created by Ohio University shows that even though women’s sports were becoming increasingly popular, men’s leagues still received a disproportionate amount of the money and media attention dedicated to sports: Even though 40 percent of all participants in professional sports were women, women’s sports only received 4 percent of American media coverage; on programs such as ESPN’s SportsCenter and Fox Sports 1’s Fox Sports Live, less than 1 percent of airtime was dedicated to women’s sports. And the money paid to players doesn’t even come close. While Megan Rapinoe and the rest of her teammates were riding to victory at the World Cup, they were also embroiled in a lawsuit with the US Soccer Federation to get equal pay and working conditions—because the best women’s soccer team on earth was making only 38 cents to their male counterparts’ dollar for some matches.
Being relegated to the back burner can help shield female athletes from the mainstream ideologies of gender. But it is reductive to suggest that less money and less attention make women’s sports a more relaxed space—rather, women’s sports have managed to be nicer and more inclusive in spite of systemic sexism and limited resources. In India, where I live, women’s sports get such a small share of the pie (and media attention) that there is a severe dearth of good coaching and training facilities. Not only that, but when women athletes do capture the public eye, they still risk being judged according to their ability to perform femininity (or perceived lack thereof). Despite the pressures women face, the only openly LGBTQ Indian athlete is a woman, the runner Dutee Chand.
Nevertheless, in being edged to the margins, these relatively unwatched fringes can grow into subversive spaces where girls and women—including those who do not easily inhabit mainstream spaces—can feel safe.
I grew up in New Delhi, India. In the early 1990s, I was in my late teens—part of a generation growing up in a newly liberalized economy, with shiny life choices that our parents had not had. In this upbeat, optimistic milieu were young adults like me, with my short hair and preference for boys’ clothing, who did not fit into convenient gender-based slots. In my early university days, my first taste of independence, my sanctuary was the cricket field. There, I saw other young women who were like me: outwardly boyish, from our haircuts and clothes to our interests and mannerisms. For the first time—if only for a few hours a day—I did not feel pressure to perform femininity. On the field, these peers and older players wore their butchness with an ease that was both intimidating and empowering. While I felt gauche in my skin, being around them was like looking into a mirror and seeing a more confident future self reflected back.
Despite our affinity, though, there was a silence—both in the Indian cricket circuit and in society in general—around the larger questions of sexuality or gender identity. It would still be more than 20 years until gay sex would be decriminalized in India (a ruling that applied largely to men), and almost as long until the judgment that would allow Indians to self-identify as a gender other than the one assigned at birth. (The current right-wing government is now pushing for a more regressive law.) I know now that my fellow cricketers must have suffered the same misgendering and bullying I did, fought the same daily battles with their families and outsiders for the right to be themselves. The field was one of those rare spaces where the conservative values fencing us in fell away. Were we all gay or gender-questioning? Participating in sports gave us space for it not to matter.
Today, even in societies where queer and heterosexual couples have the same rights to cohabit, marry, have children, and receive social benefits, men’s and women’s sports inhabit markedly different worlds. Men’s sports valorize the sort of aggression that often tips over into homophobia and other kinds of exclusion based on difference. In UK soccer, for example, many professional players rise up through club academies that they usually join as teenagers. “It’s not [that] gay men aren’t interested in becoming professional footballers,” one British researcher told reporters about the issue, “but [the] academies are heteronormative environments.” Vancouver Canucks goalie Anders Nilsson—an outspoken queer ally—has been clear about how toxic the hockey world is for gay boys: “If I was gay, I would have quit playing hockey in my teens,” he told a Swedish reporter.
Toxic masculinity needs to be kicked off the field and out of the locker room. Progress has been slower in men’s sports than in other parts of society, and there have been a few token efforts at promoting acceptance, such as a UK campaign encouraging soccer players to wear rainbow laces. But athletes, teams, and coaches still have to make it a priority to call out casual sexism and homophobia at every level—from children’s leagues to professional athletics.
There was an incandescence about the US women’s soccer team in every photo in which they held their 2019 World Cup trophy aloft. And not just because of their win, but also because of the values they embody, in their activism and in their teamwork. These women seemed like a vision of what our world could be: cohesive, inclusive, a place where we have each other’s back.
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