The Color of Money: Bruce Levenson, the Atlanta Hawks, and Atlanta Thrashers

Today came the news that former Atlanta Thrashers co-owner and soon-to-be-ex-Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson jotted down some stream-of-consciousness garbage in which he perpetuates and caters to both black and white stereotypes (and Southern ones, too, for good measure) and emailed it to his co-owners. You can read the text of that email here.

Devising a marketing strategy by drawing lines between and around the type of people one wants to market toward isn’t a bad thing. I just did that last week at my job. It’s called segmenting. Done properly it can help a business reach a target audience.

But it’s the way Levenson paints large groups of people with a broad stereotypical brush that hurts my heart: his implication that a majority-black crowd inherently has fewer “fathers and sons;” that “southern whites” were not comfortable being in the minority; and most harsh: “the black crowd scared away the whites.”

And so I wonder: when the Atlanta Spirit Group drafted Evander Kane and signed Dustin Byfuglien, Johnny Oduya, and Anthony Stewart, and brought in Nigel Dawes, Sebastian Owuya and Akim Aliu – all players of African descent and together comprising a full 20% of black hockey players in the NHL in 2010 – did they appreciate these men as the highly skilled elite athletes they truly are? Or did they just see skin color?

In 2010 blogger Harrison Mooney wrote a long, complex post about this issue and ultimately lauded ASG’s efforts to engage a segment of the Atlanta community it had not traditionally tried to connect with. I suppose that’s true. It’s still (or was) a business. And as Mooney points out, Kane was a legit number four pick in the 2009 draft, while Byfuglien and Oduya were part of a Chicago Blackhawks team that had just won the Stanley Cup.

But as was borne true again and again with the Thrashers, having two or three skilled players surrounded by muckers and grinders does not a winning team make. We had Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa and still only won the lame Southeast Division once. Atlanta Spirit prioritized marketing over building a winning hockey organization, and as a result my team is in Winnipeg.

Ultimately, though, business decisions are less important than who you are as a person. If this were not the case Levenson wouldn’t be selling; Donald Sterling would still own the Clippers. Bruce Levenson looked out at his all-white Thrashers and wanted them to be more black. Then he scanned his too-black Atlanta Hawks crowd and told his staff to make them more white. This is a man who does not value people as anything but a wallet – and the whiter the wallet, the better, because to him whiter wallets contain more green. That might make him a great businessman, but it makes him a lousy human being.

2015 Women’s World Cup – You Want to Go After the Grass, You Have to Go After the Green

Over on The Equalizer, Jeff Kassouf reports several high-profile international women’s soccer players including Abby Wambach and Germany’s Nadine Angerer have retained legal council in preparation for a turf war (womp womp) over the use of artificial grass at the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada.

Finally.

I’ve been frustrated by the lack of cohesive action from the players. As I’ve said before, many of them seem reluctant to stand up for their basic human rights; why would they stand up for their sport?

Carli Lloyd even went so far to suggest woso fans should start a petition to get FIFA to use grass. That’s just lazy. Petitions carry no legal weight and are easy to ignore. They’re the fast food of social activism. Sit on your couch, click a button, boom. Instant gratification. You don’t even have to get up.

FIFA doesn’t care about the fans. They care about money. Look at what happened in Brazil – there were protests in the streets, cops in riot gear, tear gas grenades – and still 26.5 million people in the U.S. alone watched the final. FIFA can literally bulldoze entire neighborhoods of fans – or turn their backs while hundreds of workers die in Qatar – and the matches will sell out. For every person who sets their boundary and says “this is not right, I won’t go,” there are a dozen more lined up to take their place. FIFA knows this. Fan anger isn’t a gnat FIFA must swat away; fans don’t even get that close.

For the people who want change, I’m reminded of the immortal words of Billy Ray Valentine, who said (and I’m paraphrasing slightly):

“You know, it occurs to me the that best way you hurt rich FIFA is by turning them into poor FIFA.”

You wanna go after the grass? You gotta go after the green. And there are only two groups who can do that:

1. The Sponsors – who are rightly sitting this one out so far. Angry tweets and cursing barely move the meter of today’s media, and sponsors may not even know this is an issue. Or perhaps they’re waiting to see what happens. Now something’s happening. If Wambach, Angerer et. al. can rally a large group of players to sue or boycott, that will make news. Once it hits the news, the sponsors will have to decide whose side they’re on. Will they choose a group of athletes who simply want equal footing (womp womp) in their own sport? Will they back up that choice by withholding dollars? Or will they bow to the Evil FIFA Overlords and keep forking over dough to a governing body that made $2 BILLION in Brazil?

Actually, it might be the latter.

2. The Players – So that leaves it up to the group who arguably has the most to risk by speaking up. Careers are short. Endorsements are fewer than in the men’s game. And that sucks for them. FIFA’s ridiculous, arrogant decision to stage the Cup on fake grass has put the players in the impossible position of choosing to play or to fight. (And don’t think FIFA isn’t counting on them shutting up and playing. I’m looking at you CanWNT.).

But for the love of Mia, if they’re not going to fight for the integrity of sport they love, why are they playing?  If they’re not going to stand up for themselves NOW, for the opportunity to put their team and their country in the best position to win at the tournament that likely represents the pinnacle of their careers, when will they? When they’re done playing and have less to risk? When they’re perched on a chair in a TV studio, fat checks all cashed?

It’s easy for me to sit here and wonder why the players didn’t mobilize sooner (I didn’t even have to get up). I know that. But all along it’s been the players who have the power. They are the only ones who can force FIFA to treat them equally, with the respect they deserve. They’re starting to realize it now and beginning to work together. I’m proud of Wambach, Angerer, Vero Boquete, Teresa Noyola and the others who shouldered this weight with their letter to FIFA. I, the fans, the sponsors, the community – we can support the players with our blogs and tweets and voices. But change must begin with them.

Finally, it has.

Updated: Women’s Soccer Pro, Semi-Pro and Pro-Am Teams in North America

This map is interactive. Click on the check boxes to show or hide a league’s teams. Scroll down in the white box to see all the leagues. Zoom in or out with the +/- buttons. Move the map around with the hand.

Click here to go to a larger version.

I’ve finally updated the WoSoPro map for 2014. I decided to use the stadium locations for the pins rather than the contact information, just in case, for example, the contact person lives in a land far, far away. Twitter handles are included for most teams.

Enjoy!

 

Neutral on the Mic, but Not in my Heart

Image

I’ve been a P.A. announcer at Emory for ten years, and I’ve seen a lot of stuff. Overtime goals, KO’d players, bottom-of-the-7th grand slams. I can keep an even vocal tone whether I’m excited, disappointed, astounded, confused, etc. Saturday’s NCAA softball Super Regional put that ability to the test.

The Eagles’ impressive season came to an end when the opposing team tried the ol’ hidden ball trick for the final out of the game. It worked, and to say I was disgusted by this classless disregard of sportsmanship is an understatement.

One person I spoke with suggested I had little reason to feel angry. Trick plays are part of the game and teams should prepare for them, they said. That may be true. Coach Penny Siqueiros would never have such a bush league play in her arsenal, but not all coaches lead their teams with that kind of integrity.

Ultimately though, sport isn’t about preparation and Xs and Os and box scores. It’s about people. And that’s why a single trick play caused me so much angst Saturday afternoon.

This isn’t some faceless football team running the Statue of Liberty play in yet another BCS bowl game halfway across the country. This is my team. These are my kids. And when you not only end their season but try to humiliate them in the process, I have a problem with that. When I overhear the player who got tagged for the final out say, “Well, I’m the one who fell for it,” I’m going to think the opposing coach is despicable, worthless jerk for making one of my kids feel stupid. I am Tara-the-Cat protective by nature and Emory is family. And I will bodycheck you back into your own yard if you try to hurt my family.

That’s how unconditional love works, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. When I give all of my heart to a team knowing I can’t control game results whatsoever – sneaking “Crazy Train” in as a walk-up song when I’m not supposed to notwithstanding  – my heart is more richly rewarded when the team wins and succeeds. And it’s bruised a bit deeper when a team that maybe overachieved by getting to the Super Regional in the first place – short roster, only two pitchers, one with a bum leg – gets knocked out in such a disrespectful, dishonest manner. The opposing team had a chokehold on the game. They didn’t have to kick my team while they were down.

So I will congratulate that team on its victory; that’s what the NCAA’s script says to do. I’m a pro. I get paid to keep my voice calm even if my heart is pounding, my leg is bouncing, or the weight of a five-run first inning is crushing me. I hope that team has fun in Texas. And I hope they get slaughter-ruled in their first two games and have a miserable, silent, humiliating ride home. Because what they did to my team is not OK. The script says “good luck” and that’s what I’ll read – upbeat, pleasant, clear. Neutral on the mic, but not in my heart.

Part II: “Wanted: Women’s Soccer Coach”

Scene: Beacon Staffing HQ

We return to Beacon CEO Ross Rossington’s office. He is beaming over U.S. Soccer’s hiring of Jill Ellis as the new head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team, since it was he who suggested her as a candidate.

Ross: Well, there, see, we finally got them their female American coach after all!

Michelle: British, sir.

Ross: She’s not American? I thought she was American.

Michelle: You’re not alone, sir.

Ross: Whatever. Now look, Margaret. (fixes gaze hard at Michelle). We’ve got a real opportunity here, a chance to put Beacon Staffing on the map and show our clients we can do more than just recommend new candidates.

Michelle: What do you mean, sir?

Ross: We can make a big splash by announcing this! The soccer people – they’re busy right now. Their focus is on that men’s team that’s going to Mexico for the World Cup…

Michelle: Brazil…

Ross: That’s what I said, Brazil. All the big muckety-mucks over there are falling over themselves to make sure the men win another World Cup. How long has it been?

Michelle: Never…

Ross: Well, then, see, that just proves my point. They’re going to get all the money, all the resources, anything and everything they need to ensure they don’t embarrass themselves in front of the whole world. Do you see what I’m getting at, Margaret?

Michelle: Not exactly, sir. How are we supposed to announce it?

Ross: With the internet!

Michelle: The internet, sir?

Ross: Yes! You see, Margaret, the only people who care about women’s soccer are the little girls who go to the games. And all those little girls love the internet. If we can find a way to get this information right to them, the soccer people will love us for it!

Michelle: They will?

Ross: Of course! Think about how much money it will save them! Use that internet to reach the people who really care!

Michelle: Well, I suppose…

Ross: And they really need to save money, you know. I hear that men’s coach makes almost 10 times what the women’s coach makes, and money doesn’t grow on trees, Margaret.

Michelle: No, sir. So what do you want to do?

Ross: Well, I was thinking. Call up Ellen and ask her to do a shelfie with Ellis.

Michelle: A shelfie?

Ross: Yes, and then make sure you get it onto America Online as soon as possible.

Michelle: But sir…

Ross: Do… do you think we can put some writing on there that says, “You’ve got Jill”? (laughs hysterically)

Michelle: Sir, I don’t think Ellen will do that.

Ross: Oh, fine. What do you suggest?

Michelle: Well sir, the fastest way to reach the most people is with social media.

Ross: Social media? You mean like Facebooks?

Michelle: Yes, sir. And Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram…

Ross: Wait, what’s that last one? Instawhat?

Michelle: Instagram, sir. It’s a popular social media site for sharing pictures.

Ross: It sounds fast. I like that, we can get the shelfie out there really fast.

Michelle: Sir, Instagram isn’t really appropriate for this kind of real news. It’s where people share pictures of what’s going on in their lives, funny things, photos of their pets, and especially what they’re eating and drinking.

Ross: Well, Margaret, maybe we can change that too. Release this important information about the coach of the top women’s soccer team in the world via Instagram… that is sure to make waves.

Michelle: That… that is true, sir.

Ross: (bangs desk) Then let’s do it! Get a picture of Ellis – something that will fit in with what regular people put on there. Do we have one of her looking kind of caught off-guard? Something that looks spontaneous?

Michelle: Let me see… Well, here’s one, she looks like someone is trying to sell her Amway. And she’s wearing a rain jacket. And it’s kind of awkward.

Ross: Is she holding a kitten or drinking some coffee?

Michelle: Um, no sir.

Ross: That’s too bad. Let’s just use that one anyway. Instamail it!

Michelle: (sighs) Yes, sir.

aaaaand scene!

 

Credit: U.S. Soccer

USWNT Coach Tom Sermanni Fired: What Happened

Oops, forgot to put a question mark in the title up there. My bad!

qmsb

As expected, today’s presser with U.S. Soccer head honcho Sunil Gulati was a master class in spin. (Full disclosure: I wasn’t in on the media call. I read parts of a transcript later). If you want to know more about what was said, check out Jeff Kassouf’s article for NBC Sports Soccer, and you definitely should read former USWNT captain Julie Foudy’s piece over at ESPNW. Both attempt to provide insight into a shocking situation only made murkier by Gulati’s evasive answers.

The only sure thing about this whole debacle is how badly mishandled it was by U.S. Soccer.

  • Gulati said the USA’s 7th-place finish at the Algarve Cup factored into the decision to let Sermanni go. He also said Sermanni’s firing wasn’t about Sunday night’s game vs. China PR. If that’s the case, why wait three and a half weeks? Why let Sermanni call in a new roster and coach a friendly? Why fire him on a night when the country was actually paying attention to women’s soccer? The timing, though they may have been trying to bury the news at 10pm on a Sunday night, was pitiful.
  • The gag order issued by U.S. Soccer on the players put the team itself squarely in the firing line once news broke. Social media’s barracudas immediately went after the players based on nothing more than rumor, “unnamed sources,” and fair or not, reputation. Meanwhile within hours Sermanni gave interviews to Grant Wahl at Sports Illustrated and Leander Schaerlaeckens at Fox Soccer. The USSF itself stayed mute for another 18 hours. Sermanni drove the narrative. The USSF had the opportunity to drop their press release and follow up with additional information, to own the story from the onset and take responsibility for their actions, but didn’t. They allowed the rumors and unnamed sources to run rampant, and for Sermanni’s grace to shine through. As a result, U.S. Soccer looks like a small-city school board trying to fire a popular teacher via text messages to parents on a Friday night before going out of town for the weekend.
  • Sermanni has said – repeatedly – he was blindsided by his dismissal. He had one post-Algarve Cup conversation with Gulati, but didn’t think that conversation was serious enough to lead to a firing. Now, let’s assume for the moment that Sermanni’s post-firing comments – which came just a scant hour or so after an unexpected, emotional event turned his life upside-down – are correct, that he did not have any indication that this was coming, that in a week or three he won’t  look back and say “ok, when management said X, I should have understood better what they meant.” Let’s trust he truly had no indication from management that his job was in jeopardy. What kind of lousy lines of communication do they have over at USSF? As Foudy said, “As a matter of good business (and leadership), [dismissal being a surprise] should not happen to any coach in any sport. This should have been addressed early and often. After repeated conversations, if it’s still not working, then you make a change.” There appears to be a severe lack of process and procedure in the U.S. Soccer HR department. Which leads me to…
  • Tom Sermanni, a successful, well-regarded coach, was unceremoniously kicked out the door with little to no warning. He’d posted an 18-2-4 record, including a draw against Japan and a win over Germany in last year’s Algarve. And he was fired before he could see the fruition of his work. Who in their right mind would want this job? Coaching the USWNT is already a challenging job full of egos and superstars and real pressure to win on the biggest stages like the WWC and Olympics. The USSF’s unprofessional actions morph what should be one of the prime soccer-coaching jobs in the world into perhaps more trouble than its worth. How can U.S. Soccer attract the best coaches when they treat a man like Sermanni with such disrespect?

If Gulati was so concerned about Sermanni’s ability to lead the USWNT after the Algarve Cup, he should have fired the coach as soon as that tournament was over. His media call could have gone something like this: “We just gave up five goals to Denmark and placed seventh in the bloody Algarve Cup. Seventh! Why am I even having this presser?” Mic drop. Flip phone slammed. The end.

Instead he left his players to bear the full force of fandom’s fury, gave his now-former coach free reign to charm his way to worldwide sympathy, and tarnished the very office he’s now tasked to fill. And he made himself look incompetent in the process.

Time will tell if this was a move that helps get the U.S. Women’s National Team back onto the podium at the World Cup. But right now, the USSF has a long way to go just to get back to solid ground.

The NHL’s Winnipeg Myth

winnipeg jets logoThe Winnipeg Jets’ third season since “returning” to Canada has ended up in the same place as the first two: out of the playoffs. Snarky Laura wants to (ok, did) tweet: “So having passionate, knowledgeable fans doesn’t magically turn a team with middling talent and a poor GM into winners? Who knew?”

I knew. What I don’t know is where this fans-holding-the-team-accountable-will-make-them-champions myth came about. The fans don’t play the game or make decisions about the team and organization. If True North, the Jets’ owners, replace GM Kevin Cheveldayoff it won’t be due to the bile of a thousand bitching bloggers. It’ll be because they care about and understand hockey and they want to win.

That’s something the Thrashers never had. The Thrashers had comically litigious basketball-loving sycophants who were saddled with a hockey team they couldn’t wait to “sell or otherwise dispose of.” Atlanta Spirit Group was early-film Jimmy Dugan in “A League of their Own”:

NHL: Now, ASG, you have some pretty good athletes here. You ought to give them a little bit of your…

ASG: [interrupting] Athletes?! We don’t have athletes, we’ve got hockey players. Hockey players are what you watch to see people beat the crap out of each other, not, not what you watch when you want to see real sports!

[spits sues someone else]

NHL: If we ignore you a little bit more, ASG, do you think you could be just a little more apathetic?

ASG: [brightly] HEY LOOK, THE BASKETBALLERS!

Meanwhile, Jets players continue to play poorly, despite being surrounded by passionate, knowledgeable fans (and Winnipeggers truly are that). Players like Ondrej Pavelec:

“All goalies, not just me, are supposed to win. And we haven’t won enough games here. So the goalie is going to get blamed. That’s the way the NHL works in Canada. It’s that way for me in the Czech Republic, too,” said Pavelec. “The people care. That’s why the media is always here. That’s a good thing. In Atlanta, nobody cared. There was no media. That’s no good. We need people to care about what we do.”

Caring fans and swarming media haven’t improved your pathetic play Pavs, have they?

Then there’s the “we need fans/media to care about what we do [and by extension hold us accountable so we will try harder to win]” attitude wielded by so many Jets. Why do they need motivation from the fans? Shouldn’t they want to do their best every night no matter if there are 20,000 or 2,000 fans watching? Shouldn’t they want to win every game? To play hard for each other and take pride in their performances?

I work in radio. If I know I’m doing a bad show or if I make a mistake – say I give up a four-rating-point lead and fail to finish in the top eight shows in the market – I don’t wait around for an avalanche of fan (e)mail telling me how lousy I sound. I want to do better. I try harder. I take responsibility for my work. It doesn’t matter if I have one listener or one million. I want to do my best every. single. time. This concept of personal accountability seems foreign to Jets players.

“In Atlanta you didn’t really have to answer to anyone other than the coach or the guys in the room. Here the fans get on you, there’s people asking questions after every game. There’s a little more pressure.” – Bryan Little. Playing for your teammates isn’t enough? That Winnipeg’s number-one center needs external pressure in order to be inspired enough to play his best should be disconcerting to all Jets fans.

This nice little trollalicious piece from Kirk Penton of the Winnipeg Sun blames the Thrashers for Winnipeg’s continued failures. And you know what? He’s right. The Thrashers finished out of the playoffs all but once. Why anyone ever bought into the myth that exporting a bad team to a hockey-mad market would suddenly make them a good team is beyond me. In fact, I postulate that myth is part of the reason the Jets’ woes continue. The players, the fans, the NHL all crowed that the team’s problems would be solved with a change of venue and the vocal, vociferous support of Canadians. Yet the team has not improved. That the players continue to hang their loser-hats on the shelf of fan (and media) participation is simply a symptom of the lack of accountability endemic in the Thrashers. Penton and others basically say the Thrashers were permitted to accept mediocrity for so long that it’s “been impossible to wash the stench of the Atlanta Thrashers off the Winnipeg Jets.” That’s spot on (though in three years True North has done little to launder out the smell, keeping the rotten core intact and making the same sort of poor personnel decisions). ASG’s modus operandi – do the minimum possible to put any product on the ice and blame the fans for failure – trickled down to the team, where it still lives today.

We Atlanta fans knew that all along. We were smart enough not to buy into the lie that we could ever impact owners who had nothing but disdain for us and our sport, and players who constantly looked outside the glass for a fall guy for their failures. Turns out we were pretty knowledgeable after all.

It’s a shame the NHL’s Winnipeg Myth played a part in the league’s decision to take away my team. Gary Bettman spun a tale of magical winter nights in Manitoba and used this fairy tale as justification to abandon Atlanta. Instead of doing the work to find us new owners, like he did in Dallas, New Jersey, Buffalo, Phoenix and Florida, he stirred up the frenzied fantasies of Winnipeg fans and used the billowing haze to make our disgust appear as apathy.

But now that the smoke has cleared the truth is laid bare: neither myth or multitudes, magic or media can turn a neglected bird into an supersonic airplane. As long as the Jets try to fly on the contrails of a myth, they’ll never get off the ground.