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Volume 22 No. 35

Opinion

Cleaning out my notebook as we look toward the last six weeks of 2019. A few things to remember — we have a great lineup for our Dealmakers in Sports conference on Dec. 4, and our Learfield IMG College Intercollegiate Athletics Forum on Dec. 11-12. In addition, you can meet our inaugural New Voices Under 30 class on the evening of Dec. 12 at the Refinery Rooftop. Go to our website for more information — we’d love to see you at any of these events!

BIG SURPRISE, PART I: When my colleague John Ourand emailed me that CBS Sports had won a package of rights for the UEFA Champions League, I had a one-word response: “Wow.” I was shocked. It wasn’t a CBS Sports-type of move and I didn’t anticipate the network being in the mix at all. In fact, CBS Sports deserves credit for how effective it was in keeping its intentions secret. Nobody knew it wanted the package, and so virtually everyone was surprised when it won the rights — including competitors like NBC Sports President Pete Bevacqua, WarnerMedia Chairman Jeff Zucker and Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks, who all expressed on the record at our recent Sports Media and Technology Conference how surprised they were that Sean McManus and David Berson emerged with the rights. I can’t say with confidence whether this is a big win for CBS Sports or UEFA, but it sends a strong and surprising message to the industry that CBS Sports is ready to pay for rights that it feels fit its portfolio. My question is whether the investment influences its strategy around renewals for the PGA Tour or the SEC.

BIG SURPRISE, PART II: The shocking, swift breakup between Joe Tsai and David Levy was the topic of discussion with all of my sources and everyone had a theory, from differing views of role and responsibilities, to a quick read that it wasn’t a fit, to veering into other lanes. But nobody saw this coming. I was surprised when I heard about Levy’s new role in September, as I couldn’t see the similarities to running a team and arena with his previous role in running a sports media company. But others stressed to me his position would be larger and broader and more entrepreneurial. Maybe that’s where the disconnect started. I still think Levy is well suited to bringing his creative deal-making skills to a tech company looking at a sports play.

CLOSING THE BOOK ON MLS 2019: MLS generated some real momentum and interest during its postseason, including a new format that fans and media praised and a fierce finals match between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders that drew nearly 70,000 frenzied fans in Seattle and looked fabulous on TV. Overall, I noticed far more mainstream media coverage and attention to the postseason and MLS Cup. But the league still needs to figure out the right broadcast window for its championship, as ABC’s audience was down 47% from the 2018 Atlanta United-Portland Timbers match on a Saturday on Fox. It marked the least-watched MLS Cup Final on a broadcast network on record, and it obviously got lost and overshadowed going up against an exciting NFL Sunday schedule. The league will likely revisit the window for its title match.

WHAT TO READ: I will be watching how The New York Times series on the state of football in America plays out. Earlier this month, the news outlet debuted the first part in a series in which it said it would “examine football’s hold on America, among children and their parents in the heartland, at public high schools and elite colleges.” It went on to say, “A significant decline in football’s prominence would represent an important cultural shift in America. The sport long ago surpassed baseball as the true national pastime, both in terms of participation and fanaticism, and seeing its numbers drop represents a chance to understand in real time how quickly the ground can shift.” The first part of the package included perspective from the National Football Foundation, which stressed its “Football Matters” effort to combat the narrative that interest and participation in the game is down. If you talk to insiders around the NFL, they have long felt The New York Times has had an aggressive agenda against the sport, from its coverage of CTE to player behavior. I’ll be keeping an eye on the tone and tenor of this series and how aggressively football’s powerful influencers and supporters defend the game and fight back against the negative narrative.

 FINALLY: Who has seen “The Irishman” and what did you think? And is anyone else frustrated by the extremely limited release strategy of the Netflix film?

 

First Look podcast, with industry news and trends Abe is watching, at the 30:21 mark:

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

Earlier this month, Mary Cain opened up about her experiences with Nike’s Oregon Project and disgraced coach Alberto Salazar. “I joined Nike because I wanted to be the best female athlete ever,” said Cain in a New York Times video op-ed. “Instead, I was emotionally and physically abused by a system designed by Alberto and endorsed by Nike.” In unflinching detail, Cain, 23, talked about how an “all-male Nike staff became convinced that in order for me to get better, I had to become thinner and thinner and thinner.”

The Cain story is heartbreaking, anger provoking, action demanding. It is not shocking. Not to me. Not to someone who competed in distance running in high school and college; who loved the sport but hated the body shaming that came with it.  

The pressure to get thinner broke Cain. The former running phenom started cutting herself and thought about suicide. Three years after she joined the Oregon Project, she quit the team. “I wasn’t even trying to make the Olympics anymore,” said Cain. “I was just trying to survive.”

Mary Cain, shown here at the 2016 Drake Relays, said she “got caught in a system designed by and for men, which destroys the bodies of young girls.”
Photo: ap images

Reaction to Cain’s story was swift and viral. Runners, coaches, doctors, even presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris responded to it. For many, it was painfully relatable. For many more, it was a call to action. Now, #FixGirlsSports is gathering momentum. But how do you fix a system that left Cain feeling “scared,” “alone” and “trapped” with the Oregon Project? How do you change a sports culture that prizes thinness?

Educate. Educate. Educate. Cain said “some people saw me cutting myself” and did nothing. Some people also saw Salazar yell at Cain about her weight after a 2015 track meet and did nothing. Maybe the witnesses didn’t know what to do, didn’t know how to intervene, didn’t want to get involved because of Nike’s power or didn’t know that the cutting and the yelling were symptoms of an abusive relationship.

Everyone needs to understand that not all “athlete abuse” is sexual abuse. We need to learn what to do when we suspect physical or emotional abuse.

The U.S. Center for SafeSport investigates cases of physical and emotional abuse, in addition to sexual abuse. CEO Ju’Riese Colón said that while emotional abuse is rarely reported, it “typically escalates over time” and “occurs when a person is subjected or exposed to behavior that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression, eating disorders, or post-traumatic stress disorder.” If the social media response to Cain’s story is any indication, many female athletes suffer under emotionally abusive coaches.

Universities require students, faculty and staff to go through training about abusive relationships and sexual harassment. Why not require high school and college athletic departments and elite teams to do something similar with all forms of athlete abuse? The more educated we are, the better we’ll handle it.

That education should include current research about what happens when female athletes become too thin. The more we understand the science, the better equipped we’ll be to chip away at a culture that wrongly equates thinness with success.

Bring in more women, especially coaches. This is a popular, evergreen solution to issues that affect female athletes. That’s because changing the ratio works. “Part of me wonders if I had worked with more female psychologists, nutritionists and even coaches, where I’d be today,” said Cain in the video. “I got caught in a system designed by and for men, which destroys the bodies of young girls.”

Many, though not all, male coaches don’t adjust for the naturally different needs of female athletes. Meanwhile, female coaches bring a naturally different perspective. That’s so obvious it makes any training system designed exclusively by men especially infuriating. Another benefit of more women: Some can relate on a deeply personal level because they’ve been there, too. You want women like that coaching, counseling and fixing the system.

In the wake of the Cain video, former Olympian Amy Yoder Begley tweeted about her experiences with the Oregon Project. She got kicked off the team after a 6th place finish at the 2011 U.S. Track and Field Championships. She was told she was “too fat” and “had the biggest butt on the starting line.” Now, she said those experiences make her a better coach of the Atlanta Track Club.

Hold Nike accountable. In October, after Salazar was banned for four years because of doping violations, Nike shuttered the Oregon Project. Following Cain’s video, Salazar issued a denial and Nike promised to “launch an immediate investigation to hear from former Oregon Project athletes.” It’ll be surprising if Nike holds itself accountable. The investigation is Crisis Management 101. That means Cain, the running community, former Oregon Project members and anyone else who cares about female athletes need to keep the pressure on. We can’t be intimidated by the swoosh or distracted by the promise of an investigation. That goes for governing bodies like USA Track & Field, too.

In order to take on the system as well as Nike, the #FixGirlsSports movement needs many leaders to inspire action, to empower female athletes and to model the way.

Consider how Shalane Flanagan reacted. In a tweet, the recently retired, four-time Olympian held herself accountable and apologized to Cain. “I made excuses to myself as to why I should mind my own business,” wrote Flanagan. “We let you down. I will never turn my head again.” 

Now, Flanagan is a coach for the Nike Bowerman Track Club. Calls for change are coming from outside and inside. Count that as a victory for Cain and female athletes.

Shira Springer (saspring@bu.edu) covers stories at the intersection of sports and society for programs on NPR and WBUR, writes a column on women’s sports for the Boston Globe and teaches journalism at Boston University.

Questions about OPED submission guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com

The University of Illinois recently immortalized 76-year-old Dick Butkus by dedicating a 12-foot statue of his likeness at its new Smith athletic center.

The 1,000-pound sculpted piece features Butkus in his famous No. 50, the since-retired collegiate jersey he wore when he earned All-America honors as a center and linebacker and led the Fighting Illini to a Rose Bowl championship in 1964. Earlier that decade, the school had endured a 15-game losing streak.

The crowd of several thousand braved blustery October weather to witness the statue unveiling. Sculptor George Lundeen struggled to contain a blue and orange shroud as remarks were delivered by Illinois Athletic Director Josh Whitman and Chicago businessman Matt Joyce.

First the statue’s hand appeared. Then an arm. Eventually, the entire shroud gave way, giving onlookers the sense that Superman was shedding his cape. There it was, a daunting bronze on a five-foot pedestal. It was as if Butkus again was flying over blockers to hunt down the ball carrier. 

Butkus’ remarks were characteristic of his humble southside Chicago upbringing. He transformed the dedication into a recognition of others. He honored his teammates at Illinois, Chicago Vocational High School, and the Chicago Bears, many who were in attendance. He noted two past winners of the Butkus Award — which annually honors the nation’s top linebackers — in Erick Anderson of Michigan and Trev Alberts of Nebraska, both of whom paused their intensive fall schedules to witness the unveiling of the statue.

The University of Illinois honored Dick Butkus with an on-campus bronze statue of the linebacker in action.
Photo: butkus foundation

Butkus paid special tribute to former Illinois coach Bill Taylor, who won the recruiting battle by assuring that Dick and his high school sweetheart eventually would have married living quarters. Butkus’ fondness for coach Taylor ran so deep that Taylor was named godfather for Butkus’ daughter, Nikki.

Butkus introduced his children and grandchildren, then his steadfast wife of 56 years, Helen. He interrupted closing remarks to recognize older brothers Donnie and Ronnie, the two perhaps most responsible for cultivating his spirit of toughness.

It was never about himself. It was about performing his best for the team. For coaches. Family. Fans. Community. Butkus created a vortex of continuous improvement, attacking ferociously to make every play, striving to do better with each snap, and to motivate others.

A reporter asked about his reaction to the statue. “It’s humbling, really. I came here to play my best for the team and had a blast. I just loved knocking the shit out of people.”

Did he ever. 

He transferred that warrior-like spirit to the Chicago Bears. Despite playing nine seasons and never reaching the playoffs, Butkus played like his life depended on it, until his battered knees would take no more. 

When a zealous parent once asked Butkus how her scrawny son could get to the pros he said, “Train hard, eat well, and play with attitude.” He then added, “Help him figure out what he likes second best. That day eventually comes for all of us.”

For Butkus, second best was a career in business and entertainment, and now philanthropy.

He calls it “payback time.”

A “Butkus Takes Heart” program envisions a day when every NFL city has affordable or free heart screening clinics to help adults take care of their cardiovascular wellness. His own brush with mortality came in 2001, when a random screening led to a five-way bypass. The clinic that diagnosed his condition now bears his name and operates as a pilot program. He can’t bear to remain silent when 600,000 adults will have their first cardiac event this year, about half fatal.

He and son Matt were moved to launch an “I Play Clean” program when learning of the health consequences of performance-enhancing drug use among teenage boys and girls. He considered it a responsibility of pre-steroid-era athletes like him to speak up.

The Butkus Award doesn’t just honor the best linebackers at the high school, college and professional levels. It requires honorees to play clean and to uphold the time-honored American tradition of giving back.

Butkus started a Chicago Youth Sports Legacy program, with help from the Bears, Blackhawks and Illini, to recognize the tireless life-shaping work of Chicago area youth sports coaches and volunteers.

He expects charitable events to have a table or foursome reserved for returning military service personnel or first responders. He considers it a small expression of gratitude for those who put their lives on the line.

This is the man behind the statue.

Sure, the statue in Champaign pays tribute to a man who changed the game of football. But he would prefer it remind everyone what can happen when we commit to teamwork with intense determination and an undying commitment to giving back.

Ron Arp is president of the Butkus Foundation, a nonprofit that advances health and wellness projects important to Dick Butkus.

Questions about OPED guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com