Axios Sports

A large foam finger.

June 29, 2022

👋 Good morning! The first iPhone was released 15 years ago today, which feels like yesterday but also forever ago.

Today's word count: 1,800 words (7 minutes).

Let's sports...

1 big thing: 🏈 The NFL's foray into Africa

Illustration of a football helmet with the continent of Africa on it

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The NFL hosted 49 athletes last week in Ghana at its inaugural Africa Camp, the league's first foray into a continent that represents a major growth opportunity, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

Why it matters: Africa has 1.4 billion people but is still a largely untapped resource for the NFL. The league boasts over 100 current players of African descent, but nearly all were born in the U.S.

Details: NFL Africa Camp featured players aged 16–22 who were hand-picked from regional camps hosted earlier this year. The best of them, most of whom learned football on YouTube, will join the NFL's international pipeline.

  • Teenagers (16–19) may join the NFL Academy in London, which launched in 2019 to teach and train players with a goal of securing college scholarships.
  • Older athletes (under 24) may join the International Player Pathway Program, which helps them prepare for an NFL pro day. Eagles OT Jordan Mailata, who last year signed a $64 million contract, was in the inaugural 2017 program.

The backdrop: Last year, former Giants star Osi Umenyiora — born in London to Nigerian parents — launched a program in Nigeria called The Uprise to teach youngsters football and possibly make a career of it. Three have already signed with NFL teams.

The big picture: The NFL is hoping to emulate the NBA's success in Africa, where it has built a youth academy and co-operates a 12-team pro league.

  • NBA Africa is already valued at nearly $1 billion, and the pipeline has produced gems like Joel Embiid and Pascal Siakam, both from Cameroon. 20 players with ties to Africa have been drafted since 2020.
  • Yes, but: Basketball is a much more global sport than American football, so it could take longer for the NFL to see similar results — if it sees them at all.

Zoom out: The NFL's Africa efforts are part of a larger strategy to expand the league's global presence.

🎥 Watch: How Osi Umenyiora gives NFL opportunities to Nigerian athletes (YouTube)

2. ⚽️ CTE discovered in ex-MLS player

Scott Vermillion

Scott Vermillion in action for the Kansas City Wizards in 1999. Photo: Matthew Ashton/Empics via Getty Images

Former MLS player Scott Vermillion, who died in 2020 at age 44 of alcohol and prescription drug poisoning, was posthumously diagnosed with CTE, Jeff writes.

Why it matters: He's the first American professional soccer player with a public case of CTE, a disease far more common — at least publicly — in former football players.

The backdrop: Vermillion, a high school and college All-American from Kansas, played in MLS from 1998 to 2001 before retiring due to an ankle injury. In the decade before his death, he struggled with substance abuse and increasingly erratic behavior.

  • "When I met Scott, he was a vibrant, outgoing pro athlete, super fun," Cami Jones, Vermillion's ex-wife and mother of his two children, told NYT. "I watched him change really rapidly, and it was scary."
  • "Soccer is clearly a risk for CTE — not as much as football, but clearly a risk," said Ann McKee, the director of Boston University's CTE Center, which provided Vermillion's diagnosis.

State of play: This news will surely lead to more scrutiny and head injury prevention efforts in soccer, but it's not as if the sport has been blind to the issue: in 2015, U.S. Soccer banned headers for players under 11; in 2020, the FA implemented a similar ban.

  • Last year, leagues around the world experimented with additional "concussion substitutes" for players with potential brain injuries.
  • On Tuesday, the MLSPA called on the league to adopt the rule fully going forward in response to the Vermillion news.

The big picture: CTE entered the public consciousness around 2002, when Bennet Omalu identified it in the brain of deceased NFL player Mike Webster.

3. 🏀 Pop's coaching tree grows

Pop and Will Hardy

Will Hardy and Gregg Popovich during a USA Baskebtall practice in 2021. Photo: Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Jazz and Will Hardy have agreed on a five-year deal that will make the former Celtics assistant the team's next head coach, ESPN reports.

The backdrop: Hardy, 34, will be the youngest active head coach in the NBA. He began his career as a video coordinator for the Spurs before being promoted to an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich.

The big picture: Eight of 30 current NBA coaches (27%) worked or played under Popovich in San Antonio. And six of them have coached in at least one NBA Finals.

  • Steve Kerr (Warriors)
  • Ime Udoka (Celtics)
  • Mike Budenholzer (Bucks)
  • Monty Williams (Suns)
  • Taylor Jenkins (Grizzlies)
  • Doc Rivers (76ers)
  • Mike Brown (Kings)
  • Hardy (Jazz)

4. ⚡️ Lightning round

illustration of a tv

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

🏈 No divisions: The ACC will scrap football divisions starting in 2023. Each team will have three annual "primary" opponents and rotate the rest. The title game will feature the top two teams by win percentage.

🎾 COVID at Wimbledon: 2021 Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini and 2017 finalist Marin Čilić have both withdrawn from this year's event after testing positive for COVID-19.

⚽️ World Cup tix: Organizers have sold 1.8 million tickets for this year's World Cup in Qatar, FIFA said this morning ahead of the next round of ticket sales that opens on July 5.

🎓 Quote du jour: The Big 12 is expected to hire Roc Nation COO Brett Yormark as its next commissioner — the latest Power 5 conference to choose an unconventional "outsider" to lead it into the future.

"Nothing makes me think Iowa State more than Brett Yormark! He is the definition of NYC. Either it's a grand slam or a huge failure."
— Anonymous industry insider, via SI

5. 🏆 2022 ESPYS: Here are your nominees

Illustration of a noisemaker opening with 2022 popping up from inside it

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The 2022 ESPY Award nominees were unveiled on Tuesday ahead of the star-studded celebration on July 20, hosted by Steph Curry.

  • Best male athlete: Curry, the 2015 winner, is joined by four-time nominee Aaron Rodgers, 2021 nominee Connor McDavid and first-time challenger Shohei Ohtani.
  • Best female athlete: 2008 winner Candace Parker and multi-time ESPY nominee Katie Ledecky are joined by newcomers Sunisa Lee and Oksana Masters.

More nominees (full list):

  • Breakthrough athlete: Trinity Rodman (Spirit), Eileen Gu (Team China), Jonathan Taylor (Colts), Ja Morant (Grizzlies)
  • Comeback athlete: Klay Thompson (Warriors), Trey Mancini (Orioles), Diamond DeShields (Mercury), Joe Burrow (Bengals)
  • Best male athlete, college: Bryce Young (Alabama football), Dante Polvara (Georgetown soccer), Chet Holmgren (Gonzaga basketball), Logan Wisnauskas (Maryland lacrosse)
  • Best female athlete, college: Aliyah Boston (South Carolina basketball), Jocelyn Alo (Oklahoma softball), Jaelin Howell (FSU soccer), Charlotte North (Boston College lacrosse)
  • Best team: Warriors, Braves, Rams, Avalanche, Sky, Oklahoma softball, Georgia football
  • Best championship performance: Cooper Kupp (Super Bowl LVI), Julianna Peña (UFC 269), Max Verstappen (Abu Dhabi GP), Cale Makar (Stanley Cup Final)
  • Best play: Megan Rapinoe's corner kick goal, Justin Tucker 66-yard FG, Morant's poster, Hansel Enmanuel's windmill
  • Best game: Chiefs over Bills (AFC playoffs), Kansas over UNC (men's basketball title game), Alabama over Auburn (Iron Bowl), UConn over NC State (women's basketball Elite Eight)

❤️ Always worth a watch ... Jimmy V's 1993 ESPY speech (YouTube)

6. 🌎 The world in photos

Serena Williams
Photo: Frey/TPN/Getty Images

LONDON — Serena Williams lost in her highly-anticipated return, falling to world No. 115 Harmony Tan in a three-hour battle at Wimbledon. "That's a question I can't answer," she said when asked about her future.

Carson Pickett
Photo: Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

SANDY, Utah — Carson Pickett started for the USWNT in Tuesday's 2-1 win over Colombia, becoming the first player with a limb difference to appear in a game for the USWNT.

  • The backdrop: The former Florida State standout and current North Carolina Courage defender was born without part of her left arm.
Offroad car racing
Action shot during the FIA World Rally Championship in Kenya. Photo: Massimo Bettiol/Getty Images

NAIVASHA, Kenya — There's dust in my eyes just from looking at this photo.

7. 📺 Watchlist: Wilson vs. Stewart

A'ja Wilson

A'ja Wilson and the Aces beat Breanna Stewart (No. 30) and the Storm in their first meeting last month. Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The Storm host the Aces tonight (10pm ET, Prime) in a clash of the top two teams in the West — and the top two MVP favorites.

  • Breanna Stewart (Storm): The 2018 MVP leads the WNBA in points (22.0), ranks second in steals (1.9) and ranks ninth in rebounds (7.6).
  • A'ja Wilson (Aces): The 2020 MVP leads the WNBA in rebounds (9.9), ranks second in blocks (2.4) and ranks sixth in points (18.7).

More to watch:

  • 🎾 Wimbledon: Day 3 (now, ESPN) ... Second-round matches include No. 1 Novak Djokovic, No. 5 Carlos Alcaraz, No. 2 Anett Kontaveit, No. 3 Ons Jabeur and more.
  • ⚽️ MLS: LAFC vs. FC Dallas (10:30pm, FS1) ... First vs. fourth place in the West.
  • ⚾️ MLB: Astros at Mets (1pm, MLB); Braves at Phillies (7pm, MLB)
  • ⚽️ U.S. Open Cup: Orlando City vs. Nashville SC (7pm, ESPN+) ... Quarterfinals of America's version of the FA Cup, featuring teams from all levels of U.S. soccer.

8. 🥷 The Ocho: Ninja Olympics

American Ninja Warrior

An "American Ninja Warrior" competitor. Photo: Quantrell Colbert/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Ninja Warrior could become an Olympic sport.

Driving the news: Japanese TV network TBS, creator of the original "Ninja Warrior" reality competition, says the show's signature obstacle course will be tested for possible inclusion in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

  • The initial introduction of Ninja Warrior — officially dubbed "obstacle racing" — would be as the fifth event of the modern pentathlon, an Olympic staple since 1912.
  • It would replace equestrian and join fencing, swimming, shooting and running to better represent a modern well-rounded athlete.

Details: Just like the popular TV show, "obstacle course" competitors will race through a series of strength and agility-based obstacles. Four will be showcased during the Pentathlon World Championships in August:

  • Wall Flip: Lift three plexiglass walls before scaling each of them.
  • Parallel Pipes: Swing from rings, land on a horizontal pipe, then jump to subsequent horizontal pipes.
  • Wind Chimes: Move between a series of vertical pipes to cross a large gap.
  • Tire Swing: Scale a pole before navigating a series of moving tires.

The big picture: The IOC is on a mission to attract younger fans with new events. Skateboarding just debuted, competitive breakdancing is coming in 2024 and now Ninja Warrior is in the mix.

Looking ahead: If "obstacle racing" joins the modern pentathlon and proves popular, the IOC could eventually make it an individual sport, thereby creating the coolest medal ever: Ninja Gold.

9. 🏀 NBA trivia

Russell Westbrook

Photo: Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

Russell Westbrook, who will exercise his $47.1 million option and return to the Lakers, ranks sixth in career on-court earnings ($288.6 million).

  • Question: Who are the five players ahead of him?
  • Hint: Three are active.

Answer at the bottom.

10. 💵 1 huge parlay: Rams, Warriors, Avs

Illustration of the football, money tongue, and basketball emojis

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

A BetMGM bettor placed a free $500 promotional wager on the Rams to win the Super Bowl, the Warriors to win the NBA Finals and the Avalanche to win the Stanley Cup. It hit.

  • Odds: +53,8000
  • Payout: $269,000

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "Serena will be back" Baker

Trivia answer: LeBron James ($387.4 million), Kevin Garnett ($334.4 million), Chris Paul ($330.7 million), Kobe Bryant ($323.3 million), Kevin Durant ($306.2 million)

🙏 Thanks for reading. Follow us on Twitter: @kendallbaker and @jeffreytracy. Tell your friends to sign up.