Sep 9, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

👋 Good morning! Let's sports.

🎾 Today at the U.S. Open: No fans, but lots of intrigue.

  • Women's quarterfinals: Three moms are in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam for the first time in the Open Era, and all three — Serena Williams, Tsvetana Pironkova and Victoria Azarenka — are in action today.
  • Men's quarterfinals: No. 10 Andrey Rublev vs. No. 3 Daniil Medvedev (1:15pm ET); No. 21 Alex de Minaur vs. No. 2 Dominic Thiem (8:15pm).

Today's word count: 2,078 words (8 minutes)

1 big thing: 🇺🇸 Political football

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

College football has become a key political issue as the 2020 election approaches, and the impending NFL season will only ratchet up the intensity around empty stadiums and player protests.

  • Why it matters: Football is America's most popular sport. And considering 43 of the top 50 most-watched TV broadcasts last year were football games, it's arguably our most popular form of entertainment, period.

Driving the news: Politicians have been leveraging the state of college football for months, and now both parties are looking to tie the Big Ten's decision to postpone the season to their own political narratives.

  • 10 elected officials from six states sent a letter Tuesday to Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, urging the conference to play football this fall. All 10 lawmakers are Republicans.
  • The Biden-Harris campaign has been running ads in Big Ten markets — including the battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan — featuring images of empty football stadiums. "Donald Trump put our nation on the sidelines. Let's get back in the game," Biden tweeted alongside the ad.
  • President Trump spoke last week with Warren about "immediately starting up Big Ten football." The call was set up by sports personality Clay Travis, whose brand is "partly rooted in attacking progressive athletes and accusing ESPN of liberal bias," writes WashPost's Ben Strauss.
  • Worth noting: 69 of the 77 FBS schools playing football this fall (89.6%) reside in states that supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election, per Sportico.

What's next: The NFL season kicks off tomorrow. With players expected to protest during the national anthem, the kneeling debate will rage on — and perhaps become a bigger focal point than ever with the election coming up.

  • Given its more conservative fan base, the NFL could face more backlash than the NBA for its social justice initiatives (helmet decals, on-field messaging, etc) and not "sticking to sports."
  • The majority of football fans (50.5%) identify as Republicans, while the majority of basketball fans (59.7%) identify as Democrats, per FiveThirtyEight.
  • 75% of Democrats and 41% of Republicans believe athletes should feel free to voice their political and cultural opinions, per a June Morning Consult survey.

The bottom line: Empty stadiums speak to the state of the country and player protests say a lot about its soul. Naturally, politicians are going to lean into those hot-button issues over the next two months to try to win votes.

🎧 Listen: The politics of a coronavirus vaccine ("Axios Re:Cap")

2. ⚾️ The shrinking Minor Leagues

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Minor League Baseball, whose season was already canceled due to the pandemic, is staring down a historic contraction once its agreement with MLB expires on Sept. 30, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

Why it matters: Roughly 42 of the 160 affiliated minor league clubs are set to lose affiliate status by the end of the month, drastically changing the future of not only the affected clubs, but the Minor Leagues as a whole.

The backdrop: The past two years of the century-old partnership between MLB and MiLB have been strained, to say the least.

  • In early 2018, MLB lobbied MiLB to help them get a bill passed — the Save America's Pastime Act — that would remove the need to pay minor leaguers minimum wage or overtime.
  • MLB argued this would be a long-term money saver, and that failure to pass the bill would result in contraction, so Minor League owners and local politicians scrambled to help out.
  • The bill passed, but seven months later contraction was announced anyway, leaving some owners feeling betrayed. "We were invited to dinner and found out we were it," Dave Baggott, president of Utah's Ogden Raptors, told ESPN.
  • The latest: Pat O'Conner, who served as MiLB's president since 2007, abruptly announced his retirement on Tuesday, effective Dec. 31. This comes amid rumblings that impending changes would render his role obsolete.

How MiLB works: Each MLB club has about seven affiliates across various talent levels, from rookie ball up to AAA.

  • The parent club pays salaries and buys equipment, while the affiliate pays for travel and other ballpark expenses. Additionally, each affiliate pays its parents club 8% of annual ticket revenue (about $20 million total).

The new proposal would reduce MiLB to 120 affiliates, with each big league club choosing which four affiliates it would like to retain.

  • Contracted teams will basically have three options: join an independent minor league (i.e. Atlantic League), transition to a college summer league (like the famed Cape Cod Baseball League) or simply fold.
  • MLB will also take over merchandising, broadcast and sponsorship rights of the remaining affiliates, splitting revenues 50-50 with the MiLB club.

The big picture: The new Minor Leagues will look a lot more like the NBA's G League, which is owned and operated by the NBA and gives them more control over their talent pipeline.

  • In that sense, MLB's plan fits into what commissioner Ron Manfred has called his "One Baseball" vision since taking office five years ago.
  • Manfred wants to unite the sport from Little League all the way to the Majors. This may just be step one.

The bottom line: The MiLB contraction was coming, pandemic or not, and perhaps it really will be good for the long-term health of baseball. But right now, it's hard to look at this situation and feel anything but sadness.

3. 🏀 Bubble winners: Heat, Lakers, Golden Knights
Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Heat 103, Bucks 94 (MIA wins 4-1): The fifth-seeded Heat finished off an upset of the NBA's best regular-season team, ending a memorable ride for Milwaukee.

  • This is Miami's seventh trip to the conference finals since 2005, tied with the Spurs for most of any team in that time span.
  • This is just the sixth time since the NBA went to the 16-team playoff format in 1984 that the No. 1 seed did not make the East finals.

What's next: Antetokounmpo, who is soon expected to join Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to win MVP and DPOY in the same season, says he's not leaving the Bucks. But he's a free agent in 2021.

  • The Bucks will offer him a supermax contract when eligible later this year that could be worth $220 million (~$80 million more than he could get from another team in free agency).
  • "But Antetokounmpo has made it clear that his priority is winning, and that's something the Bucks haven't been able to ensure," writes ESPN's Tim Bontemps.
  • What to watch: Rival teams believe Milwaukee will explore trading for Chris Paul, per NYT's Marc Stein. The news that Billy Donovan will not return seems to indicate that OKC is going full rebuild, so I could see this happening.
Photo: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Lakers 112, Rockets 102 (LAL leads 2-1): LeBron James scored 36 points, Anthony Davis poured in 26 and Rajon Rondo added 21 as the Lakers rallied to beat the Rockets. The win gave James his NBA-record 162nd postseason victory.

  • 📆 Tonight (ESPN): Raptors (down 3-2) vs. Celtics, 6:40pm ET; Clippers (up 2-1) vs. Nuggets, 9pm
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Golden Knights 3, Stars 0 (Series tied 1-1): Vegas got its revenge after being blanked in Game 1, thanks to a three-goal second period.

  • 📆 Tonight (NBCSN): Lightning (up 1-0) vs. Islanders, 8pm ET
4. 🏈 2020 Fantasy Football rankings
  • 1-10: 1. Patrick Mahomes (KC), 2. Lamar Jackson (BAL), 3. Russell Wilson (SEA), 4. Dak Prescott (DAL), 5. Kyler Murray (ARI), 6. Deshaun Watson (HOU), 7. Matt Ryan (ATL), 8. Tom Brady (TB), 9. Matthew Stafford (DET), 10. Drew Brees (NO)
  • 11-20: 11. Josh Allen (BUF), 12. Aaron Rodgers (GB), 13. Carson Wentz (PHI), 14. Cam Newton (NE), 15. Daniel Jones (NYG), 16. Joe Burrow (CIN), 17. Jared Goff (LAR), 18. Ryan Tannehill (TEN), 19. Ben Roethlisberger (PIT), 20. Baker Mayfield (CLE)
  • 1-10: 1. Christian McCaffrey (CAR), 2. Saquon Barkley (NYG), 3. Dalvin Cook (MIN), 4. Ezekiel Elliott (DAL), 5. Alvin Kamara (NO), 6. Austin Ekeler (LAC), 7. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (KC), 8. Derrick Henry (TEN), 9. Aaron Jones (GB), 10. Josh Jacobs (LV)
  • 11-20: 11. Miles Sanders (PHI), 12. Chris Carson (SEA), 13. Joe Mixon (CIN), 14. Kenyan Drake (ARI), 15. Nick Chubb (CLE), 16. David Johnson (HOU), 17. Todd Gurley (ATL), 18. Melvin Gordon (DEN), 19. Devin Singletary (BUF), 20. David Montgomery (CHI)
  • 1-10: 1. Michael Thomas (NO), 2. Tyreek Hill (KC), 3. Julio Jones (ATL), 4. Davante Adams (GB), 5. DeAndre Hopkins (ARI), 6. Kenny Golladay (DET), 7. Chris Godwin (TB), 8. Mike Evans (TB), 9. D.J. Moore (CAR), 10. Allen Robinson (CHI)
  • 11-20: 11. Adam Thielen (MIN), 12. Courtland Sutton (DEN), 13. A.J. Brown (TEN), 14. Amari Cooper (DAL), 15. JuJu Smith-Schuster (PIT), 16. Cooper Kupp (LAR), 17. DaVante Parker (MIA), 18. Keenan Allen (LAC), 19. Tyler Lockett (SEA), 20. Odell Beckham Jr. (CLE)
  • 1-10: 1. Travis Kelce (KC), 2. George Kittle (SF), 3. Mark Andrews (BAL), 4. Darren Waller (LV), 5. Zach Ertz (PHI), 6. Evan Engram (NYG), 7. Tyler Higbee (LAR), 8. Hayden Hurst (BAL), 9. Hunter Henry (LAC), 10. Rob Gronkowski (TB)
  • 11-20: 11. Mike Gesicki (MIA), 12. Noah Fant (DEN), 13. Austin Hooper (ATL), 14. Jared Cook (NO), 15. T.J. Hockenson (DET), 16. Jack Doyle (IND), 17. Jonnu Smith (TEN), 18. Dallas Goedert (PHI), 19. Chris Herndon (NYJ), 20. Blake Jarwin (DAL)


  • K: 1. Harrison Butker (KC), 2. Justin Tucker (BAL), 3. Will Lutz (NO), 4. Robbie Gould (SF), 6. Matt Prater (DET), 7. Greg Zuerlein (DAL), 8. Jake Elliott (PHI), 8. Chris Boswell (PIT), 9. Zane Gonzalez (ARI), 10. Ka'imi Fairbairn (HOU)
  • D/ST: 1. 49ers, 2. Steelers, 3. Ravens, 4. Bills, 5. Patriots, 6. Saints, 7. Chiefs, 8. Bears, 9. Eagles, 10. Titans
5. 🥇 Semenya loses appeal over testosterone rule

Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Two-time Olympic champion Caster Semenya has lost what is likely her final appeal to defend her 800-meter title at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

  • Due to a rare genetic condition, Semenya has testosterone levels within the male range. She identifies as a woman and races as a woman.
  • But World Athletics, track's governing body, believes this gives Semenya a competitive advantage, and passed regulations in 2018 that would require the 29-year-old South African to take testosterone-reducing drugs or undergo surgery in order to compete.

The backdrop: In 2019, the Swiss-based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled 2-1 in favor of World Athletics' restrictions, saying they were "discriminatory, but that ... such discrimination is necessary." Semenya appealed to the Swiss Supreme Court, which dismissed her case on Tuesday.

"I am very disappointed by this ruling, but refuse to let World Athletics drug me or stop me from being who I am."
— Semenya

The big picture: "For years, World Athletics has struggled to create rules that maintain a level playing field ... without impinging on the human rights of intersex people, who account for roughly one in every 2,000 births," writes NYT's Geneva Abdul.

  • Uganda's Annet Negesa underwent surgery in 2012 to lower her testosterone levels and allow her to compete in the London Olympics. She never returned to the sport and has suffered from depression ever since.
6. 📊 By the numbers
Photo: Al Bello/Getty Images

🎾 10 straight sets: American Jennifer Brady has yet to lose a set at the U.S. Open and will make her first Grand Slam semifinal appearance tomorrow against Naomi Osaka.

Photo: David Lidstrom/Getty Images

⚽️ 100 goals: Cristiano Ronaldo scored both goals in Portugal's 2-0 win over Sweden on Tuesday, joining Iran's Ali Daei as the only male players to score 100 international goals. Here are the best five of his career.

Courtesy: NBPA

🏀 20 kids: The NBPA's "Bubble School" held its first day of class for the roughly 20 players' children on campus, with an official calling it "probably the safest classroom in the country right now." Go deeper.

7. Sept. 9, 1972: 🏀 Soviet Union 51, USA 50
USA players show their frustration. Photo: Rich Clarkson/Getty Images

48 years ago today, the Soviet Union beat the U.S., 51-50, in the gold medal game of the 1972 Munich Olympics — winning on a play that remains one of the most controversial in Olympic history.

  • The backdrop: The U.S. had utterly dominated the Olympics up to that point, going 63-0 and winning all seven gold medals awarded from 1936 to 1968. That success continued in 1972, with an 8-0 record heading into the Finals.

What happened: Future NBA coach Doug Collins made two free throws with three seconds left to give the U.S. a 50-49 lead. Then all hell broke loose.

  • Through a combination of timeout shenanigans, scorer table mismanagement and possibly a bit of good old fashioned match fixing, the Soviets were given three separate chances to inbound the ball.
  • The first two failed, but on the third they threw a court-length pass that resulted in a game-winning layup.
The Soviets celebrate winning the gold medal game. Photo: Rich Clarkson/Getty Images

The aftermath: The Americans protested the game, but the appeal was denied in a 3-2 ruling, with all three dissenting votes coming from Eastern Bloc nations.

  • The U.S. never acknowledged the outcome, skipping the medal ceremony and refusing their silver medals, which remain unclaimed in an Olympic Museum store room in Switzerland.

Go deeper:

8. The Ocho: 🏔 Furniture racing

Ski lift at Whitefish Mountain Resort. Photo: Elizabeth W. Kearley/Getty Images

At the end of the ski season each year, Whitefish Mountain in Whitefish, Montana, hosts a furniture race where people strap skis to furniture (or anything else they can sit on) and take to the slopes.

Please enjoy.

9. 🏈 NFL trivia

Photo: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

DeAndre Hopkins signed a two-year, $54.5 million extension with the Cardinals (which he negotiated himself), making him the highest-paid non-QB ever.

  • Question: Hopkins is one of just three players with 90 receptions and 1,000 receiving yards in each of the past three seasons. Who are the other two?
  • Hint: One AFC, one NFC.

Answer at the bottom.

10. ❤️ Why we love sports

Christian Laettner (L) and Grant Hill high-five after winning the 1991 national championship. Photo: Focus on Sport via Getty Images

Phil (Columbus, Ohio) writes:

"I was married in March 1991 in Texas, and my new bride and I went to San Antonio for a quick weekend honeymoon. March Madness was in full insanity, but with the wedding, I had lost track of my beloved Duke Blue Devils' journey through the bracket.
"On Saturday, we prepared for a night on the town to celebrate. Turning on the TV, my now wife said, 'Hey, Duke's playing UNLV tonight in the semifinals. You should watch.'
"UNLV was undefeated and had thrashed Duke by 30 points in the previous year's tournament. Consensus was UNLV might be the best college teams of all time, and the repeat trophy was just a formality. At this point, Duke had never won a natty, and some questioned whether Coach K would ever win The Big One.
"'No way!' I said. 'I'm taking my wife out to dinner on our honeymoon.' But she prevailed, and we sat on the hotel room bed and watched a brilliant game. Duke won and then beat Kansas in the national championship, their first of two straight titles.
"That night I learned to listen to my wife closely, and that I married exactly the right woman. We attended Duke's 2005 and 2010 championships in Indianapolis, and every March Madness is a reminder of our 30+ years together."

✍️ Submit your story: Do you have a fondest sports memory? Or a story about sports having a positive impact on your life? To share, simply reply to this email.

Kendall Baker

Talk tomorrow,

Kendall "NFL season preview coming tomorrow" Baker

Trivia answer: Michael Thomas (Saints) and Keenan Allen (Chargers)