Aug 28, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

πŸ‘‹ Good morning. Let's sports.

Today's word count: 1,850 words (7 minutes).

1 big thing: πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡Έ The NBA wades into politics

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Amid a national reckoning on race that has consumed the sports world, NBA players are poised to shape the conversation β€” and perhaps even influence the upcoming election.

The state of play: The NBA bubble has been politicized from the start, with social justice messages everywhere. But the Bucks' strike on Wednesday set a new bar and made the NBA a leader in a movement it had previously only participated in.

  • President Trump responded on Thursday, saying the NBA has "become more like a political organization."
  • "They've put a lot of slogans out, but I think what we need to do is turn that [into] actual action," added Jared Kushner.

Driving the news: LeBron James has already taken action by heading up More Than A Vote, an athlete-led group devoted to fighting voter suppression in Black electoral districts and turning stadiums into polling sites for Election Day.

  • The non-profit organization, which is made up of Black athletes from the NBA and other leagues, just launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to address poll worker shortages.
  • Since voting site volunteers are typically older, there's concern about them staying home this year due to COVID-19 risks, so election officials are grateful for the spotlight athletes are bringing to the issue.
  • "This is the ballgame," Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson told NYT. "This is not just an important partnership. This is critical."

The big picture: While their Black activist predecessors acted alone or in small groups, today's NBA players have strength in numbers.

  • When Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, he couldn't stay in the same hotels or eat at the same restaurants as his teammates.
  • When the Bucks went on strike, they were inside a different kind of bubble β€” one that has brought players closer together and unified the league.
"In a college campus-like environment they've studied history, discussed politics and watched the news β€” doing all this as a group, undistracted by travel and personal lives to an extent that would not have been possible outside the bubble as illness, violence and chaos have swirled outside."
β€” Jonathan Eig, WashPost

The bottom line: As a new generation of athletes gets more involved politically, the role of sports changes. This comes at a cost, and NBA writers have already suggested that it's hurting viewership.

🎧 Listen: WNBA's Renee Montgomery on More Than A Vote (Axios Re:Cap)

2. πŸ€ Basketball leads the way

The NBA and WNBA have frequently taken the lead on athlete activism and social issues, including the Black Lives Matter movement.

Why it matters: This is at least partly due to their racial make-up β€” and not just at the player level. Both leagues received A+ scores for racial hiring in 2019, per The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport.

Full reports:

3. ⏸ Sports on pause

The sports walk-out continued through Thursday, with even more leagues joining the historic strike, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
  • πŸ€ NBA: All three playoff games were postponed for the second straight day, but players met and voted to resume the season by this weekend, likely on Saturday.
Screenshot: @Titans (Twitter)
  • 🏈 NFL: The Titans and eight other teams (Bears, Broncos, Cardinals, Chargers, Colts, Jets, Packers, Washington) canceled practice, and the Giants are considering sitting out a game.
  • ⚾️ MLB: Seven games were postponed as players opted again to sit out: Nationals vs. Phillies, Rangers vs. A's, Tigers vs. Twins, Red Sox vs. Blue Jays, Diamondbacks vs. Rockies, Orioles vs. Rays and Mets vs. Marlins.
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
  • πŸ’ NHL: After playing on Wednesday, the NHL postponed Thursday and Friday's playoff games, but plans to resume Saturday.
  • 🎾 Tennis: The Western & Southern Open paused all matches following Naomi Osaka's decision to sit out her semifinal match. Play resumes today, with Osaka facing off against Elise Mertens.
4. ▢️ Sports in action
Cameron Champ lines up a putt. Photo: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

⛳️ Golf: The opening round of the BMW Championship was held outside Chicago. After 18 holes, just three players are under par: Hideki Matsuyama (-3), Tyler Duncan (-2) and Mackenzie Hughes (-1).

  • Cameron Champ, one of four Black golfers on tour and one of just two left in the FedEx Cup Playoffs (Tiger Woods), wore one white and one black shoe on Thursday, with "Black Lives Matter" and "Jacob Blake BLM" scribbled on them.
  • Woods said he never considered not playing on Thursday, while Champ said he thought about possibly sitting out.
"I definitely thought about [not playing], but obviously I feel like I can do a lot more playing ... showing my support and expressing myself."
β€” Champ
Manny Machado celebrates one of his three home runs on the day. Photo: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

⚾️ MLB: Seven games were postponed, but the four doubleheaders weren't. The Dodgers swept the Giants, the Pirates swept the Cardinals, the Reds swept the Brewers, and the Padres and Mariners split their two games.

  • MVP: Padres 3B Manny Machado went 4-8 with three HR.
Joe Burrow and A.J. Green during Bengals practice. Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

🏈 NFL: While nine teams canceled practice, the rest took the field. Some teams, like the Ravens, released official statements demanding change, while players across the league shared their thoughts on social media.

"How can you hear the pain Black people are going through and dismiss it as nothing. How can you hear the pain and respond with anything other than 'I stand with you.'"
β€” Joe Burrow
5. ⚾️ Robinson tribute overshadowed by Mets drama
Screenshot: @SlangsOnSports (Twitter)

The Mets and Marlins did not play their game on Thursday night, but this was no ordinary postponement, Jeff writes.

  • After Miami's leadoff hitter Lewis Brinson stepped to the plate, both teams left their dugouts, removed their hats and observed a 42-second moment of silence to honor Jackie Robinson.
  • They then walked off the field together, but not before leaving a Black Lives Matter shirt on home plate.

The backdrop: While players delivered a message of solidarity on the field, the Mets front office managed to turn the night into one that was very, well, Mets.

  • GM Brodie Van Wagenen was caught on video criticizing MLB commissioner Rob Manfred for suggesting that players stage a one-hour walkout instead of not playing. "At a leadership level he doesn't get it. He just doesn't get it," he said of Manfred.
  • Van Wagenen later apologized, saying it was actually Mets COO Jeff Wilpon, son of owner Fred Wilpon, who proposed the walkout idea.
  • As one might expect, this angered the Wilpons, who released a statement chastising Van Wagenen.
"To clear up any misunderstandings, it was my suggestion to potentially look into playing the game later because of scheduling issues. Brody's misunderstanding of a private conversation was and is inexcusable."
β€” Jeff Wilpon, Mets COO

What's next: Today is Jackie Robinson Day (typically held on April 15). It's largely ceremonial, with players wearing No. 42 to celebrate Robinson's legacy, but this year it has the chance to be more than that.

  • The Players Alliance, a group of 124 current and former Black MLB players, said its members will donate their paychecks from Thursday's and Friday's games to support efforts to combat racial inequality in Robinson's honor.
6. Aug. 28, 1963: πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡Έ The March on Washington
Jackie Robinson and his son at the March on Washington. Photo: Rowland Scherman/Getty Images

Speaking of Robinson, 57 years ago today, he attended the March on Washington with his son, David, and stood alongside Martin Luther King Jr. at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

"People used to tell me a lot of things about Dr. King, that he was trying to take over the world, that he was making money on the civil rights issues. ... I wondered why people would stoop to talk about him. Then I realized that the world has always talked against great men. The best way to keep from getting talked about is to do nothing."
β€” Robinson, in 1962
Bill Russell (left) at the March on Washington. Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Celtics legend Bill Russell was also in the crowd. He'd met King in the lobby of his hotel earlier that day and been invited to stand on stage during the event, but he respectfully declined.

  • "They had put years of work together to create this situation," Russell said in 2013. "I did not think it would be proper for me to show up and jump on stage."
  • Russell kindly asked for a seat in the front row and was just feet away from King when he delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.
Protestors at the March on Washington. Photo: Library of Congress/Interim Archives/Getty Images
"We demand an end to police brutality NOW!"

Go deeper: Bill Russell led an NBA boycott in 1961. Now he's saluting others for "getting in good trouble." (WashPost)

7. πŸ’” RIP, Lute Olson

Lute Olson in 2007. Photo: Dustin Snipes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Lute Olson, the longtime Arizona men's basketball coach who built the Wildcats into a national power, has died at age 85.

  • Following successful stints at Long Beach State and Iowa, Olson arrived at Arizona in 1993 and went 589-187 in 24 seasons β€” leading the Wildcats to 23 consecutive NCAA tournaments, four Final Fours and the 1997 national title.
  • He's one of just 26 coaches in NCAA history to win at least 700 games and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002 and the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.

What they're saying: Many former Wildcats took to social media on Thursday night to praise their beloved coach, who will be remembered as a master motivator who cared for his players and had little interest in fame.

"It's rare that a man is a Hall of Famer and still under appreciated. I'll always feel like you never got the credit you deserved as a leader, family man, grandfather, coach and as a mentor. I love you Coach O."
β€” Richard Jefferson, who played for Olson from 1998-2001
8. The Ocho: 🎬 "Class Action Park"
Courtesy: HBO

"Class Action Park," out now on HBO Max, tells the story of New Jersey's Action Park, which earned a reputation during its 1980s heyday as the most insane β€” and dangerous β€” amusement park ever created.

  • The backdrop: The 1980s were the last decade of unsupervised fun for kids, and Action Park was a product of its time. It was like an '80s movie β€” an era of latchkey kids going on adventures, far from the eyes of attentive parents.
  • The founder: Gene Mulvihill was a brash real estate developer with crazy ideas and little regard for rules. In fact, Action Park was insured by a fake company he created. Mulvihill was friends with Donald Trump, and "they're very similar personalities," co-director Seth Porges told Vanity Fair.

Synopsis: "Class Action Park" entertains with stories about bone-breaking water slides and misbehaving teen employees, while also exploring a darker story β€” one involving injuries, deaths and crimes committed to avoid legal repercussions.

"Amusement parks often embody their creators. Walt Disney looked at the world and wanted it to resemble turn-of-the-century America with a hint of fantasy. Thus, you have Disneyland. Gene Mulvihill had a vision of a place with no rules β€” something between Ayn Rand and 'Lord of the Flies.'"
β€” Film narrator


9. ⚾️ MLB trivia

Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Mookie Betts decided to play on Thursday after conversations with teammates and Players Alliance members, and in the first game of the Dodgers' doubleheader, he recorded his 1,000 career hit.

  • Question: Only three active players have reached 1,000 hits faster than Betts. Who are they?
  • Hint: They all have a "u" in their last name.

Answer at the bottom.

10. πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡Έ "Two visions. Two Americas."
Courtesy: The New York Times

Kurt Streeter, a former world-ranked ATP tennis player and ESPN The Magazine writer, debuts as "Sports of the Times" columnist for NYT:

"Never before has the world of sports spoken so emphatically. The timing was unmistakably significant. The athlete walkouts were set starkly against a frightened Trumpian vision presented at the Republican National Convention.
"We watched this week as two Americas clashed in front of us, separated by generations and by oceans-apart views of race, justice and what it means to be a patriot."

Keep reading.

Kendall Baker

Enjoy the weekend,

Kendall "RIP, Midnight Lute" Baker

Trivia answer: Jose Altuve, Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun