A Women’s Hockey World Series

This may be one upside to having two pro leagues if both make it through the next few years. I think that’s probable given there’s no regional competition except in Boston. That’s one key to why this is an opportunity for the game rather than a stretching of resources. Many league championships first evolved as interleague championships. If the year culminated in a game or short series between the winners of the two leagues, it would be an opportunity to draw further attention as well as see some great hockey.

Concussions Suck

Amanda Kessel will not finish her career at UMN.

Given the advances in concussion science there is no doubt at all that this is the right decision. The current understanding is that after even a mild head injury the brain should be used as little as possible (cue Scott Walker joke) to give it time to recover. If you aren’t supposed to read, which seems like the worst thing in the world to me, you sure as hell shouldn’t be playing a contact sport. Post-concussion syndrome can include memory, balance, and attention problems as well as lingering pain. We all also know what the long-term effects of more than one concussion can be. No one should be asked to develop Alzheimer’s-like symptoms and/or depression in their forties for playing a game. [Edit: yes, Kessel could return to the national team or the pros after a few years off, but I have posted about this in the past, noting it isn’t a good idea to take any kind of risk with head trauma].

Also problematic: the officiating and the rules around body contact in women’s hockey. They are too ambiguous and they are not applied consistently. This is going to keep happening until that gets addressed.

There is a real argument to be made that Kessel was the best player in the world from 2012-2014, that phrase being on my mind because I saw it used to describe Poulin a few minutes ago. This story illustrates the cruel differences between a history of injury such as Poulin’s, which can be recovered from, and head injury. Kessel was certainly the most dynamic and exciting college player of recent years. She was also unusually visible to the wider culture, for good and ill, due to her connections with the NHL. This is a huge hit to the sport, but again absolutely the right call. I wish Amanda a full recovery, and the best of luck in whatever her future holds.

Let’s Hear It For The Japanese Women’s Teams

In the immediate aftermath of the World Cup, like literally five minutes later, our opponents basically ceased to exist, be thought of, or mentioned. Part of this was the unfortunate nature of the way the U.S. won the game. But let’s acknowledge that most other teams would have folded immediately after that barrage of bad luck. The Japanese team showed amazing fortitude and resilience. Most teams would have simply folded. They scored two goals (granted, one an own goal) and remained competitive before our fifth broke them completely.

Aside from benefiting from an equally flukey success on the other side of the equation during their semifinal (and that own goal would not have happened had they not been pressing), Japan played a strong tournament that was largely overlooked. They once again presented a creative, dynamic, and organized possession style of soccer. For most of the tournament I was speculating about whether we could get their coaching staff to come work with the USWNT.

It is equally worth noting that Japan has success across the board in women’s sports. While its gender dynamics are different from those in the United States, they are equally patriarchal. Women face hurdles and lack of institutional support, the same as anywhere else, and that includes the Scandinavian countries with their vaunted claims to national feminism. Recall the Japanese men’s soccer team flying business class to the 2012 Olympics while the women, reigning World Cup champions, flew coach. As I understand it, though, there has historically been less resistance to girls participating in sport (correct me if I’m wrong there). Japan’s softball team is consistently among the best in the world, and their individual athletes pop up all the time in various sports. You can also see clearly the team sports where there is a national will to improve. Soccer was one of these. Japan used to have a reputation as an OK team that wasn’t physical enough and didn’t have ideas in the final third. Thanks to the rise of a few key players and the will to build a system, they are now an international powerhouse. Hockey is another. To have a nation lacking a long hockey history or culture be able to compete in the top tier and hold their own is a testament to the way Japan develops and trains its athletes, and the fortitude of these athletes. In all the hoopla over the U.S.’ win, let’s take a moment to remember and honor their opponents, and as hockey fans look forward to seeing their continued improvement.

Some Men *Shouldn’t* Care About Women’s Sports

I’ve just returned from Vancouver, where the U.S. women’s soccer team played sixteen minutes of the kind of soccer you see in dreams. The city was very hot, flooded with forest fire smoke, and full of Americans. American women, mostly (and if I don’t hear “American Woman” misused as a patriotic rather than a misogynistic anthem ever again, it will be too soon). They were on their own or with groups of friends, sometimes they were with partners and children. They were wearing jerseys. So many, many jerseys, every player imaginable. Or T-shirts and hats full of ironic Americana kitsch, just for today meant whole-heartedly. Their faces were awash with red, white, and blue paint. They filled the Starbucks on every corner, the Tim Horton’s, the weird European chains, and the bars. They talked and laughed and screamed and celebrated.

There were also a good number of fathers taking their daughters on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Unfortunately, not many (any?) fathers without daughters seem to think that it’s also important to make sure their sons attend this type of event. It’s of a piece with the obnoxious ‘I didn’t understand/care about feminism until I had a daughter’ nonsense, or the ‘would you treat your mother/sister’ this way rhetoric. Women are not only important because of their family connections to men, a call to tribal loyalties that we can all do without (I’m looking at you, England team Twitter account). Women are people, and the sooner boys understand this and make it a part of their everyday mental architecture the more humanist, let alone feminist, adults they will be. The friends I was with, a lesbian couple, certainly would have taken their son even if they didn’t have a daughter. They rented an Air BnB house for a month and bought a ticket package and invited family and friends to share their North Vancouver bounty. Last week their son and daughter were chatting out in the yard and they overheard “Okay, there can be two Megan Rapinoes.” This is how progress happens, as Garry Trudeau knew way back in the 70s when he wrote his strips about the King/Riggs match and one of the boys in daycare said “when I grow up, I want to be a tennis player just like Billie Jean King” and Joanie shouts “Howie! Breakthrough!”

Perhaps more pieces saying ‘you should also take your sons to women’s sports’ would be helpful. But after cycle upon cycle, I am sick and tired of what does happen in the media whenever there is a major women’s sporting event. There is the hounding recalcitrant media for coverage, which sadly seems to be necessary. But it is accompanied by the ‘Look! Some people actually watch this stuff!’ articles and their concomitant ‘why you should care about women’s soccer/hockey/tennis/existence on earth’ and ‘why this thing you think sucks is actually good.’ One endlessly re-tweeted recent piece told us we should actually care *more* about the women’s soccer team than the men’s team, because it embodies a number of values we Americans hold dear. I find this line of argument dangerous. It won’t always be true, for one thing, and then what happens when the USWNT is not this good/progressive/gay whatever. The *should* word is bothersome in other ways, because while it contains an element of ‘this is fun and cool and you would enjoy it,’ it also tends to appeal to a sense of duty toward their fellow humans/gender equality that many men simply aren’t socialized to have. That these happen to be the men the endless stream of words are aimed at is the problem. We’re shouting into the void, which every so often shouts back with misogynistic swill, and then it starts all over again.

This is not unconnected with the also common ‘now they go back to obscurity’ laments. Where ‘obscurity’ = ‘watched primarily by women.’ Yes, it’s true that 30 million people will not watch the women’s pro soccer league on TV or in the stands, but 30 million people don’t watch any pro sporting event with the possible exception of the NFL (Mariah Burton Nelson once wrote a book called ‘The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football.’ She has a point). It’s also true that of course it would be nice to have more fans at league games. (Although LET US BE CLEAR, THE WUSA DREW A TON OF FANS PROPORTIONALLY. I am so very bored with the conflation of the WUSA, which had great attendance but was financially mismanaged, with WPS, with its attendance struggles. Meanwhile teams like the Boston Breakers have kept chugging along through it all). What this hue and cry has built in is the idea that the extant fan bases aren’t good enough. Queer women and various types of families provide the major viewing base for live women’s sports. They buy tickets, watch on TV, and purchase thousands of dollars worth of merchandise. They are *fans.* They are just as good as any other fans. Athough you wouldn’t know by the WNBA, which took more than a decade to change its policy from ‘Lesbians? Nope, no lesbians here.’ to ‘I guess we’ve got pride now.’ Women’s sports could make the effort to embrace and grow the fanbase it already has, but that would mean not worshipping at the altar of The Man Who Doesn’t Care.

I am *not* saying that we shouldn’t hit back against misogyny in sports fandom and sports coverage, or advocate for more coverage. I am also not saying that making the case for women’s sports to an audience who may be unaware or apathetic, or an audience who already likes the men’s game, isn’t useful. But anyone who in the year 2015 thinks that women’s sports are lesser, that women exist solely to be sexualized, or that women’s role is domestic…not worth the advertising dollar or the column space. Treating a sport as if it isn’t valid until men are won over to its cause, is like those pundits who opine that a politician “doesn’t have a mandate” because the coalition that elected him included only a small percentage of white men. Those are the *real* voters. But just as the Democratic party has realized the demographics will continue to marginalize those votes, so women’s sports needs to come to terms with the fact that this generation has some dumbass men in it. They’ll never be converted. Fuck ’em.

We didn’t need them in Vancouver. We had each other.

The Weekend Ahead: October 10th

This is an early bellwether weekend for a number of mid-range teams. Stats tell us almost nothing until teams start playing programs at around their own level, so there’s little to go on right now.

North Dakota is coming off a loss to Vermont and needs to get a sweep against MSU to look like it can hang at all near the top of the WCHA this season.  It’s disappointing that Bemidji gets the week off given its hot start.  It will be fascinating to see how the Beavers fare against top competition.  Ohio State will find out whether one key piece of recruiting, at goaltender, can spur the rest of its historic underachievers.  Probably not, but I’m curious whether anything can slow the relentless Wisconsin squad, and allowing fewer than four goals per in this series is some kind of moral victory. [I was looking over the USCHO picks and I noticed I completely forget to mention UMN/UMD, which shows what I think of this year’s UMD squad. -Ed.]

Clarkson will not be defending its title this year, but returned more pieces of its championship squad than I think most observers initially realized.  Erica Howe and Rattray had such an outsize influence on the team, as evidenced by the five goals the Golden Knights have already given up in a game this year, but they’re well-matched against Providence.  The Friars also recruited decently and are in their usual recent place in the middle of the pack zone.  They had the bad luck to start the season against Mercyhurst but they hung in, and one out of two against Clarkson would be an excellent result for them.  Either ‘Hurst or Maine will see if their hot defensive starts were an illusion (better luck to the Lakers there).

Can a Robert Morris team that returns basically everyone from last year save itself from second-half collapse?  Conversely, can the second-half phenomenon that was Northeastern play a full year this time?  They will face an RIT squad that is trying to prove it really has successfully made the D-I transition.  Meanwhile the entirety of Hockey East has to contend with the juggernaut that is BC, and SLU will not have the firepower.  At the farthest reaches of the ticket, Saint Cloud State can pick up its lonely points against another team still struggling to prove it belongs in the D-I ranks.

The most inspiring weekend of hockey?  Probably not.  But certainly important for those teams for whom .500 is the key goal.

The Wrong Lesson

Back when I was so foolish as to write about other sports, one of the first stories that caught my attention, in part because I once found myself sitting across the aisle from her at an invitational,* was that of Jamie Carey.

Some of you more dedicated women’s sports nerds may remember this one.  Carey was a point guard at Stanford majoring in one of those ritzy complex systems programs, a combination of computer science and philosophy.  She also had a penchant for taking charges and other scrappy things beloved of coaches.  Unfortunately this caused her to suffer from what we would now term severe post concussion syndrome. She had headaches and dizziness.  She could no longer concentrate or remember well enough to do her mathematical schoolwork, and had to switch majors to something with more writing.**  Certainly there was no chance of playing basketball again.

Over time, however, her acute symptoms faded, although as I recall the cognitive ones didn’t entirely and she had to stay with the other major.  But Stanford refused to clear her to return to the court.  So she transferred to Texas, where (to be fair after extensive testing) they had her pop in a mouthguard and get back into the game.***   Texas was still a top ten women’s program at the time, and Carey helped them to their last major gasp of success before their recent woes.  When I first covered this story, about a decade ago, the sports commentariat was in agreement that it taught us about lawsuit-shy programs that didn’t serve their players’ needs, versus more flexible teams that prospered.

We got it backward.  Based on what we now know about the science of concussions Jamie Carey should never have played a sport with contact again. A mouthguard! For extreme post-concussion symptoms!  Pundits are fond of saying about professional male athletes that they are free to make their own choices.  The fact the players were working with incomplete information fails to come up, although certainly Carey was much more educated than many of her compatriots. She was extremely happy and successful playing at Texas. She even went on to serve as a backup in the WNBA and is now coaching for the U.S. national team.  I have no evidence to suggest she’s suffering from any serious deficits at the moment.  But our current research shows she put herself at risk for longterm damage.  I suspect this was something Stanford guessed at and I have to say I also suspect Texas, which is no slouch in the academic medicine department, did as well. But Texas wanted to win more than it was afraid of being sued if she developed, say, early-onset Alzheimer’s.  Again, I have no information to suggest that will happen in this particular case and I devoutly hope and pray it does not.  Yet ironically Stanford acted in Carey’s best interests even though at the time it was simply protecting itself against future liabilities.

I bring this story up now because of the news that Amanda Kessel is sitting out the year due to concerns about concussive symptoms.  The women’s hockey community is obviously pretty bummed.  However we also understand that this is about protecting Kessel’s longterm health, especially since there is no choice between a lucrative professional career and her cognitive function.  In some odd way female athletes are lucky in this regard.  There’s no money awaiting them to sacrifice their future.  We’d all rather that money was there, but it also makes prioritizing much easier.  The sport suffers without one of its most visible stars.  But if we’ve learned anything from mistakes made by teams and coaches in the past, it’s that the sport isn’t bigger than anyone’s ability to live a full post-sporting life.

*Not that I worked up the courage to actually talk to her, mind you.

**I am the last person to suggest such a major is less rigorous.  It simply emphasizes different skills.

***Fascinatingly, her current Wikipedia page emphasizes that it was an ankle injury rather than the concussions that caused her retirement from basketball at Stanford.  While clearly a big part of the equation, this was not the story that got emphasized during her career with Texas.