Activists have spent decades pressuring professional sports leagues, college programs and high schools to abandon Native American names and imagery for their teams.
The first domino fell in 1970, when the University of Oklahoma retired its mascot, a Native American named “Little Red.” Over the ensuing years, Division I schools like Stanford, Dartmouth and Syracuse — and thousands of high schools — dropped their mascots or changed their names.
But the biggest lightning rod was always Washington’s N.F.L. team, the “Redskins.” Its owner has been recalcitrant about changing the name of one of football’s oldest and most valuable franchises, and its name does not just appropriate Native American imagery, as do the N.F.L.’s Kansas City Chiefs or N.H.L.’s Chicago Blackhawks, but is considered by many to be a slur itself.
On Monday, those at the forefront of the fight finally won. The Washington team announced that it would soon drop its 87-year-old name and its logo, for a yet-to-be revealed new name, becoming the oldest N.F.L. team name to ever be retired.
“This is part of a much larger movement going on that Indigenous peoples are situated in, and it is a long time coming,” said Carla Fredericks, the director of First Peoples Worldwide and a longtime advocate against Native American mascots. “I think that for anyone that is associated with the movement for racial justice this is a significant gain, and this is a significant moment.”
That movement for racial justice is, in part, propelled by the Black Lives Matter movement, and the widespread re-examination of systemic racism — not to mention statues, flags, symbols and mascots that celebrate racist history — that was prompted by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May. On Monday the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights advocacy group, said in a statement that it “welcomed the decision of the Washington, D.C., football team to drop the racist ‘Redskins’ name.”
But despite the collective power of formerly disparate movements, not to mention the half-century of activist pressure, what finally triggered the name change was not an acknowledgment of Native people’s concerns or a rumination on the name’s offense. Instead, Daniel Snyder, the owner of the Washington N.F.L. team for more than 20 years, was seemingly driven by a simpler motivation: money.
In a letter sent to the Washington team dated July 2, FedEx, which pays about $8 million a year for the naming rights to the team’s stadium in Landover, Md., said if the name wasn’t changed, it would back out of the deal. The threat carried extra weight, considering that Frederick Smith, the chairman of FedEx, owns a minority stake in the team, which he had been quietly attempting to sell for many months.
FedEx was among several corporate heavyweights to take action to convince Snyder to act on the name. Bank of America, Pepsi, Nike and other N.F.L. sponsors issued statements asking the team for a name change, and retailers like Walmart, Amazon and Target stopped selling the team’s merchandise on their websites and in their stores.
Donald Dell, who represented Snyder in brokering the $205 million, 27-year stadium naming rights deal in 1999, said: “He saw, if Fred turned on it and didn’t want to stay involved in the stadium and the name, that was a really big point to him, and others would follow. And they did.”
Suzan Shown Harjo, who was formerly the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians and is the most well-known activist against Native American team names, was cleareyed about the order of concerns for Snyder.
“He had to satisfy first, his FedEx and other managerial and promotion partners,” she said. “Second his merch partners. Third, the franchise’s 40 percent owners.” But ultimately the credit belongs to “the longevity and persistence of our no-mascot movement,” Harjo said.
Now that their biggest target has budged, activists have pushed for much work to ensue in Washington.
Earlier this month, a letter, signed by nearly every national American Indian group and representatives from over 150 federally recognized tribes, was sent to N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell. The letter made several demands, including that he “require the Washington team to immediately cease the use of racialized Native American branding,” which seems on the verge of happening.
But it isn’t yet clear if one of the letter’s asks, that the team’s burgundy and gold color scheme be changed, will be acceded to.
“One thing we have seen where there have been shifts like this in the past is there can be a faction of fans that refuse to retreat from stereotypical names and logos, and not changing the colors would allow for that behavior,” Fredericks said. Changing the name and logo doesn’t mean as much if tens of thousands of fans stream into FedEx Field wearing their old team gear.
Fans have long worn headdresses, war paint and other stereotypical imagery to Washington games, and sung along to the team’s fight song, “Hail to the Redskins,” which contains references to “braves on the warpath” and is played after touchdowns at home games. The team may get to delay making those decisions if fans are not allowed to attend games this season because of the coronavirus.
Fredericks referred to the campaign to change the name of the University of North Dakota athletic teams, the Fighting Sioux. In 2015, the nickname was changed to the Fighting Hawks, but the green color scheme endured. “There is still an opportunity for some further leadership here by the team.”
Fifty years is a long time to be fighting for one issue, to get so far but also to have so far to go. The Chiefs, Blackhawks, and Major League Baseball’s Cleveland Indians and Atlanta Braves still exist, and more than 2,200 high schools still use some form of Native American imagery. Those that have been in this fight made it clear that it was always about the future, never the present or past.
“A lot of the work that she did was the attempt to create an environment that was better than the one I grew up in,” said Duke Ray Harjo II, who grew up in the Washington area, about his mother Suzan.
For Fredericks, the goal goes beyond the next generation. “A lot of us have a philosophy that the work we do is not only for the current moment, but for seven generations in the future. A lot of decision making is taken with that value in place.
“We are not going to give up ensuring that our humanity and dignity be respected.”
DUBLIN, Ohio — Collin Morikawa figured his tournament was over if he did not make a 5-foot par putt on the 15th hole at Muirfield Village. As it turned out, the fun was just starting.
Still three shots behind Justin Thomas with three holes to play, Morikawa made only one birdie, but it was enough for a six-under-par 66 to force a playoff.
The three times he played the 18th hole on Sunday, he twice could only watch as Thomas missed 10-foot putts for the win. The other time, Morikawa had to make a 25-foot putt to keep playing.
The only dull moment at the Workday Charity Open was at the end, when Morikawa took two putts for par from just inside 10 feet to beat Thomas on the third playoff hole and win for the second time in his PGA Tour career.
Morikawa never looked like the winner until it was over. Thomas had 10 straight one-putt greens, the last one a 25-foot eagle putt on the par-5 15th for the three-shot lead with three holes to play. And while he made two bogeys for a 69 that allowed for a playoff, he had reason to think it was over when he made a 50-foot birdie putt from the back of the 18th green on the first extra hole.
“It was crazy,” Morikawa said.
It was a wild ride for Thomas, too. He lost a two-shot lead at the start in three holes. He ran off four straight birdies and had 10 consecutive one-putts to build his lead through 15 holes.
“It’s completely unacceptable to give up a three-shot lead with three to go,” Thomas said. “I’m upset, I’m disappointed in myself.”
Thomas did not do anything terribly wrong — a tee shot in the thick collar on the par-3 16th that led to bogey, a 12-foot birdie attempt on the 17th that narrowly missed, and a tee shot that found a bunker on the 18th and led to another bogey and a 69. He and Morikawa finished at 19-under 269.
Viktor Hovland of Norway had a 71 and finished alone in third, four shots behind. His hopes ended with two shots — he found a bunker from the 10th fairway for bogey, and hit a driver on the reachable 14th that missed by only about 5 feet, enough for the ball to slowly tumble down the bank and into the water.
This was a big win for the 23-year-old Morikawa, who in his 13 months since graduating from the University of California has established a reputation for consistency. His only previous tour victory was at an event with a relatively weak field last summer. The Workday Charity Open featured five of the top 10 players in the world.
“This is a huge kind of steppingstone,” said Morikawa, who goes to No. 13 in the rankings, one spot ahead of Tiger Woods. “We got No. 1 out of the way. We got No. 2. Let the gates just open and let’s keep going.”
It was Morikawa’s second playoff since the PGA Tour returned on June 11 from the coronavirus pandemic. He lost on the first extra hole at Colonial by missing a 3-foot putt. He had a 2-foot putt in regulation on Sunday that caught the left edge of the cup and swirled in. “My heartbeat must have skipped a billion times,” Morikawa said.
The only thing missing for him was a handshake from Jack Nicklaus. He will be there this coming week for the Memorial, as the PGA Tour stays at Muirfield Village.
Russell Westbrook, the Houston Rockets star and a former Most Valuable Player Award winner, said on Monday in a social media post that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. He said he got the results before the Rockets left for Walt Disney World in Florida, where the N.B.A. is attempting to restart its season.
“I’m currently feeling well, quarantined, and looking forward to rejoining my teammates when I am cleared,” Westbrook said in his statement. He added: “Please take this virus seriously. Be safe. Mask up!”
— Russell Westbrook (@russwest44) July 13, 2020
Westbrook and Houston’s other star guard, James Harden, did not travel with the team on Thursday to the Walt Disney World campus. Luc Mbah a Moute, a veteran forward whom the Rockets signed this month, also did not make the trip. Coach Mike D’Antoni did not specify why, in comments to reporters over the weekend, but said he expected the players to arrive soon.
“These are things that people are dealing with,” D’Antoni said. “We’re not going to get into why not. They’re on their way.”
It was unclear when Westbrook would be able to join the Rockets or when his quarantine period began. According to the N.B.A.’s guidebook on health protocols, Westbrook will be allowed to join others on the campus when he tests negatively for the coronavirus in two separate tests at least 24 hours apart. He must also be cleared by a league-approved infectious disease physician and undergo a cardiac screening.
Some other players who have tested positive for the virus, such as Spencer Dinwiddie and DeAndre Jordan of the Nets, are skipping the N.B.A. restart entirely. Commissioner Adam Silver has said that the league expects there to be more positive cases as players arrive on campus. But even so, Silver has expressed confidence that the N.B.A. season will be able to conclude and that players will be safer on campus than off.
“What would be most concerning is once players enter this campus and then go through our quarantine period, then if they were to test positive or if we had any positive tests, we would know we would have an issue,” Silver told Fortune this month.
The Rockets were 40-24 and tied for fourth place in the Western Conference before the pandemic forced the postponement of the season in March. Westbrook, the team’s second-leading scorer, struggled with his shooting throughout the season but still scored 27.5 points a game while grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out seven assists a game.
After decades of controversy, it took a serious threat to Dan Snyder’s team’s finances, and those of the rest of the N.F.L., to get the owner of the Washington Redskins to consider changing the team’s name, which Native Americans (and many dictionaries) consider to be a slur.
The final straw? FedEx, which pays about $8 million a year for the naming rights to the team’s stadium in Landover, Md., and whose chairman has been trying to sell his shares in the team, said that it would back out of the deal if the name was not changed in a letter that The New York Times was allowed to review.
On July 2, the legal counsel for FedEx sent a letter to his counterpart with the team saying the company would demand its name be removed from the stadium, where it has been displayed since 1999, if the team name was not changed.
“We are hopeful that a name change and a new head coach will help move public perception in a positive direction, restore the team’s reputation and lessen our deep concerns,” the letter said.
A day later, Snyder said that the team “will undergo a thorough review” of its name, bending to a company that committed to paying more than $200 million for its affiliation with the team.
ImageCredit…Drew Angerer/Getty Images
FedEx’s push “was really a turning point,” said an N.F.L. owner who requested anonymity to speak publicly about another owner. “At this point in time, you can’t be insensitive because it affects all of us.”
The majority of, though not all, the N.F.L.’s owners now agree that the name should be changed, the person said, and Snyder has “reached the point where he’s moved on.”
It is unclear how long the team will take to review an issue it has known about for decades. Changing team names, logos and colors — a process that requires navigating trademarks and the league’s many licensing deals with partners — can often take years. The team declined to make Snyder or any team officials available for this article, saying it would address any questions after the review is complete. The N.F.L. also did not respond to a request for comment.
But Snyder’s shift from total resistance to grudging recognition in a matter of weeks has been remarkably swift in a league that often moves deliberately, if at all.
‘We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER.’
For years, Snyder faced little financial pressure to change his team’s name because sponsors were all but silent on the issue. N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has said he grew up rooting for the team, in the past publicly stood by Snyder’s argument that the club’s name and logos are meant to honor the team’s heritage and Native Americans.
Activists have opposed the name for decades, filing lawsuits that Snyder fought vociferously. Politicians have called him out and friends have privately appealed to his sense of decency, all to no avail.
Still, Goodell had tried to prevent the controversy from bubbling into a full-blown crisis. In 2013, when Snyder inflamed the debate by emphatically telling a reporter, “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps,” the commissioner hosted a meeting at the league’s headquarters in New York to clear the air.
According to two people who attended the meeting, Snyder brought with him Bruce Allen, then the team’s president; a strategist; investors in the team; and Lanny Davis, a lawyer who represented Snyder. Goodell was joined by several deputies, including Adolpho Birch, then a senior vice president.
Snyder’s group presented surveys that showed that the team’s fans supported the name, and several other justifications for sticking with it. Goodell questioned Snyder without pushing a viewpoint, one person said. Near the end of the meeting, Charlie Black, a political consultant hired by the team, told Goodell that if he convinced the N.F.L.’s other owners to endorse the name, the problem would go away.
ImageCredit…Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Goodell pointedly explained that he did not speak for the league’s owners and that Snyder needed to communicate with them directly if he wanted their support. The meeting ended as it started, with Snyder still in control of the destiny of the team’s name.
Several departments at the headquarters, though, were quietly doing trademark searches and taking other steps to prepare for the day when the team might be renamed.
‘All of a sudden, after this letter, they’re saying, “Change the name.”’
The hands-off approach crumbled quickly amid the protests that followed George Floyd’s death in police custody this May. Goodell apologized last month for not listening to the concerns of African-American players years before, in response to some of the league’s biggest stars calling on him to address systemic racism.
Faced with growing public demands, companies across the country have issued statements expressing their commitment to undo racist policies, promote diversity in their hiring and fight injustice in their communities. In late June, FedEx, Nike and Pepsi received letters from dozens of investment funds that hold shares in those companies, urging them to distance themselves from the Washington team.
“It was clear to us that those racial justice statements implicated their relationship with the Washington football team,” said Carla Fredericks, the director of First Peoples Worldwide, who led the letter-writing campaign.
Still, FedEx joining the fight against the team name came as a surprise to those who have led it. Suzan Shown Harjo, who for decades has pushed high school, college and professional teams to abandon names and logos with Native American imagery, said she and other activists have pressured FedEx and other team sponsors in the past, with little success.
On June 26, dozens of activists and investment groups sent FedEx’s chairman, Frederick Smith, a letter urging the company to terminate its relationship with the team because its name “remains a dehumanizing word characterizing people by skin color and a racial slur with hateful connotations.”
Smith is part of a trio of investors who hold about 40 percent of the team’s shares. He and the other limited partners, Dwight Schar, the chairman of a major homebuilder, and Robert Rothman, the chairman of a private equity firm, have tried to sell their shares for many months.
FedEx declined to make Smith available for comment, and efforts to reach Schar and Rothman were unsuccessful. John Moag, who reportedly represents them in the sale, said he does not “talk on or off the record during a transaction.”
After years of standing by the team, the companies finally bent.
“All of a sudden, after this letter, they’re saying, ‘Change the name,’ and what’s the difference — George Floyd was murdered before the world and corporate America woke up,” Harjo said.
Harjo said she was hopeful that the pressure from the team’s corporate sponsors would result in a new name but was skeptical that Snyder was only trying to buy time and once again let the controversy pass.
“What they’ve done is try to take control of the issue, and that’s what they’ve done all along, and that’s what they mean by process and review,” she said.
ImageCredit…Benny Sieu/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
Lost trust and a business imperative
Changing the team name would ease tensions between Snyder and lawmakers in Washington, many of whom oppose his goal of building a new stadium in the district. Snyder keeps a close circle of friends that includes the team’s investors, and he bristles at any suggestion that he change the team name, according to several people who have worked with him. Over the years, Snyder has pulled back from speaking publicly, convinced that there is no upside to trying to improve his image.
“His bad media, which has been terrible, bordering on horrible, is a result of a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: They hate me, therefore I hate them and I won’t talk to them,” said Davis, the Washington lawyer who said he encouraged Snyder to get his side of the story out. “It’s circular.”
The team’s lack of competitive success has not helped. They have made the postseason only five times since Snyder bought the team in 1999, and off-the-field controversies have made things worse.
Snyder has sued an impoverished longtime season-ticket holder and a reporter who published an article he didn’t like, charged fans to watch training camp and cut down trees on federally protected land to improve the view from his house. Many of the team’s cheerleaders have described an uncomfortable work environment, including a photo shoot in which cheerleaders were topless at an event for sponsors and ticket holders.
Then there is the name, which even some die-hard fans reject. Eddie Huang, the celebrity chef and author of the memoir, “Fresh Off the Boat,” grew up in suburban Washington in the 1980s idolizing the team. But as a teenager, he said, he began to question why white fans dressed up as Native Americans.
“It got to a point where I was old enough to recognize that if someone had done this with a name about Asians or Blacks or Mexicans, it wouldn’t be accepted,” said Huang, who stopped wearing the team’s jersey several years ago. “If you called a team the ‘yellow skins’ or ‘Black skins,’ it would be lights out.”
Attendance has suffered. The team drew an average of 65,500 fans last year, less than 80 percent of the capacity at FedEx Field, one of the lowest percentages in the league. Over the last few years, the team has ripped about 10,000 seats out of the stadium.
Within and outside of the N.F.L., observers note that Snyder could benefit from changing the team’s name. Longtime fans would scoop up old merchandise and buy new jerseys and caps when the makeover was complete.
A new name would also help pave the way for the team to build a stadium in the district. Snyder’s favored location is the site of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, referred to locally as R.F.K., where the team played for 35 years, until 1996. The land is owned by the National Park Service, which has leased it through 2038 to Events DC, a quasi-public organization that manages several Washington sports sites.
Muriel Bowser, the city’s mayor, has said in the past that the team should not be allowed to build inside the district without changing the name, but allowed this week that the name was not the only issue in deciding whether to grant the team access.
Snyder has over two decades lost trust with fans, politicians and Native American groups, but in a moment of societal change, he finally faces a business imperative to alter the team’s future.
Fredericks, who led the group challenging sponsors, said that only a complete name and mascot change was acceptable. “The investors are very clear that a half measure is not going to put these issues to bed,” she said.
On an overcast morning in late March, a few days after the International Olympic Committee announced it was postponing the 2020 Tokyo Games because of the coronavirus pandemic, Kyle Merber made the short drive from his home in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., to the Dutchess Rail Trail, one of his favorite running routes.
Merber knew from the start, though, that this run would be different.
Since graduating from Columbia University in 2012, Merber had been chasing the singular goal of qualifying for the Olympics in the 1,500 meters. Now, as he wrestled with questions about whether he had the psychological stamina and financial resources to continue training full time for another year — perhaps, he thought, it was time to retire — he slipped on his sneakers.
His plan was to cover 20 miles, which would make it his longest training run ever. He knew it seemed strange that he was increasing his workload when he had no real reason to increase his workload.
“I think part of it’s therapy right now,” he said. “It’s what distance runners do: We run.”
Merber, 29, was accompanied by his wife, Patricia Barry, who pedaled her bicycle through a cold drizzle as she filmed him for a video that his team later posted on YouTube. After he breezed through his opening mile, his pace quickened and he began to reflect.
“For the health of the world, it’s obviously the necessary move,” he said of the postponement. “But that doesn’t mean it hurts any less.”
Still, his mood brightened over the course of the morning. The run, which he would later describe as one of the best of his life, pushed him past 100 miles for the week — an arbitrary figure, but an achievement when so much else had gone wrong.
In the three months since, Merber’s mind-set about his career as a runner has continued to evolve in ways he never could have anticipated.
For so long, Merber had tied his identity to the Olympics and to the 1,500 meters: The Olympics were his dream, and the 1,500 meters was his race. But in the wake of the Olympic postponement, Merber has learned to let go of those twin obsessions.
He now wants to focus on the 5,000 or 10,000 meters, distances better suited to his strengths, and see where that road leads. And while he would still like to give the Olympics, rescheduled for next summer, one last shot, his goal of competing in Tokyo is no longer all consuming.
ImageCredit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
More than anything, the lockdown, in an odd and unexpected way, has led him to rediscover the joy of running — a shift that he revealed in a series of interviews since the start of the year.
“I decided to do something really new,” he said. “I think the biggest thing is I got excited to train again. Maybe what I’d been doing for so long had gotten stale.”
‘It’s tough watching yourself be human.’
Merber, who has personal bests of 3 minutes 52.22 seconds for the mile and 3:34.54 for the 1,500 meters, has the sort of shrink-wrapped 6-foot, 142-pound frame that seems engineered for elite cardiovascular performance. His hamstrings have hamstrings. He is about 92 percent limbs.
Latest Updates: Global Coronavirus Outbreak
Updated 2020-07-13T10:51:42.144Z As Fauci becomes more vocal, Trump aides are moving to undercut him. The U.S. outbreak is hammering Florida and spreading to the Midwest. Reducing health risks by shifting life outdoors. See more updates More live coverage: Markets
He feels fortunate that he gets to run for a living — “It’s a great way to spend your 20s,” he said — and his sponsors, namely the shoe brand Hoka One One, pay him enough to travel, race and eat. He will always run, he said, even after he retires from the sport, but his outgoing approach in recent years has made him uniquely popular among runners.
“Kyle’s been such a catalyst for creating these communities within the professional running world,” said Sam Parsons, who runs for the Colorado-based Tinman Elite club.
In nonpandemic times, Merber organizes an annual race, the Hoka One One Long Island Mile, that brings together many of his high-level runner pals. And in a sport that faces the perennial challenge of broadening its audience, Merber is one of its resident oversharers, especially on social media.
There he is on Instagram (@kylemerber), curled up in the fetal position in the trunk of his car after a brutal workout. There he is on Twitter (@TheRealMerb), celebrating his friend Johnny Gregorek’s recent world record for the fastest mile in a pair of bluejeans.
Merber is known for his charmingly self-effacing observations on training: “The fact that I hated every second of that workout must mean it’ll help me get better at running.” And, more recently, for his views on lockdown life: “Just got in trouble again for making bacon while my wife is on a work call.”
Humor might be a coping mechanism. The 1,500 meters, in particular, requires an unholy blend of strength, speed and stamina, and Merber is transparent about his setbacks, about dabbling with self-doubt, about the time he shelled out $15,000 for sports hernia surgery and thought his career was finished.
“If you take five months off and can’t run a lap without being in pain, you kind of think that might be it,” he said.
He has endured an exhaustive cycle of highs and lows. He won the boys’ high school mile at the prestigious Millrose Games as a senior at Half Hollow Hills West High School on Long Island, then set an Ivy League record for the indoor mile as a sophomore at Columbia. But after stepping on a shard of glass the following summer, he wound up missing his junior year.
He bounced back as a senior to run the 1,500 meters in 3:35.59, an American collegiate record. When he failed to advance out of his preliminary heat at the 2012 United States Olympic trials that summer, he figured he would have more opportunities.
But the hard truth is that every race ought to be savored. Two months before the 2016 Olympic trials, Merber sustained a stress reaction in his lower back. He wound up finishing ninth, missing the cut again.
ImageCredit…Andy Lyons/Getty Images
The race was such a profound disappointment that Merber avoided watching a replay of it until earlier this year.
“It sucked because I was even further out of the race than I remembered,” he said. “It’s tough watching yourself be human.”
In 2018, after struggling with groin pain for months, he underwent bilateral core muscle surgery to repair a sports hernia, paying out of pocket for the procedure.
“I legitimately thought that was the end,” he said.
He went so long without competing that the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency dropped him from the pool of athletes it was testing regularly.
“That hurts,” Merber said. “Like, ‘You’re not at all suspicious anymore?’”
The small miracle was that Merber was rounding back into shape last year, then reinjured his lower back. “Overdid it,” he said.
A fragile plan is blown apart.
Before the coronavirus completely gripped the globe and forced the Olympic postponement, Merber traveled to Arizona in January for a six-week training camp. He had no margin for error.
“I desperately need to be healthy,” he said at the time.
He was pain free and building his mileage on runs with Olympic medalists like Matthew Centrowitz, Nick Willis and Emma Coburn. One morning, he compared training logs with Drew Hunter, regarded as a prodigy in running circles. Hunter, 22, mentioned his long-term goals — which included the Olympics in 2024 and 2028. In that moment, Merber felt old.
“You’re such a little kid,” Merber told him. “It’s so crazy.”
Yet even as he went about restoring his confidence, Merber tossed and turned whenever his late-night thoughts drifted to the Olympic trials. His anxiety was rooted in urgency. He knew he had to realign his priorities after Tokyo, as his sponsorships were set to expire at the end of the year. Besides, he hoped to move forward with his life: a family, a job that entailed doing something other than 600-meter repeats, a shift toward full-fledged adulthood.
ImageCredit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York TimesImageCredit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
“I see two scenarios,” he said one morning in February. “In the first scenario, I see myself making the Olympic team and achieving my childhood dream. In the other scenario, I don’t make the team but at least I can say I gave it three good tries, and I’ll be able to walk away without any regrets, knowing I did it the right way.”
That fragile calculus came apart after Merber returned to New York. In the aftermath of the Olympic postponement, he wondered whether he had already raced for the final time as a pro. The world was in crisis — “My problems just don’t seem that bad,” Merber said — but he still felt lost. Tom Nohilly and Frank Gagliano, his longtime coaches, could sense it.
“This was his big final push to make the Olympic team and prove that he could do it,” Nohilly said. “When that gets taken away, it’s a shock.”
In April, Merber seemed to flip-flop over his future by the day. Did he want to stick with the 1,500 meters? Or was it time to ditch running altogether?
Part of the problem was that he lacked a clear vision of what he would do instead. For nearly eight years, Merber — armed with a philosophy degree from Columbia, marketing experience for his sponsors and a license to sell life insurance — had put his “real life” on hold for the sake of his Olympic quest.
“My résumé,” he said, “is weird.”
‘I just have a craving to explore more.’
Nohilly saw an opportunity for Merber to recalibrate. Since his hernia surgery, Merber had been struggling to generate the sort of top-end speed that the 1,500 meters demands. The all-out sprints the race required were also what made him feel most prone to reinjury.
In the back of his mind, Merber had known for a while that moving to longer races would probably be a better fit at this stage of his career. (It is one of the sport’s oddities that, for some runners, longer races can actually be more physically forgiving than shorter ones.) He had just been hesitant to take the plunge.
ImageCredit…Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for IAAF
“I never felt like I necessarily had enough time to learn a new event or really get the mileage I needed,” Merber said.
Now, because of the pandemic, he had a wide window to experiment, and Nohilly encouraged him to take advantage: more miles, less all-out speed. From the start, Merber felt liberated. He was running for the fun of it. He could focus squarely on self-improvement.
He also began to re-evaluate his preoccupation with the Olympics: He, like so many others, had fallen into the notion that track and field truly matters only once every four years. Why was he limiting himself?
“There are so many other great things in the sport that we don’t highlight,” he said.
After bumping his weekly mileage from about 75 to more than 100, Merber gauged his progress in May with a 10-mile tempo run. He set a blistering pace, finishing in about 49 minutes. “I could kick my pre-quarantine ass,” he said.
It helped solidify his belief that he was on the right path — a new path, but the right one — and his coaches think he could eventually graduate to the marathon.
“He’s just getting stronger,” Nohilly said, “and he’s enjoying the whole process.”
Over the past four months, Merber has run more than 1,500 miles — almost all of them alone on the quiet roads and trails near his home in Hastings-on-Hudson. In a rare exception, he recently retreated to rural Vermont to train with a couple of friends. It was a nice change of pace, Merber said. He had missed the camaraderie.
But even now, after having increased his mileage and reconsidered his priorities, he feels conflicted. He will be grinding through a track workout, he said, and his mind will wander to a LinkedIn message he had sent about a job opening. It is sometimes difficult to concentrate. He is torn between his past and his future.
“I’ll always be competing, but maybe it doesn’t need to be a full-time gig anymore,” he said, adding: “Now that I’m older, I just have a craving to explore more, to do things outside of running. I want to develop my full person.”
At the same time, he cannot help but daydream about his next race, most likely in the 5,000 meters, at a time and place to be determined, and the familiar feelings — anticipation, excitement, pressure — come flooding back.
A poor performance, he said, would be upsetting. But he also worries that an excellent result would steer him back to wanting more of the life that he is trying to leave behind.
So, he reminds himself of lessons learned: that he runs for the love of it, that there is room for gray — for balance — in a sport so often defined by hard-edged numbers. He only needed some time and distance to understand.
LONDON — Manchester City, a Premier League heavyweight and one of the world’s richest clubs, successfully overturned on Monday its two-season ban from European soccer’s top club competition, the Champions League.
The ban, imposed last year by European soccer’s governing body, UEFA, after City was accused of “serious breaches” of cost-control regulations, was overturned by a three-member panel at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland.
The final decision on the Champions League ban, which had hung over Manchester City for more than a year amid questions about its finances and credibility, will have significant consequences for both the club and UEFA.
Manchester City officials had vehemently, and repeatedly, denied any accusations of wrongdoing, and the prospect of being barred from the Champions League risked upending one of the most ambitious projects in global sports.
For UEFA, the latest high-profile reversal of its effort to uphold financial regulations means that the governing body is likely to find itself under scrutiny, with its defeat creating new doubts about the future of its so-called financial fair-play regulations and its ability and willingness to enforce them.
The court said in a statement posted on its website that its panel found the most serious breaches found by UEFA were either “not established” or no longer relevant (in the court’s words, “time-barred”).
The club, the panel found, was guilty of failing to cooperate with UEFA’s investigations and fined the club 10 million euros, about $11.3 million, a reduction from the €20 million penalty UEFA had originally levied.
Since being acquired in 2008 by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, the billionaire brother of the ruler of the United Arab Emirates, Manchester City has risen from relative obscurity to become one of soccer’s most valuable and successful brands. It fields one of the best teams in the world and is led by Pep Guardiola, the Spanish coach who oversaw its collecting every available trophy in English soccer last season.
Manchester City remains in contention to win the Champions League this year; it won the first leg of its round-of-16 tie against Real Madrid in March before the coronavirus pandemic forced a temporary halt to the event. UEFA is scheduled to resume the competition this summer.
“The club welcomes the implications of today’s ruling as a validation of the club’s position and the body of evidence that it was able to present,” Manchester City said in a brief statement.
The ruling in City’s favor means that the team will continue to perform on one of sports biggest stages, and one of its most lucrative. A two-year absence from the Champions League would have been worth more than $200 million, but it also would have been costly in terms of damage to City’s carefully cultivated reputation, and to its ability to attract top players and coaches.
ImageCredit…Laurence Griffiths/Agence France-Presse, via Pool/Afp Via Getty Images
It is the second time UEFA has been judged to have fallen afoul of its own statute of limitation regulations. In a previous case involving another wealthy Gulf-owned team, Paris St.-Germain, CAS threw out an appeal by the adjudicatory arm of its financial control body, after determining UEFA had acted too late.
UEFA said in a statement that the panel found that many of the alleged breaches “were time barred due to the 5-year time period foreseen in the UEFA regulations.”
The investigators had sought advice from UEFA’s in-house legal team before starting work on the City case.
The rules were created in 2009 as several top European clubs teetered on the brink of bankruptcy and have largely proved to be successful, though they have worked against clubs like City and others. Wealthy teams have chafed at any efforts to limit their spending, and up-and-coming teams backed by wealthy owners have lamented the way the restrictions have prevented them from mounting challenges to the game’s more established powers.
Still, the rules had not stopped City from winning everything but the Champions League title, the crown its owners covet the most. It has another chance to win it in August, when the Champions League returns for a mini-knockout tournament in Lisbon featuring eight quarterfinalists.
But without the ban looming, City can approach the event with a sense of ease that might have been missing if it faced a ban — and the likely departures of players looking to compete for European trophies over the next two seasons.
Lawyers for City and UEFA presented their arguments to the panel during a video hearing in early June. City had said it would spare no resource to defend itself. It contended that the UEFA process was one-sided and that an impartial body like CAS would overturn the ruling, which came after damaging leaks in 2018 that suggested the team had engaged in illegal accounting tactics to get around UEFA’s cost control rules.
Citing internal documents and emails, those reports suggested City had disguised millions of dollars of direct investment by its owner, Sheikh Mansour, as sponsorship income. One document published by the German weekly Der Spiegel appeared to show that the team’s main sponsor, the Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways, had paid only a fraction of an $85 million sponsorship agreement.
City had denounced the publications as “out-of-context materials purportedly hacked or stolen,” contending that the leaks were part of an “organized and clear attempt to damage the club’s reputation.”
Its rivals had demanded serious punishment, though, leaving UEFA and its president, Aleksander Ceferin, squeezed by powerful, and wealthy, forces on both sides. Ceferin said he had no role in UEFA’s investigation, which was handled independently by a group responsible for scrutinizing clubs’ adherence to fiscal rules. That group, known as the Club Financial Control Body, ruled against City, adding a fine of €30 million on top of the ban.
The allegations led to tensions between UEFA and City, which in November last year attempted to short-circuit the case before CAS could render its ruling. That effort, in which City accused UEFA of leaking details of the case to the news media, failed on technical grounds. Two of the three judges involved in that decision were on the current three-arbitrator panel.
Indications of the animosity between City and the UEFA panel investigating it were made clear in November’s ruling, when UEFA’s statement confirming the ban stated that City “failed to cooperate in the investigation.”
The bitterness extended to many of the team’s supporters. Manchester City fans routinely jeer the Champions League anthem on match days, and others have taken to social media to criticize what they perceive as unfair treatment of their team by UEFA, which they accuse of siding with the Continent’s more established rivals.
On the day of the hearing, a group of City fans unveiled a large banner taking aim at UEFA, accusing it of having an agenda against their team. CAS, aware of the tensions, took the rare step of not publicly naming the three judge-panel that heard the appeal until after it had been concluded in June.
Four years ago, the Liberty became one of the first professional sports franchises to make a unified on-court statement against police brutality and racial injustice. Even before Colin Kaepernick drew widespread attention for kneeling during the N.F.L. preseason later that summer, the Liberty took the court for a game wearing black shirts that said #BlackLivesMatter.
That summer had a profound impact on Liberty center Amanda Zahui B., who had arrived in the United States just three years earlier, to attend the University of Minnesota.
In a locker room led by Tina Charles, Swin Cash, Tanisha Wright and Carolyn Swords, Zahui B. absorbed herself in discussions with nuanced views of race, mental health and womanhood.
Those conversations came rushing back to mind recently for Zahui B., the daughter of a French-Spanish mother and father from the Ivory Coast, after the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.
She had been quarantining in her hometown, Stockholm, when she learned about Floyd’s death. Initially, she felt beckoned to the marches in Minneapolis and the ones outside Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the Liberty’s future home arena.
She then recalled something her former Liberty teammates had emphasized to international players years ago: the importance of pushing for change abroad, not only in the United States.
And so, before she returned to Brooklyn to prepare for the start of the W.N.B.A. season at the end of this month, Zahui B. focused her efforts on issues in Sweden, promoting protests and boycotts to drive Swedes to confront what she described as an unspoken history of racial inequality.
“We don’t talk about race here,” Zahui B., 26, said last month from her apartment in Dalen, located in the Southside of Stockholm. “Minneapolis, I wanted to march the streets with everyone. I wanted to do whatever I can do for that community. But at the same time, we have so much work to do in Sweden. You have to start at home.”
Zahui B. grew up in neighborhoods heavily populated by African immigrants who, like her father, Alex Zahui Bazoukou, toiled to find work in Stockholm. Last year, the Swedish government reported 231,276 African Swedes living in the country.
Zahui B.’s mother, Ann-Sofi, who was born in Sweden and settled in Stockholm after a nomadic childhood, helped start Sara Bokhandel, which claims to be the first Kurdish bookstore in Europe. Zahui B. recalled rifling through children’s books translated into Arabic, like the Swedish classic “Pippi Longstocking.”
But as she grew up, Zahui B. found that the diverse environments she was raised in were largely ignored in much of Sweden.
As an example, she pointed to media representations. There is the popular show “Svenska Hollywoodfruar” (“Swedish Hollywood Wives”), which features a cast of blond-haired and blue-eyed women. And in televised games of the Swedish women’s national team, Zahui B. said, broadcasters flock to her over teammates with darker complexions.
“We don’t really promote people of color out here, and if we do, we are very light,” Zahui B. said.
Sofia Ulver, a marketing professor at Lund University in Sweden, agreed that race was seldom talked about in Sweden. She helped write a study submitted for peer review earlier this month that examined racial and ethnic representation in Swedish television commercials.
Ulver noted a history of legislative efforts in Sweden that have sought to negate race as a concrete source of bias to be considered in lawmaking — an approach that some critics argue ignores the existence of actual racism.
“We have huge integration problems in Sweden,” said Ulver, who added that before World War II, Sweden openly promoted the concept of genetic superiority among certain races. “We have not been good at integrating new multicultural groups that are coming in. It’s hugely segregated.”
Zahui B. said her family always encouraged open dialogue, but it wasn’t until a May 2016 trade to the Liberty that she became comfortable with expressing vulnerability.
Zahui B., who said she had wrestled as a child with the concept of “being Black in Europe and being viewed as a white person when I’m in the Ivory Coast,” said Charles challenged her to think deeply about what it means to be a Black woman in the modern world.
“You see now people coming from a point of separation to: How do we come together for one thing to affect change?” said Wright, who is now an assistant coach with the Las Vegas Aces. “During that season, we were already there. We were a microcosm of what we happen to see now.”
Eventually, Zahui B. felt comfortable enough to drive conversations about what actions the team should take throughout the 2016 season. That summer, the Liberty wore black warm-up shirts with messages supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and staged a media blackout, and at least one player sat during the national anthem. Cash began asking Zahui B. about race in Sweden, which led to discussions about the similar issues in the two countries.
ImageCredit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
“She started to unlay herself and became outspoken, someone who wanted to impact and leave a lasting impression on you,” said Charles, who is now with the Washington Mystics.
For Zahui B., those conversations allowed her to elucidate emotions that had previously felt muted and muddled — feelings that stemmed from being followed around stores and banks in Stockholm, her instinct to drive with two hands on the steering wheel and with her driver’s license out next to her in case she was pulled over.
“Sometimes I have a wall up because I know how the world is,” Zahui B. said. “I speak up, and I’m going to get something back. But learning how to really show that I’m actually human — like, I cry myself to sleep, I have nightmares, we all go through depression and we are all scared and upset — that’s kind of like the growth I’ve had, especially since coming to the Liberty.”
Last month, Zahui B. discussed the idea of organizing a Black Lives Matter protest in Stockholm with her agent and local activists before joining one already planned for June 3. Zahui B. publicized the march on Instagram, where she estimates a majority of her 15,000-plus followers are Swedish.
Emboldened by the thousands of Swedes who marched, Zahui B. contacted all of the major news stations in Sweden, offering to discuss race on live air. In response, some radio stations proposed interviews about basketball, instead.
“I said no,” Zahui B. said. “I want to talk about what really matters.” She added that she has refrained from giving interviews with certain Swedish stations until they made a concerted effort to address race in their coverage.
As an alternative, Zahui B. has begun posting unfiltered Instagram videos about race to her largely Swedish audience.
Zahui B. said it did not bother her if such conversations were uncomfortable for viewers, as she considers them necessary for progress. After the June 3 protest, for example, her neighbor greeted her in the hallway of her building and asked how she was doing.
She responded that she was tired of seeing Black people unjustifiably killed, and said that if he didn’t want to have a conversation about that, then he didn’t have to speak to her ever again.
“I’m being kind of direct and planting a seed in people’s heads,” Zahui B. said. “I do not need you to tell me you’re sorry or that you understand how I feel. I need you to actually make a change and go home and have a conversation with your family, with your kids.
“When you go to work and hear somebody say something that is inappropriate, speak up. Speak up even if it’s uncomfortable. Do it.”
The nationwide conversation over systemic racism and equality has prompted a series of discussions and forums at ESPN, where Black employees, many of them behind the cameras, have begun speaking out about the everyday racism and barriers they face at the sports media giant.
In conference calls and meetings over the last month, they have detailed to their bosses and colleagues what they see as behavior and long-entrenched practices that have led to embarrassing missteps and kept many career Black employees from rising through the ranks at a company that devotes a significant amount of its coverage to Black athletes.
A key producer of some of ESPN’s signature shows said she watched others be promoted so often that she advised some fellow Black employees to leave the company to advance their careers.
ESPN has apologized twice in recent years for on-air segments that were criticized by employees and viewers as racist, including one that looked uncomfortably like an auction of enslaved people.
And the story of one incident last month has ricocheted around ESPN, with several Black employees calling it emblematic of their experience at the company.
On a conference call of more than 200 people to discuss college football coverage, Black employees began sharing their personal experiences with discrimination. As Maria Taylor, a fast-rising star who has hosted several shows, spoke about her treatment at ESPN, she was interrupted by a white male play-by-play announcer who apparently did not realize that his microphone was not muted.
The announcer, Dave LaMont, could be heard complaining to someone that the call was just a griping session for Black employees. He declined to comment, and ESPN said it had “addressed it appropriately,” without elaborating.
“It was such a slap in the face,” Taylor said in an interview. “When I was in it, that was horrible. But now, looking back, it was an awakening moment. This is part of our culture. There are people that feel this way.”
Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN’s president, acknowledged that the company was not where it wanted to be on diversity, especially behind the camera, and said a frequent topic of conversation was how to make ESPN more “relevant” to people of color. “We cannot have rooms full of just white decision makers,” he said. “Our execs and employees need to reflect the audience that we are trying to reach.”
In interviews, more than two dozen current and former ESPN employees, including many who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared punishment, described a company that projected a diverse outward face, but did not have enough Black executives, especially ones with real decision-making power. They said the company did not provide meaningful career paths for Black employees behind the camera and made decisions based on assumptions that its average viewer is an older white man, in spite of its audience trends.
ESPN acknowledges hiring shortfalls, but points to corporate America.
As ESPN grew into a sports media powerhouse in the 1990s, its executives remained almost exclusively white and male.
John Skipper, who was ESPN’s president until 2017, recalled a meeting of the company’s senior staff around 2000, when he was in charge of ESPN the Magazine. Kerry Chandler, a Black woman who was then a senior human resources executive, led a vigorous discussion about diversity. Besides Chandler, Skipper could not remember another nonwhite person in the meeting.
“Twenty-two out of 25 were white men, including me, of course,” he said, making it clear he was speaking about his time at ESPN.
Twenty years later, the company’s executive ranks look different, though the biggest difference is the elevation of white women. ESPN declined to provide figures on the racial composition of its executives, but said 25 percent of the people who report directly to Pitaro are Black, all men.
Each of those Black executives had at least a 20-year career before joining ESPN, while a number of senior white executives have only ever worked at ESPN, suggesting to many Black employees a limited career path for them at ESPN. One former midlevel employee who is Black and spoke on condition of anonymity to not jeopardize relationships in the industry said she searched for a new position within ESPN and did not want to leave the company, but no executive made an effort to retain her.
After being contacted for this article, ESPN made four Black senior executives available for interviews: Rob King, Kevin Merida, Dave Roberts and Paul Richardson. A representative from ESPN’s communications department was present for each interview, as well as every other on-the-record interview conducted with a current employee.
King, Merida and Roberts each oversee various content arms, while Richardson is the head of human resources. In those interviews, all four executives said that ESPN’s executive ranks were not diverse enough, but mostly attributed that to a larger problem in corporate America. They all said every one of the company’s senior leaders believes in diversity and inclusion.
“Like most media companies, including the one you write for, there was a time when you didn’t have African-Americans in editorial positions that could grow from entry level to the highest potential levels of the company,” said Roberts, who joined ESPN in the mid-2000s as a coordinating producer. He believes ESPN’s Black senior vice presidents “can help continue to evolve and change and grow the process and progress of diversity.”
Black on-air employees were much more direct about what they believe are ESPN’s failings. “So many of the Black people we have at ESPN have been worthy of promotions and other opportunities long before this happened,” said Michael Eaves, a “SportsCenter” anchor, referring to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, an event that is powering a movement against police brutality and racial injustice.
Even powerful employees who largely had good things to say about the company’s record on diversity believed there were areas where ESPN had fallen painfully behind. “There are certain things that should have been done years ago,” said Stephen A. Smith, perhaps the network’s biggest star. He said that for years he has pointed out to ESPN leaders that its executives overseeing N.F.L., N.B.A. and M.L.B. programming are all white.
“There are a plethora of people that have come through ESPN that I thought could do some very positive things for ESPN about that bottom line,” Smith said. “They happened to be Black, and I don’t believe they have been put in those positions.”
Other current and former Black ESPN employees described active discrimination.
Cari Champion worked at ESPN for eight years, including several hosting “SportsCenter,” before leaving this year. She said that while the company gave her an unrivaled platform, she left in part because of “constant dismissals and borderline harassment” from Jill Fredrickson, a senior executive she reported to.
Champion described hearing “microaggressions and dog whistle words,” saying such “subtleties are racism in corporate America.”
In an interview, Fredrickson declined to directly address her relationship with Champion. She said she thought Champion had been heard, and that she “always wanted to have an open dialogue to her.” She continued, “I thought that she left amicably.”
‘There are white people that don’t have her résumé.’
ESPN presents a fairly diverse face to the outside world across its slate of programming, and its news editors and reporters are more diverse than most of its competitors and sports departments in newsrooms nationwide. A 2018 report found that ESPN employed a significant percentage of the country’s Black, Latino and female assistant sports editors and columnists.
But current and former employees say that things are very different behind the camera.
Richardson said that the retention rate for Black employees is high, but not as high as it is for white employees. He attributed the difference to some Black employees not wanting to live in Bristol, Conn., where ESPN has its headquarters, as well as aggressive poaching by competitors.
There was no sign, he said, that Black employees found ESPN unwelcome. But that conflicts with how many employees described their own experiences.
In an N.B.A. coverage meeting last month, an Ethiopian-American coordinating producer named Amina Hussein pointed out that of more than 40 people on the call, including a top executive, she was the only Black employee.
According to two people on the call, Hussein told leaders that she had mentored many younger Black employees, but lately had told some that their career advancement prospects would improve if they left the company. She declined to discuss the call for this article.
Hussein has overseen “Sunday NFL Countdown” and “NBA Countdown,” two high-profile programs on ESPN. Still, she was not offered a promotion in over a decade. She became a coordinating producer in 2008, the same year as Lee Fitting, a white man. Fitting has since risen several levels above Hussein to oversee all N.F.L. and college football coverage.
“If Amina was a white person she would be V.P.,” said Jemele Hill, who hosted a number of shows on ESPN before leaving in 2018. “There are white people that don’t have her résumé.”
Hussein was promoted in July to senior coordinating producer.
Employees see the problems as enduring, not new.
Black ESPN employees repeatedly brought up the experience of Hill and Michael Smith, who were made “SportsCenter” hosts in 2017 and tried to bring an unapologetically Black spirit into the meat-and-potatoes highlight factory that is “SportsCenter.”
The show was quickly tagged as “too political” and met fierce resistance inside ESPN.
“Pretty quickly, that was a show that people internally criticized,” Skipper said. “We had plenty of times where we had shows that didn’t work with nondiverse talent on them, and people never said, ‘You went too far with those two white guys.’”
Norby Williamson, a white senior executive, was put in charge of the show, which Hill said was a signal that its days were numbered. After Hill and Smith left it, and eventually ESPN, Williamson began remaking “SportsCenter” in a much more traditional direction, an effort The Washington Post reported on in 2018.
While executives inside ESPN saw the profile as a success, Black employees noticed a photograph of a staff meeting in the article that contained a sea of white faces. They read his quotation — “Never forget: I’m the person you have to serve here” — and wondered what that said about ESPN’s priorities.
ESPN said the photograph did not represent the diversity of the call, in which 180 people had been invited, many of them participating remotely. “I’m proud of actually how exceptionally diverse it is,” Williamson said. “I am sorry people interpreted that and took that away.”
The network has changed its approach to covering unrest among American athletes.
Over the last several months, as games have been largely suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic and as athletes have spoken about racism, ESPN’s television programs have been dominated by discussions of police brutality, racism and white privilege. Last week, the Walt Disney Company, which owns ESPN, signed a deal to produce shows with Colin Kaepernick, the former N.F.L. quarterback, that included Hill as a producer.
Given how purposefully ESPN has sought to shed the label that it is “too liberal” and avoid the wrath of the president’s Twitter account after the bruising battles of 2017, the shift in tone has been stark.
ESPN’s position is that it has always sought to avoid “pure politics” while aggressively covering the intersection of sports, politics and culture. Executives pointed to The Undefeated, an ESPN site that covers race that has grown in importance over the years and is a part of the Kaepernick deal. The recent programming, executives said, simply reflects the upheaval in the sports world.
Some employees aren’t buying that explanation. “It is interesting because I was on ‘Get Up’ when there were certain stories about Colin Kaepernick, would he have a workout or a tryout, and to be honest it would be a voice-over and no discussion,” Taylor said. “Virtually every other question could be discussed.”
A number of other employees described being told in various ways to tone down or skip their on-air coverage of sports and race. “It was never explicit, it was just sort of us reading the room,” Elle Duncan, a “SportsCenter” anchor, said.
The company has pledged changes.
Pitaro, the ESPN president, has laid out a series of changes. He said that ESPN would have more diverse meetings and ensure all voices were included, that interview and hiring practices would be improved, that leadership development would be strengthened and new employee programs reviewed, among other changes.
“We are going to speak through our actions here, and we are going to improve,” Pitaro said. “If we don’t, it is on me, I failed, because it does all start with me.”
Current and former employees expressed mixed opinions about the prospect for change. Many believe their concerns rank lower in his priorities compared with maintaining relationships with sports leagues and Disney, the corporate parent. Much of the day-to-day running of ESPN, they said, falls to senior executives and others below him who do not share his priorities.
“I am confident that based on the conversations that I am having daily, that leaders across ESPN understand the importance of diversity and the urgency here,” Pitaro said.
Duncan has been a part of a group of Black employees who have been meeting with a top executive since the beginning of the year about increasing the company’s diversity beyond on-air talent. She expects there will be pushback, but the executives she has spoken with are genuine in their desire to change the company.
“I truly, truly, believe ESPN wants to be on the right side of history,” she said.
Two former N.F.L. players have sued the league, the players’ union and the medical board those institutions jointly control for agreeing to reduce the disability payments they received for life by tens of thousands of dollars a year.
The complaint, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., on Friday, stems from a provision in the 10-year collective bargaining agreement that the league and union ratified in March. In the deal, both sides agreed to cut disability payments to 400 or so former players whose doctors have determined they are unable to work.
The players now receive up to $138,000 a year. That amount will be reduced by the value of their Social Security disability benefits, which amounts to $2,000 or more per month, starting in January.
The decision to cut payments to some of the league’s most vulnerable former players has elicited outrage. Wives caring for former players on disability have criticized the N.F.L. on social media. Some members of the union’s executive committee said they did not fully recognize the implications of what they agreed to in the new labor deal. Active players have spoken up, too, most notably Eric Reid, a free-agent safety who said the union turned its back on the former players, a decision he called “disgraceful.”
In May, the N.F.L. Players Association said it planned to review the provisions in the new collective bargaining agreement that pertain to the reduction in benefits to permanently disabled former players.
Cleveland Browns center J.C. Tretter, the N.F.L.P.A. president, who was elected in March, said in his monthly newsletter that the union’s 11-member executive committee and leaders from among retired players would re-examine changes to the Total and Permanent Disability benefit “to fulfill our obligation to all of our members.” He also said the group had “a responsibility to review issues where we have fallen short.”
Two months later, the union has not announced any results from that review.
Tretter and other members of the executive committee will also reconsider a provision of the new labor agreement that allows only N.F.L. disability plan doctors to determine if a former player qualifies for benefits. For now, if a player is approved to receive Social Security disability benefits by an outside doctor, N.F.L. plan administrators will accept that diagnosis and release monthly benefits. This provision, which will be phased out under the agreement, could affect hundreds of additional players in the future.
The union, the league and their disability review board will now have to consider the federal lawsuit brought by Aveion Cason, a running back who played for eight seasons, mostly in Detroit and St. Louis, and Donald Vincent Majkowski, a quarterback who spent 10 years with the Packers, Colts and Lions.
In their suit, they note that Commissioner Roger Goodell told Congress in 2007 that if a player was approved for Social Security disability payments, then the N.F.L. would honor that diagnosis. The new labor deal reverses that promise.
Cason and Majkowski also contend that language in the labor agreement was altered after it was signed, to the detriment of the former players who rely on disability payments. They say that the disability benefits that retired players receive were “for life.”
“It is elemental in sports that you do not change the rules of the game in the middle of the game,” Paul Secunda, a lawyer for the players, said in a statement. “Yet that is exactly what the N.F.L. and N.F.L.P.A. did to its most vulnerable members.”
The league did not respond to requests for comment, and the union said it would not comment at the moment.
In early March, as the coronavirus was spreading across the United States and testing capacity was already a problem, Bill Phillips had an idea.
Phillips is the chief operating officer of a medical device company, Spectrum Solutions, that provides saliva test kits for companies like Ancestry.com. He wondered if Spectrum’s kits — which require customers to spit in a tube and ship their samples through the mail — could work with detecting this new virus.
“I just threw it out there: Why don’t we test our device to see if we can use it as a transport medium to get it to the lab?” Phillips recalled in a recent telephone interview.
Spectrum, based outside Salt Lake City, teamed up with a laboratory at Rutgers University, made a few tweaks and found that the effectiveness of their saliva test kit was comparable to the nasopharyngeal test, or the long swab, that was already in widespread use.
By mid-April, the Food and Drug Administration granted the Rutgers lab an emergency-use authorization. A month later, it received approval for the test kit to be used at home.
That saliva kit is now a key part of Major League Baseball’s plan to return to play, and has also been used by other revived sports leagues, including the PGA Tour and Major League Soccer.
With sports leagues desperate to salvage their seasons and profits, testing was always crucial — even more so now as the number of cases rises nationwide. But there was no blueprint, so a patchwork of businesses and labs, all with entirely different missions before the pandemic, converged to meet the need.
A version of Spectrum’s spit test, once used to help figure out family trees, is now spotting infections. Vault Health, a telehealth company that was focused on sexual health and weight-loss therapies for men, is now using Spectrum’s saliva kit and the Rutgers lab to help leagues conduct wide-scale testing. And the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory in Utah, which previously handled antidoping testing for M.L.B., is now processing coronavirus saliva tests for the league.
Dr. Daniel Eichner, the president and laboratory director of SMRTL, the shorthand name for the Utah lab doing M.L.B.’s coronavirus testing, acknowledged that there was “nothing good about this virus.” But, he said, he was proud of his team’s ability to pivot to this new challenge, like other companies.
“It’s a beautiful American story: When the chips are down, people jump in to contribute as best they can,” Dr. Eichner said.
Seeing an Opportunity
Navigating the rapidly evolving world of coronavirus testing has been far from a simple task for professional sports leagues. They have had to weigh the efficacy and speed of various tests and companies, all while trying to ensure they would not be taking away resources from those who needed them more.
Latest Updates: Global Coronavirus Outbreak
Updated 2020-07-12T07:16:41.566Z Trump wears a mask on a visit to a military medical center. Louisiana orders bars closed and South Carolina breaks records. Thousands of Israelis take to the streets, demanding Netanyahu ‘get the money flowing.’ See more updates More live coverage: Markets
“It was incredibly complicated,” said Andy Levinson, the PGA Tour’s senior vice president of tournament administration.
When leagues began exploring their options — Levinson said the tour consulted laboratory directors and its own medical advisers — saliva-based tests emerged as a popular choice. They could be done almost anywhere, with minimal assistance from a medical professional and without much personal protective equipment, and some studies found saliva was a reliable alternative to the more-common nasopharyngeal swabs.
Another benefit: Spitting in a tube is much less painful than a swab shoved deep into the nasal cavity.
“We call it the brain tickler,” said Jason Feldman, the chief executive of Vault Health.
Feldman’s company is now a linchpin for several leagues’ coronavirus testing operations. Before the pandemic, it was part of a growing wave of telehealth companies, connecting patients with doctors via video calls and facilitating shipments of treatments through the mail.
When the pandemic hit the U.S., Feldman, like many business owners, feared the potential economic effects on his company. But then he realized he was sitting on a wealth of resources that would be useful amid the crisis: He had a relationship with both the Rutgers lab, known as RUCDR Infinite Biologics, and Spectrum Solutions for other products, and a virtual consultation platform that would provide a safe way to talk to patients.
Vault Health devised an at-home saliva testing package, which is supervised via a Zoom video call and mailed overnight to the Rutgers lab, that could produce a result within 48 to 72 hours. It costs $150 out of pocket.
“When sports leagues started calling us,” Feldman said, “they said almost universally, ‘We have athletes who want to come back to practice and we need a plan that could safely bring them back.’”
While Feldman said sports leagues make up a small percentage of his company’s testing clientele, he said Vault had supplied tests to the PGA, L.P.G.A., M.L.S., and N.H.L., as well as a small portion of the N.B.A.’s testing operation. A M.L.S. spokesman said Vault had provided testing for 13 teams during training, while BioReference Laboratories would do so at the league’s restricted-site tournament that recently began outside Orlando, Fla.
An N.H.L. spokesman said the league wasn’t prepared to disclose its testing company, and the N.B.A. did not respond to a request seeking comment.
ImageCredit…Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesImageCredit…Tom Pennington/Getty Images
The PGA Tour, which had restarted competition in mid-June in Texas, was the first professional sports organization to hire Vault, Feldman said. Levinson, the tour executive, said the saliva test was basically used to approve travel: Golfers and caddies take the test before heading to an event, and then once again on the Saturday of a tournament to determine if they can board the tour’s charter plane on Monday to the next event.
But the tour needed a speedier solution for on-site testing to monitor individuals’ health during the events without clogging up local labs. For that, Levinson said, they enlisted Sanford Health, a South Dakota organization that was already a title sponsor of a PGA Tour Champions event.
Sanford Health converted leftover medical trucks into three mobile laboratories, Levinson said, which can return results from the nasopharyngeal swab test in less than two hours.
A Sudden Demand
Phillips, the Spectrum Solutions executive, said that he had talked with nearly all of the professional sports leagues in the U.S., including the National Women’s Soccer League and U.F.C., because many compare notes.
“It was just a cascading effect,” he said. “One called me then another and another.” M.L.B., he said, came to him in April and was expecting to use 275,000 of his kits by the end of the year.
To meet the sudden demand, Phillips said recently that Spectrum Solutions’ factory was working around the clock to make 3.5 million saliva test kits this month. He hoped to double that number, and his staff, to about 500, by August.
Thanks to automation, Dr. Andy Brooks, the chief operating officer of RUCDR, said his lab in Piscataway, N.J., could handle 50,000 tests per day, with more room to grow. He said they had five $2 million modules — robots, essentially — each handling about 10,000 tests, and each requiring about 25 people to run.
ImageCredit…Bryan Anselm for The New York TimesImageCredit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
“We are the McDonald’s of molecular lab services,” he said. “We build a process and make it efficient.”
Throughout the pandemic, public health experts have questioned whether sports leagues were jumping to the front of the line for tests at the expense of the general population. Phillips said his company has donated kits to emergency medical workers in Utah and sold them to whoever wants them, trying to fill the void created by what he called the government’s uneven response to the pandemic.
“There’s a shortage of product, but there’s an even bigger shortage of approved labs,” he said, alluding to the F.D.A.’s backlog in emergency-use approvals for labs that could potentially handle such tests. “If we made 100 million, we can sell 100 million.”
‘We Didn’t Want to Sit Idle’
Unlike other leagues, M.L.B. opted to use SMRTL, the anti-doping lab in Utah, to conduct its testing. Dr. Eichner said SMRTL followed the Rutgers lab’s model for its saliva testing.
Why SMRTL, a nonprofit, morphed from an antidoping testing and research lab into one focusing mostly on coronavirus testing has to do with Dr. Eichner’s background: He has a P.h.D. in viral immunology from the Australian National University.
And as the coronavirus raged through the U.S. in March, he foresaw that the demand for antidoping testing would decrease as sports stopped, and the need for coronavirus testing would skyrocket.
“We had a lot of really good, smart scientists, a lot of good instruments and we didn’t want to sit idle,” he said, adding later, “I knew we could do this test.”
As Dr. Eichner explored ways to use SMRTL to add to the country’s testing capacity, M.L.B. was looking for return-to-play testing. The league paid to convert SMRTL into a coronavirus testing site, Commissioner Rob Manfred has said — and luckily for SMRTL, it had moved to a new facility in early March that is three times as large as its previous site.
To test the saliva coronavirus samples, the lab also needed to clear several federal hurdles. Dr. Eichner said SMRTL — used to dealing with anonymous athlete samples — boosted its secure network to meet federal medical privacy laws for handling patient information. While SMRTL is awaiting formal approval from the F.D.A. on its application for an emergency-use authorization, Dr. Eichner said they were allowed to operate in the meantime.
But M.L.B.’s testing got off to an uneven start as teams began formal training again this month. At least six M.L.B. teams, including last year’s World Series participants, the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros, canceled or postponed workouts during the first week because of delays in receiving test results. Test collectors also reportedly failed to show up in some instances.
M.L.B. said “unforeseen delays” in shipping over the July 4 holiday weekend had affected only a limited number of results and that it had since addressed the testing issues.
Before the delays became public last weekend, Dr. Eichner explained that SMRTL had promised M.L.B. a 24-hour turnaround on test results from the moment they receive the saliva shipments. “We’ve got no control on collection or shipping of the sample,” he said.
In the wake of those hiccups, an M.L.B. spokesman said in a statement on Friday that a portion of its nonplayer tests were expected to be handled by the Rutgers lab, and not solely SMRTL as originally planned. The spokesman said the decision had nothing to do with SMRTL’s capacity to handle the necessary testing.
With M.L.B. testing its players and key personnel at least twice a week, Dr. Eichner said SMRTL moved from working five days a week to every day, added at least five new people and can now process 2,000-2,500 samples a day. There are split shifts: an early morning and later start to get the results out by the evening.
“All that bureaucratic stuff was the hard stuff,” he said. “The actual science was really easy for us.”