In March, seeking a rewarding second chapter to a glittering career, Tom Brady signed a $50 million free-agent contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after 20 seasons and six Super Bowl victories as quarterback for the New England Patriots. The hope in Tampa was that Brady’s megawatt celebrity and proven talent could sprinkle a little stardust on a middling N.F.L. franchise and perhaps vault it to the league’s upper echelon.
On Sunday, Brady and the Buccaneers got their wishes. And maybe more.
In a stirring, tense duel between two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, Brady and the Buccaneers held off a late charge by Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers for a 31-26 upset victory in the N.F.C. championship game in Green Bay, Wis. The Buccaneers will become the first N.F.L. team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium, on Feb. 7.
After the game, when Coach Bruce Arians was asked what Brady had brought with him to Tampa Bay, he said: “The belief he gave everybody in the organization that this could be done. It only took one man.”
Brady, in a postgame interview, tried to deflect credit for the victory, but said: “Who would have even thought a home Super Bowl for us? But we did it.”
Addressing Buccaneers fans, Arians shouted: “We’re coming home, and we’re coming home to win.”
Tampa Bay, which has won three successive postseason games on the road this month, took an 11-point halftime lead on two Brady touchdown passes. The Packers, the top seed in the conference, stormed back, trimming the deficit to 5 points late in the third quarter. But Brady, who will be making his 10th Super Bowl appearance, led fifth-seeded Tampa Bay to a pivotal fourth-quarter field goal, and the Packers failed to score a touchdown on a crucial, late possession despite a first-and-goal at the Buccaneers’ 8-yard line.
The Buccaneers will play the winner of Sunday night’s A.F.C. championship game, between the Buffalo Bills and the host Kansas City Chiefs, in the Super Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. Brady, 43, will become just the fourth quarterback to lead two franchises to the Super Bowl. It was also done by Kurt Warner, Peyton Manning and Craig Morton.
For Rodgers, who won the Super Bowl at the end of the 2010 season, Sunday’s loss was his fourth in a conference championship game.
With both teams depleted by injuries — the Packers were without running back Aaron Jones and Tampa Bay was missing both starting safeties — Green Bay charged back from an 18-point deficit with two third-quarter touchdown passes by Rodgers, who completed 33 of 48 passes for 346 yards. The Packers, assisted by a penalty for a helmet-to-helmet hit near the goal line, cut the Tampa Bay lead to 5 points after a 2-yard touchdown pass from Rodgers to Davante Adams. Green Bay attempted 2-point conversion was unsuccessful, and it trailed Tampa Bay, 28-23.
The Packers’ rally was greatly assisted by three interceptions thrown in the second half by Brady, who completed 20 of 36 passes for 280 yards and three touchdowns. But only one of those interceptions led to a Packers touchdown. More significant was Green Bay’s last possession, when Rodgers led his team to the Tampa Bay 8-yard line with the chance to tie the game with a touchdown and a successful 2-point conversion. Rodgers instead threw three successive incompletions — the last two directed at Adams — and Green Bay settled for a field goal rather than trying for the end zone again on fourth down with slightly more than two minutes remaining.
That decision proved consequential since the Packers never possessed the football again.
After the game, Rodgers called his future with the team “uncertain.” The Packers traded up to select quarterback Jordan Love from Utah State in the first round of the 2020 N.F.L. draft, which led to some friction between Rodgers and the franchise.
“There’s a lot of unknowns going into this off-season now,” Rodgers said Sunday. “I’m just going to have to take some time away for sure and clear my head and just kind of see what’s going on with everything. But it’s pretty tough right now, especially thinking about the guys that may or may not be here next year. There’s always change. That’s the only constant in this business.
The Yankees bolstered their 2021 rotation on Sunday by acquiring Jameson Taillon, a right-handed starter working his way back from elbow surgery, in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The deal, in which the Yankees gave up four minor leaguers, was announced by both teams. It was a fitting move for each, as the Yankees have been taking chances in an attempt to build a championship starting rotation, while the cost-conscious Pirates have been shedding veterans and rebuilding the team’s minor league system.
Taillon, 29, was the second pick in the 2010 draft — he was selected between the star players Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. He has a career earned run average of 3.67, and looked like a future star in 2018, when he went 14-10 with a 3.20 E.R.A. and 179 strikeouts. That progress was interrupted when he missed the entire 2020 season after the second Tommy John surgery of his career. He is expected to be healthy for the start of 2021, and is under contract for $2.25 million. He is eligible for salary arbitration in 2022.
Bittersweet day for me over here! Trying to process everything- have SO much to say to the city of Pittsburgh and my teammates. Also have SO much to say about this incredible opportunity and to the city/fans in New York. Thanks to everyone that has reached out! More to come soon
— Jameson Taillon (@JTaillon50) January 24, 2021
In the Bronx, Taillon will be reunited with Gerrit Cole, the Yankees’ No. 1 starter, who was his teammate for two seasons in Pittsburgh. The pitchers spent time together in the minor leagues as well.
With the addition of Taillon, the Yankees have three pitchers in their 2021 starting rotation who missed all or nearly all of the 2020 season. Luis Severino, who was an All-Star in 2017 and 2018, has thrown just 12 regular-season innings over the last two years as a result of multiple injuries. Corey Kluber, a two-time Cy Young Award winner whom the Yankees signed recently, pitched just one inning in 2020 after a shoulder injury. The team’s projected starting rotation is filled out by a pair of unproven starters: Deivi Garcia, 21, and Jordan Montgomery, 28.
ImageCredit…Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Another option is Masahiro Tanaka, who has been a mainstay of the Yankees’ rotation since 2014. Tanaka, 32, is unsigned for 2021 and may consider returning to Japan. J.A. Happ, who started nine games for the Yankees in 2020, signed a one-year deal with the Minnesota Twins. James Paxton, who was limited to five starts because of a flexor strain, is a free agent.
In exchange for Taillon, the Yankees sent four players to the Pirates: the right-handed pitchers Miguel Yajure and Roansy Contreras, infielder Maikol Escotto and outfielder Canaan Smith. Yajure, 22, pitched seven innings in relief in 2020, making him the only one of the four departing players to have major league experience.
Contreras was the eighth-ranked prospect in the Yankees’ system, according to Baseball America, and Smith was the highest draft pick, having been selected in the fourth round in 2017.
For the Pirates, this was yet another move to shed a veteran in exchange for minor leaguers. Joe Musgrove, a key member of Pittsburgh’s 2020 starting rotation, was traded to the San Diego Padres in a three-team deal that netted the Pirates five young players and sent the left-hander Joey Lucchesi to the Mets.
The coronavirus pandemic fueled a $600 million plunge in the N.C.A.A.’s revenues during its most recent fiscal year, a staggering indication of how the pathogen forced a financial reckoning throughout a college sports industry that was already under scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators across the country.
The decision last March to cancel the men’s national basketball tournament cost the association $702 million in television and marketing rights, N.C.A.A. board members were told during a videoconference this month. And although the N.C.A.A. recouped some $270 million through insurance and spent about $473 million less, the association still posted a loss of nearly $56 million during the fiscal year that ended in August, meeting minutes show.
In an interview this month with The New York Times, Mark Emmert, the association’s president, referred to a range of a financial backstops, including reserves and lines of credit, and budget cuts that had the N.C.A.A. operating with a staff roughly one-quarter smaller than it did a year ago.
“And so we’re fine,” Emmert said, who paused for just a moment before he completed the sentence. “We’re delivering all of the services that we need to — not always as fast as we’d like to, but we’re sure getting it done.”
Emmert, who in recent months has overseen buyouts, early retirements, furloughs, budget cuts and salary and hiring freezes, said that association leaders were not currently “contemplating” another reduction to the distribution to the N.C.A.A.’s leagues, which in turn share money with member schools.
“We’re alive and well,” Emmert said. “We’ve got to get back to being able to support the schools, first and foremost, in the way that they all are accustomed to and require.”
The pandemic came at a time when the N.C.A.A. was facing pressure in the courts and, perhaps most prominently, in Congress and the nation’s statehouses, where lawmakers were increasingly hostile to limits on how student-athletes could profit off their fame.
The N.C.A.A. had been expected to approve new rules this month, but it delayed its plans after the Justice Department expressed misgivings in the waning days of the Trump administration. The delay angered lawmakers — and very well might have flared some interest in federal legislation on the issue of name, image and likeness — though N.C.A.A. officials insist that the association will ultimately act.
Amid all the long political battles and their potentially seismic implications for the collegiate sports business model of students as amateur athletes, the N.C.A.A.’s abruptly troubled finances have become an urgent matter for the industry since March.
In its fiscal year before the pandemic, the N.C.A.A. logged more than $1.1 billion in revenue, most of it related to broadcast and marketing rights of the 2019 N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament. It recorded a profit of nearly $71 million and ended the year with net assets of $450 million.
By the end of the fiscal year that ended in August 2020, according to a financial statement obtained by The Times, the N.C.A.A. was down to about $394 million in net assets. Insurance proceeds accounted for more than half of its $519 million in revenue.
And although the association’s liabilities ballooned from about $161 million to $307 million, auditors said the N.C.A.A. could quickly have about $641 million available to it, mostly through its vast portfolio of investments.
In the first quarter of the current fiscal year, board members were told this month, revenues were down about 4 percent from the same period a year earlier, but that expenses had been cut by 15 percent.
Although N.C.A.A. officials are bracing for a continuing decrease in championship revenues, they are moving ahead with plans for the men’s basketball tournament that is the group’s financial lifeblood.
Organizers have repeatedly and forcefully defended last year’s cancellation, which auditors said had cost the N.C.A.A. more than $800 million when ticket sales are included, and have insurance in place for the 2021 tournament. But executives are well aware that missing another year of tournament revenues would substantially add to the association’s problems.
In a bid to make the tournament happen in some form, officials have scrapped the coast-to-coast games that are rituals of March and announced that the entire competition will be held in Indiana in March and April. Players, coaches, officials and others crucial to the tournament will be required to test negative for the virus on seven consecutive days before arriving in Indianapolis, and masks will be mandatory for people unless they are eating, practicing or playing, or are alone in their hotel rooms.
The N.C.A.A. said last week that the tournament’s start would be delayed until March 18, two days later than initially planned.
They play the matches in quiet, sparsely decorated rooms in Moscow, in tournaments that run every day and at all hours, with a hodgepodge of athletes who vary drastically in age and, in many cases, actual athleticism.
And every month millions of dollars are wagered on their every move.
This is the Russian Liga Pro, an obscure, semiprofessional table tennis competition that has over the past 10 months become the unlikeliest of sports betting phenomena in the United States.
“It’s crazy to think I’ve made hundreds of dollars watching old guys play Ping-Pong in Russia,” said Shayan Ahmad, 23, of North Brunswick, N.J., one of many new, eager table tennis gamblers.
The improbable arrival of Russian table tennis on the betting scene was swift and opportune. It came in the early days of the pandemic, when dedicated gamblers were scavenging a denuded sports landscape for something, anything, to put a bit of money on.
But bettors and bookmakers tend to find a way, and soon competitions like Belarusian ice hockey, Nicaraguan soccer and South Korean baseball were tabbed to fill the void. Later, as the big leagues cautiously returned to the scene, all of these sports returned to obscurity.
All, that is, except Russian table tennis, which has remained one of the most popular draws in American sports books for nearly a year.
“It’s fun, it’s random, and it feels like anything can happen,” said Isaiah Croft, 23, a furniture builder from Chesapeake, Va., who bets on the DraftKings website during frequent trips to Denver, where he grew up. “It’s Russian table tennis. It’s exhilarating.”
That low-stakes games of table tennis contested between little-known players in rooms as quiet as tombs could be described as exhilarating speaks to the savvy of the competition’s organizers, of whom little is publicly known, and the league’s peculiar structure.
The daily slate of matches is almost farcically crammed, a new contest starting every half-hour, churning from morning to night. Like reruns of “Law & Order,” there always seems to be one on. For American gamblers accustomed to the slow buildup to N.F.L. weekends, the glut of betting opportunities is veritable catnip.
The matches can be streamed on some betting platforms or third-party websites, but they are not much to look at. A single camera placed in an upper corner of a mostly barren room captures the action. There are no announcements, no commentary, none of the fanfare of pro sports.
Some players are young, others are graying. Some are trim, others less so. The worst of them could still easily dispatch a casual player on a basement table, but the overall standard of play is firmly below the world’s professional leagues and international competitions.
ImageCredit…Calla Kessler for The New York Times
“It’s always like two old guys in gym shorts and T-shirts just playing in some empty room,” Ahmad said, “and there might be a girl with a scoreboard, the kind you used to see in gym class, where you flip the numbers over by hand.”
Drab aesthetics aside, the Russian Liga Pro — which is also referred to as the Moscow Liga Pro or Russia Liga Pro, depending on the sports book — seems perfectly structured to satisfy the appetites of international gamblers, and the numbers indicate that it is doing a fine job of that.
Jay Croucher, head of trading at PointsBet, an online sports book, said in an interview that table tennis represented more than 50 percent of the company’s total handle, or money accepted in wagers, last April after the professional sports world imploded under the weight of the pandemic. Even when major leagues around the world started to return over the summer, the game still commanded about a quarter of all betting on the site. Today, with most big sports running close to full steam, table tennis remains the fifth biggest draw on the platform, behind football, basketball, soccer and tennis.
The trend has been even more pronounced in certain states. In Colorado, for instance, table tennis drew $12.4 million in wagers across all sports books in November, making it the third biggest sport for bettors there, behind only professional and college football.
“There is an element of it which is baffling,” Croucher said. “It’s just not something you’d expect.”
A representative for the league, responding to questions by email, said the organization had been active since 2017 and that its player pool was composed of more than a thousand “former professional athletes, semiprofessionals and amateurs.” He declined to reveal prize amounts, saying only they were “sufficient and serve as an additional motivation to demonstrate their best qualities in every match and prepare well for tournaments.”
Regarding the odd hours of play — some matches are scheduled at 2, 3, 4 and 5 a.m., Moscow time — the representative explained that “many athletes wanted to play after work in the evening hours and at night.” Never mentioning gambling, he also said, “Our main goal is to develop table tennis in Russia.”
The rise of table tennis in the gambling world has not been entirely smooth. Over the summer, authorities in New Jersey and Colorado suspended betting on similarly obscure table tennis competitions in Ukraine after agencies raised concerns about potential match fixing. Those matches had also become popular among American bettors.
Last month, the police in New South Wales, Australia, whose state capital is Sydney, arrested a former member of the national table tennis team named Adam Green for his role in what was described as a “transnational gambling syndicate.” His corrupt bets on Ukrainian matches had resulted in winnings valued at 500,000 Australian dollars, or about $385,000, the police said.
The Russian Liga Pro, though, has never been flagged for any suspicious activity, and it continues to draw in more and more curious gamblers.
Ahmad, who works as a server at a Topgolf location, started betting on Russian table tennis at the start of the pandemic and has since established something of a comforting routine: Arriving home from work around midnight, he takes a shower, eases into bed and begins looking for enticing table tennis matches to bet on.
He finds the activity funny on some level, but has surprised himself with the volume of information he has retained and his relative success. Some days, he said, his table tennis winnings exceed his earnings at his job.
ImageCredit…Calla Kessler for The New York Times
“People are like, ‘Yo, how do you know the names?’” he said. “I have all these Russian names in my head. I know who’s good.”
Brad Humphreys, a sports economist at West Virginia University, said the rise of table tennis was a surprise — “If I would have made a list of sports that experienced increases in betting volume, international table tennis would not have been in the top 100” — but that it followed some basic gambling wisdom.
The format, Humphreys said, is key. Points in the Liga Pro move quickly, and many table tennis gamblers, like Croft, focus entirely on fast-action midgame bets, wagering on which player will win the next point. Matches are brief, too, with winners often decided in less time than an N.F.L. halftime show. For gamblers, it is a quick rush, the equivalent of a scratch-off lottery ticket.
“Anything you can do to get the rush you get from winning or losing a bet more quickly, people tend to do that,” Humphreys said, “which is why slot machines are so addictive.”
Still, shrewd wagerers always believe they can find an edge.
Nick Webster, an emergency dispatcher from Nashua, N.H., who works overnight shifts, began betting on table tennis as a way to battle boredom. He said he had stacks of notepads to track players and matchups and to inform his picks.
He has a favorite player, a middle-aged competitor named Aleksey Lobanov, and sometimes watches Liga Pro matches on the internet for fun, even when he does not have a wager down.
He paused to acknowledge the absurdity of this, of how deeply into this world he has burrowed.
“All of a sudden I find myself rooting for Lobanov, a guy who I’d never heard of in my life, and now he’s like one of my favorite athletes,” he said. “It’s too bad I can’t go into a shop and get a Lobanov jersey.”
Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Moscow.
Two years after dipping their toe in English soccer, the N.F.L.’s San Francisco 49ers have doubled down on their bet.
The 49ers on Monday announced that they had increased their ownership stake in the Premier League club Leeds United to 37 percent from 15 percent, a move that further embeds American interests in the world’s richest soccer league.
Paraag Marathe, the 49ers executive who has held a seat on the Leeds United board since San Francisco’s initial investment in 2018, will become vice chairman of Leeds United, whose majority owner will remain Andrea Radrizzani, the Italian entrepreneur. The 49ers and Leeds United did not provide financial details of the deal to increase the N.F.L. team’s ownership stake, though it is likely to represent a significant premium on the amount the 49ers spent in 2018, when Leeds was still playing in England’s second-tier Championship.
In an interview with the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera in July, Radrizzani boasted that his initial investment in Leeds of 100 million pounds (about $140 million) had tripled in value. If the club remains in the Premier League, he predicted its valuation could double again in the next three years.
The deal with the 49ers also ends speculation about potential new investment in Leeds. Over the past year, Radrizzani openly talked about selling off more of his ownership stake in Leeds, a team he is hoping to return to its former status as a major player in English soccer.
Marathe, whose duties with the 49ers include oversight of the team’s outside business ventures, told The New York Times in July of the 49ers’ wish to increase their investment in Leeds, and to complete a deal as quickly as possible.
While a deal is now done, it was not quick, smooth or simple, Marathe said, because of complications created by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’ve been doing deals my whole career, and it’s always easier to have a meeting of the minds when the minds are actually physically next to each other, so that, first and foremost, made it very complicated,” Marathe said in a video interview in which he was joined by Radrizzani.
Radrizzani confirmed he had talked to other parties about investing in Leeds United, including the Qatari owners of Paris St.-Germain, the perennial French champion.
The 49ers’ new commitment to English soccer underlines the growing synergy and potential for growth that the owners of N.F.L. franchises see in English soccer. The Glazer family, which owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has controlled Manchester United since 2005; Arsenal is backed by the Los Angeles Rams owner E. Stanley Kroenke; and Fulham, which like Leeds United won promotion to return to the Premier League for this season, is owned by Shahid Khan, who also owns the Jacksonville Jaguars. Liverpool, the reigning Premier League champion, is controlled by Fenway Sports Group, owner of baseball’s Boston Red Sox. Crystal Palace and most recently Burnley have also attracted American investment in recent years.
“I can’t really speak for other American owners and what they’re doing, but for us it’s about synergy and partnership,” Marathe said. “Whatever sport it is, it’s still operating under the same premise: You have media rights, you have ticket sales, you have commercial, hospitality and you have your players. Everything is the same.”
ImageCredit…Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images
The 49ers’ plan in increasing their stake, Marathe added, is to bring the team’s N.F.L. experience to bear on Leeds’s operations on and off the field, through shared proprietary analytics tools to best practices on management and staffing.
Leeds, back in the Premier League after a 16-year absence marred by sporting and financial failures, has won plaudits for its swashbuckling, front-foot style of play under its Argentine coach, Marcelo Bielsa. But it remains some distance from recapturing the days when it was in the mix for the championship year after year.
In its preparation for its return to the elite, Radrizzani said, Leeds spent the sixth-highest amount on securing new talent during the last off-season. That spending will continue, and be supported by the investment from the 49ers, Marathe said.
“If we are able to stay in the Premier League, after two or three years I think this club could step up to be in the group of three or four clubs next to the big ones,” Radrizzani said, picking out Leicester City, the unheralded team that went from relegation danger to Premier League champion in the space of a year in 2016, as a trajectory he would like to emulate. Since Leicester’s title victory, its Thai owners have invested in new players, coaches and infrastructure to maintain the club’s place in the upper reaches of the league.
“Our model, I think, is Leicester City,” Radrizzani said. “We have shared this a lot internally. If there’s a club I admire for what has been done in terms of football management, it’s Leicester.”
Having completed the stake sale, Radrizzani acknowledged that he was now considering adding to his own portfolio, perhaps by buying other European soccer teams. The idea, he said, would be to find opportunities that would allow Leeds to develop players at smaller clubs, or to invest in larger ones that would allow him to develop their sporting and commercial models in concert with those at Leeds United.
He said he would not consider, however, emulating Manchester City’s model of multiple-club ownership, with teams spread across multiple continents. Radrizzani said his sole focus would be on Europe.
The relationship between Radrizzani and Marathe has grown to the point that the 49ers executive has come to refer to the Italian as his “brother.” Before the pandemic, Marathe was a frequent visitor to Leeds with Jed York, the 49ers’ chief executive, and an early riser to watch its games from his home in California.
Not being able to travel to Leeds’s Elland Road stadium to witness the final weeks of the team’s promotion to the Premier League did not dull Marathe and the 49ers’ intent on following through with an expanded investment. Neither did the financial losses Leeds United has endured as a result of the pandemic, which Radrizzani estimated to be roughly 40 million pounds ($55 million).
“Was it a blip on the radar or is it a blip on the radar? Certainly,” Marathe said of the pandemic’s effects on sporting finances. “Do I think sport is going to come roaring back in possibly a bigger way than pre-Covid? Absolutely. Otherwise we wouldn’t be doing this.”
Kap was right.
Let’s not forget that.
Let’s not erase his legacy the way the powers running the N.F.L. would like.
As we barrel full steam toward the Super Bowl on Feb. 7, let’s not lose sight of the fact that Colin Kaepernick’s protest — his willingness to oppose the status quo and challenge America’s racial caste system — carried the profound weight of truth.
Fans should remember. Team owners and the N.F.L. commissioner, Roger Goodell, should remember.
What about the players? Since many of them have dropped their guard and allowed the message to be watered down, they need to remember too.
The big game is less than two weeks away, with the Kansas City Chiefs seeking to successfully defend their title against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The narrative will center on quarterbacks, and rightly so. Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes aren’t just among the greatest to ever play, they are among the most captivating.
But years from now, when historians assess the connection between professional sports and the state of the world in the current era, which N.F.L. quarterback will loom largest?
I’ll bet on Kaepernick, once among the league’s most electric players, censured and shut out of the game since 2016. Kaepernick, whose kneeling protest during the national anthem tore at the heart of the one sport that most embodies America and its myths.
Kaepernick, loved and loathed, celebrated as a champion for justice and denounced by politicians looking to hype racial resentment, no matter the costs.
He has not just been at the center of the storm. At times he has been the storm. All of the other quarterbacks are throwing their beautiful spirals while watching safely from afar — careers well intact.
We’ve just endured a presidential term of brazen demagogy from a man many N.F.L. owners have considered a great leader and friend. We’ve seen the rise of white supremacy. The stream of police shootings. The killing of George Floyd. Protests, the coronavirus pandemic and the deadly storming of the Capitol.
Kaepernick’s critique of America foretold it all.
But if you think everything is fine now that there’s a new face in the White House, think again. Remember that he began his protest not under former President Donald J. Trump, but in the waning days of the Obama administration. He knelt not just against the cracking structure of modern day racism, but its faulty foundation, laid down centuries ago and built upon ever since.
His shadow still hangs over a league that heads to the Super Bowl acting as if he has never existed. N.F.L. owners — and their chief spokesman, Goodell — would rather slice him from collective memory and move on.
“There is nothing more humbling for the billionaires who own N.F.L. teams than to be proven wrong, especially by a Black athlete who is seen as a thorn in their side,” Derrick White, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Kentucky and an expert on race and football, said when we spoke last week.
That’s why the league settled the union grievance filed by the former 49ers quarterback and his former teammate Eric Reid. The pair claimed they were blackballed by the N.F.L. for protesting. A multimillion-dollar payout, replete with a confidentiality agreement, was easier to swallow than giving Kaepernick more airtime.
After Floyd’s killing and protests against police brutality intensified around the world, Goodell was forced to admit the league had been wrong not to listen to players who had been speaking out against systemic racism for years. He summoned the courage to utter the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” And he carefully avoided mention of Kaepernick.
The N.F.L. soon began co-opting the message. Sadly enough, the players have largely gone along with the plan. Kneeling protests waned to a trickle. The riot in Washington seemed to offer a prime opportunity for clamoring, unified protest. It didn’t happen. There were games to be played. Money to be made. Jobs to hold on to. And nobody with Kaepernick’s spine.
You have to hand it to the czars of football. They’ve neutralized the message. They made just enough room for the previously unthinkable in a sport so conservative, so connected to the police and the military and the flag. Think of the helmets with the social justice messaging and the names of victims of police shootings, and the pithy phrases painted on the edge of fields.
One such phrase: “It Takes All of Us.”
Well, all of us clearly does not include Kaepernick. As much as he would like to, he will never play again. This season of chaos, when he wasn’t called upon even as teams were steadily depleted by the virus, put an end to any such hope.
Capitol Riot Fallout
From Riot to Impeachment
The riot inside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, followed a rally at which President Trump made an inflammatory speech to his supporters, questioning the results of the election. Here’s a look at what happened and the ongoing fallout:
As this video shows, poor planning and a restive crowd encouraged by President Trump set the stage for the riot.A two hour period was crucial to turning the rally into the riot.Several Trump administration officials, including cabinet members Betsy DeVos and Elaine Chao, announced that they were stepping down as a result of the riot.Federal prosecutors have charged more than 70 people, including some who appeared in viral photos and videos of the riot. Officials expect to eventually charge hundreds of others.The House voted to impeach the president on charges of “inciting an insurrection” that led to the rampage by his supporters.
Another new motto: “End Racism.”
This from a league with a long, sordid history of discrimination. A league known to prize Black speed and strength while diminishing Black intelligence and leadership.
N.F.L. rosters are 70 percent African-American. There are only two Black head coaches. The league used to tell African-Americans they would get lead jobs if they just put in more patient years learning the craft. Done. Then came an all-too-familiar course correction: The series of recently hired white coaches who are heralded for their genius despite their glaring inexperience.
End Racism? Stop with the Orwellian hypocrisy.
What if the league had not turned its back on Kaepernick? What if, from the start, it had listened to him and started a sincere dialogue with Black players who emulated his protest?
How soon we forget his magnetic talent, lost in the passage of time and obscured by silly arguments that focus on his last struggling seasons leading a 49ers team with little talent and lackluster coaching.
To remember his potential, check out the YouTube highlights.
Watch his four touchdowns on the frigid New England night in 2012, when he dueled Brady’s Patriots and led the 49ers to a 41-34 win. Skip next to his playoff game in 2013 against Green Bay, when he rushed for 181 yards and outpassed Aaron Rodgers.
What might have been is part of the tragedy now. To flourish, the N.F.L. needs singular stars. If Kaepernick had not been rooted from the league, maybe he’s one of the quarterbacks guiding a team to the Super Bowl. Maybe he’s even the talk of it.
Of course, you aren’t likely to hear from Kaepernick as we approach the big game. Silence has become his mystique, which fuels an enduring power.
So who will do it? Who will bring him up, give him his due and keep telling the story? Who will keep the movement front and center, raw and real, instead of the stuff of manicured public-relations campaigns?
What a shame that this is an open question, since there is still so much work to be done.
What a shame, because “Kap was right” is not hard to say.
When Jim Baumbach arrived in Cooperstown, N.Y., in the summer of 2007 to cover the inductions of Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the inescapable topic of the day was Barry Bonds, who was soon to become baseball’s career home run leader.
Baumbach, a reporter for Newsday, asked the assembled former players and other luminaries the obvious question: Should Bonds, perhaps the most visible symbol of the Steroid Era, be admitted to the Hall of Fame?
“So many of them squirmed, clearly hated talking about it,” Baumbach said in an email recently. Some said that they didn’t have a vote, which Baumbach thought was both a cop-out and a fair point. “Here I was asking them a question that I, the reporter, potentially had more power to decide.”
Players are elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the approximately 400 writers who have been members of the Baseball Writers Association of America for at least 10 years. When Baumbach became eligible to vote in 2014, he declined, thinking of that summer day in Cooperstown. A reporter should report the news, not make it, he thought.
A number of newspapers, including The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, bar their employees from participating in awards voting for a similar reason.
For many writers, voting is still an honor. But for others it has become a headache, reflecting their unease about enshrining players who cheated their way to greatness or behaved poorly — and sometimes criminally — off the field. In recent years, several prominent writers have opted out of the voting process or threatened to, raising questions about what it even means to be inducted.
“I think the discourse has gotten so toxic on so many things and this is just another one of them,” said C. Trent Rosecrans, a Cincinnati Reds beat writer for The Athletic and the president of the B.B.W.A.A.
“It is not as fun as it was,” he said. “It shouldn’t be fun. Maybe it should be fun. Shouldn’t it be? Sorry, this is terrible copy, isn’t it?”
The no-fun era kicked off in 2006, when Mark McGwire, the former slugger and a notorious steroid user, first appeared on the ballot.
One of the Hall of Fame’s voting rules states that a player’s character should be taken into account. That rule has existed since the 1940s, but for six decades there were essentially no players rejected because of character concerns, according to John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball.
The character clause, as it has become known, gained relevance as steroid users, both admitted and suspected, began to appear on ballots. McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro never made the Hall. Gary Sheffield and Manny Ramirez are still on the ballot but aren’t close to being voted in.
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were selected on 64 percent of ballots last year — 75 percent is the threshold to make it — and seem unlikely to get the necessary votes this year.
By 2014, the dissonance of the Steroid Era became too much for Dan Le Batard, the Miami Herald columnist and ESPN host. He turned his ballot over to the readers of Deadspin, allowing them to vote on whom he should include.
Le Batard decried the “avalanche of sanctimony” that “swallowed” the voting process and what he saw as the hypocrisy of writers declining to vote for Bonds when some of them surely would have taken a “not-tested-for-in-their-workplace elixir if it made them better at their jobs.” He knew he would be stripped of his ballot in the future (he was) but hoped his protest would lead to change.
“In a climate without reform, my next 20 years of votes will be counted but not actually heard,” he wrote. “At least this gets it heard, for better or for worse.”
The Baseball Hall of Fame still believes writers are “the best electorate for Major League players’ inclusion in the Hall of Fame,” according to a statement from its chairman, Jane Forbes Clark. She added: “We would hope that B.B.W.A.A. voters would share any of their serious concerns with their leadership so that they can be brought to, and fully addressed by, the Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors.”
But when the B.B.W.A.A. has brought concerns to the Hall, it has been ignored. Writers asked the Hall to change the rule that limited them to voting for a maximum of 10 players a year, as many felt there were more than 10 Hall of Fame-worthy candidates. They requested guidance for how to handle Steroid Era players and asked that the Hall make all ballots public after voting.
The Hall declined these requests, but did reduce the number of years a player could remain on the ballot, to 10 from 15. This was widely seen as an attempt to get players like Bonds off the ballot sooner.
All of this caused ESPN’s Buster Olney to stop voting in 2015. “The Hall of Fame seems to be hiding behind the writers — that’s how I felt at the time — in trying to squeeze out the Steroid Era players, and essentially letting the writers do their dirty work,” Olney said recently.
Baseball itself has seemingly forgiven these players. McGwire and Bonds, for instance, have both since gotten jobs as hitting coaches. Yet they remain on the outside of the Hall of Fame looking in.
Jeff Passan gave up his vote in 2017, after Hall of Famer Joe Morgan — a vice-chairman of the Hall who had long fought rear-guard actions against change in baseball — wrote a letter to voters urging them to keep steroid users out.
In a blistering column, Passan assailed the idea of anybody attaching special meaning to the Hall, as Morgan had. “If, by sacred place, the Hall means one in which racists, wife beaters, drunks, gamblers and purveyors of manifold moral turpitude otherwise are celebrated, well, Cooperstown is a shining beacon of divinity set upon a hill of hypocrisy.”
The latest abstainer is Tim Kawakami, the editor in chief of The Athletic’s San Francisco Bay Area site, who wrote that this year’s ballot will be his last. “For the first time since I got a ballot, I couldn’t figure out a reason to really keep doing it,” Kawakami wrote.
He might soon be joined by his colleague Ken Rosenthal, who wrote that he is “frustrated with the inconsistencies we cannot avoid, the false equivalencies we create, the rationalizations that require leaps in logic.”
Rosenthal declined to be interviewed for this story. As for whether he’ll give up his vote, he said only, “right now, I’m considering everything.”
His defection would be a serious blow. Rosenthal, Passan and Olney are among the best known and most influential modern baseball writers. If they all decided they wanted nothing to do with voting, the sustainability of the process would be ever more in question.
Rosenthal’s column also demonstrated that some voters were taking a more expansive view of the character clause. Besides steroids users, Rosenthal had voted for players who were accused of domestic violence or arrested on suspicion of drunken driving. One player had an inappropriate relationship with an underage girl, and one repeatedly made transphobic comments.
If character counts, Rosenthal asked, aren’t those transgressions much better reasons to keep somebody out of the Hall of Fame than their steroid use? This evolved understanding already seems to be affecting the vote. For instance, it seems clear that Curt Schilling’s baseball résumé would have ensured his induction if not for his repeated offensive comments.
This year’s vote comes at a time of a national reckoning with racism, one that has not spared baseball or its writers. The B.B.W.A.A. recently removed the name of the former commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis from its Most Valuable Player Award because of his segregationist and racist views.
In a strange wrinkle of history, it was Landis who was most responsible for the adoption of the character clause. But rather than invoking character to exclude players, Landis wanted writers to enshrine players who wouldn’t have qualified on their baseball performance alone. He championed Eddie Grant, a light-hitting and unremarkable infielder who was killed while fighting in World War I. The writers declined to vote him in, but shortly after Landis died in 1944 the Hall of Fame officially made character a consideration in the voting process for induction.
Some of the thorniest cases will soon resolve themselves. Bonds, Clemens, Sosa and Schilling have all been on the ballot for nine years, meaning that unless they make it in this year, next year will be their last year of eligibility.
But the writers will get no reprieve. Questions about how the character clause should be wielded are not settled, nor will there be a shortage of players who some voters believe violated it. Absent guidance from Major League Baseball or a wholesale change in how voting is conducted, consternation will remain.
And the Steroid Era? The reckoning is not over, not by a long shot. Alex Rodriguez will be eligible for election into the Hall of Fame in 2022.
The University of Michigan suspends athletic activities after finding cases of the variant first detected in the U.K.
The University of Michigan said Saturday that it had suspended all sports activities for up to two weeks and told athletes, coaches and team staff members to quarantine immediately after “several” cases of a more transmissible variant of the coronavirus were found among people linked to the athletic department.
The department said the suspension had been mandated by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in an effort to prevent further spread of the variant, first identified in Britain and known as B.1.1.7, which is estimated to be about 50 percent more transmissible than other variants.
“Canceling competitions is never something we want to do,” Warde Manuel, the University of Michigan athletic director, said in a statement, “but with so many unknowns about this variant of Covid-19, we must do everything we can to minimize the spread among student-athletes, coaches, staff, and to the student-athletes at other schools.”
Michigan, a member of the Big Ten Conference, has one of the most prominent athletic programs in the country. Its men’s basketball team is currently ranked seventh nationally, and the women’s team is ranked 11th. A two-week suspension would require both teams to reschedule or cancel at least four games.
Officials in Washtenaw County, which includes the University of Michigan, said Saturday that five cases of the B.1.1.7 variant had been found in the county and that other possible cases were being investigated. They said that the first case was detected on Jan. 16 within the University of Michigan community, but that it was not clear whether the subsequent cases were related to the first one.
The university administration said five cases of the variant had been detected among people associated with the school. It added that all five people were in isolation and experiencing mild or no symptoms, and that all of their close contacts had been identified, tested and placed in quarantine.
The coronavirus has disrupted college sports programs across the country, with thousands of infections among athletes, coaches and staff members. A New York Times analysis last month found that the Big Ten Conference had reported the most cases of any top league, including more than 200 at Michigan.
The first U.S. case of the B.1.1.7 variant was found in Colorado last month, and it has now been detected in at least 22 states. Federal health officials have warned that it may become the country’s dominant source of coronavirus infection by March.
Zach Randolph and Kobe Bryant were contemporaries in the N.B.A.’s Western Conference for more than a decade. They were teammates in two All-Star Games. They even shared a workplace during Randolph’s brief stint with the Los Angeles Clippers, who played in the considerable Staples Center shadow of Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers.
They crossed paths often enough to develop what Randolph described as “a mutual respect.” Yet there were no hints back then that the relationship was destined to take on a coach-parent dynamic — that Randolph, in his first year of retirement, would ask Bryant to make room for his eldest daughter, MacKenly, on Bryant’s Team Mamba.
“Who could imagine it?” Randolph said.
Until the summer of 2019, when Randolph relocated from Memphis to Southern California, all his go-to Kobe stories centered upon Bryant’s maniacally competitive nature and what it was like to experience it firsthand. Those showdowns go back to the start of Randolph’s career in the early 2000s during his turbulent start with the Portland Trail Blazers, long before his run as one of the most successful and popular players in Memphis Grizzlies history.
The recollections that flow now from Randolph tend to focus heavily on Bryant’s coaching ways as opposed to their N.B.A. encounters, memories cherished from the few months MacKenly was able to work with Bryant before tragedy intervened. On his way to a Team Mamba game on Jan. 26, 2020, Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash near Calabasas, Calif.
The crash, nearly one year ago on a foggy Sunday morning, killed all nine people aboard — including Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, her Team Mamba teammates Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester and the assistant coach Christina Mauser. The catastrophe has left Randolph fixated on the image of Bryant as the girls’ ultra-organized, practice-obsessed and, in stark contrast to his playing persona, reserved-during-games coach.
“He’s one of the best to ever do it,” Randolph said, referring to Bryant’s coaching rather than to his standing as the fourth-leading scorer in N.B.A. history.
Randolph marveled at the N.B.A.-inspired lengths to which Bryant, alongside Mauser, went to train and teach his team of seventh- and eighth-graders. Bryant scheduled his players for yoga sessions, beach workouts, sprints and laps at the track, and frequent film study to supplement specialized on-court work to master footwork concepts and defensive principles. Conditioning and strength training were prioritized. Practice and travel schedules were comprehensive. Bryant also made a point of asking his players to name the colleges they dreamed of attending and playing for to establish that as a formal goal.
“He put his all into it,” Randolph said. “He ran it like a real organization.”
MacKenly Randolph had become aware of Team Mamba and the basketball-crazed Gianna Bryant through Instagram. At MacKenly’s urging, Kobe Bryant was one of Zach’s first calls after the family left Memphis and took residence in Encino, Calif. Zach asked Kobe if he was open to coaching MacKenly.
“We’ll see,” Bryant told Randolph. “Let’s get her here and see how she mixes with the other girls.”
ImageCredit…Mark Abramson for The New York Times
MacKenly might have been the 6-foot-tall daughter of a former 6-foot-9 N.B.A. star, but Bryant promised nothing. She was not granted a starting spot right away — not even with Team Mamba in need of a center. Practices were often held Monday through Friday in Orange County, where most of the team’s players lived, meaning that MacKenly was expected to make the long commute from the San Fernando Valley. After practices, she had to run extra to “catch up to the other girls,” as Zach recalled Bryant saying.
None of that, though, stopped Randolph from calling it “a perfect fit.”
“Like a puzzle, man,” Randolph said. “My daughter was just so ecstatic. It’s all she talked about.”
He said MacKenly was “mesmerized”; MacKenly said he was exaggerating. Though she said she was “super nervous” at first about being coached by Bryant, “After like a week it was, ‘Oh, he’s just a regular person.’ ” While some of the girls on the team called him “Coach Bryant,” MacKenly said she “really just called him Kobe.”
Where father and daughter readily concur: Bryant helped MacKenly improve immediately.
“I work with her a lot, but you could tell the difference with Kobe,” Zach said. “When Kobe was speaking, he didn’t have to say, ‘Pay attention.’ ”
“He basically taught me how to play defense and how to rotate,” MacKenly said.
Asked to describe Bryant’s coaching demeanor, MacKenly added: “You would know when he’s mad, or he’s not playing around, but he would never, like, yell at you.”
The pandemic has delayed the start of MacKenly’s freshman season at Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth, Calif., but her game continues to develop. Even though MacKenly shoots right-handed and Zach is a lefty, comparisons to her father’s combination of strength, guile and a deft scoring touch inside are frequent. Such is MacKenly’s potential that she has received verbal scholarship offers from Louisville and Arizona before playing a single high school game.
“She’s extremely talented,” said Alicia Komaki, Sierra Canyon’s coach. “She’s very mobile and agile and she’s really worked on developing her guard skills, because I think she’s been locked into the post as a youth and she really wants to expand on that part of her game.”
MacKenly has been helped along by games of one-on-one against her father in which Zach permits her only three dribbles before shooting. She also trains occasionally with the former N.B.A. All-Star Gilbert Arenas, whose daughter Izela is another highly rated freshman at Sierra Canyon. (The school’s boys’ team received national acclaim last season with a roster that included LeBron James Jr., who is known as Bronny and is the eldest son of the Lakers star LeBron James. He’s now a sophomore.)
Although strict Covid-19 regulations in California have restricted Sierra Canyon to just a handful of practices and individual workouts in recent months, Komaki already sees improvement in MacKenly’s 3-point shooting and ball handling.
“You can tell she’s been working on those skills,” Komaki said.
Less clear, Zach Randolph said, is how to coach MacKenly through the many layers of grief that have been mounting for the Randolphs in recent years. Mae Randolph, Zach’s mother, died in November 2016. Roger Randolph, Zach’s younger brother, was shot and killed in June 2018. Then, less than two years later, the helicopter crash.
A week before the crash, MacKenly made the same helicopter trip with the Bryants from Orange County to Ventura County after spending the night at their house. She and Gianna had bonded quickly as teammates, MacKenly said, because Gianna, sensing the newcomer’s unease about joining an established team, went out of her way to help MacKenly fit in.
ImageCredit…Chris Costello, via MoPho/SplashNews.com
“She was super nice,” MacKenly said.
Team Mamba played two games on Jan. 25, 2020, on the opening day of the first Mamba Cup, which Kobe Bryant had organized to attract top teams from California and other states. MacKenly Randolph said she thinks often about how “three of my best friends were here one day and then the next day, they were gone.”
“It was tough for my baby — still is — but I’m proud of her,” Zach Randolph said. “She’s 15, but she’s strong, man.”
As the one-year anniversary of the crash approached, Randolph said he was still processing his own emotions. It has stuck with him that Kobe Bryant, anticipating years of working with MacKenly, said on more than one occasion: “Z-Bo, just wait until I get done with her.”
On the morning of the crash, Zach Randolph was driving north on U.S. Highway 101 to get to Bryant’s academy in Thousand Oaks, Calif., to watch MacKenly. She was already there with several teammates awaiting a noon tipoff against a team from Texas coached by Jason Terry, another former N.B.A. player.
“When I got the news, I had tears in my eyes,” Zach Randolph said. “I looked around and everybody on the highway in their car was crying, too. It was like everybody got the news at the same time. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”
A hint of comfort, Randolph said, came from having the chance to connect MacKenly with Bryant on Team Mamba like she wanted. He has been open about being raised without a father in Marion, Ind., how that might have contributed to some of the troubles and controversies he faced in his teens and his 20s, and “coming up in poverty.”
Another bit of solace: Randolph said he did get to tell his old rival how grateful he was for all Bryant had taught MacKenly.
“He loved them girls,” Zach Randolph said. “He loved my baby. He told me, ‘I love her, man.’ When he told me that, I told him, ‘We’re brothers for life.’ ”
MELBOURNE, Australia — The intricate ballet begins at sunrise and ends after dark, a complicated series of movements requiring the utmost precision for what has long been a very simple task — getting tennis players to and from the courts so they can practice ahead of a professional tournament.
There is a strict routine to enforce social distancing: a series of knocks on hotel doors every five minutes, checking and rechecking that hallways are clear and that people are where they must be, whether that is in a van, or on the court, or the gym, or a dining pod, and then a thorough cleaning of their trail. The whole process, moving every available player to and from training in waves, can last almost 16 hours.
Alarms not going off or a little dawdling can cost players their precious daily chance to emerge from their rooms and prepare for the Australian Open, the first major tournament of the year, scheduled to start on Feb. 8.
“The amount of planning is amazing,” Kevin Anderson, the veteran South African, said of the regimen, which began early last week, soon after a fleet of players arrived in the country on specially chartered flights. “You don’t see anybody.”
This is what happens when you try to bring more than 1,200 people, including hundreds of athletes, from overseas to a country that has largely rid itself of the coronavirus, and that will go to great lengths to assure that it does not return to the community.
After months of intense, police-enforced lockdowns throughout the country, Australia has averaged just 11 daily cases the past two weeks. The limited number of travelers allowed in from overseas each day has accounted for most of the positive tests. In other words, in a country of more than 25 million people, community spread is largely nonexistent.
The effort to keep things that way, while holding the Open and multiple warm-up events, has been bumpy. Ten people arriving on three of the chartered flights for the events, including one player, have tested positive for the coronavirus.
That prompted health officials to order all 72 players on those planes to stay in their hotel rooms for 14 days.
One of those 72, Paula Badosa of Spain, tested positive Wednesday, seemingly dashing any hopes that players from those flights who have repeatedly tested negative since landing might be released early from the hard lockdown. Badosa, 23, flew to Australia from Abu Dhabi, on the same flight that transported Bianca Andreescu’s coach, Sylvain Bruneau, who tested positive for the virus shortly after landing in Melbourne.
All of the players had expected to be able to spend two hours practicing at a tennis center and 90 minutes in a gym every day during the two weeks leading up to the competitions. After the 72 players learned they were being locked down, organizers faced a mini-rebellion.
ImageCredit…Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images
Melburnians, who were subject to a strict 111-day lockdown from June to October that closed schools and businesses and prevented them from leaving their homes for more than an hour each day, have reacted angrily. Ticket sales came to a standstill. Politicians denounced the decision to hold the competitions.
“We will be in that darkest hour for a while, and then there will be a dawn,” Craig Tiley, chief executive of Tennis Australia, which organizes the Australian Open, said Friday afternoon. “That dawn will start when the events start.”
The Coronavirus Outbreak ›
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Tennis Australia has pressed on, adhering to a series of protocols aimed at keeping the community safe amid the influx of foreigners. And nothing represents the lengths to which the organization will go to stage its tournaments better than the elaborate puzzle of getting players from three hotels to two tennis centers while minimizing the risk of spreading infection, either to one another or to the locals.
The strict process of moving the hundreds of players and their coaches through four different stops each day and keeping practice groups separate has not been an easy adjustment for players. In normal times, they set up hitting sessions with their fellow players on the fly, Anderson said.
Also, while the players have existed in bubblelike environments at tournaments since the sport returned in August after a long shutdown, they did not have to deal with such strict restrictions at the previous two Grand Slams, the United States Open in New York in late summer and the French Open in Paris in early fall.
Covid-19 was circulating in those communities, so the sport’s traveling circus did not present the kind of risk to those cities that they do here. In those cases, the players seemed to be more at risk than the public.
Donna Vekic, 24, of Croatia, said that she understood the need for the precautions, especially given how successful Australia has been in controlling the virus, but that following the rules has been stressful and tiring.
ImageCredit…Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images
Twice last week she had to be on the court at 8 a.m., which doesn’t sound bad, but she is not a morning person, and that court time meant a knock on the door at 7:45, which meant rising at 6:30 for coffee, a bite to eat, a pre-training session with her physiotherapist in the adjoining room — a warm-up that involves jumping rope and stretching with elastic bands — then gathering all her equipment so she could be ready for the knock on the door and to take the court as soon as she reached the tennis center.
“If you cannot adapt, you are in a bad position,” Vekic said Thursday.
The routine, however, has also been adapting.
Players who miss the window lose their slot and their chance to practice that day. And by Friday, the tournament organizers realized that they needed to redraw the schedule so players like Vekic could have fitness sessions when they arrive at the tennis centers, rather than being sent immediately to the courts for practice.
At Melbourne Park, the site of the tournament, and Albert Reserve, a nearby training center, each player practiced with one preselected partner for the first week. The groupings would grow to foursomes for the second week.
A marshal oversees each group, monitors the players’ movements and tells them when to move from one area to the next.
“You don’t really need that because you are checking the clock the whole time,” Vekic said.
Officials have set up a series of individual fitness pods on a low floor of a parking garage, and there are fitness tents equipped with cardio machines, medicine balls, kettle bells and other equipment next to some of the courts. When the players are moved to their next stations, a cleaning crew descends.
Then there is an hour to eat in another isolated location, before the van ride back to the hotel and a trek back to the room that is just as choreographed and regimented as the departure.
Life is somewhat less complicated for the best of the best.
Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Dominic Thiem, Naomi Osaka and Simona Halep are quarantining about 450 miles northwest of Melbourne, in Adelaide, where they are preparing to play an exhibition scheduled for Friday. Because of their stature, those superstars were allowed to travel with larger entourages than those accompanying other players, and while their training time is still limited, they don’t have to share a facility with hundreds of other players.
Joe Salisbury, a doubles specialist from Britain, had a wrench thrown into his practice plan: Rajeev Ram, his hitting partner and teammate, is among the 72 players who can’t leave his room for 14 days. Salisbury was told that no other player in his hotel and training center was in a similar situation. The schedule is too intricate to set him up with another player in a different hotel.
Fortunately, his coach, Rob Morgan, is a decent substitute.