Bristol weighs risk of hosting up to 30,000 fans for NASCAR All-Star race: ‘It’s a great responsibility’
NASCAR’s wild carnival ride of a season will continue next week with an event that could put stock car racing in the middle of another turbulent news cycle.
After Sunday’s Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway, NASCAR will move on to Bristol Motor Speedway on Wednesday for its annual All-Star Race. Often one of the most exciting events of the season, the All-Star Race carries extra weight this year. With between 20,000 and 30,000 fans expected at the huge stadium-like facility, Bristol will host the biggest sports crowd in the country since the coronavirus pandemic called a screeching halt to practically all organized athletic events in March.
The race is likely to attract more attention than normal not only because it has been moved from its traditional site at Charlotte Motor Speedway and from its normal weekend scheduling but also because of how the speedway and the Bristol area will handle the influx of fans. Statewide the number of active cases of COVID-19 have continued to rise. Gov. Bill Lee extended his state of emergency declaration June 29, which means Tennesseans are encouraged to limit activities and wear masks. The declaration limits social and recreational gatherings of 50 or more people with some exceptions.
Bristol Motor Speedway will be under a microscope of sorts as it ventures into territory not visited by U.S. professional sports since March.
“We know that hosting this event comes with tremendous responsibility,” Bristol Motor Speedway general manager Jerry Caldwell told USA TODAY. “We are the first major sporting event to have a significant crowd. We don’t take that responsibility lightly.
“This is an opportunity for us to demonstrate to the country how we can go back to doing some of the things we love to do in a safe and responsible way. This is where we live. It’s a great responsibility.”
The race is likely to be a bright spot for businesses in the eastern Tennessee/western Virginia area, most of which have suffered during shutdowns due to the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19. Although many attending the race will be from within a 25-mile radius of the half-mile track, others coming from longer distances will provide at least a small boost to the local economy at restaurants, stores and hotels.
The down side is that visitors could accelerate the spread of the coronavirus in the Bristol area, a threat the speedway is addressing by planning a long list of safety protocols, including spacing the crowd in small social-distancing groups throughout the stadium, one of the biggest in sports with a capacity of 160,000.
The speedway’s approach to the return of significantly large fan numbers could provide a template for other sports — for example, college football — hoping to welcome fans in coming months.
As currently scheduled, the motorsports landscape over the next two months will see speedways taking dramatically different paths to fan access. No fans will be allowed at NASCAR events at Kentucky Speedway this weekend and at Kansas Speedway on July 23. At Homestead Miami Speedway last month, 1,000 special guests were allowed to sit in the grandstands, mostly first responders and military families. Talladega restricted attendance to 5,000 fans for its race June 21.
Texas Motor Speedway has announced a 50 percent maximum — or about 60,000 — for attendance at its July 19 NASCAR race, but track officials expect the actual total to be much less.
In addition, the number of officials, pit crew members, mechanics, safety workers and other personnel at NASCAR Cup races typically totals about 900, down from about 2,000 before the pandemic.
The 50 percent fan marker also will be in effect Aug. 23 for the rescheduled Indianapolis 500 IndyCar race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, one of the world’s biggest sports venues. A half-full Indy could reach 125,000.
Masks, temperature checks, digital tickets
Among Bristol’s changes: Employees will be required to wear masks; fans will be required to wear masks except when in their seats; fans sitting in suites at the top levels of the stadium will be required to have temperature checks.
Drink coolers will not be allowed in the seating areas, and passenger trams, normally a popular alternative for fans moving around the facility, will be available only to those with limited mobility. Food and souvenir purchases can’t be made with cash, and tickets are being sold digitally.
“We know that some of the things we’re putting in place are going to be a temporary inconvenience,” Caldwell said. “We view that really as a small price to pay.”
The track can seat more than 160,000, but ticket sales are being limited so that fans can be scattered throughout the grandstands. Caldwell called ticket sales “tremendous” but would not reveal how many have been sold.
By buying tickets, fans are “assuming all risks of exposure to COVID-19” and agree to release the track from claims that might result, according to the speedway.
According to the Tennessee Department of Health, Sullivan County (home to BMS) has had 210 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and four deaths through July 10. The state of Tennessee has had 723 deaths through July 10 with more than 61,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
A controlled environment
The speedway, which attracted full houses of NASCAR fans for decades, has been an important financial engine for the greater Bristol area since opening in 1961. The area’s other major tourist attraction is the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and its annual music festival: the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion.
The festival, held on State Street in downtown Bristol, a city of about 26,000, typically attracts more than 40,000 fans over its three-day run. It brings together leading performers from bluegrass, Americana, country and other musical genres.
But even as BMS prepares to welcome fans next week, organizers of the musical festival announced on July 6 that this year’s event, scheduled Sept. 11-13, has been canceled because of the coronavirus.
The festival is held outside on 20 stages spread along State Street and across the Virginia-Tennessee state line that divides the town.
“We have 130 bands and 20 stages in a five-block area and people moving constantly from stage to stage,” said Kim Davis, the event’s director of marketing. “It was a challenge we couldn’t overcome. We have to consider the health and safety of our community of fans and artists.”
The festival location is about eight miles from the speedway.
“NASCAR and BMS definitely have a more controlled environment than we do,” Davis said. “They have the ability to distance folks in ways that we can’t. It’s a better-controlled environment.”
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Karen Hester, owner of two businesses in downtown Bristol, said next week’s race will be like a vitamin to the area economy.
“Any time you get 30,000 people coming to your town, it’s going to make an economic impact,” she said. “I don’t know how many fans will be able to come and stay like they do traditionally here in Bristol for a week or longer, but it’s going to be a boost.
“The speedway has taken a lot of extra precautions. I’m hoping it will be a good, safe, healthy race for everybody and a sign of our economy opening back up.”
Not everyone is pleased. Don Evans, a Bristol resident, criticized the scheduling of the race in a letter to a local newspaper.
“We already have a lot of cases, and now you throw all these people into the pot,” Evans, an environmental engineer, told USA TODAY. “From a public health standpoint, it’s probably the most absurd thing to do.
“Our politicians here suffer from an extreme Trumpian attitude. If you advocate for any kind of mitigation measures, you’re typically ridiculed and, in some cases, threatened. It’s almost as if we have to have the angel of death at our door before there will be any recognition of the severity of what we’re confronting and what we need to be doing.”
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.
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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.
Saying she was “made for quarantine” because of a decade playing in Russia, Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi still understands the sacrifice that WNBA players are making to play an entire season in Florida due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I know being in an apartment by yourself for many months and not having many people to talk to,” Taurasi said Saturday after the Mercury’s second preseason practice at IMG Academy. “For me, that’s nothing unusual. And you take solace in being on the court for two hours. That’s the only part of life that’s normal for us being in here.
“It’s a huge sacrifice that we’re all making to be here, leaving family and friends. When we’re on the court, we’ve got to make the best of it. These are times we can actually enjoy and really pour ourselves into each other. It’s not going to be easy, but that’s when you rely on each other.”
Taurasi, who turned 38 on June 11, is in Bradenton without her wife Penny Taylor and 2-year-old son Leo, who remained in Phoenix primarily for their safety. Taylor gave up her job as a Mercury assistant coach for this season, replaced by Chasity Melvin.
“It literally was an hourly decision of coming or not coming,” Taurasi said. “Ultimately we decided it would be safer for them to stay in Phoenix. For four months now, we’ve quarantined in the house with just us. As safe as the bubble is, you’re automatically exposed to 200 plus people. Just for the safety of Penny and Leo being so little, it was probably the best decision, but a hard decision. It’s a long time to be away from your family.”
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Taurasi, WNBA career scoring leader, is returning to full-time basketball for the first time since fall 2018. She played in only six games in 2019 coming off back surgery and due to a hamstring injury. This is her 16th WNBA season, and her intention is to play at least through 2021 for the now delayed opportunity to play in a fifth Olympics.
“This is like an Olympics, Final Four, World Championships,” Taurasi said. “You see all the teams. You do your job then you have to find a way to stay mentally sane for the rest of the day. It’s different now. You have FaceTime. My first couple of years overseas, you literally didn’t even have internet. You make the best of it.”
Taurasi played in Russia and Turkey from 2005-06 (during the WNBA offseason) through 2016-17 including on six EuroLeague championship teams. She sat out the 2015 WNBA season to play exclusively in Russia for a season, for financial reasons and to take a break from year-round basketball.
This season, Taurasi is on a Mercury team with two other All-Star caliber players — center Brittney Griner and point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith — and at least five new teammates including Diggins-Smith.
“These are times where you need a lot of people to lead,” Taurasi said. “That’s what we tried to do with putting this team together with people who have high character. But it’s fragile. Any little thing of irresponsibility, any attitude of thinking your actions don’t affect the next person. At any minute this thing could shut down if you make a wrong decision. I think we’re all pretty serious about that and take that responsibility to heart. That’s why up to this point it’s worked for us.”
Cunningham to report soon, Breland’s status uncertain
Mercury coach Sandy Brondello said nine of the Mercury’s 11 players are in Bradenton and that guard Sophie Cunningham would be joining soon, perhaps this weekend.
The status of forward Jessica Breland is unreported as the WNBA works through medical exemption issues. Breland missed a season of college basketball in 2009-10 due to Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
If Breland, acquired in a February trade, cannot play this season for medical reasons, the Mercury would have a 10-player roster of Taurasi, Griner, Diggins-Smith, Brianna Turner, Bria Hartley, Nia Coffey, Alanna Smith, Cunningham, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and Kia Vaughn.
Like Taurasi, Brondello believes players used to the variables of life while playing internationally will adjust to the WNBA bubble.
“I just to back to my own experiences living in Russia,” Brondello said. “It’s so cold, you’d go to practice and go home. You really didn’t leave too much from your apartment. Obviously not every country overseas is similar to that, but it prepares them in some ways. But how do you really prepare for a pandemic? That’s one for the books. But the WNBA has done a great job of putting us in a safe environment so we can have a season even though it’s a little bit reduced.”
The 22-game regular season (down from the planned 36) will begin July 25 with each team playing the 11 others twice. A revised schedule will be announced once national TV broadcasts are set.
Brondello said the Mercury will scrimmage with other teams during the preseason and that she is guarding against doing too much conditioning at the outset to protect against injuries.
“You could see the chemistry, it’s coming quick,” she said. “We’ve got a very mature group. Now it’s more about conditioning. It’s slowly building them up. We’re not to be 100 percent conditioned at the start of the season, but I think we will be at the end and that’s when it really matters. We’ve got a very versatile group. It’s great to see them develop that chemistry you need to be successful in this league.”
Reach the reporter at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jeffmetcalfe.
HAMPTON, Va. — A driver died Saturday night in a crash during a race at Langley Speedway, officials at the Virginia short track said.
Driver Shawn Balluzzo, who was 64, died following a crash during the second of two Modified Division races, the speedway said in a statement Sunday. The Virginian-Pilot reported Balluzzo was the winningest driver in the history of the track.
“He won the hearts of our fans with 11 track championships and a driving style that made him one of the most respected competitors we’ve ever known,” the statement said.
Balluzzo’s death was the first at the track in a racing-related accident since 2004, the newspaper reported.
Balluzzo won 16 of 17 division races in 2019. He finished second in the first of Saturday’s twin 50-lap races, which were the season openers for the Modifieds, and congratulated the winner on Facebook: “Big congrats to Matt Carter on his win!”
During the second race, Balluzzo’s car went airborne after bumping another car and crashed front-first into a wall.
“I saw him impact the wall head-on and you know that’s never a good hit,” driver Mark Wertz said. “You don’t think it’s as bad as it was, but it was kind of surreal.”
Emergency workers extricated Balluzzo from his vehicle after cutting the roof off. He was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where he died.
The race was shortened to 30 laps, and Carter won again.
“Shawn’s great, he was a legend out here,” Carter said. “He’s dominated this series for many years.
“It’s always been my goal to beat him because he’s been the ‘Modified Man’ out here. It was a great night (for me) and it turned into a tragedy.”
Late in the NASCAR Cup Series race Sunday at Kentucky Speedway, Kevin Harvick was out front and looked like he was about to cruise to his fifth win of his dominant 2020 season.
Instead, Harvick’s rookie teammate, 22-year-old Cole Custer, stole the checkered flag with a wild finish and crazy upset at the 1.5-mile track. It’s the first victory of his Cup Series career and was the first time a rookie won a race since 2016.
Even Custer, who hadn’t led laps in the Cup Series until his five Sunday, admitted after the race that he wasn’t expecting his team to end up in victory lane. Although, the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing driver did say it was “the best car I’ve ever driven in my life.”
“I’m surprised, yes!” Custer said afterward on a Zoom call with reporters. “We have definitely done a better job these last few weeks. We started putting the whole picture together, and you’ve gotta just have the whole thing working together, whether it’s pit stops and restarts, or me doing my job, or having the car perfectly right.”
On the final restart with two laps of the 267 total left, Harvick had the lead on the outside with Martin Truex Jr. restarting second on the inside, while Custer was sixth. The two veterans had been trading the lead back and forth in the last dozen laps, and it seemed like a late, two-man race in a largely uneventful Sunday.
As Harvick and Truex took off on the restart, Ryan Blaney and Custer, respectively, charged behind them looking for an avenue to pass. Then suddenly, the quartet was racing four-wide for the lead and the win before Custer edged ahead.
“I just wanted to start yelling, honestly,” Custer said about taking the lead on the last lap. “But I was like, ‘Man, I can’t. I’ve gotta wait until I get to the start-finish line because I’ll jinx this thing.’
“So at that point, I kinda knew I had it. I mean, I thought I had it, but it was just — like any racer, I think we’re a little superstitious, so you’ve gotta wait until the end.”
After Blaney went to the inside of the track to make it three-wide with Harvick and Truex, Custer went to the outside lane. And by the time the white flag flew, signaling the final lap of the 400.5-mile race, they were four-wide.
“We were all tangling, battling and side-by-side, three-wide and all that mess,” said Truex, who ultimately finished second. “These things are all about momentum, so obviously he was just able to keep his momentum going and we all kind of came together there going into [Turn] 3. He was able to take advantage of it.
“Obviously, the outside is, most of the time, where you want to be, but you get a green-and-white checkered [flag] and a lot of crazy things can happen and guys are just pushing and shoving. So yeah, he was just [in the] right place at the right time.”
Harvick, sandwiched between Blaney and Truex, appeared to make contact with both of them, as Custer blew by them to take the lead and win the race. Matt DiBenedetto came in third, Harvick was fourth, Kurt Busch was fifth and Blaney was sixth.
The win automatically qualifies Custer for the 16-driver, 10-race playoffs this fall, along with Wednesday’s All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
BIRMINGHAM, England (AP) — A 12-year-old boy was arrested by police after Crystal Palace player Wilfried Zaha highlighted racist abuse he received ahead of Sunday’s Premier League match at Aston Villa.
Zaha posted the screenshots on Twitterwith the message: “Woke up to this today.”
The racist messages and imagery referencing Zaha being Black were sent on Instagram from a user who referenced Villa in his name.
“We were alerted to a series of racist messages sent to a footballer today and after looking into them and conducting checks, we have arrested a boy,” West Midlands Police said on Twitter. “The 12-year-old from Solihull has been taken to custody. Thanks to everyone who raised it. Racism won’t be tolerated.”
Before kickoff at Villa Park, Zaha – like all players in recent weeks – took a knee as part of the Black Lives Matter campaign.