Midweek Myriad: Marta, Nadal, handball, 1260s, etc.

One of the joys of following a hundred sports or so is that you’re not stuck dissecting the Super Bowl to the point that it becomes joyless. Instead, we have all this:

Marta signs with Western New York. A WPS shocker. Good news from a media point of view because it means more of us will be paying attention to veteran Rochester reporter Jeff DiVeronica, who jokes on Twitter that Marta will push him up to 1,000 followers.

The conventional wisdom would be that Marta would sign with The Club Formerly And Still Partially Known As The Washington Freedom But Also With Magic Jack In The Name (TCFASPKATWFBAWMJITN) so that Dan Borislow would have a marquee player to market in South Florida and perhaps somewhere in Washington once the team hires marketing and sales staffs and finds venues in which to play. Instead, Borislow has given us the best WPS smack talk in the league’s brief history, via Our Game: “This came as a total surprise. I am glad she will be playing in the league. She will discover we are the team to beat, so I hope she is at the top of her game when she plays us.”

For all the talk in MLS about “Rivalry Week,” maybe we should be circling the calendar for TCFASPKATWFBAWMJITN’s visit to Rochester.

Nadal loses. And it’s a pity. Tennis could use a Grand Slam charge from the charismatic, humble Spaniard, but an injury has derailed his Australian Open campaign. Nadal didn’t want to use the injury as an excuse, but he wasn’t fooling opponent David Ferrer. Class acts all around. (NYT)

– Winter X Games time. And the NYT notes that several more X sports may be joining the Winter Olympic program. No word on women’s ski jumping, though that sport has a better-defined set of rules and so forth.

The Summer Olympics might be too big. The Winter Olympics aren’t, and it’s hard to begrudge slopestyle its place. But if the IOC adds the X sports without women’s ski jumping, the excuses will ring hollow.

Handball heaven. It’s only $20 away. At least the highlights are free, so I was able to scout semifinalist France in their win over my buddies from Iceland in a rematch of the 2008 Olympic final. (Dan Steinberg also enjoyed covering that team in Beijing and linked to my highest-read blog post ever.)

Iceland plays Croatia for fifth place on Friday. The semifinals the same day: France-Sweden, Denmark-Spain.

Also this weekend:

  • Cyclocross World Championships. The muddier, the better.
  • U.S. Figure Skating Championships, in my former hometown of Greensboro.
  • Luge World Championships. U.S. sliders not having a particularly good year.
  • Paralympic Athletics World Championships.
  • Millrose Games.
  • Strikeforce: Middleweight and welterweight title fights, plus Herschel Walker.
  • Final weekend of Tata Steel chess classic, where U.S. player Hikaru Nakamura shares the lead in an elite group.

What it takes to make a pro women’s sport work

I’m surprised no one within Google’s almighty reach has invented the word “entitleninement.” A couple of generations into the Title IX-fed growth of women’s sports in the USA, we’re still seeing a few patronizing attitudes.

The College Sports Council often resorts to disingenuous arguments about the impact of Title IX. Internationally, we see many more opportunities for women in Olympic sports, yet women’s ski jumpers have been kept out of the Olympics with arguments ranging from the condescending to the absurd.

Yet the CSC makes a few legitimate points as well, and it takes pains to distinguish its fight to save men’s sports from a fight to deny women opportunities. And within women’s sports, and Olympic sports as a whole, we’re seeing more of a realization of the difficulties of building and maintaining pro competition.

All of which makes softball player Jessica Mendoza’s post for ESPNW rather curious. She explains why she and other U.S. national team players have decided to concentrate on building a pro league rather than playing for the national team, which no longer has an Olympic presence every four years.

The key paragraph:

As much as I want to see softball return to the Olympic Games, there is something this sport needs even more: an opportunity for women to play softball for a living. Not as a side job. Not just recreationally. Instead, they should be able to make a living playing the sport they love so dearly. Softball players shouldn’t have to stop playing at age 22 because there are so few opportunities out there. And they shouldn’t have to live abroad, like basketball players did in the pre-WNBA era, because only other countries’ pro leagues are willing to pay them to play. I have seen more and more women in other sports (snowboarding, basketball, tennis, BMX and golf, to name a few) create opportunities to play for a living because of the professional opportunities they, and sponsors, have created. My dream now is to create these same professional opportunities for every young softball player out there.

That’s ambitious. But is it realistic?

Mendoza cites Billie Jean King as a mentor and gives a brief history of the women’s tennis movement that has proved so successful. Snowboarding also has women’s stars alongside men’s stars, and many Olympic sports have women whose fame and fortune hardly lags their male counterparts. Think Lindsey Vonn, Michelle Kwan, Allyson Felix, Dara Torres, Kerri Walsh, etc.

But at the same time, the LPGA is limping along. Women’s soccer is trying to re-entrench itself in a smaller niche. And most women’s basketball players still go overseas in the WNBA offseason because they’re not raking in the dough while the league tries to keep the ship steady in the USA.

Softball deserves better than it got from the IOC, which has made a mockery of its supposed gender-equity aspirations. But after covering the WPS draft last week in a mid-sized convention room with no players present, I’m not sure I could be bullish on another women’s sports league starting from scratch. And you won’t see any soccer players this summer turning down an invitation to the World Cup to give 110 percent for Sky Blue FC or magicTalk SC / Washington Freedom. WPS made it to a third season only through a couple of owners’ determination to persevere and a couple of new owners’ enthusiasm for moving up to the highest level and, in the case of MTSCWF, promoting a brand name.

If National Pro Fastpitch succeeds, it’ll need either a few benefactors who believe in some combination of the sport itself and the opportunity to get some marketing/self-satisfaction from attaching brand names to it. It won’t succeed merely because that would be the fairest outcome for 22-year-old college softball standouts who somehow deserve a chance to devote themselves fully to their sport. Plenty of people have talents that can’t pay all the bills — in Olympic sports, mixed martial arts, music, creative writing, art … even journalism.

The question will be: How many professional softball players can the USA support? In women’s soccer, we can easily support a national team of 25-30 full-time players, and we’re working on pushing that number to a couple hundred. In beach volleyball, both men’s and women’s, the AVP’s demise has reduced the opportunities so that just a couple of elite teams playing internationally have much of a chance.

Creative solutions can help. Americans are lucky to have college scholarships to provide training environments and an education. Sometimes, an employer like Home Depot comes up with a program to give Olympians flexible jobs to let them work and compete.

Nothing wrong with aiming for full-time professionalism. But staying open to creative business plans will surely increase pro softball’s chances.

Jacobellis wins another world title

Personal bias alert: Though I tend not to name favorite athletes because I’m a good objective journalist, Lindsey Jacobellis has always been one of my favorites because (A) she’s really good at what she does, (B) I interviewed her before most people knew who she was, (C) she was on my plane to Europe for the 2006 Olympics and (D) she has continued to be successful after being rotated on the spit of short-attention-span American public opinion after losing gold with the board grab late in the medal race in 2006.

Here she is winning her third world title and adeptly dealing with a curious line of questioning that could only be explained by the language barrier. Great race on what appears to be the only snow in Spain.

Video (not embed-ready, apparently)

The other favorite I’ll name is Hannah Teter, because the combination of achievement and charitable work she has compiled at such a young age is staggering.

Beckham and the remnants of condescending England

Most Americans love England in some respect. They might be Monty Python or Doctor Who fans. They might think London is lovely. They might admire the country’s love affair with a sport that spreads to four professional leagues and scores of semipro and amateur leagues all wrapped up in a neatly organized pyramid. They might think the English are generally better educated and more reasonable, though that could be a stereotype that fails to account for, say, booing an opponent’s national anthem.

What we don’t like the English insistence that, as great-great-grandchildren of the people who wrote soccer’s rules and successfully exported them to the world, they must know better than we do. About everything.

That insistence has faded. The Premier League is built on foreign talent and, in many cases, foreign coaches. American players in particular are much better respected today than they were 15 years ago.

Yet we see vestiges of it on the Web, along with vestiges of all other prejudices. Just check the comments on Paul Gardner’s Soccer America piece quite rightly questioning why David Beckham wants to drag his long-battered body over for a couple of months of being knocked around in the Premier League.

The commenters — clearly unaware that Gardner is himself English and was writing eloquent pieces about FA Cup finals before they were born — don’t address Gardner’s points. They simply refuse to believe that “someone in America” would dare to criticize anyone as brilliant as Beckham.

One doesn’t have to have been raised on Match of the Day and disgusting meat pies to understand the following:

1. A minor point: Beckham would actually be a good candidate for an Olympic overage spot, just as Brian McBride (a player the English might recall) lent his experience to the 2008 USA squad.

2. For those who clearly didn’t read the piece before commenting: The issue is not that Beckham has been limited by playing in a low-quality side. The issue is that Beckham takes off on these loans and comes back injured from playing too many games. He’s not young. He needs to give his body a break. And regardless of what you folks think about MLS, Beckham thought enough of it to sign a contract and pledge himself to playing here, and it’s high time he lived up to his words.

3. For Patrick Cormac — this may seem petty, but if you’re going to complain about education, you should consider spelling “nouveau” correctly. And you should realize that whatever complaints people have about Gardner, he’s not exactly “nouveau.” One of his most brilliant pieces is an account of the 1953 “Matthews final.” A first-hand account.

4. For Jeff Jefferson — Americans did not invent the word “soccer.” The English invented that word to distinguish the game from other codes of football. Americans aren’t alone in calling it “soccer.” Say “footy” in Australia, and you’ll be greeted by a gaggle of men chasing after an oblong ball and trying to maneuver it through three giant posts at either end of a massive oval.

Frankly, it appears that these folks could use an education not just about the realities of the game in the USA but the history of the sport as a whole. Perhaps they should start with Gardner’s book The Simplest Game.

Gardner, in his decades in this hemisphere, has come to the position that the USA should take more inspiration from the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking countries in the Americas than from Europe, particularly as the USA becomes more Hispanic through immigration. His critics would say he belabors the point. But if you’re going to base your entire response on an appeal to authority, you’re going to lose.