THE WHOLE GAME

Connor McDavid Deserves Star Treatment From the NHL

The long-standing argument over the existence of ‘star treatment’ in sports gained another exhibit on February 6 courtesy of Edmonton Oilers winger Connor McDavid. During a second-period power play against the rival Calgary Flames, McDavid drove wide around Mark Giordano and cut toward the net. Chris Tanev tripped him, sending McDavid into Calgary netminder Jacob Markstrom. The resulting collision earned the Oilers’ center, and not Tanev, two minutes in the penalty box for goaltender interference.

As if the call wasn’t bad enough, the whole scene eerily resembled the low point of McDavid’s young career when on a similar play against the same opponent, Giordano, beaten again, dove at his feet. McDavid crashed into the post, hurting his knee so badly he thought his leg was in two pieces

Then there was the time Flyers defenseman Brandon Manning shoved an off-balance McDavid 20 or so feet away from the boards following a rush. That subsequent impact left Edmonton’s then prized rookie with a fractured clavicle, causing him to miss 37 games.

Now, McDavid’s resilience is worth celebrating. The return from the knee injury quickly became the stuff of a legend: after months of intense rehab, he was back on the ice opening night doing stuff like this. And in his first game following the broken collarbone, McDavid turned the Columbus Blue Jackets inside out.

But there’s also something to be said about how little the NHL has done to protect an all-time great player. Tom Brady tore his ACL, and the NFL changed what constituted roughing the passer so that defending players couldn’t dive at a quarterback’s legs. Connor McDavid escaped the same collision that threatened his career at 22 unharmed and was penalized for his troubles. 

Let’s give McDavid the Brady treatment, then, and propose a new rule. If a player trips an opponent into the goal, they should be assessed a five-minute major. That sort of punishment should dissuade defensemen from the sort of desperation dives that send forwards flying (and their goalies would thank them, too). Of course, that only speaks to a singular issue of a larger problem. 

The NHL has never been more skilled, hockey has never been played at a faster pace, and McDavid still routinely makes professionals look utterly silly. Having just turned 24, he may already have more highlight-reel goals and assists than any other player in league history. (This is from 2019-20 alone). 

You owe it to your fans, players, and the league as a whole to keep that kind of star healthy and on the ice as much as possible. The NHL has failed at this before. In fact, it was a specialty of theirs in the 90s. 

Consider the unofficial anointing of young Canadian hockey prodigies in the modern era. It started with Wayne Gretzky. Then came Mario Lemieux and soon after him, Eric Lindros. Sidney Crosby was the first can’t-miss prospect of the 21st century before McDavid became the first Gen Zer to join the lofty group. 

It’s fair to say all of those players lived, or have lived, up to the considerable hype. The only exception might be Lindros. Why? In large part because the NHL did very little to curtail head shots, and a series of concussions severely shortened his prime. 

Lemieux’s career deserves a closer examination, too. He battled and beat cancer, was slowed by a bad back, and yet it was the clutching and grabbing that pushed him to retire (the first time) at 31. Lemieux had called the NHL a “garage league” in 1992 and stated, “The advantage is to the marginal players now. They can hook and grab, and the good players can’t do what they’re supposed to do.”

The NHL finally cracked down on obstruction penalties prior to the 2005-06 season, a full 13 years after the best player on a team headed to a second consecutive Stanley Cup publicly voiced his displeasure. Even then it took a year-long lockout to happen. (It’s also worth noting Lemieux, this time as owner of the Penguins, wrote a letter to Gary Bettman in 2011, outlining a plan to address suspensions and player safety as he watched Crosby play just 63 regular season games as a 23- and 24-year-old). 

McDavid may never have the crossover appeal to recreate a modern ProStars alongside LeBron James and Patrick Mahomes. His starpower is probably more in line with Mike Trout, whose all-time talent is undeniable even as he’s been stuck with a mediocre franchise. 

Just as MLB could do more to properly market Trout, the NHL needs to act now to capitalize on McDavid’s prime by catering to their most gifted star. Scoring rates remain stagnant. The league is set to collectively lose billions of dollars this season. With limited spectators, and none in Canada, it’s now mostly a television-only entertainment league, and the television contract is up in the U.S. this year. Seattle enters the fray in a matter of months. 

This is all while McDavid is on pace for nearly 100 points in 56 games, skating alongside the reigning Hart and Art Ross Trophy winner in Leon Draisaitl. You can’t guarantee anyone’s health or production, but you can make significant efforts to protect your best players. To paraphrase Lemieux, let McDavid do what he’s supposed to do.

Witness to An Unusual Super Bowl

It’s the dream of just about any American sports fan. By the grace of the sporting deities, there’s a ticket for what is traditionally the biggest single-day event of the year, the Super Bowl, and it has your name on it. Whether you are a skilled schmoozer that gets in through a sponsor, a lucky season-ticket holder among the NFL’s 32 distinct fan bases who gets dibs on pre-sales months before, or this aspiring MENSA member, the league’s final offering the season is the spectacle of spectacles in these United States.

Somehow that was still the case despite the still-raging COVID-19 pandemic.

Super Bowl LV (55) was the cap of the NFL’s most logistically challenging season in ages, arguably ever. You know the story by now: rescheduled games and bye weeks, viral clusters among teams (and the brazen flouting of the rules by some), an oft-criticized campaign centered around social justice, and a head coaching carousel that continues to enrage and confound. And the game itself was far from the ALL-CAPS EPIC matchup hoped for by the masses as Tampa Bay’s defense was the real MVP in the Buccaneers’ dismantling of Kansas City. But the event was still a party of sorts for both the local team that got to win its second Lombardi Trophy and the 22,000 fans in what was intended to be socially-distanced attendance.

For 7,500 of those revelers in particular, the Super Bowl was part-reward, part-release. These were healthcare workers from around the nation (most from the Tampa region) who were gifted tickets by the league as a “thank you” for all of the critical work they have done through the last eleven months. They were also previously vaccinated, which made the game a huge stress test for vaccination efforts as they continue to ramp up from coast to coast.

Jenny Bagg is a registered nurse and certified nurse midwife in the Tampa area. (Some disclosure: we’ve been friends since high school.) The opportunity to go to the Super Bowl while it was in her backyard – for free – was too hard to pass up, but it wasn’t easy. Days after the NFL’s announcement, Bagg learned that a couple of colleagues got tickets, but assumed that she wasn’t as lucky. “The following day I was on-call and saw the winning nurse,” the NYC native said. “When I congratulated her, she said there were still tickets available and to email the HR administrator ASAP.”

Needing to respond quickly, Bagg, who received both of her COVID vaccine shots, needed to send a copy of her immunization card. Yet there were a couple of roadblocks. One, she couldn’t find the card. Two, her actual job. “I had a patient in labor who was 8 centimeters dilated. So what to do? Run home, of course, and tear the house apart looking for the card! Luckily, I found it without too much trouble, quickly emailed a photo of it and made the 90-second drive back to the hospital with plenty of time to spare before the birth.”

“When I saw that email: “You are going to Super Bowl LV!” I was nervously excited.”

Photo courtesy of Jenny Bagg

The nerves were certainly understandable. While Bagg was vaccinated and was comforted by her understanding of the work behind the vaccines, she was about to attend the largest attended sporting event in the States since the NBA and NHL paused their seasons last spring. We are still learning about variants and what levels of protection are provided against them by the vaccines currently available. Though millions of people have been inoculated and many more wait for their shots, vaccine hesitation remains prevalent around the nation, with stories making the rounds about skepticism even among healthcare personnel.

A mother of two young children, Bagg had her motivations for getting the vaccine. “As healthcare professionals, we know how bad it is out there with COVID, she reflected. “We are taught to trust science. For me, it was never a question that I would get the vaccine as soon as it was available to me. I was excited by the mechanism of the mRNA vaccine, how there is NO piece of the coronavirus in it at all and that it offered such strong protection against serious disease and death.” She was mindful about reported cases of Bell’s Palsy among a few participants, especially because she was previously afflicted with the side effect in the past. Yet that was far from a deterrent. “I was so exhausted of living in fear and being at the mercy of others around me who were not and continue to not be doing things to protect themselves, my family and me.”

Armed with a Bucs mask made she purchased from loldesignsbyAngie (she spoke highly of the mask quality), she was also reassured about being in the stands because she was outdoors and that both the NFL and Raymond James Stadium staff were taking precautions that were unprecedented for the Super Bowl. Staffers enforced the mask mandate, making sure that fans always wore them unless they were eating or drinking, even if no other fans were nearby. Hand sanitizer was readily available and from the initial look, fans were socially distanced thanks to cutouts filling some seats and actual people spread throughout the stadium.

As the game went along and Patrick Mahomes kept seeing Buccaneers in his face, Bagg decided to make her way from her original seat in the 300s section to the 100s with an obviously closer view of the field. Unexpectedly, she found herself in another section of healthcare workers, all Kansas City fans. In a traditional sports sense, this sort of interaction would be awkward for a moment. “I told them that while we were on opposite sides of the game, I was so happy that they were there enjoying this with us. We’ve all had a hard year and what a way to celebrate.”

Jenny moved from here…
to here. (Photos courtesy of Jenny Bagg)

The game itself was a proper revenge game for the hometown Bucs, who entered the championship game on a seven-game winning streak after losing to the visitors on the same field in December. The non-game entertainment was divisive as always: stirring debate on social media but exciting the people in the building. Yet most of all, it was a cathartic moment for the thousands of fans who took it all in.

Yes, Florida has been open for business throughout much of the pandemic so far. The Sunshine State opened its doors to sporting leagues looking to either restart paused seasons (NBA), start new ones (WNBA, Major League Soccer) or take up long-term residency (WWE, All Elite Wrestling). And with much anger about how Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has managed the conditions, either you looked at Florida with absolute disdain or unbridled envy, views colored by both science and political leanings.

Bagg was incredibly mindful of this before, during and after the game, yet as anyone else who has found some sort of release in the time of COVID, it was hard to not fully appreciate the chance to unwind, especially considering what the working mom does for a living. “It definitely felt amazing to be “out” again after a year and to feel somewhat normal,” she said. “I felt myself dancing to Miley Cyrus (and BILLY IDOL and JOAN JETT!!!) more enthusiastically than I would have a year ago. I enjoyed the free drinks at the Tik Tok Tailgate a little more than I might have in early 2020.”

Mask up! (Photo courtesy of Jenny Bagg)

With the vaccine rollout limping along throughout the country, many Americans are more anxious about “getting back to normal” while millions have continued on as if nothing has changed. Eventually, the larger social gatherings that come from sports and other forms of entertainment will return. From a healthcare perspective, Bagg thinks that masks and social distancing won’t let up in 2021, jokingly that “I cannot imagine the horror of ever smelling someone’s breath again.”

Yet she also implores that we remain diligent and persistent in our fight against COVID-19, hoping that the pandemic “has forged ‘new normals’ that we will continue once the acute threat of COVID-19 is past us: washing our hands more, staying home when we’re sick (seriously, like how many times have we all gone to work sick and contagious), and thoughtfulness for your neighbor (I have less faith with that last one).”

“We have the power to be healthier and safer with a few adjustments to our behavior. Let’s do this, people!”

Welcome to The Whole Game

Until former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick became the avatar for athlete activism to the wide public, the demand for players and some media members to “stick to sports” had not been so vocalized as it was implicitly understood. Athletes at all levels of sports – in particular, those of Black and brown descent, as well as female and non-binary athletes – were supposed to be mute, save for clichéd post-game quotes, local commercials and public appearances curated by leagues and teams. Journalists were not to touch the third rail of politics but were often asked to affirm owner-driven narratives of how the business of sports supposedly works – big-market manipulations versus small-market resourcefulness, player and union greed, and the civic duty of keeping a team in town by funding venues with tax dollars. Most of all, the notion that sports were only meant to be distractions from “the real world” has been kept alive by media platforms whose high-volume content caters to an obsessive minority of equally vocal consumers.

Though his athletic peers in the NBA and WNBA had a head start years before following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and others, Kaepernick’s public arrival to the ongoing rise of athlete activism in 2015 compelled fans and commentators who were allegedly allergic to politics to make their support or disproval heard. Augmented by controversies surrounding sexual assault, domestic violence, brain trauma and more, the newfound interest in sports and politics dramatically shifted sports coverage, even if it also inspired a new wave of mostly conservative backlash. And though it has become standard to see “sports & more” content alongside hot takes and betting lines, it’s starting to feel as if those stories are being told about the same people over and over again.

It’s almost as if we are all creating and responding to an algorithm, but that issue is not a new one.   

Long ago, sports media decided to make money by catering to the lowest common denominator in an eternal competition to be heard first, with lesser regard to accuracy and fairness. Few independent outlets of scale address the intersection of sports with other realms of society very well, leaving a great opportunity for one to emerge alongside ESPN, The Athletic and the like to bring newer, fresher stories to the forefront.

Hopefully, this is where The Whole Game comes in.

Long before I covered my first sporting event in 2005, I had wanted to launch a sports media platform. Never mind that I had no experience as a writer, although four years of internet college radio began what would be a lengthy hands-on education. I found that media was the center of every orbit we created for ourselves as consumers and aspiring participants. (Come on, you had hoop dreams once upon a time thanks to the NBA on NBC.)

Coupled with a formal business education, experience in the business side of media and an insatiable curiosity about the world beyond the field of play, I have been lucky enough to develop my own voice in the cacophony. I’ve not only witnessed incredible moments from the press box and ringside but developed meaningful relationships in an industry where people tend to see life from a transactional point of view. As an editor, I’ve been grateful to call quite a few colleagues my friends. I’m even more grateful to some of those same colleagues who have decided to come along in this new journey.

In 2018, I brought a piece of Harlem (a nod to the New York baseball Giants) to the great Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

With respect to other artforms, sports are the greatest social currency in the world. Here at The Whole Game, our aim is to spend some of that currency to dive into the ways the games connect to the wider society besides their roles in entertaining us. With each of us located across the country, we hope to talk about more than those usual suspects in sports by looking at the stories around the way. And we mean that literally as there are incredible local and regional intersections of sports and society that aren’t told enough.

Each of us have previously worked together at The Sports Fan Journal, Yardbarker and various podcasts old and new. You may have seen us with other outlets that gave us opportunities to talk about the sports that we love or sometimes hate. Over the coming days and weeks, my teammates will introduce themselves to explain what they bring to this new collective.

We are a work in progress. Despite our geographic and ethnic diversity, we aim to bring more non-male voices along while being grateful to the women that are a part of this journey. As a new site, we will find our footing by learning from you, dear reader, what works best and doesn’t work at all. And yes, sports and politics/culture/what-have-you seems like a trend, buzzword or branded initiative destined to fade away until the next big thing comes along to change how we talk about athletics. Yet, we love what we do and we’d be damned if we didn’t give this a try.

Besides, it’s tiring for us to keep reacting to that damn algorithm.   

Jason Clinkscales
Founder and editor-in-chief
@asportsscribe

Meet some of the team.