Three depressing stories recently have caught my attention … and, hey, isn’t that a great lead-in to make you want to read the rest of this blog entry?
In each case, they are “depressing” for some different reasons, but all have been filling my mind the last few days. They are:
*-The USA Swimming sexual-predator problem, and how that relates to hoops.
*-The Oregon State mass tranfer/bigger picture in the Pac-10 issue.
*-The announced retirement of golfer Lorena Ochoa from the LPGA.
If it’s happening in swimming …
As for the allegations made and lawsuits filed against USA Swimming by athletes or former athletes who say they were sexually abused by coaches, it is, sadly, an age-old danger in a multitude of organizations. The Catholic Church, of course, is in the midst of what appears to be an international sexual-abuse crisis that is producing daily headlines. And not for the first time.
As for USA Swimming, one of the lawsuits alleging inappropriate sexual conduct was filed here in Kansas City against two coaches for a local swimming club, plus that group’s “parent” clubs, including USA Swimming, which has been in panicked, damage-control mode.
USA Swimming announced a “seven-point plan” Wednesday designed to deal with these problems. But plans are only as effective as the people implementing them. USA Swimming’s troubles come from the same culture that allows these reprehensible actions in other organizations. Which is to say, a culture that protects those with power and influence, having allowed them to reach a certain level of authority without necessarily safeguarding how they use it.
USA Swimming is in the harsh spotlight it deserves now, but this ought to be yet another reminder for every other sport to look around its own “house.” At the very least, USA Swimming is an overall governing body that can be held accountable – we’ll find out just how much accountability, legally, the organization has – for the actions of its sub groups.
But what oversight body is accountable for, say, however many “club” basketball teams there are in this country? USA Basketball doesn’t govern them. The Amateur Athletic Union may run a lot of tournaments, but it doesn’t govern all the teams. As far as I know, nobody really does.
When the Rick Lopez disaster was gradually and sordidly revealed through media reports, everyone talked about how something “needed to be done” to expose it anywhere else it was going on and to prevent it from happening again.
Lopez was the coach of the Colorado Hoopsters program who, at age 36, committed suicide while in jail awaiting trial on 50-plus felony charges for alleged sexual relations with underage players. College coaches, including some of the most successful and well-known in the country, had regular contact with Lopez because they wanted to recruit his players.
But when Lopez was revealed as a sexual predator of teen girls, many college coaches said, “How were we supposed to know … and what are we supposed to do about it?”
There are many, many very good people involved in youth sports. But it’s a sickening fact of life that where there are youths, there are always going to be predators. What’s being exposed currently with USA Swimming happens in all sports: basketball, volleyball, soccer, softball, track and field, etc.
USA Swimming now publicly has to clean up its own multi-tiered organization, or at least start that process. But how seriously and effectively are we addressing this issue in those sports where no lone group or governing body – as far as I can figure – might be held legally responsible for what goes on with various girls’ club teams nationwide?
Back in 2005, Eric Adelson of ESPN the Magazine wrote a lengthy article about the Lopez situation and also addressed the overall issue of sexual predators and lack of oversight in youth sports. Helen Wheelock of the Women’s Basketball Blog has addressed this issue for the WBCA and is revisiting it again on the blog this week. I’ve written about it for ESPN.com. Others have addressed it, too.
Yet here we are more than five years later, and I wonder how much is really different than in December 2004 when Lopez committed suicide rather than face potential legal punishment. The WBCA, the AAU and the National Council on Youth Sports all have addressed the issue but, again, who really is held responsible for it?
In the basketball world, there were some WBCA-led reforms a few years back to try to better regulate “evaluation” tournaments, with the hope that it would take some of the power away from club-team coaches and put it back in the hands of high school coaches.
Because at least those employed by high schools are in an organization that has a process for oversight (even though we know that process can be flawed and ineffective, depending on the school system.)
Parents must take a huge responsibility in protecting their kids from predators, of course. But there are two problems with that. The first is that predators tend to be frighteningly good at fooling people, especially those who are closest to and most protective of youths. And the second is, not every young person has adequate parental guidance and protection. It’s another sad fact of life.
To truly tackle this problem to whatever degree it currently exists in girls’ basketball, specifically, a lot of people who would say they’re concerned but haven’t taken it as really their responsibility need to realize … that it is. (Yes, this means you, college coaches). I think it’s a major issue that will take major reform to adequately address.
I don’t know how to estimate the practicality or probability of forming a national governing body that can legally be held accountable for overseeing youth/club/traveling team girls’ basketball. Or having an already-existing organization zealously and very publicly take on that task. But, ultimately, I think that is what’s needed.
Tough times in Corvallis
You may have heard the news of Oregon State’s mass-exit situation. In the past week, four players have left the program. Combining that with graduation and the previous departure of another player at the semester break, the Beavers are left with five scholarship players and two incoming recruits.
Which means the heat is on coach LaVonda Wagner, who’s 69-85 overall and 27-63 in the Pac-10 in her five seasons at Oregon State. She has three years remaining on her contract.
It seems we get situations like this if not every year, then every few years. A struggling program that goes into crisis, a coach who some players/fans say is excessively “negative,” and an athletic department that seems unsure how to really handle and remedy it. A lot of times, administrators’ hands are tied because of a contract situation that they themselves put in place.
Let’s face it: It’s one thing to have to pay your football or men’s basketball coach to get lost. That’s almost always driven by alumni/fan discontent anyway, and so schools usually have deep-pocketed boosters who might “help” with paying a departing coach.
But, frankly, nobody wants to pay a women’s basketball coach who isn’t actually coaching. Sometimes, a program has so many problems or is just so bad that a school finds a way to “eat” a contract and get rid of a women’s hoops coach. Or a coach might opt to resign and negotiate some kind of settlement.
However, if a coach won’t leave and a school doesn’t have the money to force him/her out and pay a new coach … then either the problems have to be solved with the current coach or the the problems don’t get solved and the program stays in turmoil until the contract runs out.
Oregon State athletic director Bob De Carolis released a statement this week saying that the program was under review, like all the school’s programs, and that he “was aware” of the concerns of followers/faculty/boosters, etc. Also, the school said that his statement would be the only comment from the athletic department until further notice.
So while we wait to see how Oregon State deals with the mess, I must ask this: What is a realistic expectation for a women’s basketball program like Oregon State’s? Same for fellow Pac-10 school Washington State.
Stanford has dominated the league, of course. And that’s putting it mildly. Some other programs, such as Arizona State, have put a few dents in the mighty Cardinal warship over the years and carved out some of their own successes. But since the Pac-10 officially took over sponsorship of women’s basketball in 1986-87, Stanford is the only league school to make the Women’s Final Four. And the Pac-10 is the only one of the “Big Six” conferences to have just one school advance that far in that time period.
But when it comes to the likes of Oregon State or Washington State, we’re not talking about the Final Four as a measure of success. Just making the NCAA tournament would be notable. The Beavers did it four times under coach Aki Hill (1983, ’84, ’94 and ’95) and once under Judy Spoelstra (’96). They have not been in the field since.
Washington State is even more woeful. The Cougars have made the NCAA tournament once: in 1991 under Harold Rhodes.
Now, it at least looked as if Oregon State was showing some vital signs in 2008-09. The Beavers were 20-12 overall and 9-9 in the Pac-10. It was the program’s first non-losing league record since 2002. This season, though, Oregon State was back at the bottom of the Pac-10 standings at 2-16, with Washington State just above at 3-15.
In the entirety of Pac-10 play, Oregon State is 156-276 and Washington State is 100-332. Maybe that’s the only thing Oregon State can feel “good” about for its women’s hoops history: Somehow, improbably, there’s another program in the league that’s actually been worse.
I warned you this blog entry was going to be depressing.
OK, this isn’t about hoops. It’s about another sport I covered for a long time while at the Kansas City Star and that I really enjoy writing about: golf. But this is not an enjoyable entry, I’m afraid.
It leaked earlier this week that Mexico’s Ochoa was going to be “retiring” from the LPGA tour. Her reasons for doing this are supposed to come Friday in a press conference.
This bums out anybody who’s followed the LPGA tour. Ochoa is one of those athletes that everybody – even her fellow competitors – likes immensely. She has been a Hall-of-Fame caliber player while being the consummate gracious and friendly person. And she’s only 28, so most folks just assumed she’d be on the tour for a quite a while longer.
Ochoa married late last year, so there’s been speculation that she’s stepping away to start a family or that she’s tired of the travel or wants to spend time doing other things. It might be all of that. And since we’ve seen “retirements” in other sports not be permanent, perhaps this will be more an extended break for Ochoa.
But whatever it is and whatever the reason(s), it’s still bleak news for golf followers. Not just because those who enjoy the sport will miss watching such a talented and classy competitor, but because of what Ochoa’s absence may mean for a tour that’s already downsized due to the economy and other factors.
There are 24 official money events on the LPGA tour this season; the U.S. Women’s Open is a USGA event, and the Women’s British Open is sanctioned by the LPGA but does not count on the official money list. Eleven of the tournaments are outside the United States; three are in Mexico. That includes the upcoming Tres Marias Championship, April 29-May 2. It’s been indicated that Ochoa will play in that.
The second-to-last event on the tour schedule, in November, is the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in her hometown of Guadalajara. The other event in Mexico is in Acapulco in late September-early October, and it’s an inaugural tournament.
The LPGA dates back to 1950, and for decades, almost all its events were in the United States. Really, it’s only been in the last 15 years that a lot of players from Europe, Australia and South Korea began to regularly play the LPGA tour in significant numbers. Their success led to more LPGA-sanctioned events springing up overseas. Some have lasted, some haven’t.
Ochoa brought to the LPGA the eyes of the country of Mexico, and thus opened the door to new tournaments there. But how will they do – and how long will they remain – if Ochoa isn’t playing? There are other Mexican women golfers; here’s a story about some of them on the Duramed Futures Tour, the LPGA’s developmental circuit. But will the sport’s popularity maintain or grow in the country if a Mexican woman isn’t winning tournaments?
I don’t think the LPGA is in danger of going away or anything like that. But it’s becoming less and less visible in the United States because so many tournaments have gone out of business with the bad economy and because there has not been a dominant, headline-grabbing American succeeding consistently on the tour in ages.
The players who’ve had their periods of sustained success in the last 15 years have been from other countries, led by Sweden’s Annika Sorenstam, Australia’s Karrie Webb, South Korea’s Se Ri Pak and Mexico’s Ochoa. No American has won on the tour yet this season.
And there’s no way to avoid the “language” issue. The number of players who really aren’t conversant in English has impacted their ability to become even vaguely recognized in the United States, let alone become drawing cards to bring U.S. fans out to tournaments.
English is not, of course, Ochoa’s native language, but she is fluent enough to be very comfortable in interaction with English-speaking media, fans and the all-important pro-am partners. (A lifeblood of tournaments is money made from pro-ams, and the amateurs expect, fairly, that the pros will talk to them and give them tips. That’s why they’re paying to play with the pros.)
What will happen to the LPGA tour? I think if Asian players’ success is maintained – and there doesn’t seem to be any indication it won’t be _ there may be even more events coming in Asian countries. Who knows? Maybe the tour will end up with more tournaments outside the United States than in this country. That doesn’t mean the end of the LPGA. But perhaps just a very different LPGA than how it started.
You must go where the audience (money) is. Thus, maybe future American players will have to work just as hard on their second-language skills as have the non-Americans with a native tongue other than English.
One last thing …
Brenda VanLengen’s radio show, “She’s Got Game,” is on at 1 p.m. Central on Friday, and I’ll be in studio with her discussing at least some of the above topics.