If only the NHL had a leader

What a standup guy...

It is yelling at the rain to lament that commissioners in any league aren’t stewards of the sport anymore. Look at Roger Goodell’s face and wonder if you’d trust that man to steer a fucking tricycle. But there comes a point where the commissioner is the only one who can steer a league out of a skid and away from a ditch. There has to be something where a commish has to say to his 30-32 bosses, “We have to do this and not this.”

But Gary Bettman is not that man. He doesn’t have to be, as the NHL rebounds from the pandemic with more record revenues while also managing to keep the salary cap flat. To him and his bosses, that’s job done.

The story yesterday isn’t much different than it’s been for weeks, ever since Ivan Provorov refused to wear the Flyers Pride jerseys. The latest to reveal themselves as cowards and liars were the Chicago Blackhawks. Admittedly, this one hits closer to home than the rest because of my history and location.

However, if ever there was a hockey team that needed to appear to be changing its ways and being transparent and open and welcoming, it’s this fucking team. To review, we’re barely a year removed from their owner, Rocky Wirtz, shouting down two reporters who had the gall to ask about what the team had done to prevent its next Kyle Beach scandal, which was only a few months before. A scandal that sickened and shocked the entire hockey world, and essentially poisoned the team to fans and observers alike for years to come. An organization that still clings to a logo — a logo they must change — for reasons they can’t clearly state other than “history.” An organization that still has a statue of Bobby Hull outside of its arena. Down a few levels, an organization that has been icing a garbage team for five years now and looks set to be icing a garbage one for a few years more. It has basically micturated on its fanbase for years on end.

So why not look like uncaring bigots on top of it?

Oh sure, the Hawks hid behind nebulous “threats” to Russian players due to that country’s new laws regarding LGBTQ+ “propaganda.” The way around that for the Hawks, or any team using that fig leaf to get out of “disrupting the room” (we’ll circle back to this), is simply to send those players home for the night. Especially for the Hawks, who are actively not trying to win games. So what the fuck do they care if they’re undermanned for a night? No statements, no comments, and no interviews. Make those who took the ice in the Pride jerseys the focus.

The Hawks aren’t the first to use the security concerns for their Russian players as an excuse to eschew their Pride night jerseys. That was the story the Wild were telling, which came with some validity when combined with the trouble that Kirill Kaprizov had over the summer trying to get back to the States from Russia. But there are other Russian players wearing them:

Evgeni Malkin wore one. Is he not an icon back in Russia?

Even if that were a thing, wouldn’t wearing jerseys supporting the US military go against the grain of Russia’s policies?

So what’s the truth here? What threat are Russian players actually facing? It could be there, and yet there’s clear evidence that there’s not. This is something being parroted by teams and hockey media alike without anyone really knowing what they’re actually facing.


Whatever the truth is, the Hawks’ actions make their president Danny Wirtz a liar. It puts Bettman in a light, once again, where it’s clear he has no idea what to do about anything that matters. When Provorov refused to wear the Pride jersey, it was about personal choice. When players on teams want to wear it but the team opts out, it’s about what’s good in the room. Which is it? The Hawks had a few players who expressed their excitement about being an ally and forwarding the cause of making hockey a more welcoming sport. And then they couldn’t. Why is their choice the one that can be shat upon?

If Bettman had a clue or a spine, he would have nipped this in the bud after Provorov. Told every team that any player that refuses to wear the Pride jerseys will be sent home without comment and the rest of the team will carry on. The message of those jerseys is more important than that night’s result or one or two players’ bigoted beliefs. Harmony in a dressing room should not be preserved over this. Bettman could have done that. He didn’t, and what he got was this putrid mess. A putrid mess that will define this season now. A noted BarfStool podcaster festers on the national broadcast of the league, further proving what the NHL really thinks about inclusion, and Bettman just watches. Again, when anything that truly matters comes up, Bettman has no answer.

Once again, hockey runs for the fake sanctuary of “team” and “room.” Its adherence to those things is why it barely has any personalities that it could market to new fans. It’s why traditions that are abhorrent continue. It’s why it is falling behind (soccer is the fourth sport now). But even being the fifth sport still makes billions, which seems to be more than enough for Bettman and his cronies. And it doesn’t matter who they make feel like they have no place in hockey as long as they get it.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.

You can’t script baseball, but sometimes it can seem like it

Shohei Ohtani (middle) struck out Mike Trout to win it for Japan

What they tell you about baseball a lot, is that because everyone gets a turn, you can’t guarantee that your best player will get to the plate with the game on the line. Sometimes it’s your second baseman with no concept of the strike zone who wets himself at the sight of any fastball over 96 MPH. Sometimes you can’t even guarantee you can throw your best pitcher, depending on how you deploy your pen, or if the game goes to extra innings, or if your manager insists that closers can only pitch the ninth before he battles his latest case of incontinence. That’s the 162, everyone’s going to matter at some point.

But late at night, when the demons come, if you asked Rob Manfred how he’d want the WBC to end, it would have been USA v. Japan, game tied or the U.S. trailing by a run, with Shohei Ohtani on the mound vs. Mike Trout. A matchup we don’t think about normally, the best player of his generation against someone we literally have never seen anything like before. Comparisons to Babe Ruth? That fat fuck had nothing on Ohtani as a pitcher.

Manfred got his wish, which is obviously the worst way to frame what may end up the coolest moment of the entire baseball season. Or the past several seasons. Enjoy it without thinking about the commissioner.

One of the aspects MLB is missing out on by scheduling the WBC when it does, and one of the things Olympic hockey actually gets right, is the months of anticipation fans go through building rosters in their head and dreaming about things like Ohtani vs. Trout. It’s a pastime in Canada to build out Olympic hockey rosters even when no one knows if there will be Olympic hockey years in advance. The best part of July 1 and the dawn of free agency is watching TSN fill dead air by projecting out the next Canadian Olympic team years in advance.

But the discussions go on in bars and forums and chatrooms and wherever else. Who’s Connor McDavid gonna play with? Will Leon Draisaitl get to go up against him? Maybe Chris Kreider will get a look at Igor Shesterkin in the knockout round. The rearranging of the best players in the world only happens in fans’ heads, and part of the magic of international competition is seeing it play out in real-time. Ask any soccer fan how many times they’ve designed, torn down, and redesigned a World Cup roster for either of the U.S. teams and the number will be in the hundreds. For the past month.

The WBC taking place during spring training comes without that, as any news before the tourney starts is about who’s not playing. That list will shrink in three years as more players see how this tournament is grown. But again, moving it to July instead of the All-Star game would give a whole new context to the first half of the season.

But now’s not the time to complain or point out some faults of a WBC edition that entertained us so. Ohtani vs. Trout is wrestling dream match booking, a gift to all baseball fans, and at such a moment it feels almost ordained. We may see it again when Ohtani is a Dodger in a year’s time, but there will be other matchups to dream of come the 2026 WBC.

The raw power of each, the threat of each are capable of that so few on the planet are also capable of. 101 MPH against a hitter liable to hit one to Narnia with any swing. It’s rare to see such opposing forces whose collision can rearrange particles. A real-life Alien vs. Predator. Usually, we only get this in October, and even then it’s kind of rare because it’s somewhere in a series. In a Game 7…almost never. Hard to even think of one. It’s why you can’t really copy what we got in the WBC in the MLB season or even playoffs.

Here’s a more exact measure of the density of this matchup:

There’s nothing wrong with letting fans dream about this stuff, and no less so every so often giving it to them. Rob Manfred would do well to remember that once in a while when he’s firebombing most things fans like about baseball.

Ilya Sorokin makes an incredible save

As long as we’re talking about joyful things, and that’s not usually an adjective that gets attached to the New York Islanders, here’s Ilya Sorokin bending reality to deny Erik Gustafsson a net so open it was ready to have its wisdom teeth out.

Dillon Brooks’ admiration for Kyrie Irving can’t be just about basketball


The recent rise in profile for Dillon Brooks is a credit to him. In the current landscape of the NBA, new stars are rising with LeBron James and Kevin Durant getting older. Luka Dončić, Nikola Jokić, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are firmly among the best needle-movers in The Association. Brooks isn’t close to that talent level, but the attention he’s getting for the things he does on the court and says to the press has carved out a lane for him in the league’s diaspora. Last night however was a new low for the Grizzlies’ standout.

During last night’s game against the Mavericks, Brooks drew the defensive assignment of Kyrie Irving and the two got into it early and had a long night of trash-talking. That’s not unusual for the NBA. After the close victory over Dallas, it appeared to be water under the bridge as Brooks attempted a jersey swap, more commonly seen in soccer, with Irving as a sign of respect. Brooks received Irving’s blue smock while the Mavs guard didn’t happily accept Brooks’ jersey. “I saw that after the game. I’ll probably get it next time. … Not this time though. I was really onto the next thing, my thought process-wise,” Irving word-vomited after the game, because what in the heck does that quote actually mean? You can’t live in the moment ever?

Brooks’ fascination with Irving didn’t end after adding to his closet. He was asked in the locker room about the exchange and said this as part of his answer: “I’m a fan of Kyrie, for everything he stands for, the way he uses his platform. … “He’s just like Kobe. He’s just like Jordan and those guys. He plays the game at a different pace. He uses both hands, mid-range God. And that’s where I want to be at one day, be able to shoot the ball more.” All the comparisons to all-time basketball greats is fine, but we can’t ignore Brooks’ admiration of what he stands for and how he uses his platform. Let’s see, Irving refused to get vaccinated and pushed conspiracy theories about the health risks of protecting yourself from COVID-19. He’s a flat-Earther, and as deranged as that is, might be a little far down the totem pole of awful things he’s put into the world. Irving also refused to condemn antisemitism late last year after promoting a documentary and book overflowing with lies about the Jewish people’s involvement in the Transatlantic slave trade. He only posted a statement to social media “apologizing” after being suspended by the Nets.

In a true basketball sense, Irving has asked for trades at the worst times and was fined $50,000 in January 2021 for attending an indoor party and breaking the NBA’s coronavirus protocols. He had been out of contact with then-Brooklyn head coach Steve Nash for several days before then. Brooks can support whoever he chooses and in terms of basketball ability, Irving isn’t a bad choice. When you mention what he stands for and how he uses his platform, Brooks doesn’t get to cherry-pick only what he views as positive. It’s either all of it or none of it. Whatever Brooks is referring to, those uglier parts of what Irving has shown over the years have to be included. When mentioning Irving, leaving his legacy to solely on-court events isn’t possible. Irving made sure of that by speaking publicly about non-basketball issues in the past. And Brooks’ desire to be more like Irving has to include those moments.

Antonio Conte wants to get fired more than anyone has ever wanted to get fired

Please fire this man.

It only takes a matter of hours after becoming a soccer fan to hear the term, “Spursy.” It only takes a couple more after that to completely understand that. It refers to Tottenham Hotspur and that no matter the situation, or the seeming unlikeliness, something weird will happen to the club, and in a bad way. While the truth is almost certainly some calculable combination of bad management from the top, a lack of a long-term plan, being just a touch less rich than their rivals, with a dash of some bad luck, the overall feeling that something hangs over the club that will always result in a balls-up is inescapable. They are the Premier League’s Jets, or Maple Leafs, where something ineffable must be overcome, even though that nebulous force has become so pungent and strong that the task is impossible.

Yesterday was one of the most Spursy days on record in recent history. Tottenham managed to toss away a two-goal lead in the last 13 minutes away to Southampton, the worst team in the league. Sure, the equalizer came from a pretty damn dubious penalty, but Spurs fans are so beaten down by…being Spurs fans that that kind of thing just seems like the price of admission.

That result alone would have been weird enough for the North London club, but this is Tottenham Hotspur, where they can always pour more confounding mishegas on top of the bedrock of confounding mishegas the club is apparently built on. Enter manager Antonio Conte, with a press conference that torched his own players, and his bosses, and acted as a large neon sign flashing, “PLEASE FIRE ME!” that was also on fire.

The best part of this has to be when Conte exclaims, “I’m very upset!” Oh you don’t say?

It’s also important to remember that Conte is such a level-headed sort that he authored my favorite soccer clip of all time during the 2016 Euros:

Does Conte have a point? Probably, yes. Spurs are 15 years without any trophy, depending on how much stock you put in the League Cup. They haven’t won the FA Cup in 32 years, and let’s not even wade into their last league title. Chairman Daniel Levy has been in charge for 22 years, and it’s a pretty barren 22 years for a club that sees itself on the same level with neighbors Arsenal, if not the rest of the league’s giants. And Levy’s reign has been chaotic at times, hiring managers at a rate that would spin a revolving door off the hinges.

But Spurs have also hit their greatest recent heights under Levy, and perhaps more poignantly to every Spurs supporter, manager Mauricio Pochettino. They made a Champions League final, the club’s first, and contended for a couple of league titles without winning them. Pochettino’s Tottenham ran off 3rd, 2nd, and 3rd place finishes from 2016-2018, the best run by far that Spurs have ever managed in the Premier League.

Levy’s greatest mistake was firing Pochettino instead of funding the squad overhaul that Pochettino told him was necessary, and one Levy ended up funding anyway to please subsequent managers Jose Mourinho and Conte. But Mourinho and Conte are never, ever part of a long-term vision, given the way they quickly flameout, or straight up nuke, their surroundings after a season or two.

The perfect symmetry to all this is that the ghost of Pochettino has hung in the background all season, as he has been heavily rumored to be the one who’s going to replace Conte whenever the Italian packs up his bags (though honestly, it sure has felt like Conte has had his bags packed for a while now). But it’s another example of the scattergun planning that Levy’s Tottenham have never been able to get out of.

The Conte M.O.

On the flip side, this is what Conte does. At Juventus, at Chelsea, at Inter, and now Spurs, he engineers an immediate bounce in results, performance, and optimism, and then he firebombs his own work the following season, usually bitching about a lack of support in transfers or influence or both. The dude just can’t sit still.

And Conte would have a hard time arguing he hasn’t been supported by Levy. Spurs brought in Richarlison, Christian Romero, Yves Bissouma, Ivan Perišić, Clément Lenglet in the summer, and Pedro Porro and Arnaut Danjuma in the January window. Of all of them, only Romero and Perišić have featured regularly, though some of that is due to injury. But some of it is not, as Richarlison was only too happy to point out when Spurs limply exited the Champions League to a far-from-impressive AC Milan. That’s some $215 million in expenditure on Conte’s behalf, and that’s a touch more than the change found in the couch cushions.

And it’s hard to put the blame anywhere other than Conte for how often Spurs look bland and lethargic on the field. He can pillory his players in the press all he likes, and he apparently likes it a lot, but it’s kind of in his job description to generate passion and desire within his squad. Seeing as how he’s been making goo-goo eyes at the exit door for most of the season, it’s not all that shocking that his players aren’t exactly feeling it week in and week out.

One wonders if Pochettino could save this if he is indeed to make a glorious return, no matter how much goodwill and leeway the fans will give him. Of Tottenham’s leading players by minutes this season, only Romero and Dejan Kulusevski aren’t either over or about to be over 30 years old. It’s a mystery how much more patience Harry Kane has for this horseshit (though let’s all pray that Man United decide to shell out big for him for his declining years instead of Victor Osimhen, who has inhaled and spit back out Serie A for Napoli this year and is six years younger). The squad may need another overhaul after the overhaul they engineered after telling Pochettino they wouldn’t let him overhaul the squad.


It’s been another banner week for FIFA

This fucking guy again

The election of a FIFA president is probably as close as we can get to a world president, as being the governor of the world’s most popular sport certainly allows one to wield an insane amount of power and influence. What exactly Gianni Infantino has done to earn a second term is anyone’s guess, other than promising a whole lot to smaller nations who continuously fear the power and influence UEFA, for instance, would like to wield. In any rational world, Infantino’s toddler meltdown on the eve of the World Cup in November would have been a disqualifying event. But FIFA isn’t the rational world. Fuck, this dude just compared his own struggles to the recovery of post-genocide Rwanda.

Whoever is casting votes for Infantino, and who had convinced everyone else there was no point in running against him as he was unopposed, sure seems inured to the problems of the organization. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to be. And this week was chock full of them.

It started yesterday when Human Rights Watch pleaded with soccer’s overseeing body to use the Legacy Fund they created before the World Cup to compensate migrant workers and their families, as they had a nasty habit of, y’know, dying while preparing the country for the World Cup and during it. Those that survived were still faced with abominable working and living conditions for meager-at-best pay and an unfathomable amount of abuses.

The Legacy Fund is not something new, as there was always one for hosting countries of the World Cup that gets some, though not all, of the gargantuan revenue FIFA generates from the World Cup. Generally, it has gone to help develop soccer in those countries through investment in youth programs and the like. The difference in Qatar was that FIFA adjusted the aim of the fund to provide for education and a labor excellence hub, whatever the fuck that might be. No mention of the backs and corpses the entire tournament was built on, of course.

As you might expect, whatever oversight and enforcement FIFA paid lip service to before and during the tournament in Qatar has eroded since the spotlight has been taken off the country. The Norwegian Football Federation is pushing a proposal along the lines of Amnesty International’s call for FIFA to compensate workers and their families, which will supposedly be discussed today during their conference. Don’t hold your breath.

Still time to screw the women, though!

Speaking of FIFA’s money, if there’s one thing the organization and Infantino personally are pretty good at is waving people in to pat them on the back for minimal accomplishment. Infantino announced yesterday that the prize money for the Women’s World Cup this summer will jump to $110 million, but that’s still a quarter of the prize money for the just concluded men’s version. Infantino claimed that FIFA is now “on a path” to equalize the prize money, but one needs to only look under the hood for just a second to realize what a horseshit claim this actually is.

One, there was nothing stopping FIFA from equalizing the prize money on their own. The Qatar tournament generated $7.5 billion. We know the money’s there. And if you look at Infantino’s habit of throwing blame in every direction but inward, you’ll see what the real game is here.

Until this tournament, the broadcasting rights and sponsorships to both the men’s and women’s World Cup were sold as a package. You bought one, you got both, full stop. So there was no accounting for what money went where, it just all went into one big pool. Which of course means the money was always there to pay out equally for both tournaments. FIFA just didn’t.

However, this 2023 World Cup is the first Women’s World Cup to be split off, which is why we got the brief flirtation with Saudi Arabia being a sponsor to a tournament they had no business being associated with. It also allowed Infantino to blow himself while castigating others for not offering enough for the broadcast rights and simultaneously remove himself and FIFA from responsibility. “There’s nothing we can do, this is what they’re offering!” The UK, where tournament favorite England are from, only secured a deal through the BBC and ITV last month, a mere six months before the tournament started. This wasn’t a problem when the rights and sponsorships were pooled until FIFA made it one, and the division of them now sure smells like an abdication and foisting blame on someone else so FIFA can continue to hold onto more money.

But as we’ve learned throughout its entire existence, there isn’t a group FIFA and Infantino won’t screw over to make an extra buck.

Barcelona in yet another mess — another mess of their own doing

Camp Nou stadium

What FC Barcelona will tell you is that their comfortable lead atop La Liga at the moment (nine points) is indicative of being recovered from their years in financial hell. That all the levers they pulled (and the symbolism of Barca constantly talking about pulling their levers is hard to miss) have paid off and they’re back not just where they used to live, among the elite, but where they used to rule and get first pick at the spread.

They’ll be shouting it louder these days, which is actually indicative of how much trouble they might be in. As of today, a Spanish judge agreed to investigate the club for, essentially, bribing referees. So everyone else in Spain, who spent a decade or more wondering how Barca kept getting the call they needed, a lament from all the proletariat against any superpower in soccer, might be getting their answer soon.

It’s not quite that simple, and yet it doesn’t seem all that far away from being that simple. Let’s dig further. Spanish prosecutors have alleged corruption against Barca, and specifically their two previous presidents Sandro Rosell and Josep Maria Bartomeu, for payments the club made under their direction to a company owned by a man named Enriquez Negreira, who just happened to be the vice president of Spain’s refereeing committee at the time. If it sounds fishy, that’s because it’s fishy as fuck.

What they’re saying

Both Barca and Negreira claim that the payments were merely for reports on referees, and how players should act or play when certain refs were working their matches. Which feels like one of the flimsiest defenses ever. Barca will say, and has said, it’s not much different than getting scouting reports on an upcoming opponent. Except when doing so, clubs don’t tend to pay people who are employed and part of the hierarchy in running the club they’re about to play. You wouldn’t see Brian Cashman asking the assistant GM of the Rays for reports on the Rays roster, one wouldn’t think.

If Barca had just hired their own scouts to provide reports on refs and how they managed games, fine. This is something else, and it doesn’t appear that either Barca or Negreira are trying to claim much else. And it’s not much of a leap to go from merely getting scouting reports to having these payments at least influence which refs worked Barca matches and which didn’t, or worse. Again, Negreira was vice-president of the reffing committee at the time.

What’s next?

What could happen to Barca is foggier. La Liga has a statute of limitations on this sort of thing, and seeing as how the payments stopped in 2018 (and thus are more than three years ago), the league has said there’s nothing they can do about it. However, the Spanish FA is watching closely as the legal process plays out, though it’s unlikely that the FA is going to step on the league’s toes with any kind of punishment. Any Madristas out there hoping that every single Barca title of the last 20 years will have to be vacated are probably pissing in the wind. UEFA is also on standby. Bartomeu and Rosell could just be punished individually, and that might be the extent of the punishment anyone associated with Barcelona could face. Former coaches or sources close to them, like Pep Guardiola and Ernesto Valverde, have said they knew nothing about these reports.

That UEFA part is the one Barcelona really has to worry about. UEFA no longer has a time limitation on this kind of thing (thank you Man City), and if UEFA were to get interested, they could cut off the Champions League money spigot that Barca so desperately need to get out of the financial hell-prison they put themselves in. Barca may get $61 million for winning La Liga, but they would get only $7 million less for finishing second or about $15 million less for finishing third. Their whole plan, with the levers and signings and hail marys, was based on a deep run in the Champions League. That didn’t work out this season (hilariously), but what we know of the club’s “planning” is that they would be counting on a run to the knockouts and deep into them next season, which can net a team tens of millions of more dollars, or euros in this case. But we’re a long way from that yet given that this has to run through the Spanish courts first.

Gavi ruled out by judge

That isn’t their only problem this week, because when Barcelona lights their face on fire they never spare the kerosene. The contract of one of their linchpins in midfield, Gavi, was ruled out by a judge this week, because Barca simply don’t have space in their enforced spending limit to fit him in. Or, more to the point, they filed the paperwork for his registration a day late. Gavi can still finish this season in the team, as he’s still under a youth contract having come up through the Barcelona system. But without a resolution, he can leave the club for free in the summer.

And he may have to, unless Barcelona once again gets ultra creative/shady to bend and stretch and subvert their payroll limits. La Liga president Javier Tebas says they still need to cut 200 million euros off their payroll for next season. Barca obviously think differently. It’s going to be the same rigamarole next summer that it was this past one.

It’s certainly never boring with the Catalans. But we’ve passed the point where it feels like it’s gone beyond something they can work their way out of. Whatever happens with the ref case, that stink is now attached to them whether they like it or not. The name “FC Barcelona” still draws a lot of water and is still the mecca for most players in the world. But how much longer is that going to last when they keep falling in their own septic tank?

If you’d like to watch Sam convince himself that Liverpool can beat Madrid 4-0 in Madrid and then light himself on fire, follow him on Twitter @Felsgate.

Turns out the Nikola Jokić kicks a LOT of balls

Nikola Jokić leads the league in kicked-ball violations.

Nikola Jokić possesses the most versatile skill set in the entire league. Assists — he’ll dish him. Points — he’ll score ‘em. Rebounds — he’ll grab ‘em in droves. His defensive impact is questionable, despite what metrics might imply, but there’s one area where his game-changing skill has translated to the other end.

Last season, the two-time reigning MVP led the entire league with eight kicked-ball violations. He surpassed that total 11 games into the season. With a month remaining in the regular season, Jokić is lapping The Association with 45 kicked-ball violations. The second-most frequent kickball violator recorded 17. For a point of reference, Nikola Vucevic led the league with 13 in 2022.

NBA advanced analytics are more invasive than a colonoscopy, and we’ve finally found a polyp within Jokić’s game. A century ago Bill Russell began his reign as the king of blocks. Jokić can barely leapfrog a phonebook. But place a bounce pass below the knees and he’s likely to send a screamer into the courtside seats.

The difference between Russell and Jokić is that kicked balls are illegal. The problem is that the NBA treats them like a misdemeanor and Jokić takes advantage of the light penance for kicked balls. The solution is to levy costlier penalties.

Move over, Draymond Green

For years, Draymond Green was the league’s kickball king, but in his advanced years, he’s more liable to use his fists than his feet. Jokić has dethroned him.

That trend is troubling because it’s not an accident either. In November when the current season was in its infancy, Denver Nuggets head coach Michael Malone praised Jokić’s dexterity with his feet. Back in November, Malone praised Jokić’s use of his feet and even went as far as to endorse it.

“I asked our staff if the NBA charts deflections with a kicked ball, and Nikola might be the best I’ve ever seen at that,” Malone explained to the Denver Post. “He would’ve been a hell of a goalie. Kick save. He’s amazing, not just with his hands but using his feet to disrupt pocket passes in pick and roll. He picks up a lot of those with not just his hands but also his feet. And in his activity around the basket, breaking up plays eight boards. His IQ, anticipation, and hand-eye coordination are just off the charts.”

Jokić’s proclivity for defending like he’s preparing for Serbia’s 2026 World Cup qualifying by redirecting passes with his feet has been bubbling beneath the surface. However, Zach Lowe’s vitriol towards Jokić’s proclivity on the recent edition of his eponymous podcast has pushed it to the forefront of the NBA discourse.

What do the rules say?

In the 2022-23 NBA rulebook, a kicked ball merely results in a reset of the shot clock. According to Rule No. 6, Section I, If the ball is kicked or punched during any throw-in, the ball will be returned to the original throw-in spot with all privileges remaining.

Under current NBA rules, intentionally deflecting passes with the wrong limbs is advantageous for the defense. Imagine if handballs in soccer were a throw-in. Defenders would be windmilling all over the box.

Across sports, everyone is searching for loopholes to exploit. The Philadelphia Eagles nearly became Super Bowl champions by deploying rugby-style pushes in the back on quarterback sneaks. Jokić found his, and the rate at which he’s beginning to reach into that well is escalating. This is a copycat league.

The NBA needs to drop the hammer on Jokić and any other lazy defenders who adopt this strategy. How? Under FIFA soccer rules, referees have the discretion to award a yellow card if a handball offense is egregious. Each kicked ball deemed under review, to be purposeful should be a tech and one free throw. After five kicked-ball violations, it’s an automatic one-game suspension. Continue that in five-game increments.

If that doesn’t get the message across, nothing will. Once again, Jokić has changed the game for the better. Give him his dead flowers.

The 2026 World Cup is swole as f*ck

The governing body of soccer increased the size of the 2026 tournament for the second time by approving a bigger group stage for the inaugural 48-team event.

Despite being shoved into the middle of the season and in a country that was in no way up to the standards of hosting such a thing, the last World Cup ended up being a hit for what went on on the field. Exciting conclusion to the group stages, classic games in the knockout stages, and a memorable winner cementing the legacy of the greatest player ever, Lionel Messi (pictured). So what FIFA wants to ask you is…if you liked it so much, how’d you like to drown in it? FIFA thinks you’ll look like this when the tournament comes to these shores in just over three years.

Changes coming to the World Cup

FIFA officially announced that the 2026 World Cup will not use the three-team group format that had been originally put forward, but will keep the four-team groups that you’ve come to know and love. The three-team idea was cockamamie from the start for a host of reasons. The biggest was that it would open the door for some serious shenanigans at the end of the group stage, with two teams playing knowing exactly what they needed to go through over a third team that wasn’t playing at all. Secondly, going home after two games just seemed cheap and quick (my nickname in high school), which would have been the fate for 16 teams finishing third in the group.

That doesn’t mean having 12 groups of four teams doesn’t have its own issues, the biggest being…well, the bigness of it. That’s 72 group-stage games alone. The entire 2022 tournament, and the previous six, had 64 games total (that includes the third-place match that no one gives a flying fornication about). In total, with the now expanded knockout stage that will have a Round of 32, the 2026 tournament will have 104 games! Cue the dog again!

To accommodate this, it will now soak up some six weeks instead of four, and it will start earlier instead of ending later, with only a 16-day lead-up from when players must be released from their club teams to the start of the tourney instead of 23. Which means that players are basically going to end their club seasons and walk right onto their international teams with basically no rest. Which will make for a pretty shoddy tournament, especially as the winners will now have to play eight games instead of seven, but who cares about that when there are bags and bags of money to be made? We saw something like this in 2002, when the tournament had to be bumped up on the calendar to avoid monsoon season in the Far East, with the World Cup kicking off just 10 days after the Champions League final. You may remember that tournament having some truly silly results, with France and Argentina biting in the group stages and South Korea and Turkey getting to the semis.

And how is FIFA going to lay this out? Four games a day? Five? The four games a day in this past tournament was a lot for any fan, but only lasted a little over a week until the simultaneous kickoffs of the last group-stage games kicked in that everyone was used to anyway. But with 12 groups, playing four games a day means that even the first two rounds of group-stage games would take nearly two weeks. Then another six days to complete the group stages with the simultaneous kickoffs? That means the group stage will take two and a half weeks? That sounds like something that will get awfully stale to fans.

And then you get to the knockouts, which will basically have four or five days added to it with the addition of the Round of 32. Five days added to the two weeks it already took (the last World Cup’s knockouts started on Dec. 3 and ended on the 18th)? Again, this feels like a structure that will have a lot of fans burned out by the time the tournament ends.

The fit is wrong

Other than the sheer size, the fit is just wrong. However evil and goofy the 32-team tournament could be and has been, the actual format is perfect. Finish top two in your group and you move on. It was all contained. Win your group and you get something of a “reward” by playing a second-placed team, though it doesn’t always work that way. The three games had meaning, because half the field would be culled.

But with this misshapen monster, the group stage will be 72 games to send merely a third of the field home. And eight third-place teams will move on, which means teams will have to be weeded out against other teams that have played completely different slates, with coefficients and goal differences and all other kinds of mishegas determining who moves on and who doesn’t while having nothing to do with two teams playing each other.

It also gums up the knockouts, because some group winners will play a third-place team and some will play a second-place team, which isn’t fair at all. The 32-team format was clean. This is very much not.

But 48 teams opens up more spots for smaller countries, whose support is what FIFA president Gianni Infantino has built his power on, just like Sepp Blatter before him. And the TV rights swell because there are more games to sell. And there are more tickets to gouge fans for. And more fans traveling using FIFA sponsors to fly and stay at. So everyone who does that kind of accounting wins, while the rest of us are left to deal with this unwieldy hellbeast of a tournament. But we’re going to watch anyway, which FIFA also knows.

For more of Sam’s soccer thoughts, or just to watch him bang his head against his coffee table while watching Liverpool, follow him on Twitter @FelsGate.

Claudio Reyna sounds like a real hoot

Claudio Reyna’s sunny disposition is sure to brighten up anyone’s day.

It is so perfect it hurts that US Soccer has been tied up in knots recently, mostly due to a parent of a player bitching about his kid’s playing time and threatening everyone within shouting distance about it. But apparently, US Soccer has been dealing with that kind of thing from Claudio Reyna for a long while now. How very American.

That was the leading bullet point of the official release of the report commissioned by US Soccer and conducted by Alston & Bird LLP, which was released this afternoon. Most of it is stuff we already knew–that Gio Reyna acted like a real turd in training, and thus got admonished by coach Gregg Berhalter and teammates alike, and didn’t play much in the World Cup, which pissed off the Reynas, who then, in turn, ratted him out to US Soccer in retaliation about a domestic violence incident 30 years ago, which ate the cat that ate the rat in the house Alexi Lalas built..or something.

However, there were a few nuggets that at least colored in what was already in the public sphere. The first is that Claudio has been pestering and threatening various US Soccer officials over Gio’s use and play since he was in the U-17s. Going as far back as 2016, Reyna the Elder has been bitching about everything from travel arrangements, which he apparently thought should be better for his son than any other player, to refereeing decisions that went against his son.

1. As background, Investigation witnesses described a pattern of periodic outreach by Mr.Reyna to U.S. Soccer officials and staff from in or around 2016 through the end of 2022, the purpose of which was to convey certain complaints and comments about U.S. Soccer’s treatment of his children, including primarily his son, USMNT player Gio Reyna. Witnesses reported that Mr. Reyna’s past actions involved attempts to influence decisions by U.S. Soccer officials and staff concerning his children on issues ranging from travel arrangements to the impact of on pitch refereeing decisions.


Adding to what happened this past December was how the Reynas behaved at the World Cup and specifically the first game. Friends and family of the players were bussed to the Wales game together, with the Berhalter and Reyna families being assigned the same bus for travel. While the trip to the stadium went off without a hitch, it was after the game when fireworks started and Gio’s mother refused to travel back to the hotel on the same bus as Rosalind Berhalter. It’s important to remember that the Berhalters and Reynas had been friends for 30 years (!), and after one match suddenly they were at a point where the Reynas were refusing to get back on the same bus as Mrs. Berhalter. They say 90 minutes can change lives, but come on, man…

[Redacted] further explained that, as people began departing for the busses, Mrs. Reyna said: “I’m not getting back on that bus”; [Redacted] expressed confusion; and Mrs. Reyna replied: “I don’t think you understand. I’m not getting back on that bus.”


The report conveys that both Gregg and Rosalind Berhalter were completely open and honest during their interviews about the incident that happened in 1992, as well as Gregg’s sorrow and attempts to make amends. The findings are far less kind to the Reynas, with Danielle changing her story from one interview to the next about when she talked to Ernie Stewart and what she threatened Berhalter with and when. Danielle claimed during interviews that she would never go public with her knowledge of the domestic violence incident with the Berhalters, but she was thinking of telling more people privately, which… what?

We were less impressed with the Reynas’ cooperation during the Investigation. After several attempts to schedule an interview, we had two brief phone conversations with Mrs. Reyna on December 29th, and we did not succeed in having a follow-up conversation with her–or any conversation with Mr. Reyna–after that.


The report also counters the Reynas’ argument that they only started mentioning the 1992 incident after Berhalter was caught on tape talking about Gio’s shit-tastic training behavior at a conference after the World Cup. The report documents how Danielle started mentioning what she knew about Berhalter after the Wales match, without mentioning it specifically. It makes it clear that it was pretty much all retaliation for their son’s playing time, while possibly poisoning the water for Berhalter to earn another contract from US Soccer after his first one ended in December.

At no point in the report do the Reynas, unlike their son originally, make any allowance for what their son had actually done in training, nor does there seem to be any appreciation for Berhalter taking the bullet for their son during the tournament, even if he slipped up at that conference afterward (though he didn’t mention Gio by name). Berhalter tried to cover for Gio when asked in Qatar by sticking to his wonky health as a reason he didn’t play much. Plenty of other managers would have been happy to bus-toss Gio Reyna to the press to absolve themselves, whereas Berhalter provided cover that the Reyan family were only happy to micturate on.


It’s all a mess, but one that seems to now absolve Berhalter. One wonders if this is enough for US Soccer to rehire him as manager, though they’ve tossed that decision to the sporting director… a position they’ve also yet to fill and aren’t really close to doing so. But hey, this is soccer in America, where it’s always someone else’s job, and more importantly, fault.

Does the US have anyone who would stand up like Gary Lineker?

Gary Lineker has been reinstated by the BBC after a brief suspension for tweet criticizing Great Britain’s immigration policy.

The farcical idea that sports and politics don’t mix has once again been shaken to its cardboard foundation with what’s been going on in the UK with Gary Lineker and the BBC (every time I hear or see “BBC” I can’t help but shout it like Austin Powers during the end credits of the first film, but that’s just me). Given their popularity, there is simply no way that it isn’t going to mix with how society governs and runs itself, and with all the complications that ensue.

What did Lineker tweet, anyway?

A quick refresher, as it started last week. Gary Lineker is the host of Match of the Day on BBC, a show that’s so institutional not just to sport in the land but the entire culture, and we’ll circle back around to that, and also one of England’s best players in history. Lineker used his Twitter platform to rail against the Tories’ proposal on how to curb immigration to the country, which isn’t really a problem, but they don’t have any ideas on anything else that wouldn’t wreck the country more than they already have, and compared it to the language used in Germany in the 30s. 


To be sure, the conservative party across the pond is no less paranoid, sensitive, and terrified of anyone pointing out their own idiocy as the one here. Home Secretary Suella Braverman, and one can’t help but notice how perfectly close her name is to Cruella Deville, couldn’t wait to wet herself, as did the Tory-aligned director general of the BBC Tim Davie, who took Lineker off the air for Saturday’s episode.


What Davie nor anyone else counted on was a host of analysts and reporters following Lineker out the door, such as Ian Wright or Alan Shearer or every commentator at the games that the BBC posts for their highlights. Players and managers refused to speak to BBC reporters, if they were even at the stadiums, in protest to the treatment of Lineker. All of their highlights shows had to air with no on-air talent or commentators at the matches, simply the atmospheric sounds from the games.

To understand this, one must understand the weight of Match of the Day. For some three decades, MOTD was the only way fans could see almost any clip of matches from the first division, before the Premier League broke away in 1992. Even with televised matches now the regular, there is still a blackout of any Premier League match on TV Saturdays at 3pm BST, which is the traditional kickoff time and still when most matches take place. To see highlights of them, everyone has to wait for MOTD on Saturday night. It is a one of a kind tradition on television.


There really is no comparison for American sports television. Maybe NFL Primetime on ESPN was once in the same stratosphere, but ever since Sunday Ticket (and especially Red Zone) and the way highlights are shown throughout the league no matter what games we are watching, NFL fans pretty much know everything that happened once Sunday 7pm EST rolls around. And now NBC has their Sunday wrap-up before Sunday Night Football anyway.

Lineker is the rare ex-player to move from the field and into a host/reporter role and do so seamlessly. He’s smooth, he’s surprisingly funny, sharp, and isn’t afraid to go beyond the normal, milktoast territory that we usually associate with a host of a show. You needn’t go any farther back than his commentary on the opening ceremony of the World Cup and the focus on Qatar’s heinous record in various fields for proof.


So no, the BBC and the UK government was never going to find a soft-touch in Lineker when it came to this, especially when added that Lineker doesn’t need the job. He’s universally beloved, has more money than he could probably ever spend, and there would be channels lining up to have him if he and the Beeb split. He was never going to walk back anything, because he honestly doesn’t have that much to lose. That power of comfort for him has only made his bosses and those in the rabbit-eared and crybaby government look even more ridiculous as they continue to throw their toys about the room. But that’s what happens when your prime minister and cabinet positions are filled with people who have always gotten what they wanted from birth.

Just this morning, the BBC was forced to backtrack and reinstate Lineker.

Does the US have a Gary Lineker?

It does make one wonder who could cause such a stir on this side of the Atlantic, with the sobering realization that the answer is probably no one. No sport is on its own on the mountain like soccer is in the UK, though the NFL would probably like to think it’s close. Tony Dungy is an anti-trans and homophobic dope (and James Brown has been similarly accused), and yet we just pass them off as part of the machine. CBS could replace Brown tomorrow and maybe there would be a slight fissure in the “I HATE WOKE BUT CAN’T SPELL IT” brigade, but not much more. Brown and Dungy certainly wouldn’t defy the government in such a public way if they actually went about protecting those groups as they should, because they’re too desperate to hang onto their jobs.


Curt Menefee doesn’t mean nearly as much. Maybe Dan Patrick once upon a time, but he’s moved aside and Maria Taylor doesn’t have that kind of cache yet. Joe Buck? That’s probably as close as you could get, and enough people hate him for foggy reasons that they would take the opposite side no matter what he says. But he’s certainly one of the few who’s been at the top of the industry long enough to not really care what happens to him and doesn’t really need the position more than it needs him, especially shifting to Monday Night Football (and Fox has missed him in the booth in both baseball and football no matter what they say).

Perhaps Don Cherry once had this kind of bullhorn in Canada, and well…look how that turned out.


Sports coverage, even when talking about hot-button issues that extend beyond sports, has always tried to appeal to the very middle. We know how terrified the NFL and NHL and MLB are of angering what they perceive to be their base. It’s disappointing that sports personalities who speak out, or at least the ones we hear about more, tend to only be on the conservative/hateful side, but then that aligns them with the party whose members tend to sign the checks, doesn’t it?

And could you ever imagine an entire staff walking out to support a colleague wrongly removed from their job? Taking a stand here doesn’t always embolden others, either, and there would probably be too many eying his or her post for themselves to follow.


There are similarities. An increasingly and more clearly incompetent and petty conservative side that can only stoke hate to try and maintain their followers called out on their shit with no viable defense so they just lash out at the actual calling out of said shit. Sports not hesitating to be part of that calling out. The difference is that soccer in the UK has always been in opposition to the Tories (go look up Margaret Thatcher and football to get a clear idea of why) whereas sports here have lately been a battleground for both sides. The immigration policies put forth by gleaming hedge fund Ken, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, are no more hateful than the ones we have here. And yet, hasn’t been much of a peep from anyone. FOX couldn’t even bring itself to mention anything going in Qatar, and that was a hanging curve (especially with rights to 2026 already promised to them).

Like always, we’ll just wait for Bomani to get to it on HBO.