U.S. Ties Portugal in World Cup
(Warren Little/Getty Images)
June 23, 2014

In A Stunning Finish, Portugal Ties U.S.

It was heartbreaking. It was stunning. It was the reason, they call Group G, the "Group of Death."

With 30 seconds left and despite astronomical odds, the United States men's national soccer team was about to qualify for the second round of the World Cup.

But just like that, Portugal's super star Cristiano Ronaldo crossed to Silvestre Varela, who headed it into the net, tying it, 2-2, marking the final play of the game.

This means everyone in the group of death has a mathematical chance at advancing.

This means, the U.S. and Germany are in a good position to advance, because a tie gets them both into the round of 16.

Still, this was a brutal end for the U.S., which fought back after trailing early. Jermaine Jones scored the tying goal at beginning of the second half and with about 10 minutes to go Clint Dempsey, who recovered from a broken nose during the U.S.-Ghana match, nailed a goal with about 10 minutes to go, putting the U.S. ahead 2-1.

As Ives Galarcep, of Soccer by Ives, said on Twitter: Before the game kicked off in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon, most U.S. fans would have taken a tie. But not after the gutsy, aggressive, world-class performance delivered by the U.S. squad on Sunday.

The U.S. will face Germany on Thursday at noon. That's the same time and date when Portugal will face off with Ghana.

We live blogged the game, so keep reading if you want a play-by-play.

Sacred Heart-Griffin Cyclones
(Peter Gray/WUIS)
October 08, 2013

Kids And Concussions: Advocate Pushes For Limits On Hits In High School Sports

Coaches in Illinois are required by state law to remove from a game or practice any athlete suspected of suffering a concussion. But responding quickly after a hard hit isn't enough for a former football player from the Chicago area who now advocates nationwide to prevent injury to still-developing brains.

It’s a cool, Friday evening in the fall - game day. But Rick Fanning of Lanphier High School in Springfield isn’t on the bus with the rest of his team. He’s at home, recovering.

FANNING: “I don’t remember the whole thing. But what I do remember is I was at football practice...”

Rick’s now had four concussions – one every summer for the past four years. Each blow came from a teammate, not an opponent. Each an accident during practice.

FANNING: “We dropped our shoulders and we hit heads. I remember hitting the ground and when I tried to stand up I fell down again.”

Fanning’s mother, Holly, says Rick is still struggling to shake the symptoms. He’s missed days of school due to chronic headaches and depression. So she sent him to a local concussion clinic.

FANNING: “Just to make sure it’s nothing that’s going to be permanent, it’s just going to go away eventually. They’re also sending him in to do the MRI and talk to a neurologist, just to make sure everything’s right. Because it’s been almost 4 weeks since he had the concussion and he’s just not coming back like he has before.”

WATSON: “The hard part with sports is that kids do want to play. They feel like they look weak, or somehow not being a good teammate.”

Doctor John Watson told Rick Fanning he’d better stay off the football field this season.

Fanning is keeping score right now - but not touchdowns.  Instead, he’s tracking his own results from a computer programthat checks memory and reaction time. He still hasn’t returned to his normal – or “baseline” – score, a troubling sign.

Dr. Watson says cognitive tests like this one are tools to understand what’s going on internally.

WATSON: “If there’s one thing we can fall back on it’s the impact test, which evaluates their brain, sees how it’s functioning. That test is vital because it tells me right away they’re not thinking clearly.”

Dr. Watson’s clinic sent certified trainer Devin Spears to Fanning’s school to administer him the test.  Spears says it’s a challenge explaining to teen athletes what’s going on in their heads. But over the years he’s learned to use a simple visual.

SPEARS: “I talk to kids about – think of your brains as fruit in a bowl. We put water in the bowl; the fruit starts to float. We start shaking the bowl back and forth. What’s going to happen to the fruit? It’s going to start sloshing. It’s going to start banging into the inside of the bowl. The concussion actually is where the surface of the brain impacts the interior of the skull."

WWE ANNOUNCER: “Chris Nowinski, the man from Harvard, certainly thinks he can’t be beat.”

Pro wrestling fans haven’t seen Chris Nowinski in the ring since his life-changing concussion in 2003.  Nowinski is from the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights and played Ivy League football:

NOWINSKI: ”Defensive tackle at Harvard, then wrestled for WWE, where I had to retire due to post-concussion syndrome that affected me for five years. I got kicked in the head in a wrestling match.”

Today you might call Nowinski a brain health “crusader”. He started the nationwide non-profit Sports Legacy Institute in 2007 and pushed to limit days of full-contact practice in the NFL and Ivy League. Now, Nowinski says he’s turning his attention to high schools.

NOWINSKI: “The science is black and white. Fewer hits to the head is better for you. When kids are recorded getting over 2,000 blows to the head in a season, most of those are wasted in practice. We’ve learned you can still teach the game safely with half as many hits.”

Nowinski and his alma mater high school in Arlington Heights want the Illinois High School Association to start cutting back on full contact, starting with the elimination of summer football.  The school has until October 15th to submit their proposal to the IHSA. If the sports governing body approves, the contact limits could be in place as soon as next spring.

Kurt Gibson leads the IHSA Sports Medicine Advisory Committee. Gibson says hitting at practices when players are in full pads is left up to coaches. But he says a policy in place for four years - which became state law in 2011 - requires coaches pull from a game or practice players displaying concussion symptoms.  Even if they’re just what some might call “out of it.”

GIBSON: “So there’s clearly a responsibility on coaches, primarily, and also teammates, that when they see somebody displaying those signs, get ‘em out.”

State law specifies that only doctors or certified athletic trainers can put a player back into a game after a concussion has been ruled out.  He says often the IHSA officials out on the field - those guys in the zebra stripes - are the first to spot a problem during a game:

GIBSON: “That’s important because sometimes at lower level games trainers aren’t always present or physicians aren’t always present.”

Some football programs can afford trainers at both games and practices.

The Sacred Heart-Griffin Cyclones in Springfield not only have the staff, they also have a sports medicine clinic that was built right next to their new field.

LEONARD: “If there’s one injury it’s too many. I do believe this without question; the game of football is much safer.”

Ken Leonard has coached high school teams since 1976 and says no one he knows has shown signs of brain trauma after years of hard hits. Leonard thinks football today is safer than riding a bike.

LEONARD: “I’ve got grandchildren. If they want to play I’d back them 100 percent. Our equipment is so much better and the coaches are much better trained than they were 40, 30 years ago”

Coach Leonard’s school is trying new technology that may be the future of concussion detection – in-helmet sensors that send impact data wirelessly to a monitoring device on the sideline. But few coaches can afford the cutting edge, and not all schools can pay athletic trainers to attend games and practices.

At Riverton High, for example – just east of Springfield – Coach John Hambelton does the best he can with limited resources. He says watching for head injuries at practice falls to him and a few others.

HAMBELTON: ”Our coaching staff knows what’s going on. I think they know a suspected concussion, they know the kid needs to sit out. So we err on the side of caution, that’s all we can do, we don’t have a trainer available. So if someone’s showing signs of concussion – headache, dizziness – they’re probably done for the day.”

Sitting in his living room, high school junior Rick Fanning has accepted he’s done for the year.

FANNING: “The past few days, my headaches haven’t been too bad.  But like I said, there’s still that depression state. It’s like a slump. I don’t know how to get out of it.”

Fanning’s mom Holly says her own research into athlete brain damage and even cases of sudden death brought the issue home for her.

FANNING: “You can have your kid be a star, but if they’re injuring themselves to the point they’re ruining their future, then it’s time to back off and let the kid do what he needs to do.”

Chris Nowinski, who’s pushing Illinois to follow the NFL and other states in limiting how often the brain becomes a target, agrees Rick Fanning and other teens need to take the long-view when it comes to health.

NOWINSKI: “He’s going to need his brain for the rest of his life – to hold down a job, to be a good husband and father.  And we’ve learned that if you abuse your brain as a young man, everything can fall apart 20 years down the road.”

Nowinsky will be among the guests on WILL's program Focus for a discussion about preventing concussions among high school athletes, Wednesday morning at 10 on AM 580. Tuesday evening at 8 p.m. on WILL-TV, Frontline takes on the topic of concussions in the NFL in 'League of Denial.'


Tokyo to host 2020 Summer Games
(Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)
September 07, 2013

Tokyo Will Host 2020 Summer Olympics, Beating Out Istanbul

It will be Tokyo, not Istanbul or Madrid, who hosts the 2020 Summer Olympics, the International Olympic Committee and its president, Jacques Rogge, announced in Buenos Aires Saturday.

Rival city Madrid was eliminated in the first round of voting. We have updated this post with the latest news.

Update at 4:55 p.m. ET: Voting Tally Detailed

Madrid and Istanbul had been tied after the first round with 26 votes each, according to the Games Bids site. After Istanbul was chosen over Madrid in a run-off, Tokyo won 60 votes in the third round, to Istanbul's 36.

Update at 4:20 p.m. ET: Tokyo Is It

Tokyo has been chosen to host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Summer Games, the IOC said in an announcement that was streamed live online Saturday afternoon.

In selecting Tokyo, IOC officials ended a recent trend that had favored holding the Olympics in cities or regions that haven't previously hosted the games. Tokyo hosted the Olympics in 1964; the Winter Games were held in Nagano in 1998.

But Tokyo officials also promoted their city's bid as symbolizing a new chapter for Japan, which is still recuperating from the tsunami and earthquake that devastated swaths of the country in 2011.  Organizers have said they plan to have Olympic torchbearers run through areas hit by the tsunami.

After the initial round of voting, Istanbul won a run-off over Madrid, leaving Tokyo firmly in the favored spot.

The final announcement came as a striking turnabout for the Turkish delegation, which had earlier believed it had won not just the run-off vote but the competition itself, reports the Inside the Games website.

Our original post continues:

Officials from the three cities made their final pitches today. We'll update this post with the news of the winning city. We expect the announcement just after 4 p.m. ET.

As of earlier this week, oddsmakers saw Tokyo as a slight favorite to win. All of the finalists have submitted recent bids to host the Olympics. And all three were widely seen as having flaws that endanger their chances:

-- Istanbul saw a crackdown on anti-government protesters in June; last month, 31 Turkish athletes were suspended for doping. And worries over regional crises may play a role.

-- Tokyo officials have sought to reassure Olympic representatives that their venue is free from any ill effects from recent radioactive leaks at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.

-- Madrid has pursued its bid under the cloud of Spain's ailing economy and high unemployment rate, as well as its own doping problems.

Bids from the cities of Baku, Azerbaijan, and Doha, Qatar, were not selected for the final round.

In coming days, the IOC meetings will also produce the final list of sports that will be part of the 2020 Games. Wrestling, squash, and a combined bid from baseball and softball are in contention for one remaining slot. And IOC officials will also select a new president to replace the outgoing Jacques Rogge.

In this photo taken April 5, 2011, Annette Clark places glasses on her paralyzed son, Rocky Clark, in the bedroom at their home in Robbins, Ill.
(M. Spencer Green/AP)
August 26, 2013

IHSA Requires Insurance For Student Athletes

The Illinois High School Association has approved a policy to make sure its members are complying with a new law requiring them to get catastrophic insurance coverage for student athletes.

The IHSA board of directors approved the policy during its meeting Monday in Bloomington. The policy coincides with Gov. Pat Quinn signing a new law that requires Illinois high schools to have the insurance.

The law was inspired by the late Rasul "Rocky'' Clark, who played football in the Chicago suburbs. He was paralyzed from the neck down when he was tackled in 2000. Portions of his care were paid for through a $5 million school district insurance policy.

The IHSA made its group plan insurance available to its member schools in mid-August. The IHSA insures athletes in postseason events.

Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey  baseball
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
August 15, 2013

The Knuckleball Can Devastate, So Why Don't All Pitchers Throw It?

This sports news got our attention this week:

The Baltimore Orioles have hired Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro to teach three of the team's minor league pitchers how to throw the knuckleball — a pitch that can make even the best hitters look helpless. Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Willie Stargell compared its flight to "a butterfly with hiccups."

According to The New York Times, "Niekro's assignment is to help the Orioles transform three pitchers into full-time knuckleballers: [Zach] Clark, 30, now with Class A Frederick, Md.; Zach Staniewicz, 27, in the rookie Gulf Coast League; and Eddie Gamboa, 28, of Class AAA Norfolk, Va."

Knuckleballers are a rarity. At any one time, only one or two are usually in the major leagues. And for the few who achieve fame — Niekro and Charlie Hough in the past, the Toronto Blue Jays' R.A. Dickey in the present — there are hundreds of other pitchers on MLB rosters who don't try to throw the pitch.

No major league team has gone out of its way to teach the knuckleball. What is Baltimore thinking?

Well, if the three pitchers can learn how to toss a knuckleball they might be able to salvage their careers, which are mired in the minors. One of them just might end up making it to "the show." Dickey is the latest "journeyman" pitcher to have found stardom late in his career thanks to the knuckler.

Plus, as the seemingly ageless Niekro, Hough and Tim Wakefield have shown in past years, mastering the knuckleball can keep someone pitching well into his 30s or beyond. Because the pitch travels at 60 mph to maybe 80 mph, throwing that "softly" puts far less stress on an arm than throwing 90 mph or above.

So the knuckleball can be very effective. It can resurrect pitchers' careers. It can keep guys in the majors who might otherwise have been out of baseball years earlier.

That raises a logical question: Why aren't there more knuckleballers?

We turned to Alan Nathan, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and keeper of The Physics of Baseball website, where he devotes quite a bit of space to his knuckleball research.

He began his answer to our question with this observation:

"There's a stigma attached to the knuckleball" by many in baseball. "It's seen as a 'trick pitch.' It's not 'really baseball.' " So, Nathan says, there's "not a push to throw it and teach the pitch at an early age."

Then there's the basic problem that the pitch isn't as easy to toss — at least not to toss well — as it looks. The ball has to be gripped with two (carefully manicured) fingernails and sort of pushed toward the plate. The object is to put just a little spin on it and let it be nudged around as air flows over the ball's stitches and any little scrapes or abrasions on the leather. Basically, Nathan says, the pitcher lets "chaotic dynamics" determine how the ball moves. A breeze, a loose stitch, a bit of humidity: Such little things can add up to create a bit of chaotic movement that fools batters. See this Times graphic for some more on the physics of the pitch.

Put a little too much spin on the ball or throw it just a little too fast, Nathan says, and you're basically serving up a batting-practice pitch that the hitter can feast on.

The ball obviously also has to be in or near the strike zone. If not, a pitcher just ends up walking too many batters. Or the ball just ends up getting past the catcher — allowing any runners on base to advance and possibly score. Last week, for example, Boston Red Sox knuckleballer Steven Wright made his first major league start. He allowed only one hit, but lasted just one inning. Wright walked two batters and threw a record-tying four passed balls in that time. The Houston Astros scored on him three times.

Finally, there's the focus required. Most knuckleballers end up throwing the pitch almost exclusively — mixing in few, if any, fastballs, curves or sliders. "They talk about having to 'have a feel' " for the pitch that requires using it all the time, Nathan says.

That means if they have a game where "the feel" just isn't right, they can get shelled.

Still, as we said, the knuckleball can be effective and can prolong careers. Dickey's 20-6 record and dramatic success last year with the New York Mets (he won the National League's Cy Young award, which goes to the best pitcher) and the news that the Orioles are making an effort to groom three knuckleballers gives Nathan hope that the pitch will catch on.

"We may look back on this period in another five years," he says, "and say it was the start of something — a bit of a knuckleball era."




Alex Rodriguez
(Rich Schultz/AP)
August 05, 2013

Alex Rodriguez Suspended By MLB For Performance Enhancing Drugs

Alex Rodriguez was suspended through 2014 and All-Stars Nelson Cruz, Jhonny Peralta and Everth Cabrera were banned 50 games apiece Monday when Major League Baseball disciplined 13 players in a drug case.

This is the most sweeping punishment since the Black Sox scandal nearly a century ago.

Ryan Braun's 65-game suspension last month and previous punishments bring to 18 the total number of players disciplined for their relationship to Biogenesis of America, a closed anti-aging clinic in Florida accused of distributing banned performing-enhancing drugs.  Ryan Braun, the 2011 National League MVP, was the first to accept a suspension from Major League Baseball.

Because of injuries, Rodriguez, who has said he will fight the suspension, hasn't played for the Yankees since last fall. But he is scheduled to return to baseball during the Yankees game against the White Sox Monday night. Major League Baseball said that his "suspension will be stayed until the completion of his appeal if Rodriguez files a grievance challenging his discipline."

The harshest penalty was reserved for Rodriguez, a three-time Most Valuable Player and baseball's highest-paid star. His suspension covers 211 games, starting Thursday, and he is expected to appeal.

The New York Yankees slugger admitted four years ago that he used performance-enhancing drugs while with Texas from 2001-03 but has repeatedly denied using them since.

According to the league, the other players receiving 50-game suspensions are: Cruz, Cabrera, Peralta, Antonio Bastardo, Francisco Cervelli, Fautino De Los Santos, Sergio Escalona, Fernando Martinez, Jesus Montero, Jordan Norberto, Cesar Puello and Jordany Valdespin.

August 05, 2013

Gov. Quinn Signs Bill For Disabled Student Athletes

A new law says student athletes with disabilities can be exempt from gym class if they play other sports.

Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill Sunday extending the exemption that exists for other students. Already, school boards can allow juniors and seniors out of physical education for reasons including if they're in sports or need credits. Quinn says athletes with disabilities should be given the same consideration.

The law takes effect immediately.

It says disabled student athletes can be exempt if they're involved in adaptive athletic programs.

The bill was prompted by student Tyler Woodworth, who has cerebral palsy. He plays sled hockey, which is adapted ice hockey. Woodworth wanted to take a class but had a full schedule and didn't qualify for the exemption.

The bill is SB2157.

Shahid Khan
(University of Illinois)
July 12, 2013

Billionaire Shahid Khan Buys English Soccer Team

University of Illinois alumnus and entrepreneur Shahid Khan has bought the English Premier League club Fulham.

Khan owns the Urbana-based auto parts manufacturer, Flex-N-Gate. In December 2011, Khan bought the National Football League's Jacksonville Jaguars.

"I do not view myself so much as the owner of Fulham, but a custodian of the club on behalf of its fans," Khan said in a statement. "We will manage the club’s financial and operational affairs with prudence and care, with youth development and community programs as fundamentally important elements of Fulham’s future.”

Details of the sale comes with Khan's Jaguars preparing to play NFL regular-season games in London.

The Jaguars have a deal to play one home game in London for four consecutive seasons starting in October at Wembley Stadium against the San Francisco 49ers.

Khan becomes the sixth American owner of a Premier League team. Al Fayed had owned Fulham since 1997.

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