Today, the Miami Marlins named Kim Ngtheir new General Manager. She is the first female GM of any of the major professional sports leagues in the U.S. (baseball, basketball, football, and hockey), and she is the first Asian-American GM of Major League Baseball.
I’ve been a fan of hers since she joined my Dodgers as an assistant GM in 2001. It’s a historic moment for sure, and it’s also shameful that it took this long for her to get a GM job. Her credentials are impeccable. She’s been in baseball for 30 years, and she has three championship rings. By all accounts, she’s an incredible negotiator, talent evaluator, and manager, and she is highly respected by some of the biggest names in baseball. It seemed like a sure thing for her to get a GM job in the first decade of this century, and she got plenty of interviews. But it never happened, and in 2011, she took a job with Major League Baseball.
Progress has to start somewhere, and this is definitely something to celebrate. However, all too often, people point to barriers like these being broken and think that the work is done. The work is not done. If we live in a world where only exceptional folks like Ng get opportunities, then we will have failed.
A truly equitable world would be one where all professional sports leagues were full of mediocre GMs of all genders and races.
I didn’t fully understand this until I learned about Janice Madden’sgroundbreaking study of Black coaches in the NFL. She found that, from 1990-2002, Black coaches far outperformed white coaches. Her research led to the Rooney Rule in 2003, which required that teams interview at least one minority candidate for coaching positions.
Here’s the kicker. Success isn’t just more Black coaches in the NFL. Success is more mediocre Black coaches in the NFL. As Madden explained:
If African-American coaches don’t fail, it means that those with equal talents to the failing white coaches are not even getting the chance to be a coach. Seeing African-American coaches fail means that they, like white coaches, no longer have to be superstars to get coaching jobs.
We should absolutely celebrate when we see superstars in any field who are women, Black, transgender, etc. Representation matters. But we should be even happier when we see fields full of mediocre women and other underrepresented folks, because that is a true indicator of equal opportunity.
I hope Ng succeeds, but in a weird way, I’ll be just as happy if she’s mediocre.
I’m a lifelong Dodgers fan, and I watched elatedly as the Dodgers stormed the field a few weeks ago after winning their first World Series since 1988. I left the TV on to watch the celebration. I love seeing the joy and tears on the players’ faces, watching them hugging their loved ones, listening to the fans cheering. That’s right, fans. They were playing in a sort-of bubble in Texas, where the rules around large gatherings are looser, and there were some fans in the stadium, most of them rooting for the Dodgers, so it felt like a home game.
In the course of the celebration, the sportscasters reported that Justin Turner, the Dodgers steady third-baseman and long-time leader, had tested positive for COVID-19, which was why he had been abruptly pulled from the game and isolated in the eighth inning. Hearing this left a pall on the celebration. It was a stark reminder that this was not normal times, and it led to many questions. Who else on both teams had already been exposed? Would they be okay? What if the Dodgers hadn’t won, and there was another game scheduled the following day? Would they have played?
Then Justin Turner came back onto the field to join his teammates for their celebration. He hugged his teammates and family members, he took off his mask, and he participated in the team photo. My sobriety shifted to shock, then unhappiness. What the heck was he doing?! Why wasn’t anyone stopping him?!
It took a few weeks, but Turner and Major League Baseball’s commissioner, Rob Manfred, finally released statements explaining what happened. Turner had apparently asked to step onto the field with his wife (who was isolating with him) for a photo. In his statement, Turner wrote:
I assumed by that point that few people were left on the field. I was under the impression that team officials did not object to my returning to the field for a picture with my wife. However, what was intended to be a photo capturing the two of us turned into several greetings and photos where I briefly and unwisely removed my mask. In hindsight, I should have waited until the field was clear of others to take that photo with my wife. I sincerely apologize to everyone on the field for failing to appreciate the risks of returning to the field. I have spoken with almost every teammate, coach and staff member, and my intentions were never to make anyone uncomfortable or put anyone at further risk.
According to the ESPN article on the statements:
Manfred said teammates “actively encouraged” Turner to leave his isolation room and return to the field, adding that “many teammates felt they had already been exposed” and were willing to tolerate additional risk. Manfred’s statement said Turner believed he received permission from at least one Dodgers employee and that an unidentified person incorrectly told him that other teammates had tested positive, “creating the impression in Mr. Turner’s mind that he was being singled out for isolation.”
MLB previously chided Turner for breaking protocol, adding that Turner “emphatically refused to comply” when asked to leave the field. But Manfred acknowledged Friday that the league “could have handled the situation more effectively” by assigning a security person to closely monitor Turner and quickly transporting him to the team hotel.
“Mr. Turner has publicly recognized that his conduct was wrong and has expressed remorse for that conduct,” Manfred wrote. “I have spoken to him personally and I know that he is extraordinarily upset by the incident. By all accounts, Justin is a leader in the clubhouse, a contributor to his community and a responsible person who was instrumental in the Dodgers diligently following the health protocols all season long.”
I think this was a good outcome, and I applaud everyone involved. There was no single person at fault. It was a collective responsibility, and everyone owned up. The next step is to learn from this and to improve the system.
I live in San Francisco, where our local leaders have moved cautiously in accordance with public health officials and scientists, and where there’s been a culture of compliance and support. People wear masks for the most part, and folks are generally well-intentioned in supporting differing tolerances for risk.
Still, it hasn’t been easy. I’ve felt more cautious than many of my peers, and I’ve drawn some boundaries around distancing and being outdoors, which has meant not doing a lot of the things that my friends want me to do. Everyone has been supportive in principle, but I constantly feel that support tested in practice. People ask to go on a distanced walk, and then they walk right next to me, or they wear their masks below their noses. People gather outdoors, and then it gets cold, and they say, “Why don’t we go inside?” Even though I’m generally good at protecting my boundaries and I’m not conflict-averse by any means, I’ve given in more than once. I feel like I’m constantly fighting a number of forces and tendencies — many of them based on my own longing for normalcy — and afterward, I always feel crappy and scared. But I don’t blame anyone. I know it’s hard for everyone, and I can’t imagine living in other places right now where there’s violent disagreement around what the norms should be.
Last month, my sister shared this comic by Ali Solomon that exactly encapsulates how I feel about all of this. Check it out. It’s brilliant.
Last May, Atul Gawande wrote a wonderful article about how we might safely transition out of lockdown based on what he had learned from his hospital’s practices. He wrote:
These lessons point toward an approach that we might think of as a combination therapy—like a drug cocktail. Its elements are all familiar: hygiene measures, screening, distancing, and masks. Each has flaws. Skip one, and the treatment won’t work. But, when taken together, and taken seriously, they shut down the virus. We need to understand these elements properly—what their strengths and limitations are—if we’re going to make them work outside health care.
And later in the article:
As I think about how my workplace’s regimen could be transferred to life outside the hospital, however, I have come to realize that there is a fifth element to success: culture. It’s one thing to know what we should be doing; it’s another to do it, rigorously and thoroughly.
In my professional life, which is fundamentally about systems change, we get so caught up with finding high-leverage strategies, it’s easy to forget that nothing works in isolation. And among the different combinations that are necessary for success, culture is almost always one of the required strategies. As we’re experiencing right now in a large-scale, visceral way, culture change is really, really hard, even when everybody is aligned and has the best of intentions, which is rarely the case.
A friend posted a video clip of his favorite basketball play ever on his Facebook page, and invited others to do the same. It made me curious if mine was online, so I did a quick search on YouTube for, “Magic no look pass nobody Portland.” The play I was looking for was the first to pop up. (The Internet is an amazing place.)
Magic Johnson rebounds the ball with two seconds left. The only thing Portland can do at this point is foul. Magic is very good at shooting free throws — he made over 90 percent of them that season — but even if he makes both of them, Portland would have a chance to advance the ball to half court and get a three off to tie the game. Three seconds is all the time in the world.
What happens next is still clearly emblazoned in my brain, as it showed Magic’s preternatural brilliance as a basketball player. As soon as Magic gets the rebound, he throws a cross-court, no-look pass over his head. To nobody. The ball slowly trickles out of bounds on the opposite side of the court with 0.1 seconds left on the clock. The game is sealed. Now there’s no way for Portland to come back.
If you look at the other players from both teams in that first split second, they have no idea what Magic has done. Then they see the ball trickle out of bounds, and stunned realization spreads across their faces.
Who even thinks of doing anything like this? I’ve never seen anything like it since.
In retrospect, that game was loaded with history. It was Magic’s first season playing without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Pat Riley. (Hello, Vlade Divac and Mike Dunleavy.) It would be his last playoff series win ever, as he and Byron Scott would bow out of the next series with injuries, allowing Michael Jordan to win his first NBA championship. (That’s right, I said it. Allowing.) The following year, he would make his stunning announcement that he had HIV and would be retiring immediately.
I can’t believe that game was almost 30 years ago. I can remember it like it was yesterday, and I love that this clip is on YouTube.
In other hoops news, ESPN just announced that its 10-part documentary on Jordan’s last championship season, The Last Dance, will now debut in April instead of June, thanks to everyone being cooped up inside without any sports to watch. That was only 22 years ago, and I can also remember that series like it was yesterday. Damn, I’m old.
When I read about or listen to others talking about networks, I often find the examples people cite to be too narrow. They’re either Internet-mediated networks (which are interesting) or organizational networks (which are not). I wish that more people would consider things that look like the intersection of the two — networks that look similar to the Internet, but are not primarily mediated by the Internet.
One of my favorite examples of this also happens to be one of my passions: pickup basketball — casual, just-for-fun (but sometimes highly competitive) games that anyone can start or join. Not all games are open, but most of them are. You can find a pickup game pretty much anywhere in the world, and you’ll find that the rules and norms — mostly unwritten — are almost identical, with some common variations. Half court or full? Ones-and-twos or twos-and-threes? Winner takes ball? Win, you’re in?
Still, each game is made up of different people, and as such, has its own culture and practices. Some games are unapologetically meritocratic — as long as you win, you stay on the court. Other games are more inclusive — if you win two games in a row, you sit and let others play. In my game, we stop play when someone falls. There was never any up-front agreement about this. Someone started doing it in the early days, and it was highly appreciated by the older players (i.e. me).
I’ve had many regular pickup games over the years, some of which I’ve started, some of which I’ve joined. In some cases, I accidentally stumbled upon them and just kept showing up. In other cases, people would add me to their mailing lists or online forums.
One of my favorite organizing models was a game a colleague invited me to join in Menlo Park in the early 2000s. We generally played on Tuesdays and Thursdays during lunch. Someone had set up a mailing list, and on the morning of, someone — it could be anyone — would send an email to the list with the number, “1.” That meant they wanted to play. If you were up for joining, you would respond to the list and increment the number. In other words, the next person would respond, “2,” the next would respond, “3,” and so forth. If you hit, “4,” you had enough to play, and the game would officially be on.
I currently play every Sunday morning at Julius Kahn Park in San Francisco, a hidden gem with views of the Bay and the Presidio. We’ve been playing every Sunday for four years. Originally, a few friends and I invited others to come play. After a few sessions, someone started a Facebook group and invited more people that way. Initially, he would set up an event every week. One weekend, he was heading out-of-town. He didn’t tell anyone, but I noticed that he hadn’t set up the event as usual, so I decided to do it. For a while, I kept doing it. Then, I needed to head out-of-town. Sure enough, someone else stepped up and set up the event without anyone asking.
We also have gotten a good number of folks who accidentally came upon the game and kept showing up. Some of them are on the Facebook group, but many are not, not because we’re trying to exclude anyone, but because it’s largely unnecessary at this point. We’re consistent enough that if you show up, we’ll likely be there.
How is pickup basketball like the Internet?
First, there’s some basic infrastructure — a hard surface, a backboard, a basket, and a ball.
Second, there are protocols. Some of them are formal and unshakeable. For example, on the Internet, there’s the Internet Protocol, the base-level protocol that everything on the Internet uses. With pickup basketball, there are the basic rules of basketball — between 1-5 people per team, dribble with one hand only, once you stop, you have to pass or shoot, whichever team scores more wins, etc.
Some of them are informal and loosely enforced, such as the aforementioned pickup basketball variations. Most of the protocols on the Internet began as RFC’s (Request for Comments) — informal technical specs and design documents. Many — such as HTTP, the basis for the World Wide Web — were widely adopted before ever becoming officially standardized.
Third, they’re both decentralized and open, which leaves a lot of room for experimentation and different kinds of leadership (both good and bad). I’ve already mentioned the different cultures and kinds of organizing you’ll find at different pickup games. Another important form of leadership worth noting is the role the NBA plays. It can’t directly dictate what happens on the thousands of basketball courts around the world. However, its athletes and teams have been very intentional in investing in infrastructure — building and maintaining courts, for example — and for acting as ambassadors. The league as a whole has created many channels via media (both old and new) and on-the-ground work to create more exposure for the game all across the world. That ultimately enables the NBA to do what it does best — inspire people all over the world to watch and play the game.
The NBA doesn’t hold meetings for “representatives” of the pickup game network to try to align around a shared vision or to discuss pickup game governance. It doesn’t do social network analysis to try to demonstrate impact. It articulates its own vision of the game by stewarding and showcasing the best players in the world, it invests in infrastructure so that more people can play, and it invests in visibility so that more people are inspired to play.
Folks who are attempting to professionalize networks could learn a whole lot from pickup basketball.
At yesterday’s U.S. Open third-round match, Naomi Osaka — the number one ranked women’s tennis player in the world — beat 15-year old prodigy, Coco Gauff, in straight sets (6-3, 6-0). It was totally expected, and most sports outlets didn’t even bother covering this early round match.
Then Osaka did something wonderful. She asked Gauff to join her for her post-match interview, which is generally reserved for the winner of the match. As Soraya Nadia McDonald of The Undefeatedwrote:
“Naomi asked me to do the on-court interview with her and I said no, because I knew I was going to cry the whole time, but she encouraged me to do it,” Gauff said during the televised interview, still wiping away tears. “It was amazing. She did amazing and I’m going to learn a lot from this match. She’s been so sweet to me.”
What a moment — so raw, so genuine, so vulnerable and sweet, made even more so by the fact that Osaka, too, began to choke up as she made a point to praise Gauff’s parents, Candi and Corey.
“You guys raised an amazing player,” Osaka, 21, said. “I remember I used to see you guys — I don’t wanna cry — I remember I used to see you guys training in the same place as us. For me, the fact that both of us made it, and we’re both still working as hard as we can, I think it’s incredible. I think you guys are amazing, and I think, Coco, you’re amazing.”
As McDonald later wrote:
But Osaka’s actions did something else, too. Osaka took the love her hero, Serena Williams, expressed for her in an essay in the July issue of Harper’s Bazaar and paid it forward. Intentional or not, black girl magic became black girl solidarity. And it happened at the site of the ugliest championship finish in US Open history, when Osaka defeated Williams a year ago to win her first Grand Slam, only to have the event marred by boos directed toward official Carlos Ramos.
In a text message to Osaka, which Williams published in her essay, Williams wrote: “I would never, ever want the light to shine away from another female, specifically another black female athlete. I can’t wait for your future, and believe me I will always be watching as a big fan!”
What Osaka did after the match has been called an example of sportsmanship, but that doesn’t do it justice. It wasn’t a nice word of encouragement as she and Gauff hugged at net, or a few gracious comments as she addressed the crowd. It was an act of compassion. It was also unusual, and a little awkward, and brave, in its way. It probably mattered that Osaka had been there herself, standing in Arthur Ashe Stadium in tears the year before, although under very different circumstances, after a controversial coaching violation was issued to her opponent, Serena Williams. It certainly mattered that Osaka was one of the few people alive who knew what it was like to be a young woman of color at this level of tennis in 2019, an outsider in a traditionally clubby sport; to be a young person surrounded by people who want to make money off of her (and wanting to make money herself); to feel the intensity of the spotlight—warmed by it one moment, burned by it the next. She knew what it was like to lose a big match. She knew the tears. She knew the lonely shower. More than once during the U.S. Open, she has said that something about Gauff reminds her of herself. There was a protective solidarity in that moment.
But it was also generous, and it included everyone: the crowd, though much of it had not been cheering for Osaka during the match, and also people hundreds or thousands of miles away watching at home. (I felt it, certainly.) In 2019, kindness feels like a political act, perhaps especially in the context of competition. I thought, as I watched, of something that Gauff had said about Osaka: “I think she shows us how to compete, and the way to be off the court, too.”
Pretty great things happening from some pretty great leaders in women’s tennis right now.
As a little bonus, The New York Times Magazine recently did a great profile on Venus Williams, in many ways the matron of this current generation of exceptional black women tennis players.