The NWHL, on the other hand, has signaled progressivism: It was the first professional team-sports league to embrace a transgender player, Harrison Browne, and its players have worn End Racism patches on their jerseys during games. These choices are notable for a sport like hockey, which some studies find has a mostly conservative, very white, very male fan base. So when Erika Nardini, Barstool’s CEO, interviewed two NWHL players, Rebecca Russo and Kelly Babstock, on her podcast, many of the league’s fans and employees experienced a moment of discord. Nardini urged listeners to support the league’s bubble tournament and even mused aloud about Barstool possibly buying a team, prompting some league supporters to speak out online against Barstool’s attempt to align itself with the league. Nardini then fired back by compiling those tweets into a video, essentially siccing the site’s troll-happy fans on every person whose handle appeared. (Neither Barstool nor Russo and Babstock responded to requests for comment.)
The controversy brought up a familiar tension in discussions about how women’s sports leagues can and should nurture growth. Most men’s sports leagues have historically tried to portray themselves as free from politics in an effort to be welcoming to all. Think of how swiftly the NFL painted Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling during the national anthem—an act divisive among fans—as damaging for the league. Even the NBA’s show of support for Black Lives Matter came after protests that started in the WNBA, whose players began speaking out and wearing BLM T-shirts in 2016. The WNBA initially responded by fining its players, but after backlash, it rescinded those fines and pledged support for players’ activism. Last year, the league dedicated its season to Say Her Name, an African American Policy Forum campaign that brings attention to the Black women killed by police violence. Players used media time after games, and teams used score updates, to highlight the names and stories of victims.
Now it seems that the NWHL is adopting a similar ethos. Saroya Tinker, a defender for the Metropolitan Riveters of New Jersey and one of the few Black players in the league, took to Twitter after Nardini’s video was posted on Barstool. “WE, as a league do not want support from ANY openly racist platform … If you, as the CEO cannot recognize that your platform promotes that of white supremacy & only further divides the athletic community, perhaps we need to have a conversation,” she wrote. Portnoy then posted a video in which he said Tinker “should be in jail” for calling the site a white-supremacist platform. The NWHL’s commissioner, Tyler Tumminia, appeared to back up Tinker’s messages in her statement about the video, emphasizing the league’s values. “First and foremost, we must remain inclusive and empowering for women,” she wrote. “The success of our movement hinges on respect, opportunity, and a strong sense of connectedness across our players, teams, staff, fans, partners and avid supporters.” (The league did not respond to a request for further comment.)
The N.C.A.A. has been buying coverage for its men’s basketball tournament since the late 1990s, when its annual budget was less than $450 million in today’s dollars. (In its last pre-pandemic fiscal year, the N.C.A.A. reported about $1.1 billion in revenues, including $868 million in television and marketing rights fees.)
“You started to see increases in these media contracts, and it made people realize they needed to protect their revenue streams,” said Kathleen McNeely, the N.C.A.A.’s chief financial officer since 2011.
Underwriters and college sports officials believed there was a very low risk that the tournament, a vast event with games at sites across the United States, would ever be abandoned in its entirety. Trouble in one city, they reasoned, would be unlikely to wipe out all 67 games. And although executives feared something like the coronavirus pandemic, a full cancellation was still seen, over all, as a slim possibility.
“The likelihood of a full event cancellation and the long-term, widespread lockdown that Covid brought was so, so minute, so improbable,” Robinson said, “and that was evident in how the insurers rated the insurance.”
The N.C.A.A. paid a little more than $2 million for $270 million in coverage, a premium in line with the industry’s standard of anywhere from 0.5 percent to 3 percent of the amount covered. The policies backed up a sum roughly equivalent to the tournament’s ticket sales and about one-third of its media rights, which are imperiled when an event is not held.Updated
Feb. 28, 2021, 12:03 a.m. ET
N.C.A.A. executives and some outside analysts said it would have been too expensive to insure every dollar associated with the tournament — a position some critics have challenged in recent months. And college sports leaders believed that other parts of their emergency plan, including reduced payouts to schools, would keep the group afloat when combined with the insurance coverage.
Before the N.C.A.A.’s Board of Governors voted on March 12 to cancel the tournament — a decision reached during an unnerving conference call when Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, then a board member and now President Biden’s nominee for surgeon general, warned of the uncertainties surrounding the virus — Robinson spoke with the association’s insurers, a common step when a claim might be forthcoming.
“I would never shut up about things that’s wrong,” James said after the Lakers’ victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday night. “I preach about my people and I preach about equality, social injustice, racism, systematic voter suppression, things that go on in our community.
“I know what’s going on still, because I have a group of 300-plus kids at my school that’s going through the same thing, and they need a voice, and I’m their voice,” he continued, referencing the Akron, Ohio, public school his foundation financially supports. “I use my platform to continue to shed light on everything that may be going on, not only in my community [but] around the world. There’s no way I would ever just stick to sports, because I understand how powerful this platform and my voice is.”
Ibrahimovic’s comments came in an interview with Discovery Plus. The AC Milan forward said James is “phenomenal at what he is doing, but I don’t like when people, when they have some kind of status, and they do politics at the same time [as] what they are doing. I mean, do what you’re good at.
“That is the first mistake people do when they become famous and become a certain status. Stay out of it; just do what you’re best at because it doesn’t look good.”
Facing criticism for her stance, Ingraham issued a statement doubling down on it: “If pro athletes and entertainers want to freelance as political pundits, then they should not be surprised when they’re called out for insulting politicians.”
James responded the following day: “It lets me know that everything I’ve been saying is correct, for her to have that type of reaction.”
“But we will definitely not shut up and dribble. I will definitely not do that. I mean too much to society, I mean too much to the youth, I mean too much to so many kids that feel like they don’t have a way out, and they need someone to help lead them out of the situation they’re in.”
James reiterated his commitment to speaking out last year, after Ingraham offered a markedly different response to New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees’s opposition to taking a knee during the national anthem.
Ibrahimovic, who was born in Sweden to a Bosnian father and Croatian mother, said in 2018 that the Swedish press was overly critical of him because of his surname.
“What does the Swedish media do? They defend me, or do they jump on and attack me? They still attack me, because they cannot accept that I am Ibrahimovic,” he told Canal Plus, a French TV station.
“This is about racism. I don’t say there is racism but I say there is undercover racism. This exists, I am 100 percent sure. Because I am not Andersson or Svensson. If I would be that, trust me, they would defend me even if I would rob a bank.”
James pointed to the contradiction in Ibrahimovic’s comments.
“It’s funny he said that because I believe in 2018 he was the same guy who said … because his last name wasn’t a certain last name that he felt like there was some racism going on,” James said. “I’m the wrong guy to go at because I do my homework.”