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Amid a racial reckoning, a 50-year-old USC-Alabama football game carries new meaning



JIMMY JONES KNEW I was going to call. Someone like me always calls.

Every few years, a writer reaches out to Jones or his teammate Sam Cunningham or any member of the 1970 USC football team, wanting to ask about a football game played half a century ago in Birmingham, Alabama.

Jones has a deliberate way of speaking, and even now, at 70 years old, the former quarterback projects the calm of a playcaller in the huddle. “All right, I’ll tell you some stories,” he says.

He talks about the matchup in which his all-Black USC backfield (Jones, Cunningham and tailback Clarence Davis) beat up on Bear Bryant’s all-white Alabama team on Sept. 12, 1970, and how, in the years since, the game has for many become a defining moment in the history of race in American football, the tipping point toward a truly integrated sport. Documentaries have been made and film scripts shopped. One of a catalog of books through the years calls it “The Game That Changed a Nation.”

For Jones, the game takes on different meanings over time, and never more than this year. The country is going through a reckoning on race that touches everything — the things right in front of us, like jobs and schools and what happens when we walk down the street, and the things in our past too, like contests between football teams that felt like clashes between cultures. I called Jones and Cunningham to hear some of the old stories, sure, but also to hear about what the game meant then and what it was starting to mean now.

Jones lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, near where he grew up, and has watched as acts of police brutality against Black men have spurred protests about racial injustice across the United States. “I think all you have to do is look at what’s going on,” he says, “and realize that even some of the gains that were made from what we did 50 years ago have been eroded.”

In Inglewood, California, Cunningham, the fullback whose 135 yards and two touchdowns against Alabama made him a star, follows the plight of Colin Kaepernick and seethes at the tragic killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and he wonders what exactly a game can mean.

“We had the civil rights movement with them shooting fire hoses and siccing dogs on people,” he says. “Now it’s different, but it’s still the same, you know what I mean?”

In the fall of 1970, the USC football team, which finished 15th in the year-end AP poll, conquered fears and prejudices, went into a Deep South still marked by racism and discrimination, and put a hurting on a team coached by the legendary Bryant. What those players did mattered. But watching what has happened in Minneapolis, Louisville and Kenosha has made it impossible for the 50th anniversary to feel like a simple celebration.

“We took five steps forward, and now it’s been four steps back,” Jones says.

WHEN JONES, CUNNINGHAM and their teammates got on the plane in Los Angeles to fly to Alabama, they were understandably frightened by what might await them. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated a little over two years earlier. The state was run by a segregationist governor, George Wallace, who was headed toward an easy reelection. And instances of violence against Black people were all too common; in fact, just days after the game, Birmingham police fired on members of the Black Panthers.

Cunningham remembers telling his father where USC would play its season opener that year and having the elder Cunningham just stare at him for several minutes. Don’t do anything stupid, he finally said.

Defensive end Tody Smith told his teammates he’d bought a gun and brought it with him in his luggage. “Other people had taken some knives along with them in their suitcases,” Jones says. “Just in case.”

The players talked to one another about being sure that they stayed together if they had a reason to be away from the team hotel. Players like Smith, who grew up in Texas and heard stories of police beatings and knew well the horrors of lynchings, warned that even the most benign situations could turn without warning.

“Killing Black men wasn’t something that wasn’t happening, you know?” Jones says. “We were young, but we weren’t that young.”

When they arrived in Alabama, Jones remembers looking around for signs of discrimination — a segregated bathroom or water fountain — but seeing none. The divide still existed just beneath the surface, though, and the Trojans felt it as they conducted their walk-through at Alabama’s Legion Field.

The air was thick and heavy with humidity. A few thousand fans showed up, Cunningham recalls. The players stretched and ran. They threw passes to each other and loped up and down the sidelines. They bounced around, never unaware of the sea of white faces in the stands gawking. “It felt like we were animals in a zoo,” Cunningham recalls.

Later at the team hotel, a few players stood in the lobby as a white fan approached linebacker Charlie Weaver. The fan asked to touch his dark skin. Weaver, stunned but not cowed, assented. “I think he wanted to see if it would rub off,” Jones says.

The next day, as USC’s team bus took a route through one of Birmingham’s mostly Black neighborhoods, the larger importance of the trip became clear.

Black Alabamians, who weren’t allowed to buy tickets to the game, came out on porches and congregated on street corners, waving at the USC bus and cheering as it motored by. Cunningham remembers looking out and seeing children shouting, ecstatic to see athletes who looked like they did. Jones abandoned his usual pregame ritual of rehearsing plays in his mind to stare out the window.

“I think it kind of set in,” he says. “We’re down here not just to win for the mighty Trojans. We’re also down here to win this game for our people.”

The Tide had gone through a down period at the end of the 1960s, and the talent gap between the teams was obvious from kickoff. On one play early in the game, Alabama senior quarterback Scott Hunter took the snap and prepared to pass but was swallowed up by Weaver and the USC defense before he could even complete his dropback. “That was about when I said to myself, ‘OK, if this keeps up, it’s going to be a very, very long night,'” Hunter says.

Cunningham scored twice, and the Trojans shredded Alabama’s defense, outgaining the Crimson Tide by 450 yards. The score was 22-7 at the half, and Jones remembers thinking more during the break about how to extend the lead than whether Alabama might threaten a comeback. On this night, he told himself, a statement win would be exactly that. “We knew it was important not to let up, ever,” Jones says. The final was 42-21.

Johnny Musso, an Alabama running back who scored two of the Tide’s touchdowns, barely remembers any of his team’s offensive possessions because Cunningham’s performance was so dominant. “It was like junior high kids chasing after him,” Musso says.

Adds Hunter: “Their Black guys were bigger, stronger, faster than us; their white guys were bigger, stronger, faster; and if they had any polka-dot guys, they were bigger, stronger and faster.”

In the end, the white fans at Legion were quiet, the Alabama players were desperate to get to their locker room, and Bryant, the revered Tide coach, headed to the USC locker room to congratulate the Trojans on what they had done.

The USC players toasted one another and reveled in their accomplishment, for just a little bit, along with a smattering of Black fans who waited for them outside the stadium and cheered as their bus left. Then they flew home and prepared for another game the next weekend against Nebraska.

A FEW DAYS after the game, Hunter went to put gas in his car at a station in Tuscaloosa. The worker who usually did fill-ups and always loved to talk football put his rag down when he saw Hunter and sighed. “I was at that game,” he said. “And, man, we’ve got to have some of them players.”

“That’s when I knew times had changed,” Hunter says.

It is a story emblematic of the notion that there was a trickle-down effect from the game that led many hard-core anti-integrationists to reconsider their stance. But a 21-point loss in the first game of the season was not the catalyst for a groundswell of change.

Wilbur Jackson, a Black player from Ozark, Alabama, was on scholarship at Alabama for the USC game but couldn’t play because freshmen weren’t eligible — and Bryant had been sending recruitment letters to Black players for years. He even sent one to Cunningham, who said he chuckled at the idea of moving to Alabama from California at the time.

In 1971, Alabama had just one other Black player on its team (John Mitchell, who helped the Tide win at USC in the return matchup of the home-and-home), and it wasn’t until 1977 that Alabama had 15 Black football players on scholarship. Progress was, unsurprisingly, slow and murkily defined.

Still, the game resonates.

Jones thinks it is because of the name recognition of both programs and the novelty of a team from California, an outsider, coming into the Deep South. Cunningham thinks a lot of it has to do with Bear Bryant and his place in football lore.

Jones, Cunningham and their teammates have been talking about the game for 50 years. But this time — on this anniversary — they’re more circumspect. When I ask Cunningham about how the game is remembered as having such an impact on Black athletes being recruited in the SEC, he says, “Well, it seems like it changed everything. … But the only way they were allowed into that university [was] because they can help those programs win.

“Did it really change, or was it just convenience?”

His mind jumps to Kaepernick, a Black athlete who protested against systemic racism and might never play in the NFL again. “That just doesn’t make any sense to me,” Cunningham says.

Jones sees a disturbing arc of how discrimination presents itself in sports. In his time, it was unvarnished, with rules and precedents restricting access to programs and opportunities. Then, he says, it became more insidious, more under the surface. There were no rules against NFL teams using Black quarterbacks in the 1970s and ’80s, but Jones — who left USC as one of its top passers — never got a job or even a serious look in the NFL.

Now he sees a return to more blatant racism, pundits and politicians pushing a “stick to sports” mantra or intentionally muddling the messaging when Black athletes protest during the national anthem. The line from the 1970 game through the years to Black Lives Matter stamps on jerseys and players kneeling is continuous, he believes.

“It’s a direct line,” he says, “and it will continue to run.”

He sighs. “It’s going to be an endless line,” he says, sounding a little more tired than when he first picked up the phone.

But he does pick up. He keeps taking phone calls from people like me. He and Cunningham keep talking about the game, keep thinking about what it means, keep asking and answering questions as the years roll past.

In that way maybe the game in 1970 matters most of all.


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

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