UCSB's Coco Miller (left) and Danae Miller. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

In mid-March, the sports world underwent a massive transformation. Here are just a few of the differences.

THEN: During the 2016-17 basketball season, some members of the UCSB women’s team took a knee during the national anthem to protest social injustice in the manner of Colin Kaepernick and Megan Rapinoe. Older spectators in the Thunderdome were visibly scowling during the demonstration. 

“It was tough,” said Coco Miller, a sophomore guard who chose to remain standing. “I was 19. I didn’t know if the message was properly being displayed. But standing or kneeling, all of us as a team supported each other.” 

Coach Bonnie Henrickson also supported them, noting that female athletes have long been fighting for justice on a number of fronts. “They’re forced to be activists to create change,” she said.

Joe Pasternack (center)

NOW: Too many tragic events in the past year have validated such demonstrations, but meanwhile, athletes have moved on from symbolic gestures to forcefully speaking out. They are backed by their institutions and leagues. UCSB men’s basketball coach Joe Pasternack and five players are appearing in a televised public service announcement along with, among others, Santa Barbara Police Chief Lori Luhnow, who proclaims, “We stand together against racial injustice.”

THEN: Cynics have been inclined to ridicule the term “student-athlete” repeatedly uttered by college officials and coaches. Okay, some football players and one-and-done basketball players don’t take the student part seriously. And when they’re being recruited, they are offered inducements amounting to bribery to assure their attendance.

NOW: It turns out schools themselves have been bribed on behalf of unqualified applicants who are falsely portrayed as talented athletes so they can gain “admission by exception.” A California state audit found that 22 such students in the UC system, including four at UCSB, were improperly admitted at the behest of donors or other people of influence. UCSB says it is addressing the issue by implementing reviews of all applicants inside and outside the athletic department. 

Meanwhile, instead of cataloguing wins and losses during the COVID pandemic, schools are extolling the academic achievements of their athletes. UCSB’s 426 athletes boasted a combined grade-point average of 3.46 in the spring quarter, and 80 of them were honored on the Big West Academic All-Conference teams.

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THEN: Striking out 330 batters in a season would put a major league pitcher in rarefied territory. Hall of Famer Randy Johnson was the last to exceed that number of K’s (334 in 2002).

NOW: It takes some math to show how remarkable was Cleveland righthander Shane Bieber’s performance during the COVID-abbreviated 2020 season. He recorded 122 strikeouts, which projects to 330 in a 162-game campaign. His 8-1 record translates to 22 wins in a normal season, and his earned-run-average of 1.63 is phenomenally low. Here comes the Cy Young Award. 

Bieber, the ace of UCSB’s pitching staff in 2016, has been joined in the big leagues by two other hurlers who were his Gaucho teammates: Dillon Tate (2015) with the Baltimore Orioles and Kyle Nelson (2017), recently called up by the Indians. Is there a better college coach at grooming pitchers than UCSB’s Andrew Checketts?

THEN: NBA fans in March were looking forward to a Western Conference showdown between the Lakers and Clippers at the Staples Center.

NOW: Their expectations burst in the Orlando bubble. Denver’s upset of the Clippers was an amazement. It’s why we watch sports, to be surprised. These playoffs, even with fake fan noise, have been chock-full of excitement. I have to hand it to those men and women (WNBA) who play with such fierce energy, then stand up after a game and express their sensitivity, like LeBron James declaring it’s time “to spread love, not hate.” 

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