The recent remarks by Jay Cutler and others regarding handball being a sport that American athletes from other sports could easily learn and quickly dominate have stirred up a lot of controversy. On one side is virtually the entire handball world, collectively scoffing at American arrogance and ignorance of the sport they love. On the other side are Americans who’ve been watching American athletes dominate and perform so well in so many sports. Let’s take a look at these two viewpoints with some quotes from the past few weeks.
Americans Just Dominate Viewpoint
Here’s a summary of quotes from the “Americans Just Dominate” side:
Jay Cutler, Former NFL QB
(28 January on Pardon My Take: Link)
“I do want to get a team together for the Olympics… I think it’s handball, but it’s basically like a little ball that you throw around and throw into a goal, so it’s like indoor soccer with a ball that you throw. There’s a U.S. team, but I want to go and do that. Just throwing missiles…. I guarantee it that we can put a team together to win gold.”
Domonique Foxworth, Former NFL CB
(30 January on ESPN’s Highly Questionable: Link)
“I’m sorry if this is disrespectable to handballers everywhere, but I’ve watched that game before… It’s not like this is soccer and it’s just not a big deal here. I’m sure handball is a big deal somewhere…. You know who plays handball. The people who couldn’t make it in soccer, couldn’t make it in football, couldn’t make it in basketball… So, I know it’s completely disrespectful to all handballers out there, but I don’t care… Me, Jay Cutler and Lebron will go win a handball championship”
Dan “Big Cat” Katz, Pardon My Take Host
(7 February on Pardon My Take: Link)
“I mean it’s 100% true. No offense to Handballists. I’m sure you’re very nice people, but you play a sport that if we decided to stop playing all the other sports that that there would be a lot of guys better than what you’re doing.”
“Handball is not easy… It would take 3 months for U.S. pros to train and get acclimated.”
Handball World Viewpoint
And, here are some quotes from the “Handball world” side:
Ty Reed, USA Men’s National Team, Right Wing
(1 Feb on PlaySqorr TV: Link)
“They’re very misinformed about the sport and kind of what the possibilities for American athletes are.”
“It’s a great foundation to have basketball, football, baseball; to have those skills, but, handball is a very unique game. The athleticism isn’t really the problem. It’s knowing the tactics of the game and making a positive result out of that.”
“You take Jay Cutler, Lebron, Patrick Mahomes, 3 other scrubs that don’t know how to play they’re going to lose by 30 to Argentina. It’s not even going to be close.”
“They’ve been playing handball since they’re six years old and they know more about the sport than anybody picking the game up in their mid 20’s will ever know, including myself. It sucks for me. I’ve been over here 2 years now and I’m a beginner compared to these kids because I just don’t have the knowledge and experience that they do. Athletically, Americans in general are very much superior to the general European players that are playing handball. The athleticism is not what’s in question. The tactics and the execution of the game and their knowledge of the game couldn’t be further apart.”
Robert Hedin, USA Men’s National Team Head Coach
(12 February on the Team Handball News Podcast: Link)
“Funny to hear them talking about handball being so easy… It would be difficult for them to score many goals against a good team. No chance…”
“For them to score 5 goals in one half… It would be impossible. Maybe if they had 2 or 3 years of training they could score 5 goals… but 3 or 4 months, no chance.”
“Because it’s not so easy, if you have never played handball…They are looking at it and they see that they are big athletes and good trained guys, but it’s not enough. Talk about curling. It’s another sport and it looks easy, but it’s also, really, really difficult. Respect to every sports. It’s not just to train for 3 or 4 months and think you can win. It’s no chance.”
Xavier O’Callaghan, Former Player, Spain and FC Barcelona
(13 February on the Pardon My Take Podcast: Link)
In response to a question about whether Jay Cutler’s take is insane or has a little truth to it.
“He is insane… He cannot win an Olympic medal in 2-3 months… You have the potential to be amazing athletes to play in a high level, but it takes time to be professional (a very good handball player). So, what I mean. In the short term it is impossible. Insane. In the long term… It takes years. For sure…”
But, in another world, if Cutler was born in Barcelona could he be a professional handball player?
“Of course, and probably one of the best… But, he needs to understand the game. He needs to train every day. So, it’s a matter of technique. It’s not just the physical condition. It’s the technique and the tactics. You need to read the game. To know when you have to move. When to pass the ball. When you have to shoot. Those kind of things; you have to learn them. It’s not a matter of 1, 2, 3 months.”
USA Team Handball CEO, Barry Siff, on the Controversy
Just when I thought the controversy was dying down a bit, USA Team Handball CEO, Barry Siff went on PlaySqorr TV and, to me, it sounded quite a bit like he is taking the side of Jay Cutler, Domonique Foxworth and Pardon My Take. (Minus, the overt arrogance, of course.) Review the quotes below and form your own opinion.
Barry Siff, USA Team Handball CEO
(21 February on PlaySqorr TV: Link)
“When we do our tryouts later this year I think we’re going to shock some people in the type of athletes that we’re going bring onto handball and onto our team.”
“I know this is sacrilegious and I’m insulting a lot of people, but I don’t think it takes these 2, 3, 4, 5 years of learning all the nuances and techniques, etc…”
“I don’t think long term that well… I’m only going to be here through Paris, you know. This is like my last stint of full time stuff. And, you know, we got to get to Paris. Long term, we’ve got to be really competitive in L.A., but, my personal goal is to have a team or two in Paris for sure. And, the way to do that is through getting some of these athletes that we’re talking about. These high, high caliber athletes starting to play right now.”
Not convinced? Take a listen to this podcast back from last July
Barry Siff, USA Team Handball CEO
(23 July 2019) Babbitville Radio Podcast: Link (at 34:45)
“The concept that I had in 2016 was to have a kind of Netflix, 30 for 30, whatever it is documentary building the next great America sport. What we were going to do was track going out and having tryouts in New York, in LA, San Francisco and Chicago. Having tryouts; bringing these athletes…”
“Our vision was let’s document building this team from scratch. We were going to go out and get football players, basketball players, water polo players. We were going to quietly build this team and then we were going to challenge USA Team Handball to a match. Winner take all. We win: We take over the federation. You win: We walk.”
“That was the idea. I thought it was a brilliant… We ran into political complications, you know, some other matters and we walked away from it. But, I still feel that way. I still feel like we can go out and we can make this media project that will bring interest to the sport. We’ve got to get eyeballs. We’ve got to get people to see the sport.”
To me, as described, this proposed “challenge match” sounds remarkably similar to the Pardon My Take challenge. Again, form your own opinion.
Side Note: The documentary concept also seems to be very similar to the Reality TV show concept that was discussed with USA Team Handball at around the same time in 2016.
Transfer Athletes to Handball?: It can be done… with caveats
It’s pretty hard for me to be an objective neutral in this debate. As someone who started playing handball at age 19 and only obtained a modest level of performance I’ve experienced firsthand how hard it is. And, I’ve also seen how hard it is for athletes way more physically gifted than me. Finally, I have spent an inordinate amount of time and energy assessing this very topic from virtually every possible angle. Link 1 Link 2 Link 3 Link 4 Link 5 Link 6 Link 7
In short, the right question is not, “Can it be done?” Actually, if you listen to the full interviews everyone on both sides thinks it can be done. They just disagree on how long such a transition would take. On one extreme is the viewpoint that it can done with a couple of months of training. On the other extreme is that is takes 10 years and pretty much has to be done starting at age 15 or so. And, the answer is further muddled by varying discussion as to what level of performance would be achieved. (e.g. winning a gold medal to just needing to be able to beat Argentina and Brazil in a few years.
No, the right question is “Should it be done?” And, that question can only be properly considered after asking and answering a lot of questions related to the specifics of the proposed talent transfer focused effort being planned. Such questions like:
- How long will it take?
- How much will it cost?
- What raw talent level of athlete is being targeted?
- What are the target ages for those athletes?
- What are the overall goals of such a short term focused effort? (How many athletes? What level are those athletes expected to achieve?)
- What is the likelihood that such goals will be achieved as a result of this effort?
- What are the opportunity costs in terms of lost grass roots development?
Perhaps, all of these questions (and more) are indeed being asked and answered. All, I know is that if the plan is to take athletes from scratch to World Class in 3 years (i.e.; in time to meaningfully contribute to 2024 Olympic Qualification at the 2023 PANAM Games) it’s not going to being easy or cheap. My back of the envelope analysis is that probably the only way it could make sense would be for a reality TV show or a privately financed Pro League to pay for almost all or most of the costs.
If you’re like me, you are genuinely optimistic about USA Team Handball’s future thanks to recent developments like the Verizon Sponsorship, hiring of IPG 360 for additional promotion and the placement of U.S. players with top club teams in Europe. CEO Barry Siff has also sure brought some positive “can do” attitude to USA Team Handball.
But… positive “can do” attitude can only take you so far. Unless sponsorship will soon exceed my wildest dreams USA Team Handball is still very resource constrained. It just doesn’t seem practical at this point in time to start a major talent transfer effort. Not when there are so many other worthy needs competing for resources.
Then again, I could be wrong. I haven’t finished my assessment yet. For sure, I’ll be tackling these sorts of questions in more detail as I work on the “what we want” section of this series: Link