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Friday's Sports in Brief

Friday's Sports in Brief

Gymnast Gabby Douglas, the teenager who became the first African-American to win an all-around Olympic title, won the AP's Female Athlete of the Year on Friday.

She is the fourth gymnast to win the award and first since Mary Lou Retton in 1984. Douglas edged swimmer Missy Franklin in a vote by U.S. editors and news directors that was announced Friday.

``I didn't realize how much of an impact I made,'' said Douglas, who turns 17 on Dec. 31. ``My mom and everyone said, `You really won't know the full impact until you're 30 or 40 years old.' But it's starting to sink in.''

In a year filled with standout performances by female athletes, those of the pint-sized gymnast shined brightest. Douglas received 48 of 157 votes, seven more than Franklin, who won four gold medals and a bronze in London. Serena Williams, who won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open two years after her career was nearly derailed by a series of health problems, was third (24).

COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Count Rick Pitino among the basketball coaches who support gun control.

The Louisville coach was asked during a news conference about his reaction to Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim's comments Monday assailing the nation's gun culture following the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Pitino agreed with Boeheim, and said he couldn't understand why people wouldn't support gun control.

On consecutive days, Boeheim and Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey used postgame news conferences to express sympathy for victims' families and stress the need for reforms to avoid another tragedy.

Pitino followed by adding that society doesn't need guns.

``The fact that every single person does not want (gun control) would be a mystery,'' he said. ``This is not the beginning of American civilization where we need guns like it's the wild, wild West.''

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The NCAA suspended Texas basketball player Myck Kabongo for 23 games for accepting impermissible benefits and providing false statements during an investigation into the infractions.

Kabongo also must repay $475 to a charity of his choice. The NCAA will count all 11 games that Kabongo has missed toward the suspension. Texas had self-imposed a 10-game penalty.

The NCAA said Kabongo accepted airfare and personal training instruction and then provided false and misleading information about the infractions during two interviews with university officials.

PRO HOCKEY

NEW YORK (AP) - NHL players are a step closer to dissolving their union.

In a vote this week, union members overwhelmingly agreed to give the players' association's executive board the power to file a ``disclaimer of interest'' until Jan. 2.

A person familiar with the outcome of the vote told The Associated Press that the measure was approved 706-22 (97 percent), easily reaching the two-thirds majority required. However, the executive board hasn't made plans yet to meet to discuss whether to file the disclaimer.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the results of the vote hadn't been announced.

If the executive board files the disclaimer, the union would dissolve and become a trade association. That would allow players to file antitrust lawsuits against the NHL.

PRO FOOTBALL

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) - Mark Sanchez knows he won't be the New York Jets' starting quarterback this week.

Beyond that, the one-time face of the franchise won't say whether he thinks he'll be back with the team next season.

``I really haven't even thought about it,'' Sanchez said. ``Honestly, I'm a Jet. That's all I've known.''

Whether Sanchez has played his final snap for the team remains to be seen. A person with knowledge of the situation told The Associated Press that the Jets will consider all of their options regarding Sanchez and backup Tim Tebow. Trades in the offseason cannot be ruled out, but the person, who requested anonymity because the team's personnel plans are private, told the AP that the Jets have not made any determinations involving Sanchez or Tebow.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) - San Francisco 49ers defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois has been preparing all week to start in place of All-Pro Justin Smith on the NFL's second-ranked defense.

The 49ers remain uncertain whether that will actually happen Sunday night in a NFC West showdown against the Seattle Seahawks.

Smith's availability is in question after he missed practice Friday because of an elbow injury for the third consecutive day, placing his streak of 185 consecutive starts in jeopardy.

NEW YORK (AP) - Falcons strong safety Chris Hope was fined $30,000 for his helmet-to-helmet hit on New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz.

Hope was penalized for unnecessary roughness on the third-quarter play during Atlanta's 34-0 win on Sunday.

Falcons wide receiver Roddy White and Giants cornerback Corey Webster were fined $7,875 apiece for a skirmish during the game.

In other penalties announced by the NFL, 49ers safety Dashon Goldson was docked $21,000 for an illegal hit; Titans defensive end Antonio Smith and Jets defensive end Quinton Coples were fined $15,750 each for helmet-to-helmet hits; Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin and Ravens cornerback Cary Williams were fined $15,750 each for unnecessary roughness; and Chargers cornerback Antoine Cason and Titans safety Jordan Babineaux were docked $7,875 apiece for unnecessary roughness.

SPORTS BETTING

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey's battle with the four major professional sports leagues and the NCAA will continue after a judge rejected arguments that the leagues couldn't prove they would be harmed if the state moves ahead with its plans to allow sports gambling.

In denying the state's request to dismiss the lawsuit by the NBA, NHL, NFL, Major League Baseball and the NCAA, U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp agreed that they have standing to file the suit because expanding legal sports betting to New Jersey would negatively affect perception of their games.

In his ruling, Shipp cited studies offered by the leagues that showed fans' negative attitudes toward game-fixing and sports gambling.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) - Blake Bortles threw for three touchdowns and ran for another to lead Central Florida to a 38-17 victory over Ball State in the Beef `O' Brady's Bowl.

Bortles threw first-half TD passes of 7 and 5 yards to Latavius Murray, who also scored on a 2-yard run to help the Knights (10-4) build a 21-point halftime lead and coast to victory in their final game as a member of Conference USA.

NORTH CANTON, Ohio (AP) - Ted Karras Jr., fresh from winning the NAIA championship at Marian, is the new head coach at Walsh.

The Northwestern graduate and nephew of the late former NFL star Alex Karras takes over for Jim Dennison, who started the program and then returned to guide it before resigning at the end of the 2011 season.

Ted Karras spent the last seven seasons at Marian, going 48-23 including a 12-1 record this year. He led the Knights past Morningside College 30-27 in overtime to win the NAIA title.

BASEBALL

Free agent catcher A.J. Pierzynski passed a physical, clearing the way for a one-year deal with the Texas Rangers.

A person familiar with the deal said Pierzynski had a physical and everything was OK. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the Rangers had not added Pierzynski to their 40-man roster.

With the Major League Baseball office closed for Christmas, the roster move won't be made until at least next week.

SOCCER

ALKMAAR, Netherlands (AP) - U.S. soccer player Jozy Altidore paid tribute to the 26 victims of the school shooting in Connecticut by wearing their names on his cleats during a game for the Dutch team AZ Alkmaar.

Altidore scrawled the names in black ink across his yellow cleats, plus wore a black band across one of his arms to represent mourning. The 20 students and six teachers at a school in Newtown, Conn. were killed Dec. 14.

TENNIS

MADRID (AP) - Rafael Nadal is nervous about his return to tennis after a seven-month layoff and believes it may be some time before his injured knee is completely healed.

Nadal told Canal Plus television that ``I'm prepared to accept that my knee may not respond well at the beginning.'' He has considered playing off and on during the first three months of 2013.

LOS ANGELES (AP) - A tennis referee whose career was almost ended by a charge that she murdered her husband with a coffee cup was reinstated after the charge was dismissed for lack of evidence.

Lois Goodman's attorneys said in Los Angeles that the U.S. Tennis Association approved her to resume judging matches in 2013. The organization confirmed her reinstatement.

SKIING

INNSBRUCK, Austria (AP) - Marlies Schild of Austria will be out three months following knee surgery and won't be able to defend her world slalom title in her home country in February.

SPEEDSKATING

KEARNS, Utah (AP) - Lana Gehring and JR Celski dominated the competition at the U.S. short track speedskating championships, sweeping the women's and men's gold, respectively, in the 1,500 and 500 meters at the Utah Olympic Oval.

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Steelers will require fans to wear a mask at Heinz Field, should they be allowed

Steelers will require fans to wear a mask at Heinz Field, should they be allowed

If fans are permitted to attend Pittsburgh Steelers home games this fall, there's one item they can't forget: a mask.

Steelers' director of communication, Burt Lauten, explained the decision to require fans to wear a mask in a statement on Tuesday.

"Our goal is to still have fans at Heinz Field this year with the understanding that social distancing, as well as all fans being required to wear masks, will play a role in the capacity to ensure a safe atmosphere," Lauten said, via ESPN. "We will continue to work with the NFL and public health officials to finalize plans for fans to attend our home games."

Pittsburgh was one of the first franchises to alter its ticketing plans this season, as they decided in May to trim half of their individual game ticket sales due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The news comes just hours after their AFC North rival, the Baltimore Ravens, announced that M&T Bank Stadium will be capped at less than 14,000 fans this fall, should fans be allowed to attend games.

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In June, The Athletic reported that the NFL will not place a limit on capacity at games, allowing each individual team to make the decision themselves.

"Attendance will be a state-by-state, county-by-county thing," an anonymous NFL source told The Athletic. "It will not be a one size fits all."

Additionally, the NFL has said that the first 6-8 rows of lower bowl sections, including field-level suites, will be blocked off this fall to help slow the spread of the virus. Those sections will be covered with tarps, which teams can use to sell advertising, similarly to what the Premier League in England has done.

With training camp still a few weeks away, there are a lot of virus-related questions the NFL must answer beforehand.

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Stephen A. Smith and ESPN poll leave Lamar Jackson out of top four quarterbacks

Stephen A. Smith and ESPN poll leave Lamar Jackson out of top four quarterbacks

Despite his 2019 MVP season, many NFL experts still aren’t convinced that Lamar Jackson is the league’s best.

In a debate with Domonique Foxworth on ESPN’s First Take on Monday, Stephen A. Smith shared his top-five quarterbacks in the NFL, slotting the reigning MVP fifth overall. 

Two days later, ESPN released a poll conducted with 50 NFL personnel to rank the top 10 quarterbacks in the league this season. Jackson was ranked sixth behind Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Deshaun Watson and Drew Brees.

But after the record-breaking season the Ravens quarterback had –– a performance that earned him the league’s top individual honor –– how can so many still doubt his ability to succeed?

Smith cited two faults of Jackson’s game to justify his claim –– passing inability and playoff performance.

“There was a guy that ran the football very, very effectively, matter of fact as a quarterback led the team to have one if not the top-rated run attacks in football,” Smith said. “That would happen to be Tim Tebow when he was with the Denver Broncos. But what did I repeatedly say about my friend? He couldn’t throw the football at the NFL level. I never believed it, and that was a problem.”

Smith referenced Tebow’s rise and fall in the NFL and credited his inability to find longevity as a starting quarterback to his inconsistent and inaccurate arm –– something Jackson similarly struggles with.

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The Ravens led the league in rushing offense and ranked second in total offense but earned just the 27th spot in passing offense. Jackson ranked eighth in completion percentage among all quarterbacks but first in rushing yards and sixth in rushing yards among all players. For Smith, this discrepancy does not warrant Jackson a top-two quarterback spot.

“No one can run the football like Lamar Jackson. Nobody,” Smith said. “Not at the quarterback position in the NFL. We know that. That’s just on another level. But in terms of throwing the football, even though he’s had his moments, and he definitely improved in accuracy in terms of completing 66 percent of his passes last season, I don’t think he can throw the football like Deshaun Watson.”

Smith referenced Watson and a number of other quarterbacks higher on his list like Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson and Drew Brees and praised their accuracy, leadership and veteran play, which earned them the spots ahead of Jackson.

In addition to the issues with Jackson’s arm, Smith also believed his playoff performance holds him back. Jackson posted an 0-2 record in his first two playoff performances, falling to the Chargers in 2018 and the Titans in 2019. 

Overall in his career, he completes 63.7% of his passes and posts a 4.66 TD/INT ratio. On the other hand, during the playoffs, he completed 51.1% of his passes and posted a 1.0 TD/INT ratio.

As Smith noted while he did improve from a 48% completion rate to 52% in the playoffs this year, he will not reach an elite level of play until he can perform in the postseason.

While Smith was certainly skeptical of Jackson’s ability to succeed in the league long-term, he still understood the hype.

“I’ll tell you this though, he is top-two box office. He might even be number one.”

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