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Saturday Sports: Uphill battle for USWNT; Simone Biles returns

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And now it's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: And to the martial strain of B.J. Leiderman's theme - he writes our theme music - Women's World Cup knockout stage, Simone Biles returns and a sports gambling sting in Iowa. Howard Bryant of Meadowlark Media joins us. Howard, thanks for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT: Good morning, Scott. How are you?

SIMON: I'm fine, thanks. Team USA faces Sweden, No. 3 ranked team in the world. U.S. barely made it out of the group stage. Is it fair to call them underdogs?

BRYANT: Well, it's safe to say this is going to be a great battle. I mean, I don't know if they're underdogs yet, but they haven't played well. And I think that there's - I think this is what happens when you have a dominant team. The United States women's national team is one of the greatest teams in the history of sports, period, in terms of their dominance. And so now and then you have these transition years. And Megan Rapinoe, this is her last go-around. Carli Lloyd is in the broadcast booth criticizing the team. And maybe they're not that good this year. But what we do know is that they haven't played well. They didn't play great against the Netherlands. They didn't - they pretty much lost against Portugal. But the ball hit the post. That kept them alive. So they're really up against it. But you're still alive, and you've got a chance to turn it all around, and you got to win now. There's no turning back.

SIMON: Simone Biles is back. The 26-year-old gymnastics legend is competing for the first time in two years right outside Chicago - Hoffman Estates. She won a bronze medal in Tokyo in 2021 but also withdrew, citing physical and mental health concerns. She is the most decorated gymnast of all time. It's just great to see her back, isn't it?

BRYANT: Yeah. We talk a lot about all the bad news in sports, and we try to find ways to make sense of where everything is going. This is a great story. And it's not just a great story because Simone Biles is back. It's a great story because of why she left. She left not just because of...

SIMON: Yeah.

BRYANT: I mean, obviously, she talked about mental and physical strain, but she also talked about having the twisties, which was this phenomenon of gymnasts going up in the air and not knowing where they're coming down. It's very, very dangerous.

SIMON: Yeah.

BRYANT: And you think about all the magical things she does, and she makes it look so easy. But it's a very dangerous sport. And when she said she wasn't quite sure about her own physical safety, and I - the criticism that she took - I just felt like she had done enough. And if we'd never seen her back, then she gave us more than we could possibly...

SIMON: Yeah.

BRYANT: ...Have asked for. But to see her back now, it's - it might be the best sports story of the year.

SIMON: Gambling investigation - University of Iowa and Iowa State - resulted in charges against seven current and former athletes. The - and there could be more to come - investigation goes on into student athletes who engaged in underage gambling. What are the dimensions of this story? Is it the kind of thing we get when sports puts its arm - both arms - around gambling?

BRYANT: Well, this is exactly - there's going to be more to come, Scott, whether it's at Iowa, Iowa State - the National Football League has suspended 10 players already this year because of gambling. And now there's this, and you've got these players who clearly knew the rules, but they are accused of making thousands of dollars of bets, tens of thousands of dollars worth of bets, under their - under assumed names, whether it was a family member or et cetera. But this is what happens. This sport, all of these sports, whether we're talking about television, whether we're talking about journalism, whether we're talking about broadcast rights - they've all gone 1,000% into gambling.

SIMON: Yeah.

BRYANT: And this is going to be the price. And it strikes me that the strategy is essentially to say, OK, this is the business. We're going to take all the money, and we're going to let the individuals take the fall. But this is the new world. And I think it's going to be very, very bad for sports.

SIMON: It's become almost the new business plan of sports, hasn't it?

BRYANT: Yeah. And you take the fall, and the industry takes the money.

SIMON: That's sports. Howard Bryant of Meadowlark Media, thanks so much for being with us.

BRYANT: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.