HARRIS COUNTY-HOUSTON SPORTS AUTHORITY INSIDER

Houston hoping to land NCAA women's Final Four

Houston has hosted the men's Final Four. Are the women next? Courtesy photo

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Will the third time be the charm?

Houston certainly hopes so.

The city has hosted Final Fours, Super Bowls, two World Series, World Cup events and just about every other event you can name. And the 2023 Final Four and 2024 College Football Championship – among other big events – are headed this way.

But what our championship city hasn’t hosted is a Women’s Final Four.

Not yet, anyway.

Tuesday, the Harris County – Houston Sports Authority pulled out all the stops as the NCAA Division I Women’s Final Four selection committee made one final swing through the Bayou City.

We’re talking breakfast with a view followed by two marching bands and 2,000 Houston students – from elementary through high school – dribbling down Avenida de las Americas from the George R. Brown Convention Center to Toyota Center.

Dribbling all the way, the students filed into Toyota Center for a pep rally for the committee that included former Olympian and NCAA and WNBA champion Sheryl Swoopes and former Olympian and Wimbledon doubles champion Zina Garrison, to name a few.

"I think Houston is a phenomenal city that understands how to put on great events, how to make those events successful,’’ said Swoopes, a four-time WNBA champion and six-time WNBA All-Star with the Houston Comets and three-time Olympic gold medalist.

“History kind of speaks for itself with the tradition of the Comets being here and to me, it's a no-brainer.’’

Janis Burke, CEO of the Harris County – Houston Sports Authority, hopes Swoopes, who led Texas Tech to the 1993 NCAA title her senior season, is right.

“I’ll tell you what, our community never ceases to amaze me,’’ Burke said.  “They step up to the plate and they came out in a big way.

“We had 2,000 kids come out today doing the dribble parade. That’s what I love about selling Houston. Between our volunteers, our venues and just the people. It makes a difference.’’

And, yes, the committee was wowed by the day’s events.

“Amazing,’’ said Rhonda Bennett, the Division I Women’s Basketball Committee Chairman. “Such a warm welcome. Definitely a big surprise to see that many kids.

“I think Houston has done a great job of showcasing the city. It seems like a great city with a lot of diversity and a lot of support for women, women in leadership positions and women throughout the community who are really excited to be in a place like that.’’

The committee is down to eight finalists for the four-year period from 2021-2024 and Houston’s right there at the top of a list that includes its Texas sister cities Dallas and San Antonio, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Missouri; Minneapolis and Nashville. Houston has bid twice before and fell just short in the last bid process.

Since then, the downtown footprint has expanded with new hotels and new restaurants creating a vibrant event scene that was the epicenter for Super Bowl LI.

“Even though we're the fourth largest city we have a footprint that feels very intimate that's very walk-able and the fans can come out and enjoy it,’’ Burke said. “We’ve seen that with Super Bowl, and the Men's Final Four and All-Star game, so we just want like to show the women for the first time -- we’re the only (finalist) city that’s never hosted a Women’s Final Four -- and we’d love to show them what we can do with their event.’’

Lynn Holzman, the NCAA’s Vice President of Women’s Basketball, was here as the West Coast Commissioner for the 2016 Final Four and was surprised at the changes in two years.

“Seeing how the city has grown and developed in this short time, it’s amazing,’’ Holzman said. “It’s a very competitive process, but cities like Houston obviously want to have our championship and provide a platform for us to have our female student athletes on the worldwide stage.

“It’s a place for us to celebrate NCAA women’s basketball, but it’s also a tremendous opportunity for a city to show all it has to offer to the world.’’

The NCAA is coming off a strong 2018 Women’s Final Four that saw eventual champion Notre Dame beat Connecticut on a last-second basket in overtime in the semifinals, then rally from 15 points down in the final to beat Mississippi State.

“We just had one of the most exciting women’s championships we’ve ever had, and I think just getting more people watching the game and seeing that we have a lot of great teams and there is a tremendous amount of parity in women’s college basketball,’’ Bennett said. “That’s very exciting for us.”

Houston was just selected to host the 2023 Men’s Final Four and will be hosting the 2024 College Football Championship, so the city is hoping to land the 2021 Women’s Final Four. Texas A&M would be the host school, but Rice, Houston, Prairie View and Texas Southern would all be involved as well.

The committee is finishing up its final visits this month and plans to make a decision on the 2021-2024 events in early fall.

During the all-day visit, which ended with a reception, talk kept coming back to the downtown campus and its great location and feel.

“There was a lot of money put into the footprint,’’ Burke said. “It’s a place you can go and hang out. We want all the people to see it, feel it and touch it.

“ . . . And we think three’s the charm. Hopefully, this time we win.”

Swoopes agrees.

“I think Houston has anything and everything the committee would be looking for and I feel confident they would get the support they want, the people will come out,’’ she said.

Which brings us back to those 2,000 students dribbling downtown.

“They were excited about basketball. They brought a lot of energy and the committee was obviously blown away,’’ Swoopes said.

“If Houston’s able to host the Final Four and these kids can see that happen, I think they‘ll feel like they had a little part in bringing it here.’’








 

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Watson's accusers appeared on Real Sports on Tuesday night. Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images.

HBO Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel’s heavily promoted and much anticipated examination of Deshaun Watson’s legal mess involving alleged sexual misconduct shed little new light and merely presented a summary of well worn he said/she (x22) said accusations and denials.

The episode debuted Tuesday night on the premium cable service and will be repeated dozens of times throughout the week on HBO’s platforms. Check your local listings for times and channel.

The segment was hosted by Soledad O’Brien who presented compelling face-to-face interviews with two of the quarterback’s accusers: massage therapists Ashley Solis and Kyla Hayes. Their stories were detailed and graphic. Both cried during the interviews.

Solis: “As I’m working, he deliberately grabs himself and put his penis on my hand. I pulled my hand away instantly and I started crying. I told that I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Solis said she felt threatened when Watson, before leaving the session, allegedly told her: “I know you have a career to protect, and I know that you don’t want anyone messing with it, just like I don’t want anyone messing with mine.”

Solis added, “That’s when I got really scared because that sounded like a threat to me.”

Hayes: “He wanted me to kind of make a V motion in his pelvic area. I just kept massaging and did what he asked, until his penis kept touching me repeatedly as I did it.”

Hayes said that Watson had an orgasm, which she said was “mortifying, embarrassing and disgusting.”

O’Brien asked Hayes why she continued to have contact via email with Watson after their encounter.

Hayes: "I wasn't sure what he was capable of. He could've physically assaulted me. He could've bashed my business, so I had to protect myself and my business the best way I saw fit. Did I ever see him again after that? No. Did I give him the runaround? Yes."

O’Brien pointed out that two separate grand juries in Texas heard criminal accusations against Watson and neither found enough evidence to indict him.

Solis and Hayes, and 20 other massage therapists have filed civil suits against Watson. The cases aren’t expected to reach a courtroom until next March. Both sides could reach a settlement before then which would effectively shut down any legal action against Watson. However, both sides say they aren’t interested in any pretrial settlements. That’s what they say now, anyway.

After being banished to the sidelines for the 2021 season by the Houston Texans, Watson signed a historic, 5-year fully guaranteed $230 million contract with the Cleveland Browns.

Hayes said she feels Watson “is being rewarded for bad behavior." Solis said, "It's just like a big screw you. That's what it feels like. That we (the Browns) don't care. He can run and throw, and that's what we care about.”

Watson currently is participating in preseason workouts with the Browns and, at the moment, is cleared to play the upcoming NFL season.

That is unless the NFL suspends Watson for some, most or all of the 2022 season. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has said the league is nearing completion of its independent investigation into Watson’s case and will reach a decision “shortly,” probably this summer. The NFL and NFL Players Association mutually agreed to have former U.S. District Judge Sue Robinson decide whether or not Watson violated the league’s Personal Conduct Policy and what discipline should be handed down if he did.

The Browns are scheduled to play the Texans on Dec. 4 at NRG Stadium in Houston.

O’Brien said, while producing the Real Sports piece, she tried to interview Watson, his attorneys and the Cleveland Browns for their side of the story. All declined.

During a press conference in March to announce his joining the Browns, Watson denied any inappropriate behavior with the massage therapists.

Watson: “I never assaulted any woman. I’ve never disrespected any woman. I was raised to be genuine and respect everyone around me. I’ve never done the thing that these people are alleging. My mom and my aunties didn’t raise me that way.”

Leah Graham, a member of Watson’s legal team, sat for an interview after O’Brien’s segment was complete.

Graham: "It's 22 women. It's one lawyer. There's only one lawyer who was willing to take these cases. And as we know from Ashley Solis’ deposition, Mr. (Houston attorney Tony) Buzbee was not the first, probably not the second or third lawyer she went to, but he was the only one to take her case. Why? Not because it had merit, but because he would use these cases to increase his social media following and quite frankly to get on shows like this one.”

My reaction after watching the Real Sports segment? We weren’t in the room when the massage therapists worked on Watson. We weren’t in the grand jury room when evidence against Watson was presented. We don’t know what happened. We don’t know what will happen if these cases go to trial.

Until then all we have is one big, lurid, embarrassing mess. In American courtrooms, defendants are presumed innocent. That’s often the opposite in the court of public opinion. We’ll just have to wait while the wheels of justice grind painfully slow.

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