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Archive for May 1, 2022

May 1, 2022 — A “mayday” call

It was about 100 years ago when Frederick Stanley Mockford, a radio officer for a small airfield in Croydon, England, wanted to devise a universal code that airline pilots coming from Le Bourget Airport in Paris could use to indicate an emergency.

There was already the technology of the telegraph, which already had its own emergency code: SOS. But aircraft of the time did not have telegraphs on board; they had radios.

By 1923, “Mayday,” a portmanteau of “M’aidez” or “Help me” in French, was introduced as the emergency word for flights across the English channel. To this day, pilots of small private aircraft, Air Force airmen, and jumbo jet captains use the term in case of an extreme emergency of some type.

Today, I’m sounding a “mayday” distress call on behalf of the game of field hockey in the United States.

When this site started in 1998, the game, in relation to sports played by women in the United States, was not in a bad place. The U.S. women’s national team was only four years removed from a bronze-medal performance in the 1994 World Cup and finished third a year later in the FIH Champions Trophy.

The national team was fed by about 1,900 high schools and about 75 NCAA Division I college programs. There was also a post-collegiate circuit, the United Airlines League, which brought together a selection of national-team players, age-group national-teamers, and college stars to compete for honors and future selection opportunities.

Fast forward to today. There are about 1,950 high schools playing the sport and 79 Division I programs. There is, however, no post-collegiate league; there is an ad-hoc women’s national championship which brings together a number of top players for one week to compete.

The lack of post-collegiate competition shows: the U.S. women’s national team program has, for the first time, failed to qualify for two consecutive FIH world-level tournaments — the 2020 Olympics and 2022 World Cup. Too, the U.S. is just one point off the bottom of the table in the FIH Pro League.

But deeper than this, I think, is the fact that the American hockey culture has been unable to deal with its original sin: placing obstacles in the way of an entire gender to play the game.

Men’s field hockey has existed in its own small bubble as an adult Sunday league sport in the northeast U.S., but aside from a small experimental league a decade ago in the San Diego area, the men’s game has not caught on at the varsity level at any American school, college, or university.

Now, I’m not saying that the immediate institution of boys’ and men’s field hockey is going to cure every ill through which the game is suffering. It might be a start, however.

The key to the future of American field hockey is, frankly, sponsorship and resources. Right now, the U.S. women have been going into Pro League games without a sponsor like CitiBank or Glo on the front of its kit. During the global pandemic, USA Field Hockey applied for, and received, a PPP loan for $2.19 million.

Other resources are coming down the pike as the women’s national team have settled down in North Carolina. Reports say that an enormous recreational complex is being planned for the United States Performance Center in Kannapolis, N.C., a place which is also a human performance center.

But this is just for one level of the U.S. program. There needs to be competition available for both genders, at different age and ability levels, from coast to coast.

It is a hard ask, given the fact that recreational sports for adults in the United States — everything from softball to bowling to cycling — have been in decline in this country for varying reasons.

It’s going to take a lot of money, time, and effort. But I think it’s also going to take a kind of charismatic populism to bring the sport into a more public consciousness.

Think of it: who are the most famous people in the world who have played field hockey? Now, I’m not asking about who are the world’s most famous field hockey players; instead, we’re asking about celebrities who have competed in the game of field hockey.

Three women come to my mind: Kate Middleton (now the Dutchess of Cambridge), actress Emma Watson, and supermodel Hilary Rhoda. But I’m sure there are plenty of others in our popular culture who had a love of the sport — politicians, persons in industry, and financiers.

It’s these kinds of people who need to be harnessed in order to get the game out of this tailspin.