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Archive for Life

May 9, 2022 — A prescient story

It was in May 1995 when I first saw Christa Samaras on a lacrosse pitch. She completely took over an NCAA Division I semifinal against Dartmouth with her enthusiasm and relentless energy in a 13-8 win.

It turns out that day was the last time we would see Sarah Devens on a lacrosse field. Her own enthusiasm and relentless energy masked personal demons which would see her take her own life in July of that year.

Last week, Samaras was the subject for a Forbes Magazine story, detailing her own mental health struggles at the time. Reading her struggle against suicide is a complete shocker and eye-opener that one of the greatest female lacrosse players our country has ever produced almost never stepped on that world stage.

As far back as the early 90s, while attending Annapolis (Md.), she was looking for a way out, including trying to see if there was a gun in her household.

“If I had found one,” she tells Forbes, “it would have been over.”

In this month, set aside for mental health awareness, we’ve been reading numerous accounts of struggle on the part of not only female athletes, but just plain folks who have found the Global Pandemic Era one of extreme emotion and trauma.

The Samaras story has had me going back over a quarter-century of mental notes about people I have seen in the sports world. Were there frowns when I asked questions? Was there a quaver or tremor in a voice? Did the behavior of an athlete or coach change over time? Were there coaches who, while finding success on the pitch, were creating numerous individual mental health crises off it?

I have my own suppositions regarding the role of coaching in the downward spiral of athletes. In some of the support areas of the teams, if you brought up the name of a player who may have flunked out of school or had a drop in form that relegated them to the bench, the player was dismissed as either a “head case” or a “lost soul.”

As we are all learning from the examples of Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, and other athletes who have either retired or withdrawn from competitions citing the need for a mental health break, the need for such a break has existed for long, long before.

I always observed, during the early 1990s in covering field hockey, that often the best goalkeepers were burnt-out soccer players. And I knew there were plenty of burnt-out soccer players who were going to camps and training events like the Olympic Development Program, all hoping to become the next Michelle Akers, Mary Harvey, or Lisa Gmitter (the U.S. right winger immediately before a legend named Mia Hamm came along).

I have seen different forms of what could be called abusive behavior. It wasn’t all about raised voices or raised hands, but commenting on appearance sometimes. I have seen more than one Division I athlete starve themselves and overtrain because their coach talked about a player’s baby fat.

And I have also seen overtraining like you wouldn’t believe. I once attended a week-long training camp for first-year students and walk-ons for a college field hockey program. The group numbered more than 60 at the start of the week, but were whittled down to about a dozen in about five days. It’s this kind of “survival of the fittest” which has often claimed promising players because of devastating lower-body injuries borne of overtraining, overstress, and dry, old-style artificial turf laid out on concrete.

Now, we’ve seen a major exodus in coaching in the last two years — not just in terms of field hockey or girls’ and women’s lacrosse, but in sports overall. Great leaders such as Mike Krzyzewski, Anne Horton, John Savage, C. Vivian Stringer, Laurie Berger, Jay Wright, and Karen Doxey have walked away from their coaching positions in the last few months.

I understand that some of them may be seeing the evils of the NLI on the horizon. It’s gotten to the point where high-school students are now receiving money to endorse products like athletic wear.

And maybe, just maybe, these coaches are looking for a mental-health break of their own, given the pressure to build on past success.

May 2, 2022 — A mental health klaxon

In the last few months, at least five Division I collegiate athletes — Stanford soccer goalie Katie Meyer, Northern Michigan track athlete Jayden Hill, SUNY-Binghamton lacrosse player Robert Martin, Wisconsin cross-country runner Sarah Schulze, and James Madison softball catcher Lauren Bernett have all taken their own lives. It’s gotten to the point where JMU, a team which made last year’s College World Series, decided to end their season.

Now, I said “at least” in the first paragraph above because the stigma surrounding suicide has often led to the suppression of news about it, especially in close-knit communities like high schools and colleges.

But especially since the summer of 2021, when the mental health of athletes became a prime concern in both amateur and professional sports worldwide, the first instinct has, instead, been to publicize anti-suicide hotlines and websites at the end of news stories. I’ve even seen these kinds of PSAs on ESPN in between loud hot-takes and betting-line information.

To me, the publicizing of solutions after the fact misses the entire point of preventative mental health in sports — especially scholastic sports, where outsized pressure is often put on 17- and 18-year-olds to work the miracles of professional players at the next level.

Such pressures have not yielded the best results for high-school athletes I have covered. I have seen players flunk out of college, others being benched for a lack of performance, and still others fall by the wayside due to injury.

I have seen school programs develop positive cultures, but I have seen numerous others develop negative and sometimes toxic interactions between themselves and other students on campus. I seem to recall that one incident nine years ago involving three field hockey student-athletes who assaulted a peer at a party. The incident cost the team a chance to play for a national title.

The world of U-21 sport — from Little League to the NCAA — has been rife with scandals for years. There has been point-shaving in college basketball, allegations of misconduct when it comes to the usage of the current transfer portal, falsification of records in youth baseball which has affected several championship-level teams, child sexual abuse in scholastic sports, and abuses by team doctors at several U.S. colleges. It is, frankly, a cesspool.

This kind of behavior, regrettably, has spread to professional sports, to the point where 90 percent of pro women’s soccer teams in the United States saw a regime change in the last year or so because of some sort of misconduct on the part of a coach, owner, or general manager.

Too, there have been exposed drug cheating on the part of individuals in the BALCO scandal, namely Marion Jones, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Lance Armstrong. There have also been whole teams which have been involved in widespread cheating, such as the Houston Astros (sign-stealing), the New England Patriots (electronic spying and deflating of footballs), and the Manchester City football club (skirting salary rules).

I guess, as more and more money is swirling around sports today, the old NASCAR saying comes to mind: “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”

And for the average young athlete, it’s a hard reality to grasp. No wonder these young people feel such pressure to succeed at the same time their idealistic dreams have been shattered in a cauldron of deception. It’s hard to maintain your mental health in such an atmosphere.

April 6, 2022 — A personal experiment

As most of you have gathered from reading this blog over the last couple of years, I have taken the health and safety protocols necessitated by the global pandemic very, very seriously.

For most of the first four or five months of the pandemic, I rarely left the apartment. I didn’t have a reason to do so, and I was able to take advantage of the various delivery services for food and homegoods. Rare was the time I would leave the house on a lark, not wanting to run into a random person who had the coronavirus.

I’ve been careful — sometimes a bit too much so. I have not visited any family members, especially the one family member with an immunosuppressed person in the house. I cannot bear even the thought of being the person to bring a virus of any kind into that person’s system. It was to the point when I cancelled a planned trip when I had an elevated heart rate, especially given what happened to me the last time I had planned a trip.

Naturally, when vaccines started becoming available in early 2021, I made a reservation, jumping onto the Internet at 12:30 a.m. to make a reservation through an app. Since then, I have received four doses of the vaccine, the last of which was about a week ago.

Since September, I have gone out to music and dance events with health and safety protocols of varying degrees.

But a couple of weeks ago, I opted to attend an indoor music event which was mask-optional, but which required vaccines. It’s the first time I have chosen to do so since the pandemic started. I went into the event trusting the science of the vaccinations, but a little wary and needing a little bit of reassurance.

The reassurance came in the form of a small white box with orange trim. The contents were antigen rapid tests, which I received through the Federal government’s website. Four tests were in the box, and what I wanted to do was to take these tests just before and up to about 10 days after the event.

I took the first antigen test two hours before going to the site of the event, and my test came out negative. During the event, I was exposed to other people, many unmasked, over the course of four hours. My guess is that I was within the usual “social distance” boundary with more than 200 patrons of the event. But even if someone was asymptomatic of COVID-19, I reasoned that the three shots I had received until then would be protection enough.

I took a test three days after the event, which proved negative. I took another test three days after that, which was also negative.

Today, I took the fourth antigen test, and waited the usual 15 minutes. And like the other three, the “C” or control line was a dark magenta line on the white stripe, while there was no line at all on the “T” side of the strip.

I’m free and clear — for now. I occasionally see items in my social media feed about friends of mine testing positive for the Coronavirus. This makes me hesitant to go out unless I know that the event I am going to is a “bubble,” in that everyone who enters the building or premises is vaccinated and boosted. I’ll also carry a mask in a shirt pocket just in case.

Ladies and gentlemen, the new normal.

March 31, 2022 — Asking the wrong question

Today is the National Transgender Day of Visibility, a day to raise awareness of discrimination faced by transgender people worldwide.

Earlier this month, a University of Pennsylvania swimmer named Lia Thomas became the first openly transgender athlete to win an NCAA Division I national championship in any sport, after winning the women’s 500-yard freestyle at the national meet.

Despite the fact that there are established criteria for people transitioning from one gender to another in many NCAA sports (including swimming), Thomas’ achievement spawned a generation of keyboard warriors who somehow wanted to become the gender police. And, of course, politicians had to somehow weigh in on the situation, calling Thomas “a biological man” and declaring the second-place finisher in the event “the rightful champion.”

Here’s the thing. If the NCAA has put together the right biological criteria for a transgender person to compete in either a men’s or a women’s event, it is not the right of anyone — especially outspoken politicians — to question someone’s right to participate. I think the right to participate is inviolable, and unalienable.

I think it’s going to be interesting to see what happens in the next few years, especially with the way we, as human beings, are evolving. I think it’s not going to be very long — perhaps a few hundred years — when non-gendered human beings will roam the Earth.

I think it’s going to only accelerate.

March 25, 2022 — The kids on the bus

Years ago, when I was in middle school, I took a school-sponsored van every morning for the 20-mile trip from our house.

We were a mixed bag of kids on that bus. Male, female, black, white, Latinx, different walks of life. Being together on that small van, we got to know each other pretty well. That was to be expected in a school with about 250 students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

You might think that, being cooped up with the same kids for three hours per day for five days a week rolling through suburbia, that we’d drive each other crazy. But somehow, we all got along and we all had pretty good successes afterward in academia, the business world, and we had a future doctor and a future lawyer among us.

Yesterday, I learned about the death of one of the kids on the bus. Damon was a street kid, having grown up across the street from the local public school. As such, he had a different perspective on right and wrong, once having sneaked some of his mother’s whiskey with him on the bus.

He also had a gift for being able to put improvised words to music. He often freestyle-rapped — and at a Lin-Manuel Miranda quality — on the bus while reading or playing one of the many hand-held video games which were in vogue before the invention of the Game Boy.

Damon would transfer out of our school and attend one of our other local private schools, looking to parlay his athletic prowess at a place that could offer him more exposure. He wound up at a public college out of state, but wound up coming back to town after he graduated.

I saw him only a couple of times in real life afterwards. He took a job at one of the local shopping malls working at a store selling musical instruments. Another time, I ran into him at a tavern, whereupon he wanted to borrow money to pay off some kind of random debt.

I would learn that he had fallen prey to the temptations of life. He made the newspapers for the wrong reasons, having been arrested for use of crack cocaine while on the job working for the city as a traffic enforcement officer. Afterwards, he seemingly turned his life around, moving to the deep South and becoming an ordained minister. He would get married and had a committed relationship with his spouse and with the Lord.

I don’t know what took him; the on-line obituaries don’t mention these kinds of things.

But what I do know is that he was part of the carefree days. These trips on that VW Microbus (yeah, we used those), clattering past the hulks of the area’s industrial past. We would take occasional side trips to the local convenience store to buy movie trading cards or the little wax tubes filled with sugar water.

Today, these circumstances could never be replicated, thanks to liability laws. Heads would roll if an open container of alcohol is discovered a school van. Or if a side trip to a convenience store was taken. Or, heck, if a Microbus (a notorious death-trap of a vehicle) was in a school’s van fleet.

Feb. 26, 2022 — An accidental time capsule

A classical music friend of mine held a workshop last August in Europe, and did a series of videos posted on social media surrounding his travels. The videos are a walking travelogue of a city with cobblestone streets, and the usual central European gaggle of scooters, trolley, taxis, and pedestrians.

These videos, today, have a wistful quality, because my friend had taken a trip to Lviv, Ukraine. The video footage is a time capsule of a vibrant city with coffee shops, culture, entertainment, and history.

The last few days have been full of uncertainty and, frankly, terror for Ukrainians as they have faced an onslaight of arms from neighboring Russia. Lviv has become a major way-station for about 200,000 citizens as they have made their way west to evacuate to parts beyond.

Now, there have been plenty of political, economic, and military countermeasures brought to bear on the Russian regime. It is, however, instructive to note one statistical trend that has evinced itself over the last few weeks.

Russia has now become the world epicenter for COVID-19, according to many world data aggregation sites. Some 350,000 people have died during the pandemic, and while many countries have flattened the curve, the same cannot be said for Russia. More than 700 people a day are losing their lives in Russia, a number which has gone up in the past month.

Compare that to the United States, which has seen its death numbers going down over the last month, so much so that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention yesterday issued new recommendations regarding the need for wearing masks in many indoor scenarios.

What’s going on here? I think the Putin administration has used this incursion into Ukraine as a distraction to take attention off domestic affairs. It is, frankly, an immensely stupid risk because of the flagrancy of the aggression. It’s even prompted Germany to roll back its self-imposed ban on arms sales to ship anti-tank and Stinger missiles to Ukraine.

I just hope that the coming war in Ukraine doesn’t result in the kind of destruction that has marked the recent military adventures in Iraq and Syria. There are too many beautiful cities like Lviv in harm’s way.

Feb. 13, 2022 — The soundtrack of one’s life

Part of what we’ve been doing during the pandemic is spending time on organizing music. As part of the organization, I have been able to figure out how to run iTunes off an external drive.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was able to pick up a 512-gigabyte thumb drive from our local independent computer shop for a shade over 30 bucks. I had been running iTunes from a mechanical hard drive about half the size of this thumb drive, and it had cost about $100 from a Circuit City store near my parents’ house.

Now, I’ve accumulated thumb drives over the years. They have been given to me as souvenirs, as marketing devices for hotels, and some as gifts. As we’ve talked about in the past, computer memory is one of those commodities which is governed by Moore’s Law, a principle that an item can often double in size or efficiency and cost half as much in cycles of 12 to 15 months.

For part of last week, I moved several thousand music files onto the big thumb drive, with the aim of seeing how well (or poorly) it works with the USB slot in my car radio. It’s a pretty cool option to have the ability to have hundreds of songs on a drive, plug it into the stereo, press “Random,” and just let it play.

Only there are limits to how well this works with very large drives. The stereo does not swiftly recognize the big 512 GB drive, so I have started on a process of copying some of the files to smaller drives. One of them is a blue drive from Verbatim that is 64 GB in size.

I started filling the drive with music I used to enjoy from the early to mid 1990s when I would go out clubbing after evening shifts at the newspaper. The music I listened to was a mishmash of 80s New Wave, 90s alternative, gothic-industrial, New York-style club music, trance, and jungle.

One of the people who brought us this kind of music was a female DJ who went by Gal. She was a gregarious soul and a laugh riot who cracked jokes and dropped musical knowledge in equal measure.

Years of hard living, however, took a toll on her physical and mental health, leading to her death last week. As one of the people who provided the soundtrack to my life for nearly a decade, Gal was an person who influenced the way I looked at life and how music fit into it.

Indeed, she and the DJs I would listen to either on the local college radio stations or at the clubs near home were the ones who wrested my musical tastes away from the Billboard charts or the flavor-of-the-week playlists from Clear Channel. To this day, I couldn’t tell you the difference between One Direction and One Republic, or which punctuation marks adorn the names of pop stars Kesha and Pink.

After dumping 61.78 GB of music on the drive, the computer asked me whether I wanted to change the name of the drive.

It’s now named Gal.

Jan. 28, 2022 — A following trend?

As you can see from the header of this website, we have dived into the world of social media, not just to promote the site, but to read individual accounts of what is going on.

Somewhere amongst the adoptive kittens, train fires, and people who can solve a high-order Rubik’s cube, I have come across heartbreaking tales of alleged physical and metal abuse on the part of sports coaches on the players in their charge.

Some are lacrosse or field hockey players. And some of the coaches referred to in their social media posts are people I have known for decades.

Now, if there’s one thing that has taken over the sports universe over the last couple of years, it is the state of mental health of athletes, whether they are multimillion-dollar professionals or the burnt-out youth soccer players.

So has social media, and I think we’re going to see many, many stories and posts on various platforms. These posts are going to be heartbreaking, and many will be seen as courageous. I think, over the next several years, we’re going to see the legacies of many programs and coaches being altered forever because of stories of physical and mental abuse in many different athletic pursuits.

And, because these are unfiltered and first-hand, they have the possibility for great good, but also great evil. Remember a few years ago when the head coach of Lehigh University was accused of abusive behavior? Those accusations were summarily dismissed after an university investigation.

I don’t know what percentage of accusations of this nature turn out to be non-credible, but one does tend to develop a healthy sense of skepticism depending on the outcome.

And while there is a database of persons in amateur athletics who have been sanctioned by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, about 100 of the 1658 people listed fit in the category, “Allegations of Misconduct.”

I’m not so sure what happens to people who are vindicated.

Jan. 4, 2022 — Lessons from a first snow

Last evening, I drove home after picking up some groceries. Since I knew there was going to be a snowstorm of some kind today, I picked up more than I usually would.

I do remember one interesting thing from observing the roadways heading home. You didn’t see the white lines on the pavement indicating that the road had been pretreated.

Part of the lessons learned from a 1999 snowstorm that hit the East Coast was that, before the first snowstorm of a given season, you had to make an effort to try to treat the roadway with salt or brine so that the sodium, aluminum, and chloride atoms would be wedged in crevices in the asphalt.

During that December 1999 snowstorm, it took three hours to take a 15-mile trip (trust me, I did it). Since then, you’ve seen numerous highway crews getting out ahead of snowstorms pretreating roadways.

That, however, was a lesson which was seemingly forgotten in Virginia today. A 48-mile stretch of interstate roadway was allowed to ice over with anywhere from two to four inches of ice, along with a 14-inch snow pack which rendered conditions impassable for thousands of motorists.

As a student of public administration, it’s a lesson in pro-active vs. reactive management. Though I’ve heard all manner of justification as to why the Virginia Department of Transportation didn’t put down a layer of saline on the roadway, the fact remains that crews were not on the road in the numbers needed to deal with a snowstorm ahead of time.

Instead, the Commonwealth of Virginia chose to be reactive. And, as it turns out, woefully late in managing the situation.

Thankfully, nobody was injured or killed because of the traffic conditions. I’ve seen these kinds of weather events result in fatalities.

Dec. 31, 2021 — 189 right, 124 wrong

Today, I finished my Trivial Pursuit CLASSIC Edition Year-In-A-Box calendar, a calendar full of questions about everything from Spam to surfing to Sam Houston. The questions in this calendar were a little easier in parts, and my yearlong score reflected that. I got 60 percent of answers correct.

It’s nothing compared to James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings, or Amy Schneider, but it’s not half-bad for a sportswriter. And yes, I keep score.