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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As we are all learning from the examples of Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles, and other athletes who have either retired or withdrawn from competitions citing the need for a mental health break, the need for such a break has existed for long, long before.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 27, 2022 — Can an entire league be caught up in the same scandal? It appears as though the answer is “yes.”

Yesterday, the A.P. Sports Editors handed out yearly awards for excellence in journalism. The top two awards for investigative sports journalism were for the same topic: how the National Women’s Soccer League became, frankly, a cesspool when it came to toxic leadership.

First place went to The Athletic, whose team of Meg Linehan, Stephanie Yang, Katie Strang, and Pablo Maurer are unmatched when it comes to women’s football expertise. Second place went to The Washington Post, whose duo of Molly Hensley-Clancy and Stephen Goff placed special scrutiny on the Washington Spirit and its leadership.

Late yesterday, more evidence for the need of these writers to report on the topic came to the surface, as Houston Dash head coach and general manager James Clarkson was suspended after a league investigation for harassment and abuse.

This means that, in the last year, seven out of the 10 NWSL teams have had to undergo some kind of coaching or leadership change (not necessarily because of abuse charges). And this doesn’t even count the scandal that befell Angel City FC’s ownership group, which dropped David Dobrik before a single ball was kicked in Los Angeles.

The one thing that has caught the eye of the American soccer intelligentsia is one clause in the initial statement on Twitter yesterday: “ongoing investigation.”

Even with the likes of Rory Dames and Richie Burke and Paul Riley being cast away from the NWSL, there are still, apparently, enough persons of questionable moral fiber that the league and its players’ union have set up a semi-permanent apparatus for investigatory purposes.

And I think there are some people in power in the sport that had better take heed.

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 27, 2020 — Joan Joyce, 1940-2022

Imagine being part of an amateur sports team which was so complete, so dominant. that the national governing body of the sport doesn’t even hold tryouts for the national team: the amateur team represents the U.S. at the world tournament just by changing uniforms.

Such was the history of the Raybestos Brakettes, the greatest and most dominant women’s athletics program America produced in the pre-Title IX era.

And perhaps the greatest Brakette of all was Joan Joyce, a fine pitcher who started playing professionally at the age of 14, winning 429 games and losing just 27 in a remarkable club career. She had 5,677 strikeouts in 3,397 innings. She no-hit opponents on 105 occasions and threw 33 perfect games.

Many of those games were as part of a Brakettes team which represented the United States on the international level.

Joyce would somehow find time to compete on the LPGA Tour. In a two-decade career, she never finished higher than sixth in any particular tournament, but in 1982, pulled off a ridiculous feat. In the Lady Michelob Tournament, she needed just 17 putts to complete an 18-hole round. No professional player in the history of the PGA or the LPGA Tour has matched that.

If you dig further into her lifetime, she had other ridiculous statistics. As head coach of Florida Atlantic University, she is one of just 27 coaches with 1,000 career coaching victories. As a softball pitcher, her earned-run average was 0.09. For her career.

And in 1964, playing for a club in the Women’s Basketball Association, she scored 67 points in a game. Compare that to the 53 points Liz Cambage scored for the WNBA’s Dallas Wings in 2018.

Joan Joyce has no comparison to athletes or athletes-turned-coaches today. The numbers, when you look at them, are mind-boggling.

There will be more stories written over the next few days about her, about rides on buses, playing in tournaments, and the camaraderie of the teams on which she took part.

And she will be missed.

March 24, 2022 — The mighty have fallen, again

This afternoon, on a soccer pitch in Palermo, Italy, the national soccer team for Italy, the Azzurri, lost 1-0 to North Macedonia in a playoff match for one of the last three European slots for the 2022 World Cup.

Time was, the qualification for UEFA was relatively simple. The eligible national teams were split up into eight groups. Win your group, you’re in the World Cup. If you finished second, you played a two-legged tie against another second-place team to get a berth.

But in this COVID-addled qualification circus, the path to the World Cup changed dramatically. There were 10 pools, and those teams made it in automatically. The 10 second-place teams joined up with the two highest-ranked teams from the Nations League and split into four-team single-elimination brackets.

Italy was placed with Portugal, Turkey, and North Macedonia into an incredibly difficult bracket. Turkey, remember, was a Final Four team at the 2002 World Cup, Italy is the current UEFA champion, and Portugal won the UEFA title in 2016.

North Macedonia, a federation which was only organized and FIFA-licensed in 1994 after the nation of Yugoslavia ceased to exist, was an absolute afterthought.

That is, until this afternoon when a Macedonia forward named Aleksandar Trajkovski suddenly turned himself into a national hero with his long-range smash in the 92nd minute of play.

The win sent North Macedonia into the Path C playoff final against Portugal later this year.

While few of us may ever remember exactly who won Path C, the one headline from the game is the fact that Italy, a team with not only four World Cups in its history but the current UEFA trophy, has failed to qualify for its second consecutive FIFA World Cup.

Many in the Italian tabloid media will be scathing in their contempt of the coaching and the national football federation. But I think the world of soccer is coming to a point where teams other than the so-called “blue blood” teams are regularly coming up with tremendous world-beating performances.

Think of this: the last FIFA World Cup was contested without Italy, Holland, Chile, Ghana, and the United States. All five have had some sort of international success the last 20 years, but each team laid an egg when the games were the most important.

That pattern could wind up happening again to some important teams for this qualification cycle. Portugal, Wales, and Sweden — three teams with superstar players in their lineups — are just 90 minutes from being eliminated in the UEFA cycle. And they’re the lucky ones: Hungary, Iceland, and Greece, three teams which have had historic success in world tournaments, didn’t even qualify for the UEFA playoffs.

Elsewhere, Australia, a team which won the 2015 Asian Cup, needs to win a playoff game against the United Arab Emirates in order to get into a last-chance playoff against the fifth-place team from South America. And in that CONMEBOL qualifying marathon, Colombia (a team which was seen as a Final Four contender at USA 1994) and Chile (winners of consecutive Copa America titles in 2015 and 2016) are also on the outside looking in.

I guess the events in world soccer the last couple of World Cup cycles have upset the notion of who is a contender and who is not.

March 23, 2022 — A welcome back for a true activist for pay equality in women’s soccer

Five years ago, Ada Hegerburg turned in her card for the Norwegian women’s soccer team, shortly before the team’s World Cup 2019 campaign.

Frustrated with a lack of equal pay between the men’s and women’s national programs, she chose not to offer her services to Team Norway in a one-woman strike.

It’s interesting that, only a few weeks after the U.S. women’s national soccer team won its lawsuit against U.S. Soccer in its equal pay lawsuit that Hegerburg, fresh from winning club accolades with F.C. Barcelona and coming back from a 21-month layoff because of a severe knee injury, would announce her return to the Norwegian national women’s side.

Thing is, according to most all reports, Hegerburg’s five year absence from the team didn’t appear to move the needle very much when it comes to equal pay and conditions for the Norway women’s national team program. There haven’t been high-profile lawsuits, or on-field protests.

Hegerburg, however, worked very hard during her self-imposed exile from the national team, winning the Ballon D’Or for the best player in Europe. She also has amassed a remarkable record in European club play. With the Olympic Lyonnais club side in France, she has more career goals than any other female player in UEFA club competition. And this after missing 21 months with her lower-body injuries.

The Norwegian federation for women’s soccer is certainly hoping that Hegerburg can turn around the national team’s fortunes. Norway, for a decade and a half, was the equal of the United States on the world stage. The Grasshoppers won the second FIFA Women’s World Cup and the 2000 Olympics, as well as two UEFA titles.

But Norway has not won a major trophy in 22 years, and has seen many other nations overtake them in terms of women’s football prowess. I think the game that really caught the attention of the cogniscenti of women’s soccer had to have been a 7-0 defeat by Holland last June.

Sure, it was a friendly. The result showed, however, the current gulf in class that exists between the European powerhouse of the 1990s and a Dutch team which didn’t qualify for a major tournament until 2009.

Can Hegerburg bring Norway back to its former greatness? Stay tuned.

March 18, 2022 — Is the split in pro women’s ice hockey going to be solved by men?

It’s been a month since the end of the Beijing Winter Olympics. It’s usually the time when sports which get public adulation once every four years angle for more attention.

And then, there’s the world of women’s ice hockey.

Since the mid-2010s, women’s pro hockey players have been competing under two separate flags, both of which have changed over the years.

Back in 1999, a Canadian-center women’s league called the National Women’s Hockey League was formed. It aimed to be a coast-to-coast circuit throughout Canada. The problem is, the salaries and other benefits were a pittance in comparison to their NHL bretheren. The NWSL evolved into the Canadian Women’s Hockey League in 2007, gaining more and more national-team women and playing a pretty good level of hockey.

By 2015, a second American-centered league calling itself the National Women’s Hockey League took to the ice, aiming to pay a higher rate of salary and benefits. A couple of years ago, the league took on a new name, the Premier Hockey Federation, and doubled team salary caps from $150,000 to $300,000 per team.

The women from the Canadian Women’s Hockey League saw their league dissolve in 2019, and the players from the league have been playing in a number of cities across North America as the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association (PWHPA). The association boasts players like American stars Hilary Knight and Kendell Coyne-Schofield and Canadian gold medalists Saran Nurse and Natalie Spooner.

Bringing the two sides together are the people who run and fund the NHL. The reason why I mention “and fund” is that there are millions of dollars at stake on both sides. The PHF’s salary cap has been rumored to be raised to more than $700,000 for next season, and there is supposedly a PHWPA pro deal for upwards of eight to 10 years and in the multimillion-dollar range.

A merger of the Premier Federation and the Players’ Association could wind up being an enormous benefit to women’s ice hockey as as professional construct.

But I don’t have the best feeling about the professional men’s league, the NHL, coming in to be the knight in shining armor. I always thought that the best way for pro women’s ice hockey to develop is a league by women and for women.

And yet, sticks aren’t cheap. Neither are pads, helmets, pucks, or ice time. I just hope that, whatever circuit comes out of these negotiations, it will be a sustainable league with people willing to come out to see these world-class athletes on either side of the border.

March 14, 2022 — Greatness, or privilege?

Late Sunday, it was announced that Tom Brady, a football quarterback who has won seven Super Bowl champions and holds numerous NFL records, was returning for a 23rd pro season at the age of 45.

Normally, an aging superstar in any athletic endeavor is a liability for a multibillion-dollar business such as an NFL team. The latter years of Wayne Gretzky, Muhammad Ali, Babe Ruth, Joe Namath, and Michael Jordan have seen a downward spiral of both individual prowess and overall performance.

Brady is betting that he can conjure up his 31st season of organized tackle football in a situation where he, in his Tweet yesterday, had “unfinished business.”

And yet, there are people half his age who aren’t going to get a chance to start at quarterback because Brady has exercised his privilege to un-retire, to go back on his announcement in February that he would retire.

I use the word “privilege” with prejudice.

Brady has been a dominant player in this team sport for nearly a quarter of its history, but has benefitted from his status in the league. Because of his starpower, the NFL instituted a number of rules changes meant to protect quarterbacks from getting hit by 280-pound defenders. He also got off relatively unscathed from the “Deflategate” scandal of 2014, and his personal life, including having children with more than one woman, has not received nearly enough scrutiny.

And yet, through it all, he’s apparently going to get another season to play in the NFL, just for the asking.

Must be nice to have that kind of clout.

March 14, 2022 — A step towards equality in NCAA Division I women’s and men’s basketball

This evening, on ESPN, the wall-to-wall coverage of postseason collegiate basketball begins with a program called Bracketology, where pundits and experts discuss the field before play begins on the men’s side on Tuesday evening.

The program also has an interesting tagline: “Field of 136.”

Huh? Wait a second. There are 68 teams in the men’s bracket.

Has been that way since 2011, with games usually held in Dayton, Ohio, in the center of the country. The reason is that when the Mountain West Conference organized and became eligible to get an automatic qualifier into the tournament, the NCAA did not want to grant one fewer at-large bid.

Well, after the kerfuffle about inequality between the NCAA Division I men’s and women’s Division I basketball tournaments exposed through the Sedona Prince TikTok video, there have been significant changes in the women’s championship.

The words “March Madness” will now be on the courts of the women’s games. And there will be upgraded travel and accomodations.

And now, a 68-team field.

Now, when it comes to the expanded field, I wonder if there will be any chance for the four pigtail winners will ever get to the national semifinals. Only one team on the men’s side have made it from the First Four play-in game to the Final Four, and that was UCLA in last year’s tournament.

The thing is, there’s still a small measure of inequality when it comes to the new bracket; the eight teams in the four play-in games do not play two double-headers like they do in the men’s tournament. the teams picked for the pigtail matches go to Top 16 seeds for on-campus matchups.

And so it goes.