Minnesota prospect Griffin Jax wears two uniforms – Twins and Air Force

Arizona Fall League pitcher Griffin Jax warms up for a game Nov. 9 at Sloan Park in Mesa. Jax is also on active duty after graduating from the U.S. Air Force Academy. (Photo by Cynthia Esqueda/Cronkite News)

Griffin Jax wears two uniforms.

One for the Minnesota Twins organization and another for the U.S. Air Force.

A program that allows athletes at military academies to participate in their respective sports leading up to the Olympics could provide a path for the first Air Force Academy graduate to play in the major leagues.

“I am still a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force, but my job is to train for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo,” Jax said recently. “While I am doing that, I am promoting the Air Force as much as possible.”

Jax is part of the Air Force’s World Class Athlete Program, which allows athletes to compete full-time in their respective sport over the two years preceding the Olympics. Under the program, training with the Minnesota Twins counts towards Jax’s required five years of active duty.

Jax currently is pitching for the Salt River Rafters in the Arizona Fall League, where Major League organizations send top prospects for development in the offseason. He plays his home games at Salt River Fields, not far from where his father, Garth Jax, played linebacker for the Arizona Cardinals from 1989-1995.

“It’s a huge blessing. Every baseball player in the minors knows about this opportunity, and its a huge stepping stone in their careers,” Jax said. “For the Twins to trust me and send me out here is just a huge honor, and I’m taking every day with that in mind.”

Though clear skies are in sight for now, Jax’s journey through the World Class Athlete Program could become turbulent. No baseball player from the Air Force Academy has ever made it to the major leagues.

The hard throwing right-handed pitcher attended Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village, Colo., about a 45-minute drive from the academy. The proximity allowed Air Force to frequently evaluate Jax.

“At first, I actually said no to any military academy,” Jax said. “My first offer was actually West Point. At that time my ego took over and I said, ‘No, I want to play baseball at a big time school.’ But I gave it some more thought and went on an official visit, and it turned out to be the right opportunity for my family and I.”

Jax committed to the Air Force Academy before his senior season at Cherry Creek and went on to be named Colorado’s 2013 Gatorade Player of the Year. He was selected by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 12th round of that June’s MLB First-Year Player Draft.

However, the self-described late bloomer decided to honor his commitment to the Air Force Academy after the academy had showed such allegiance while others schools didn’t.

Jax’s three-year career at Air Force was capped off with a 2016 Mountain West Co-Pitcher of the Year selection after he finished with a 9-2 record and 2.05 ERA in 105.2 innings of work.

Following that season, he was drafted was drafted in the third round (93rd overall) by the Minnesota Twins. The draft came at a time when the U.S. Department of Defense allowed athletes to pursue professional sports immediately following graduation. Jax chose to sign with the Twins and give up his final year of NCAA eligibility, knowing he would have to return to school to graduate by 2017. After graduation, Jax would owed five years of active duty to the Air Force.

Griffin Jax, a pitcher in the Minnesota Twins organization, chats with teammates before an Arizona Fall League game. Jax also is on active duty as an Air Force officer. (Photo by Jake Trybulski/Cronkite News)

After he was drafted in the summer 2016, Jax reported to Minnesota’s rookie-level Gulf Coast League affiliate, the Elizabethton Twins. He appeared in four games throwing 8.2 innings out of the bullpen in a two-week span before returning to the academy to finish school.

Jax spent his senior year at the academy away from the Twins, expecting to report to the team once he graduated.

However, in April of 2017, the Department of Defense rescinded its earlier policy and implemented a policy requiring graduates to serve two years of active duty before they can apply to finish out their time in the reserves while pursuing a career in professional sports.

Jax was granted 60 days leave after his graduation and reported to active duty as an acquisition manager in Cape Canaveral, Fla. He spent his leave splitting time between the Elizabethton Twins and Class A Cedar Rapids throwing a little over 30 innings in five starts.

“I took every single start a little more seriously just because it was so limited, but I really didn’t try and think about the future that much,” Jax said. “I was just trying to enjoy my time as much as possible and make the most out of it.”

In Jax’s final start with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, manager Tommy Watkins pulled him with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning. The timing was odd as Jax was cruising through the game.

“As it was playing out, we knew it was going to be his last game and I thought it would be cool to take him out during an inning,” Watkins said. “So I’m walking out to the mound and I was just like, ‘Wow, I’m glad we got a chance to pull him out so he could be recognized.’”

Jax tipped his cap and walked off the field to a standing ovation.

“I don’t want to think I was a forgotten prospect, but in a sense they had to take their gas pedal off me a little bit because I was gone for so long,” Jax said. “At that point, I didn’t think I’d be back until the summer of 2019 after I had finished two years of active duty.”

That was not the case however as things began to flip in Jax’s favor. With the 2020 Summer Olympics now just two years away, Jax applied to the World Class Athlete Program last December.

Jax was accepted into the WCAP in April.

There were still obstacles that Jax had to get over, though. As an active-duty member of the Air Force, he is not allowed to have a second source of income. So the legal team worked out a unique system where the pitcher is paid by the Air Force but the Twins pay for things such as travel and equipment.

“There was a whole lot of extra work between the Air Force legal team and the MLB legal team,” Jax said. “I have a ton of friends who are cross-country runners and compete in track and field, but they aren’t playing for a Major League affiliate so they don’t have that second stream of income, and that kind of held back the process a little bit.”

Jax reported in early May to extended spring training in Fort Myers, Fla. For the first time, he had almost a full baseball season in front of him. In 2018, he started 14 games and posted a 3.70 ERA over 87.2 innings while striking out 66 batters for the Class A-Advanced Fort Myers Miracle.

“It is a little less pressure on me knowing I’ll have at least one more start tomorrow, but I still know not every baseball player’s career is guaranteed,” Jax said. “So I’m still taking everyday to make sure I am getting better.”

Watkins, Jax’s former manager in Cedar Rapids, coincidentally is now his manager with the Rafters in the Arizona Fall League.

“It’s just be fun seeing him being able to concentrate on baseball full-time,” Watkins said. “He’s always been positive. He works hard like everybody else. When you don’t have to tell people to work and do this and that, it speaks volumes about someone. I see him in the weight room every morning but I think he would be that type of person without the military.”

Jax can apply for reserve status after his two years of active duty are up, which will happen long before his WCAP status ends with the 2020 Olympics. However, wearing that Team USA across his chest would make a nice reward for the roller coaster ride Jax has endured to pursue a baseball career while serving his country.

“It would be a really cool story to have an active duty Air Force officer on the team,” he said. “I think it would mean a little something more than an everyday baseball player, but I am not guaranteed a spot and I’m working hard everyday to be ready for tryouts.”

Teens’ digital footprint helping recruiters target athletes

Ben Weiss of Zcruit explains how the company helps college football teams find recruits to Penn linebackers coach Jon Dupont (Photo courtesy Zcruit)

Ben Weiss has never met you. But chances are, if you’re one of the top high school football prospects in the country, the dude can already read you like a book.

“With some kids, it’s going to be more of a slam dunk giveaway than others,” said Weiss, the CEO and co-founder of Zcruit, a Chicago-based sports recruiting database and analytics platform. “There are some kids that are a lot less active on Twitter, that aren’t much on social media.”

What teen athletes post on social media is providing clues to recruiters in their interests, opening yet another door into privacy matters

If you’re a recruiting prospect — heck, if you’re a teenager, period — you’ve probably left digital hints or digital footprints all over cyberspace. Weiss and his cohorts started connecting these dots as a service to college football programs roughly a year and a half ago.

Weiss offered an example: Zcruit research found football recruits wind up committing 53 percent of the time to the school they like the most tweets from before they actually make their commitment decision public. Those are the signposts that Weiss and his cohorts have used to build a client base of more than 30 Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision programs.

“There are some data where you can start pegging some trends there,” Weiss said.

You can start counting the dollars, too. According to SportsDataStrategies.com, a data consulting service in greater Phoenix, the sports analytics market is estimated to be valued at $4.7 billion by 2021.

“We’ve had conversations in the past, and I’ve had conversations with my associates and with other services, and the genie’s kind of out of the bottle, as far as information, with social media and everything else,” explained Mark Branstad, founder and CEO of Tracking Football, an Indianapolis-based sports data and recruiting service.

“I think that, for a long time, high school coaches wanted to protect athletes, and they were not really crazy about that information being out there and packaging that information and selling it. At one time, when I was a teacher and a coach, I felt the same way. Looking at it now, that information is already out there and it’s the athletes themselves or the parents who are pushing to get that out. It’s almost, ‘Well, if we don’t do it, someone else will.’” - Mark Branstad, founder and CEO of Tracking Football

“I think that, for a long time, high school coaches wanted to protect athletes, and they were not really crazy about that information being out there and packaging that information and selling it. At one time, when I was a teacher and a coach, I felt the same way. Looking at it now, that information is already out there and it’s the athletes themselves or the parents who are pushing to get that out. It’s almost, ‘Well, if we don’t do it, someone else will.’”

Weiss became one of those someones in 2015 while he was an undergraduate at Northwestern. He developed a business plan for Zcruit in April of that year and tested it on the Wildcats — an academic powerhouse whose profile requires it to recruit nationally and selectively — a few months later.

“I was frustrated at how inefficient the recruiting process was,” Weiss explained. “You spend a lot of time and money chasing the wrong guys, and that’s wasted time and resources.

“If there are 15,000 prospects, let’s say 4,000 of them are good enough to play at your school. And say only 2,000 of those guys actually have the grades to get into your place. And then we’re down to that fact that only 800 of them are in your geographic footprint, and only 400 are likely to say, ‘Yes’ to your school.”

Zcruit’s platform was built on the idea of plugging details from a prospect’s athletic, academic, geographic and social profile into an algorithm that then customizes that data to fit a program’s needs and assigns each prospect a “Z-score” that reflects the likelihood of that player committing to your school. The higher a prospect’s Z-score, the better the odds you have of bagging that prospect.

Some of the material Zcruit uses is in the public domain; other elements have been provided by partner companies or schools who have signed on. Client schools that follow a specific player, for example, will receive notifications when other programs offer that player, while also receiving data from the algorithm as to how a rival offer could impact the likelihood of him committing to your program.

It is a sophisticated platform rooted in common sense: If a kid is known to be weighing offers from Alabama, Ohio State and Michigan, Zcruit’s algorithm will not recommend that player to, say, Southern Illinois. You fish where they’re most likely to bite.

“Whether [prospects] are getting exploited is up for interpretation,” said Branstad, whose company uses a different algorithm — based on a prospect’s combine and track-and-field statistics — to project how a player compares, athletically, within a database that features more than 40,000 current and former NFL and college players.

“I’m seeing more and more high school coaches going out of their way to gather information and getting that info out there. At least it’s from a verified coach; it’s from a verified source. We see that more with coaches — if it’s spring or summer, they’re doing their own camps, showcase camps, at the high schools now. We see it with other sports, too. I wouldn’t call it exploitation because it’s just proliferated so much. Yeah, there are times that maybe different sources cross the line and maybe put out too much information.

From left to right: Sebastian Frohm, Jake Schumaker, Ian Thorp, Ben Weiss and Alex Cohen at Northwestern University’s Ryan Fieldhouse. (Photo courtesy Zcruit)

“Is it invasive? If these [recruiting] services call these kids all hours of the day — ‘How was your visit? Where are you going to go?’ — I think that’s more invasive than the stats.”

And that Fitbit on your wrist wasn’t exactly designed to be your pal. When a coach has a student-athlete wear a piece of tech to class, or even to bed, where does that data end up? Who can access it, legally or otherwise? What kind of safeguards are in place to protect pro, college and prep athletes who leave a trail of digital bread crumbs behind them, every day, whether they realize it or not?

“Parents would be wise to treat their children’s data like they would their own,” noted Kristy Gale, a sports data expert and CEO of the Hypergolic consulting practice. “They need to control who it’s passed to.

“First of all, they need to ask questions, if they’re physician’s records, health records, anything reflecting past performances. If that child is in an elite soccer club, if they want them to use wearables and institute a training regimen using wearable tech, the parents need to ask questions. ‘Who are the custodians of the data?’ And make it clear who that is.”

“Parents would be wise to treat their children’s data like they would their own. They need to control who it’s passed to." - Kristy Gale, sports data expert and CEO of Hypergolic consulting practice

Michigan’s athletic department signed a deal in 2016 with Nike that grants the apparel giant a broad swath for how biometric data collected from student-athletes could later be used. Fast forward to May when the NCAA announced it had entered into a 10-year partnership with Genius Sports, a company based in the United Kingdom, for the purposes of centralizing — and monetizing — those same student-athletes’ statistics. Schools will receive Genius Sports software for free for three years, while media outlets and web sites will have to pay for the data collected. Some have postulated that the NCAA’s new data gambit could be the first brick laid on a path that leads to selling such data to gambling-related companies.

Gale’s advice in the meantime?

Read the fine print, twice over. Three times, even, just to be sure.

“The second thing is these waivers,” said Gale, who has been following sports data rights matters for the last three-and-a-half years and provides consulting to teams, leagues, and parents. “Make sure there is an authorization, and there is a release for their children’s data. And make sure they read it carefully and not just sign it [first]. When they look at waivers, usually, it’s very broad. It says, ‘You’re giving us your child’s data for “X” and we have it in perpetuity, so we’re never liable.’

“And the third thing to think about is that if that data got out to college recruiters, college scouts, pro scouts and recruiters, what could the potential negative impact of that data be?

“If your son is playing baseball and he’s a pitcher and he’s injury-prone, you have to consider the downside risk. If he has a pervasive risk of injury that keeps getting aggravated, what will that to do to his career? Will shorten it, will he get ‘X’ amount of fewer dollars?”

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA) was set up to create baseline privacy protection for educational data. Under general FERPA guidelines, schools must have written permission from a parent or student in order to release information from that student’s education records. The definition of education records was expanded to include biometric data as personally identifiable information.

Yet the proliferation of demand in new markets — fantasy sports a decade ago, legalized sports betting now — persuaded some states to push for more safeguards. In 2008, Illinois passed the country’s first biometric privacy law, the Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA), which made it against the law for private entities to store, collect or use biometric data without the individual’s consent first.

California enacted the Student Online Personal Information Protection Act, or SOPIPA, in 2014. A study by the Data Quality Campaign found that 28 student data privacy bills were signed into law in 20 states during the 2014 legislative session.

A year later, Forbes.com reported that $420 million in pitchers’ salaries were wasted on the disabled list, stints that could be traced to arm injuries that new technology and new data are designed to project. And, from the perspective of Major League Baseball management, mitigate.

“If you want to play in the majors, they’re going to get that information from you,” Gale said. “Up to that point, try to control it. Manage it wisely so it isn’t abused. Or misused.”

“I don’t think it’s going to go too Big Brother-y. The point is really helping schools in the recruiting process zero in on the right kids, and help these coaches spend more time with their families and spend more time recruiting the right guys." - Bob Weiss, founder and CEO of Zcruit

Because now that the train has left the station, it’s only going to keep gathering speed.

As much as college recruiters love context, they love tangible results more. Before Northwestern let Zcruit guide their efforts, Weiss said, the Wildcats were landing roughly 20 percent of the players they had offered.

Using Zcruit’s algorithm, 96 percent of the prospects Weiss and his partners expected to sign with Northwestern eventually joined the Wildcats.

“Schools have people who have to check who are on kids’ Twitter accounts. Nothing we’re really doing is too groundbreaking,” Weiss said of Zcruit, which services more than 30 FBS or FCS schools, and was purchased by the Reigning Champs digital network in December 2017.

“It’s how to help people save time on stuff,” Weiss said. “I don’t think it’s going to go too Big Brother-y. The point is really helping schools in the recruiting process zero in on the right kids, and help these coaches spend more time with their families and spend more time recruiting the right guys.

“We’re working toward solving the problems of inefficiencies in recruiting, a lot of wasted time on both ends. It helps everyone to use data.”

Sean Keeler has written for several media outlets, including FOX Sports, The Guardian, American Sports Network, and Cox Media’s Land of 10 and SEC Country verticals. You can follow him on Twitter @SeanKeeler

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Muslim women athletes changing skeptical world view

Ibtihaj Muhammad of the United States reacts during her Olympic sabre team semifinal match against Sofya Velikaya of Russia in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Khadijah Diggs’ daughter is 8 years old, but she is already training for her first triathlon. She is taking after her mother, who is the only Muslim member of the U.S. triathlon team. And when Diggs’ daughter told her she wanted a race kit that matched her mother’s, the statement nearly brought a tear to Diggs’ eyes.

Diggs became a competitive athlete later in life. The single mother of twins competed in her first triathlon in 2012 at age 43, and now aspires to winning a national championship in the Masters division.

When women can compete and remain true to their faith, global sport can have a positive impact

As she rose through the ranks of the sport and her age class, she struggled to find modest yet competition-approved activewear. That prompted her to begin sewing her own sports hijabs. Now, Diggs is among the Muslim female athletes who have partnerships with both a company that makes her hijabs, Asiya, and a company that manufactures the triathlon kits that keep her largely covered to her ankles. The latter company, Peaks Apparel, has helped her lobby triathlon’s governing bodies for rules changes giving Muslim athletes more leeway regarding clothing that reflects their needs.

It is part of a new reality for elite Muslim female athletes — one in which they’re being accepted into the mainstream.

“People’s perception of Muslim women is changing because the world is changing,” Diggs said. “They used to see us and say, ‘Oh, that poor oppressed Muslim girl.’ When I first started, people kind of talked to me like I was visiting the triathlon world. But now they know I’m coming to compete.”

Khadijah Diggs is a Muslim-American triathlon competitor. (Photo courtesy Khadijah Diggs)

At the London Olympics in 2012, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei became the last three countries to send female athletes to the Olympics. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, 14 Muslim female athletes won medals. Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first Muslim-American woman to wear a hijab in Olympic competition en route to winning a bronze medal. Muhammad has become a vocal advocate for Muslim female athletes.

“She’s taken on the role of making the space safer for other women,” Arizona State University history professor and sports historian Victoria Jackson said.

At the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the number of Muslim female athletes will likely shatter records again. Many have already altered perceptions that they merit either scorn or pity.

“Education is, obviously, a path to empowerment, but I think sport has to come right along with education,” Jackson said. “Using your body for your own pleasure is a powerful thing for women in places who have been put in a position where their bodies are controlled by others.”

There is, of course, still progress to be made, particularly in Middle Eastern countries where the overarching culture, as well as familial norms, still tend to work against female athletes who aspire to compete at an elite level. But the strides Muslim women have made are tangible, and athletes such as Diggs offer concrete proof of that progress in the outfits they wear. It’s happening in a variety of sports and often in areas where female participation was long frowned upon. Mainstream sports such as soccer and basketball tend to get the most attention, but Nida Ahmad, a researcher who has studied Muslim female athletes in action sports, points to Australian skateboarder Amar Hadid, Senegalese surfer Khadjou Samba and Indonesian sport-climber Aries Susanti Rahayu — all of whom should have the opportunity to qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo — as examples of the diversity of participation of Muslim women.

“More and more Muslim women have been creating waves and changing the perception that Muslim women are oppressed,” said retired weightlifter Amna Al Haddad, who competed for the United Arab Emirates and recently consulted with Nike on the design of hijabs and other sportswear for Muslim females. “If anything, it’s society’s perception and rules put in place that have forbidden women to compete in the past — those are the true oppressors. But I assure you, Muslim female athletes are not treated equally in relation to global athletes, nor to Middle Eastern male star athletes. The playing field is surely not equal yet.”

Biggest obstacle can be right at home

Al Haddad began training, in part, to combat the depression she battled as a 19-year-old university student. She became a full-time athlete in 2012, and that year became the first Arab woman to compete in the Reebok CrossFit Games Asia Games in Seoul, South Korea. Eventually, while training out of a home gym she crafted from a storage room in her parents’ Dubai home, she became the first competitive weightlifter from the Persian Gulf region to compete in a hijab.

Al Haddad’s mother admitted to the Washington Post that she initially found Al-Haddad’s aspirations in weightlifting “a surprise in my life.” And this level of cultural skepticism is not unusual, particularly, as Al Haddad said, for women who may be competing in sports perceived as more “masculine.”

It’s also not unusual for that opprobrium to come from unexpected sources: Diggs said she met a fellow triathlete from Egypt who mentioned her father was supportive of her competing, but her mother wasn’t. At first, Diggs said, that woman’s parents wouldn’t let her train alone at all. Even now, she mostly trains in groups.

Sarah Attar of Saudi Arabia competes in the womens 800 meters at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Attar was the first Saudi female athlete to compete in a track event at the Olympics on Aug. 8 2012 (Photo by AMA/Corbis via Getty Images)

Yet much has changed during this decade. In 2011, Muslim weightlifter Kulsoom Abdullah challenged the International Weightlifting Federation to gain the right to wear a hijab and a full-body unitard. Soon after, athletes in other sports began doing the same. At the 2016 Olympics, Egypt fielded its first beach volleyball team, and the juxtaposition of their team’s modest outfits with those of Germany, “created conversation pieces about sports, participation, attire and representation,” Ahmad said.

Another barrier fell in May of 2017 when FIBA overturned a religious headwear ban that had kept athletes from competing in basketball games on a national level. The governing body did so, in large part, thanks to the longtime efforts of athletes such as Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir and Amsa Elbadawi, some of whom helped start a social-media campaign under the hashtag #FIBAAllowHijab.

Earlier this year, as part of its broader societal reforms, Saudi Arabia allowed women to attend sporting events unaccompanied in certain stadiums, and, said Ahmad, women began “taking up leadership positions in various sporting fields,” including becoming members of various governing boards.

It remains, said Ahmad, a “broad and complex question” to determine what major issues remain for Muslim women. It depends on the country and on the culture. In a country such as Iran, Ahmad said, progress could mean opening stadiums for women the way Saudi Arabia has begun to do. In the United States, it could mean more access to sports facilities, such as swimming pools, for women who wear the hijab and to increase cultural inclusion.

Al Haddad said the “lack of investment in elite Muslim female athletes by elite global players” remains an issue. But as major corporations such as Nike turn their attention to the needs of Muslim female athletes, that could change, too.

“It goes without saying that the simple fact I worked closely with Nike to consult on the needs of the Muslim athlete is the epitome of creating a global mind-shift in how Muslim females are perceived,” said Al Haddad, whose visit to Nike headquarters in Oregon, along with visits by other Muslim women, helped spark the creation of the Nike Pro Hijab. “This is a sign of inclusion and diversity.”

Jackson said it is also a sign the acceptance of Muslim female athletes has reached a tipping point — Nike even released an ad in 2017 targeted at a Middle Eastern audience that celebrated the empowerment of Muslim female athletes.

“It’s kind of a signal that something has evolved or passed one of the boundary markers of acceptance in society is if Nike tries to capitalize on it,” Jackson said. “When anything like this happens, it’s because women worked really hard at it. These women refused to stand down, and they were able to make headway.”

Social media helping to break stigma

So what will help continue breaking down perceptions that Muslim women are different from other athletes? It may be simply through the normalization of Muslim women competing in a variety of sports for an audience to view them as competitors above all else. When Al Haddad first wore her hijab while competing, she said, “it took from my personal ambitions, fears and triumphs, determination, and pursuing the Olympics amid adversity. It became about what I wear, which is such a trivial thing to focus on. The hijab was part of my journey, not the story itself.”

Some progress has been made through social media, which is one area Ahmad has focused her research. Social media, Ahmad said, “played an important role in enabling athletes to develop relationships with local and regional brands.” It also helped those athletes bring awareness to sports such as surfing or snowboarding that otherwise might not have been popular in their home countries and to humanize those women in ways that extended far beyond faith or gender.

Indonesia’s Aries Susanti Rahayu reacts during the final of the women’s speed sport climbing event at the 2018 Asian Games in Palembang on Aug. 23, 2018. (Photo by ADEK BERRY/AFP/Getty Images)

The downside, of course, is that social media also subjected the same women to harassment and abuse, including comments about their sport making them manly or proclaiming they’ll burn in hell for their embrace of athletics.

For Diggs, competing in triathlons in the hijab has become an opportunity — a way of educating people who might still view her as an outlier or as someone to be pitied rather than someone who has embraced her empowerment. Just as importantly, as Diggs’ daughter embraces both her own athletic pursuits and her mother’s faith, she has more and more role models to look to as she forges her own career.

Diggs said her goal is to win a national championship in the triathlon. But she insists she is not just doing it for herself — and she is not even doing it for her daughter.

“Children want to see people who look like them — someone they know they can connect with, even if it’s not in that particular sport,” Diggs said. “And I want every girl out there who looks like me and sees me on the podium to tell herself, ‘I want to do that, too.’”

Michael Weinreb is a freelance writer for several outlets, and is working on a book about football as it relates to the evolution of American culture.

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Former athletes score in U.S. midterm elections

Democratic candidate for Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District Sharice Davids greets supporters during an election night party on November 6, 2018 in Olathe, Kansas. Davids defeated incumbent Republican Kevin Yoder. (Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images)

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Here is a look at Tuesday’s midterm results:

Colin AllredDemocrat, Texas, 32nd Congressional District

Following four years of college football at Baylor, Allred went on to play 32 career games in the NFL as a linebacker for the Tennessee Titans. He later went to school to become a lawyer and served in the Obama administration. Allred won the Dallas-area House seat, beating 11-term incumbent Pete Sessions by six percent.

Sharice DavidsDemocrat, Kansas, 3rd Congressional District

Davids was a mixed martial arts fighter who tried out for “The Ultimate Fighter” before making history. By winning the House seat in Kansas by nearly 10 percent, she became the first LGBTQ representative in the state and the first Native American woman in Congress (next to New Mexico’s Deb Haaland, who also won Tuesday).

Clint DidierRepublican, Washington, Franklin County Commissioner

The former NFL tight end spent six years with the Washington Redskins and two with the Green Bay Packers. He racked up 141 catches for 1,923 yards before running for U.S. Senate in 2010, commissioner of public lands in 2012 and the U.S. House in 2014 and 2016. This year his campaigning paid off as he won the race for Franklin County Commissioner in Washington’s District 3.

Anthony GonzalezRepublican, Ohio, 16th Congressional District

Gonzalez, a former Indianapolis Colts wide receiver for five seasons, was helped by the NFL community by receiving donations from Peyton Manning and Browns owner Jimmy Haslam. He had 15 touchdowns between playing for the Colts and Ohio State Buckeyes. On Tuesday he bested his opponent Susan Moran Palmer and won a seat in the House.

Adam Greenberg Republican, Connecticut, 12 District State Senator

Greenberg’s MLB career was cut short when he suffered a compound skull fracture during his first at-bat for the Chicago Cubs in 2005. He later played one major league game in 2012 with the Marlins. Greenberg, nicknamed the “hardball politician,” lost to Democrat Christine Cohen.

Napoleon HarrisDemocrat, Illinois, 15th District State Senator

Skilled in both basketball and football at Northwestern, Harris went down the NFL path after college to play seven seasons with the Raiders, Vikings and Chiefs. Running unopposed for the second time, Harris maintained his seat in the Senate.

Jim JordanRepublican, Ohio, 4th Congressional District

Jordan, the former assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State, built his athletic resume at Wisconsin. He’s a two-time NCAA Division I champion at his college and three-time All-American. Jordan held on to his Senate seat he’s had since 2007.

Aaron RouseUnaffiliated, Virginia, Virginia Beach City Council

The ex-Green Bay Packer safety played three seasons in the league after his time at Virginia Tech. Over 10 years after being drafted, Rouse won one of the two open seats for City Council.

Frank White, Jr.Democrat, Illinois, Secretary of State

From 1973 to 1990, White spent 18 seasons with the Kansas City Royals as a second baseman. He had five All-Star appearances and snagged a World Series ring in 1985. The winning didn’t stop when he stepped off the field. White won a legislature seat in 2014, named county executive in 2016 and was re-elected in 2018.

Jesse White Democrat, Mississippi, Jackson County Executive

White was the first African-American to be Illinois’ Secretary of State when he won in 1999, and Tuesday’s poll showed the 84-year-old will be continuing his long reign into the next term. White was a third baseman for the Chicago Cubs’ minor-league system from 1959 to 1966.

There were also new initiatives in sport laws that were also passed. From thousands of greyhounds now needing new homes to hunting and fishing becoming a constitutional right, there were a few changes voters made for sports on Tuesday.

Florida’s Amendment 13

Greyhound racing has been a sport in Florida for years until citizens said enough, ending the sport in the state. Needing 60 percent to become a law, Amendment 13 received more than 5.3 million votes (or 69 percent) on Tuesday. The approval means by the end of 2020, between 5,000 and 7,000 greyhounds will need new homes.

Idaho’s Proposition 1

The proposition called for authorizing bets on historical horse races, also known as instant racing. Gamblers would watch live horse races that were conducted in the past and rebroadcasted. They would participate in wagering pools. The initiative was defeated.

Missouri’s Proposition D

The Gas Tax Increase, Olympic Prize Tax Exemptions, and Traffic Reduction Fund Measure was a proposed statute on the ballot which ultimately failed. A yes vote would have allowed prizes earned for the Special Olympics, Paralympics and Olympics to be exempt from state taxes.

North Carolina Right to Hunt and Fish Amendment

The amendment stated it was a state constitutional right to hunt, fish and harvest wildlife for North Carolina residents. The 57 percent approval means the amendment was passed.


Nikole Tower is a senior journalism student at Arizona State University


Skateboarder shredding the idea of traditional public diplomacy

Neftalie Williams believe skateboarding can be used to better the world. (Photo courtesy Neftalie Williams)

When you hear the word skateboarder what image comes to mind?

Do you picture a young man from high school who barely made it to — or through — school: shaggy hair, beanie and, of course, a pair of Vans? Do you picture the youngsters your mom told you not to hang out with or you would get a bad reputation?

Neftalie Williams shatters all the stereotypes and ideas most harbor about skateboarding and skateboarders.

Williams has been in love with the sport since he first stepped on a board in Massachusetts. He loves it so much, he turned it into his life’s passion.

“When I was skateboarding there (Massachusetts), what I found out was from the moment I was on a skateboard I connected with a whole different group of people,” Williams said.

Currently a doctorate degree candidate at the University of New Zealand, Williams uses skateboarding as a tool to help change the world through Skate Diplomacy.

Skate Diplomacy

Skate Diplomacy is the idea that skateboarding can be used to give people — specifically kids — a common ground from which they can build communities and relationships.

Williams believes if you choose an activity kids are already interested in — he calls it a fun factor — you can make it a tool to teach and show them how to be a part of something bigger in the community and globe.

“This is the future,” Williams said. “We are suppose to be engaging kids through the lens they already understand and are excited about.”

Through the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, Williams had the privilege of leading the first skateboarding version of sports envoy to the Netherlands.

Neftalie Williams works with a young skateboarder. (Photo courtesy Neftalie Williams)

Sports envoys are athletes and coaches who travel overseas to lead programs that were developed by U.S. embassies and consulates,” according to the State Department’s website.

According to Williams, the State Department was observing skateboarding taking place globally and took the opportunity to use it in the sports envoy program.

In addition to being proficient in skateboarding, Williams’ background made him well-suited to show the children the importance of public diplomacy.

“I have this huge public diplomacy background. I am not just a sport envoy and only know my sport, but I also understand all the principles of public diplomacy,” Williams said.

As an envoy, Williams taught native Netherland students the importance of public diplomacy. Then, through a turn of events, he had the opportunity to work with Syrian refugees who had resettled in the Netherlands. Williams used skateboarding as a bridge between the two groups.

“(My favorite part of an envoy was) being able to help kids see themselves in a new light and see the young Syrian kids believe that they do belong (there) and by skateboarding they can belong to a global community,” Williams said.

Skate Diplomacy in the United States

While Williams has spread his message of skateboarding diplomacy globally, he is working on making it part of the American culture.

Williams wants kids from different cultures and backgrounds in the United States to see that they are all the same and they belong together.

“What I am really so excited about is taking it back to the everyday lives in the U.S.,” Williams said. “How do all these kids from different backgrounds get involved in skateboarding, like it and grow their own community and reflect and become part of the global community. That’s what we need in the U.S., particularly now.”

Williams, who is also a lecturer at the University of Southern California, teaches students in his class how to use sports such as skateboarding and grow from it. Through skateboarding there are opportunities in business, video, art and so much more, according to Williams.

“I like making sure my students recognize that the everyday things they are excited about (like) skateboarding, video or art have great repercussions and can change the world,” Williams said.

Sophia Briseno is a junior journalism student at Arizona State University

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Apnea is nothing to sleep on for football linemen – it can be deadly

Center Ryan Jensen gets ready for the snap during a preseason game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, FL. (Photo By Mike Carlson/Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

University of Central Florida offensive lineman Jordan Johnson likes to say he is undefeated since getting a good night’s sleep.

He experienced a major victory away from the field in the spring of 2017 by overcoming a sleep disorder that repeatedly dragged him down.

A refreshed Johnson then helped lead the Knights to 13-0 season: major college football’s only unbeaten program in 2017.

“I am undefeated ever since I got a CPAP,” he said of Continuous Positive Airway Pressure device. The machine uses a hose and mask, or nosepiece, to deliver constant and steady air pressure into the airways and has helped Johnson experience much-improved quality and length of sleep. “I am not sure if it is something that affected me my whole life, but I was always a loud snorer and never really had good sleep. I just thought it was normal. But after (being on the CPAP) I have noticed the difference.”

Johnson noticed that difference immediately. The fact he experienced positive results the first night he used a CPAP is the general expectation.

“That’s very consistent with what we find,” said Matthew Buman, associate professor at Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions. “A CPAP is a highly effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnea. In most cases, individuals that are having disordered breathing at night, when you give them a CPAP, which essentially will help keep their airway open at night, they almost invariably report much greater energy the next day and a greater quality of life. They feel rested in the morning.”

“The thicker the neck the greater the risk. It’s really anatomical in that the bigger the neck the smaller the airway, or the greater the weight on the airway the greater the risk of the airway shutting when they are sleeping.” - Arizona State University College of Health Solutions associate professor Matthew Buman

At 6 feet, 2 inches tall and 320 pounds, Johnson has something in common with many football players, especially bigger offensive and defensive linemen: thick necks. A neck’s circumference can play a major role when it comes to impacting the airway.

Hence, it is not unusual for football players to be affected by the sleep disorder. The most notable is Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White, who passed away the day after Christmas 2004 due to obstructive sleep apnea. Actors James Gandolfini and John Candy and actress Carrie Fisher are among notable personalities who have passed away as a result of sleep apnea.

“The thicker the neck the greater the risk,” Buman said. “It’s really anatomical in that the bigger the neck the smaller the airway, or the greater the weight on the airway the greater the risk of the airway shutting when they are sleeping.”

Jordan Johnson of Central Florida (No. 72) has been using a CPAP at night and says he is undefeated since going to it. (Photo courtesy UCF Athletics)

Ryan Jensen is a center for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The 27-year-old experienced severe sleep apnea early in his NFL career when he was a member of the Baltimore Ravens. Like many people suffering from the disorder, Jensen did not realize he had a sleep-related issue. He sought treatment at his father’s urging.

“My parents were the ones who actually recognized it first,” said Jensen, who is 6-4 and 320 pounds. “They said there was a change in my attitude and my dad said I should get checked out because it could be something that is easily treated.”

The change in attitude Jensen’s parents noticed is one of many side effects displayed by someone suffering from sleep apnea.

“Your mood is worse; you’re more irritable and more likely to be depressed if you are not getting good sleep,” said Shawn Youngstedt, professor within the Arizona State’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation.

Tests revealed Jensen was suffering from sleep apnea. The night his sleep was monitored it was revealed that at one point he went 48 seconds without taking a breath.

“I was waking up about every two minutes throughout the night,” he recalled. “I was only getting about an hour-and-a-half or two hours of sleep at night, but I was in bed for eight to 10 hours.”

As startling as it seems to go as much as 48 seconds without taking in any air, it is not unusual for such a period of time to elapse between breaths.

“I was waking up about every two minutes throughout the night. I was only getting about an hour-and-a-half or two hours of sleep at night, but I was in bed for eight to 10 hours.” - Tampa Bay Buccaneers center Ryan Jensen

“It’s really shocking to look at tests for those polysomnographic studies because you can clearly see periods of time when breathing completely ceases,” said Buman, referring to results from a person’s sleep study.

Jensen, like Johnson, immediately experienced positive results.

“Once I got on (the CPAP), everything started to feel good pretty quick,” he said. “When I did not sleep with it, I felt awful when I woke up the next day.”

The chronic sleep-related issues Johnson and Jensen experienced might beg the question why individuals do not get treated sooner. According to Buman, the average person is not aware he or she is having difficulty enjoying a good night’s sleep.

Even with the likelihood of going through the day feeling drowsy and with the desire to take a nap, affected individuals feel as though they actually had a good night’s sleep when indeed it was consistently disrupted.

“With sleep apnea, what’s happening is there are frequent interruptions in sleep which keeps individuals from getting into deeper and restorative forms of sleep,” Buman said. “Many people say that they slept through the night, but they never got any deeper type of sleep that would result in feeling well rested the next day. People with sleep apnea that go untreated rarely get those types of nights.”

Johnson can relate to that. During his freshman year, he said he was consistently falling asleep in team meetings and trying to remain alert in class. He said his coaches were among those wondering why he was always tired.

He spoke to the team’s trainers about his lack of energy. In an attempt to peel away the layers and get to the heart of the issue, Johnson was prescribed medications, including melatonin.  

“Eventually that started to make me groggy in the morning,” he said. “I was coming to practice half asleep and I just went through the motions. So, I had to make a change.”

Change was in the form of two sleep studies set up by UCF. One night, Johnson was hooked up to sensors monitoring his sleep. Test results, which he said included very low oxygen levels, led to a diagnosis of sleep apnea.

“Just because you snore doesn’t mean you have apnea, but you are more likely to have it if you snore, are waking up with a dry mouth and fatigue.” - Arizona State University College of Nursing and Health Innovation professor Shawn Youngstedt

In addition to monitoring oxygen levels, testing for sleep apnea measures various physiological parameters such as brain activity and the various stages of sleep. Also, tests detect if eyes are open and measure noise levels in the case of snoring, which can be a telltale sign of sleep apnea.

“Almost everybody who has apnea snores,” said Youngstedt. “Just because you snore doesn’t mean you have apnea, but you are more likely to have it if you snore, are waking up with a dry mouth and fatigue.”

The second night Johnson was tested he had a CPAP. The effect it had on him was pronounced.

“My sleep improved exponentially,” he said. “A couple of days (after testing), they gave me a CPAP and I use it every night.”

It can be difficult to adjust to wearing a CPAP, which fits over the ears or back of the head, or just covers the nose, mouth or both. According to Youngstedt, it can be cumbersome and even a little claustrophobic, but like most products improvements have been made over time.

“They are a lot more comfortable than they used to be,” he said. “They have become a lot more compact over the years, too, and it’s not nearly the issue it used to be.”

Jensen quickly adjusted to his CPAP.

“The first couple of nights were awkward,” he said. “But after starting with (a CPAP) I was getting a full night’s sleep and actually sleeping. After I was getting some real sleep, I noticed how much it helped.”

Johnson said his brothers laugh at him because he is sleeping with a mask, but he does not mind being the object of a little humor given how his life has changed for the better.

“I feel better and that’s all that matters,” he said. “It has helped out in academics, and I would say every area of my life. I think I am not only in the best shape of my life, but I feel the best I have ever felt. I can definitely attribute that to my CPAP.”

Jordan Johnson (Photo courtesy UCF Athletics)

Wally Williams was diagnosed with sleep apnea 15 years ago, a year after the end of his 10-season career as an offensive lineman with the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens and New Orleans Saints.

His daughter, who was very young at the time, was showing signs of a sleep disorder. Only after getting her checked out did Williams realize he might want to undergo testing himself. During his playing days (1993-2002), there was not the level of awareness with respect to sleep apnea that there is today.

“I played with and did not address (my sleep disorders) until I took my daughter to address her sleep disorder,” said Williams, who was listed at 6-2 and 305 pounds in his final season. “She was maybe 5 or 6 years old and was sleepwalking, and we were wondering what’s going on. They put her through a sleep test and while the doctor was talking about her, I was thinking that I may want to go through (the testing) myself.”

During his playing career Williams, who said he was a snorer, often woke up feeling sluggish. He took that feeling to the practice field and other areas of his life. The sluggishness persisted after retiring from the game.

“Losing weight, staying somewhat conditioned and eating well are all things that helped with my sleep, that helped with my snoring. It was a combination of things that worked for me.” - former lineman Wally Williams

The use of a mouth guard when sleeping helped Williams with his breathing and provided a much more restful night’s sleep. That was not the only thing that helped him, however. Looking out for his well being through diet and the like proved vital as well.

“Losing weight, staying somewhat conditioned and eating well are all things that helped with my sleep, that helped with my snoring,” he said. “It was a combination of things that worked for me.”

Those are among things Williams preaches as national spokesperson for DreamSleep, which is a national network of physicians and dentists working to combat sleep apnea. Dentists work with patients on custom oral appliances such as mouth guards.

Williams, who joined the company three years ago, educates current and retired players about the dangers of sleep apnea and what can be done to treat the disorder. He said it is something that too often gets overlooked especially when compared to ailments that are more commonly associated with football.

“There are so many things that players worry about in their post-career situations,” he said. “You talk about torn ACLs, arthritis and all these injuries that guys have. Now you address this other silent killer that a lot of guys don’t want to deal with. We go out of our way to present it, how to address it and understand the ramifications if you don’t address it.”

Tom Layberger has spent more than 25 years as a writer, editor and web producer for various media outlets. Tom, who resides in Tampa, is a graduate of the University of South Florida. Follow him on Twitter @TomLay810

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Maryland student government calls for resignation of Board of Regents chair

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Tennis prodigy Cori Gauff, 14, signs multi-year sponsorship contract

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Simone Biles battles kidney stone yet wins fourth all-around world gymnastics title

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Compiled by the student journalists in the Sports Knowledge Lab at Arizona State University

If player deaths aren’t enough, what will change coaching culture?

Maryland head coach DJ Durkin looks on during spring football practice. Durkin was fired on Oct. 31 by the university, one day after being reinstated following an investigation into the Terps program after the death of lineman Jordan McNair. (Photo by Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Some tipping points are more personal than others, which is why Ramogi Huma can’t get this one out of his head, 20 years after the fact. No matter how hard he’s tried.

During Huma’s days as a UCLA linebacker, he looked over during one game and saw a teammate spilling his guts all over the Bruins’ sideline. Only in this case, because of a hernia, the spilling was extremely literal, and — by all indications — painful.

The catch? His coaches were having none of it.

“The guy’s guts were kind of spilling out of his stomach muscles,” Huma recalled. “And they just wrapped a metal plate around his stomach to get his intestines in.

“A lot of trainers and coaches, they work in tandem, sometimes. They really try to avoid giving some diagnosis, sometimes, running tests, for fear that a player might be out.”

It wasn’t the first time Huma, who appeared in two dozen games for the Bruins in the late 1990s, had seen a coach try to push their mandate — and their thirst for victory — a bridge too far. Yet it became one of those back-of-mind snapshots, filed away, that left a mark. A personal data point Huma could refer to in his current role as executive director of the National College Players Association (NCPA) and as advocate for the rights of student-athletes.

“Oftentimes, it happens over injuries, when a player can’t perform for a little while,” Huma said. “Over time, they just get treated like crap for the purposes of bringing them back early. Or running them off. A coach should never have a say over medical decisions. Ever.”

Win at all costs – even death

Huma figured the tipping point might be the death of Devaughn Darling at Florida State. Or the death of Eraste Austin at Florida. Or Rashidi Wheeler at Northwestern, one of three football players to die in 2001 because of an offseason workout. Nearly a generation later, preseason training took the lives of Jordan McNair, an offensive lineman at Maryland, this past June; and Darius Minor, a defensive back at Maine, in July.

If you want to know why Huma thinks the coaching culture in colleges jumped the shark a long time ago, start there.

“I speak to a lot of parents, try to figure out how to navigate situations,” Huma said. “A lot of people don’t know if this is normal, this abuse — should we be putting up with it? It’s been handed down a long time. There are some elements that go around with football as a combat sport that challenge you to play through pain. But is it a serious injury, or is it a jammed finger? Is it a tweaked ankle or a broken ankle?

“Oftentimes, it happens over injuries, when a player can’t perform for a little while. Over time, they just get treated like crap for the purposes of bringing them back early. Or running them off. A coach should never have a say over medical decisions. Ever.” - Executive director of the National College Players Association Ramogi Huma

“In my opinion, it’s been handed down. It’s always been that way. But that’s never been an excuse not to correct its problems … If you’re raising your voice and yelling but you’re not demeaning the player and yelling at the player, maybe that’s ‘tough’ coaching. But I think it’s all been blurred. Football is such a combat sport, nobody wondered if there should be boundaries.”

Or, for that matter, accountability. According to February 2017 piece written by Oklahoma trainer Scott Anderson in the Journal of Athletic Training, 33 NCAA football players died from 2000-2016 — an average of two per season — with 27 of those fatalities (82 percent) linked to non-traumatic causes such as spring and summer workouts.

In other words, the causes could’ve been mitigated or avoided. Causes that have almost nothing to do with the combat inherent to the sport.

“But you’re talking about coaches, whether they’re paid $50,000 or $500,000 or $5 million, those are really important careers to those coaches,” Huma said. “And many of them get blinded by that, to where they’re not coaching right, they start abusing players. And I’ve seen it at all levels. At universities, their instinct is to cover things up. They’d rather push a player out than try to correct an abusive coach’s behavior. They think it admits liability; it admits the school’s been in the wrong.”

Student-athletes have scholarships. Coaches have contracts. And lawyers. And, in many cases, brand equity, political capital accumulated by giving the community what it wants — a winner to brag about.

“Head coaches of football, and to a lesser degree, men’s basketball, have held too much power — culturally, economically, politically — since at least the postwar era when commercialized amateur big-time sport on college campuses begins its acceleration, which has not slowed since,” noted Arizona State professor Victoria Jackson, a sports historian and history lecturer who ran cross country and track at North Carolina and for the Sun Devils.

“Ultimately, it comes down to individuals, but at the same time, the culture of intercollegiate athletics contributes,” she said. “What I mean by this is that too often athletic departments are spaces in which you ‘bleed Carolina blue,’ and people are afraid that any sort of negative publicity will harm teams’ efforts to win, as well as the bottom line. I get this as a former champion collegiate athlete — you have to buy in, 100 percent, to excel at the highest level. You have to believe 100 percent in your coach and the program. Athletes are trained to ignore distractions, overcome obstacles, deal with pain in order to achieve the seemingly noble achievement of winning at all costs.

“Built into the ideology of ‘amateurism’ is this belief that young people need protection and guidance, and that it’s the coach who provides that. It’s incredibly paternalistic, and also provides cover for coaches, and others working in athletics — like the sports performance trainer at Maryland or Larry Nassar at Michigan State — who abuse their power.

Head coach Dabo Swinney of the Clemson Tigers yells to his team during a game in 2017. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

“What troubles me as an educator, is that we — higher education — are in the business of critical thinking, and we have this one space on university campuses that eschews it. And is permitted to, in most cases. People are afraid to say anything negative because it might hurt the brand in the short term.”

Athletic directors get graded on the flow of capital, the facilities arms race, compliance and the success of hires. Nothing fills an offering plate quite like winning, especially winning in major-revenue sports: ESPN researcher Charlotte Gibson reported earlier this year the highest-paid public employee in 39 states is either a college football or college basketball coach.

“I can’t think of any other academic or professional occupation that has as much influence (as a college coach),” said Arizona State professor Eric Legg, whose research interests include positive youth development in youth sports, coaching education and transformational leadership. “Perhaps a charismatic CEO, such as (Facebook’s) Mark Zuckerberg. But the combination of finance and emotional attachment is difficult to replicate in another profession.”

It’s simple math: Coaches win, fans are happy. Happy fans donate more. Happy fans spend more. Happy fans show up more. Happy fans rally around a coach. Happy fans invest hearts, minds and wallets toward him or her. When the waters get choppy, happy fans are more willing to look the other way.

“The second reason is more difficult to quantify, but, in my view, equally powerful, and that is the nature of fandom,” Legg said. “Fandom can be an enormously powerful emotional experience that can have positive benefits, such as building a sense of community with other fans, social capital and simple joy.

“But it can also lead to negative outcomes, an ‘Us Versus Them’ mentality that extends beyond the game, anger ignoring negatives. Too many times, fans ignore anything negative about a team they identify with — perhaps over-identify with.”

How much control is too much?

Dave Ridpath figured the tipping point might be Woody Hayes punching Charlie Bauman. Or Bob Knight choking Neil Reed. Or Dave Bliss and what was left of his conscience following the men’s basketball scandal at Baylor that occured during his tenure. But last month, he watched Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer turn a domestic crisis — longtime protégé and former Buckeyes assistant Zach Smith was accused of abusing his ex-wife Courtney Smith — into a public-relations one, the hole becoming deeper with each layer of hubris.

“I always say coaches think they’re the smartest people in the world. They say, ‘Well, I’ve had kids who practiced in the heat (before) and nothing happened.’” said Ridpath, a professor at Ohio University and president of The Drake Group, an advocacy organization dedicated to preserving academic integrity in collegiate sports.

“We’re just seeing an explosion of that, where the coaches are almost god-like on these campuses, where they have an unhealthy amount of control and they’re focused on one thing — winning and losing. And the other stuff is just distraction, collateral damage. As long as they’re winning, we seem to accept it.”

"... the coaches are almost god-like on these campuses, where they have an unhealthy amount of control and they’re focused on one thing — winning and losing. And the other stuff is just distraction, collateral damage. As long as they’re winning, we seem to accept it.” - The Drake Group president David Ridpath

In November 2016, The Drake Group offered seven recommendations for establishing a universal ethical code of conduct for coaches, including specifically defined unacceptable behaviors for abuse and discrimination, a process for receiving athlete complaints, designation of all athletic department employees as mandatory reporters and protection for whistleblowers.

“Even if we run (college sports) the way The Drake Group explained, people are still going to show up and watch,” Ridpath said.

“People are still going to show up and watch Ohio State and Michigan. People are still going to show up to watch the game. And we’re trying to have it both ways, and it’s just not working anymore. There’s so much money and too much power, and it’s putting too much stress on the educational system.”

It’s cynical math: The more some coaches win, the more invulnerable they feel, at least in the court of public opinion. Self-preservation kicks in. Protect the brand. Protect the legacy. Protect the family. Protect the other guys or gals in the bunker. Above all, protect your backside.

Head Coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide yells during a timeout during a September 2018 game against Texas A&M. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

“It’s the old saying: Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Jim Thompson, the founder and CEO of the Positive Coaching Alliance, which launched in 1998 to promote and cultivate positive character development — “Better Athletes, Better People,” their slogan reads — in youth sports.

“You ask why people coach, say, football. And one, is that they love the game. And second, they might really see potential to develop better people through the sport. And they’re in a position of influence, and we all kind of adhere to our own narrative. We all want to be important, we all want to be respected. And also, I think, for many people, (having) power over another person feels good … they jump when I tell them, that feels good at a neurological level. I think, when you are successful as a coach, you gain more power and more ability to do things your way.”

Few have been more successful at the Power 5 level than Meyer, a national championship winner with Florida and Ohio State who has banked political capital — with Buckeyes fans, with boosters, with his recruiting pipelines, and with national media outlets such as ESPN, for whom he worked as an analyst — the way Scrooge McDuck piled gold coins.

In the preseason, he found himself testing that capital, stepping on rake after rake as the truth became less convenient, less spinnable and less in his control. At Big Ten Media Days, Meyer denied knowledge of any allegations against Zach Smith, denials disproven by subsequent media reports. A university-imposed three-game suspension looked to non-Buckeye faithful like a relative slap on the wrist, a gambit worsened by the fact Meyer’s initial public apology made no mention of the alleged victim whatsoever. The subsequent backlash from that slip required another mea culpa from Meyer, this one offered directly to Courtney Smith.

“Afterward, that’s where it really turned into a disaster,” Ridpath said. “At first, I thought it was a good move for him to go on a suspension while this would shake out. And I do think, under the circumstances, regardless of what people think, it was the right move to suspend people at first.

“Public Relations 101: Never let a one-day story become a two-day story. Well, it went on another two months.

“If he would’ve come out and said, ‘Hey, I screwed up, I was trying to protect a friend, someone who was like a family member.’ … saying he did not know, that stuff stretched his limits of credibility.”

Coaching culture function of individual and environment

Julie Rousseau, the former coach of the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks and of the women’s basketball program at Pepperdine who is working on her dissertation at Arizona State about coaching stress, said her research shows stress to be a potential source of a coach’s questionable judgment, defensive behavior and temperament — the moods and measures that border on the Napoleonic.

“In terms of how stress affects people’s behavior is that it affects your thoughts, your decision-making,” she noted. “You don’t have the clarity you should have when you’re under an enormous amount of stress.

“I’m not trying to bypass that there are some poor decisions that have been made, no doubt about it. But I do think that when you are inundated with so much on your plate, you’re not making the best decisions, let’s say that.”

Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer was suspended at the start of the 2018 season after school investigators determined he mishandled domestic violence allegations against an assistant coach. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Jackson suggested cracks in today’s coaching culture could be paved over, in part, by the building of bridges that link academics and athletics — using common ground as a gateway to start the climb toward a higher one.

“Athletics cannot exist in a bubble, and faculty need to step up and become involved in what’s going on at their campuses,” Jackson said. “The vast majority of people who work in athletics are good people, but it’s the broader structures that contribute to creating a separate culture and space on campus.

“If you have a student-athlete in your class, ask them how they’re doing. Go to games and bring your kids, if you have them. Reach out to a coach and invite them out for coffee or a beer to talk best practices — coaches are teachers and want to talk shop. Invite administrators to your class, or offer to give a talk with students, coaches and administration. Volunteer to work on special projects. Show up to things and demonstrate you care about their athletes, too. This is one way to start to chip away at the walls constructed around athletics and to better serve our students who are athletes.”

“Public Relations 101: Never let a one-day story become a two-day story. - The Drake Group presidens David Ridpath

Rousseau found that coaching culture, and the pitfalls that can stem from unchecked power, were as much about the environment as they were the individual. Some of the responsibility falls a rung or two higher in the campus infrastructure.

“At Ohio State and Maryland, I don’t know all that they were under, but I do think that coaches are under such an enormous amount of stress that we do need to pay attention to, because the results are poor decision-making,” she said.

“Maryland, how much of a tragedy is that? (McNair) lost his life — that’s the ultimate tragedy.

“I don’t think any coach is going to say, ‘Feel sorry for me.’ But I think some coaches are going to say, ‘Yes, I am stressed,’ and it’s something that we don’t talk about because it’s a sign of ‘weakness’ in this culture.”

Of course, those sympathies only extend so far. Last fall, almost two dozen Football Bowl Subdivision coaches reportedly earned at least $4 million, and every one of the 121 FBS jobs listed in the USAToday.com database took home an annual salary of at least $376,000.

“This is what I say to that,” Rousseau countered. “If I’m in a marriage, I know what I signed up for. My spouse says, ‘I’m taking care of the bills,’ but not one time have you shown that ‘I love you’ and ‘I care for you.’ There’s a big difference between, ‘Well, we’re making enough money.’ That doesn’t show that, ‘Yes, I care.’ Because (the partner)wants something for that, too.

“Money is good. What I’m saying is that it has to extend itself beyond that. If I’m investing all this money into a coach and everything, wouldn’t I want to give them the support they say they need in order to make good on my investment? So money is the only measure of showing that I care about you?

“I’m not saying, ‘Let it be a kumbayah type of thing.’ But I am saying there needs to be more emphasis put on the fact they’re a human being.”

Nice guys can finish first

Thompson figured the tipping point was Steve Kerr, a classic “nice” guy who was able to win big as a “players coach.” Or Brad Stevens, who raised the discourse to match the stakes.

“Two years in a row, he took his (Butler) team to the (NCAA men’s basketball) championship game, and the second time he did that was against UConn, and UConn had way more talent than Butler did,” Thompson said of Stevens, the men’s basketball coach of the Bulldogs from 2007-13 and currently the coach of the Boston Celtics. “They came out of the locker room and played the worst half of basketball that they could play and ended up losing and afterward, he was asked how it felt to lose a game on national TV with a million or so people watching.

“He said, ‘Well, if anybody had to lose a game the way we did, I’m glad it was us, because my players have the character to deal with it.’ I don’t think anybody who knows Brad Stevens doesn’t think he wants to win — he’s an incredible competitor. Instead of throwing his players under the bus, he elevated them. He said, ‘My players have the character to handle a loss like this.’ Wow. If Brad Stevens does it, another coach can emulate that and try to do it as well. That’s really what the Positive Coaching Alliance is about: To help youth and high school coaches to be themselves. Their best selves.”

Head Coach Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors and Head Coach Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers talk during the game between the two teams on December 25, 2017. Both Kerr and Lue have taken leaves to deal with health issues in the past few years. (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)

Thompson is a football guy and a glass-half-full guy, but he also admits the headlines of recent weeks haven’t helped. When McNair’s tragic death drew the curtains back in College Park, Maryland, the cobwebs backstage were anything but flattering. After an ESPN report late in the summer detailed a toxic and abusive atmosphere at the core of Maryland football, strength and conditioning coach Rick Court left the program and coach DJ Durkin, where the buck ultimately stopped, was placed on administrative leave.

“There’s only so many things you can control,” Thompson said. “Football coaches, as a species, generally, want to control everything that they can control. And I think there are other examples of that, where people that are wired to just do what they’re told. But when the person who told them what to do is gone, sometimes they’re stymied, as opposed to when you share that power.”

And not every successful coach is committed to peeling paint off the walls in order to impose his or her will. Nebraska football coach Scott Frost was born into a coaching family and played under or coached under a range of temperaments during his professional development — from the acerbic volcano of Bill Parcells to the calm, Midwest stoicism of Tom Osborne. As a coach with the Cornhuskers and at Central Florida, he has made a conscious effort to take more of his behavioral cues from the latter.

“We’re not going to yell and scream at kids; we’re not going to cuss at kids,” Frost told reporters this past spring. “I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. And I also don’t want to make kids afraid to make a great play. If someone misses a tackle or drops a ball, they don’t need to be yelled at; they need to be taught the right way to do it so it doesn’t happen again. Once you take away that fear of what might happen if you make a bad play, it really frees you up to go make great plays. I want our team to always play with a desire to excel and no fear of failure.”

For many coaches, fear becomes weaponized in order to make sure failures wind up minimized. Old habits are a beast to break, but Thomas and the PCA have been working at a grassroots level to get more coaches to follow the path of Stevens, Kerr or Frost.

“Football coaches, as a species, generally, want to control everything that they can control." - Positive Coaching Alliance founder and CEO Jim Thompson

“It’s OK to make mistakes,” Thomas said. “That’s one of the biggest lessons we share with youth coaches is to develop a mistake ritual. Go out there and be as aggressive as you can. And if you make a mistake, flush it. Because you’re going to make mistakes. People make mistakes when they’re playing golf, and there’s no one trying to knock them down when they’re taking their shots. The question is, do you have the robust feeling for yourself where, ‘I can bounce back from that and I’ve got a desperate need to succeed,’ and, ‘I’m going to learn from this and keep going?’”

Political columnist George Will once famously blasted football by noting how the sport manages to seamlessly marry violence and committee meetings, two of the more unsavory aspects of American life. Even more than it celebrates aggression, Thompson said, the strategic, stop-start nature of the game caters to another set of aspects: militaristic precision, control and micro-management.

“It’s a structured game,” Thomas said. “Soccer, for example, or basketball, you can run plays, but it’s much more free-flowing and you don’t have a situation where you can step back after every play and huddle up and figure out what you’re going to do next. So it’s kind of set up structurally to cause people to want to control more things — that armchair theorizing. It’s a different sport, it’s much more structured, and the coaches have many more opportunities to intervene.”

Sometimes for the better. Sometimes not. As a teenage quarterback at West Fargo (North Dakota) High School, Thompson recalled, “(my)coaches might have sent in a play one or two times per game, if that. My responsibility was to call plays. What’s the down, how much time’s left, what’s the score, where is the defense and then call a play.

“Now when you think about the quarterbacks in the NFL, they’re so much more talented and knowledgeable than I was in high school. But they rarely get to call a play.

“Youth sports is not professional sports and the goals is not just to win the game. High school and youth sports, the goal is to use sports to develop better athletes and better people. And I think giving quarterbacks the opportunity to call plays, for example, is part of that development experience.”

Rousseau has a suggestion that kills two birds — giving student-athletes more of the reins to learn from their decisions and mistakes while easing the public pounding coaches feel to be universally accountable — with the same stone: Change the channel. Give the CEOs of college programs a little more time, a little more space to switch off, to find some balance in a profession that so seldom allows it.

“There are so many coaches who have been in the industry a long time, who have very good coping strategies,” Rousseau said. “I’ve used the term, ‘Change the Channel.’ If we just learn to change the channel every now and then, not always think about our work — where we have different interests and so forth.

“Again, (it helps to have an AD) that says, ‘Hey, we understand the stress and amount of pressure that you’re under, we’re going to do our best to mitigate some of that.’ I think it’s systemic — everyone that’s involved in that environment has a responsibility to create a more healthy environment that promotes well-being.”

“I think there’s a point where we have to knock everything over,” Huma said. “It’s not naturally happening. There’s no tipping point for the NCAA as an organization, which leaves the conferences and the schools.

“The schools have a conflict of interest, so they’re not going to get reeled in. The conference commissioner is hired by the schools. The commissioner, if he pushed back, he’s going to be fired by the schools.

“I think it’s just a matter of time. It’s not going to tip over naturally. You have to tip that thing over.”

Sean Keeler has written for several media outlets, including FOX Sports, The Guardian, American Sports Network, and Cox Media’s Land of 10 and SEC Country verticals. You can follow him on Twitter @SeanKeeler

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Beyond the reservation: NABI focuses on basketball, education

The NABI Foundation is about basketball but also furthering education. The Navajo Nation Elite smothered Yakama Nation in the Girls Division I Final in the foundation’s tournament at Talking Stick Resort Arena. (Photo by Nate Fain/Cronkite News)

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, GlobalSport Matters will showcase the Native American athletic experience.

As Samantha Quigley tears down another rebound, she sees more than a basketball. In her hands is something beyond an object that she can dribble around defenders and put through a hoop with ease.

It’s a ticket to a better life.

“Basketball is like the only key to go a long way if you’re a native,” said Quigley, the starting forward for the Navajo Nation Elite. “Basketball taught me a lot and it can help me get off the reservation.”

She’s one of the hundreds of Native American youth who played in this year’s Native American Basketball Invitational (NABI).

Founded in 2003, the NABI Foundation invites teams from all over the country to compete in the five-day event. The program provides players with more than a few games of basketball. Throughout the week, seminars are scheduled to offer lessons in the importance of healthy living and higher education.

Finding a Cause

Mark West’s playing days were over. It was 2002, and the NBA journeyman was focusing on life after basketball.

One day, friend Scott Podleski told West he needed to take a trip to watch the finals of the state championship to see something special: one of basketball’s best kept secrets. West entered the gym and was amazed at what he saw: an electrifying, speed-of-light rendition of the game played by Native Americans, known as “rez rall.”

“I had no idea Native American basketball was so big in Arizona,” said West, who is originally from Virginia. “It was amazing. We have all these very good basketball players who weren’t represented in Division I, II or III.”

West, 57, still had still had a strong relationship with the team he played eight of his 17 seasons with, the Phoenix Suns, where he serves as vice president of player relations. He and Podleski leveraged that relationship to launch the NABI Foundation, which the Phoenix Suns and Mercury both sponsor. The tournament finals are even played at Talking Stick Resort Arena.

On July 14, the Navajo Nation Elite won the girls Division I championship. Quigley, 17, was named Most Valuable Player.

The Savage Storm, from Florida, beat the team CMD from Fort McDowell in the final of the Division I boys championship.

A better purpose

But West and the other founders always envisioned that NABI would be about more than basketball.

Since the tournament’s conception, NABI has offered more that $250,000 in scholarship opportunities to native basketball players.

Education data is difficult to collect on sovereign tribal lands but a 2017 study by the Postsecondary National Policy Institute, a nonprofit funded by Bill and Melinda Gates, found that just 10 percent of Native Americans attain a bachelor’s degree. significantly below the national average. And according to the U.S. Census, more than a quarter of Native Americans live in poverty.

“When we first went to tribes and asked them what they thought about a national basketball tournament, some of them said, ‘Yeah, and maybe we could finally get a player in the NBA.’ That may be the ultimate goal,” West said. “But the main dream is we want them to get an education.”

During the week of the tournament, participants attend a college and career fair and education summits, one of which is led by three-time NBA champion A.C. Green.

Living the dream

Brad Greene helped put on Junior NABI, which is a part of the program that focuses on preparing middle-schoolers for high school. Greene, 20, now plays basketball at the University of California Irvine. He credits NABI for helping him experience life beyond the reservation.

The 6-foot-10 mountain of a man, from the mountains of Lone Pine, California, grew up loving baseball. But as he grew, Greene realized that basketball was his best chance of getting out of the small town of 2,000 people.

“When I started basketball it was a big change,” Greene said. “I had to learn things quickly to catch up. Playing in tournaments like NABI helped me with that and helped me earn an opportunity to play college ball.”

Basketball opened up a world that a kid from the Paiute-Shoshone reservation never felt possible.

“Sports are the reason I’m in college,” Greene said. “I wouldn’t have been able to pay for a four-year university without my basketball scholarship. Being able to express myself through sports has helped me a lot.”

Located in Southern California, UC Irvine has more than 25,000 students and is regarded by U.S. News and The New York Times as a top public university in the United States.

Last year, Greene took a trip with his team to South Korea.

And although he’s helping kids polish their skills for the next level, his experiences have taught him that there’s more to life than making the high school team.

“So for a lot of native youth, not a lot end up going to college. Graduating high school is a challenge,” Greene said. “We just want to make sure we have the education to progress as a people and just develop ourselves and help those around them.”

Building bridges

Like Greene, players come from all over the country to go up against the best competition. But it’s also the education, scholarships and friendships that help attract such a big field.

Steve Craft brought a team in all the way from Alaska.

“This in my 10th year. I like the program,” Craft said. “It gives a good experience for the boys to come down here for Alaska. … We have a boy on our team who’s in the continental United States for the first time.”

Craft, who paced the sideline at Ak-Chin Indian Community Recreation Center in a pair of flip flops that he finally had a chance to wear, coached the Alaskan boys to an NABI championship in 2013. Back home, a gym is really the only place his players can compete, and because they are all spread out across the giant state, they have to travel great distances just to practice together. Finding a team to scrimmage is even more difficult. NABI gives the boys the competition they crave.

“We only get to play in a few tournaments a year,” Craft said. “Our team played in Hawaii, in a really competitive island tournament, but NABI is the only other tournament that’s close to it.”

Alaska’s first matchup at NABI 2018 was against the AZ Warriors, one of the Valley’s best team. Both regularly participate in the tournament, and over the years, despite being separated by more than 3,000 miles, have forged a bond.

“There’s a lot of good blood between teams out here,” Robertson said. “That’s what I appreciate most about NABI. It brings all these teams together. This is the only time we get to see a team from Alaska and other states, so it’s good to build a good relationship with them.”

After NABI, the two teams are going to California for a basketball camp.

A better future

Johnston’s AZ Warriors, an interurban native team, have won NABI twice. Many of his past players have also turned out to be accomplished students. Last year, six former AZ Warriors played college basketball at four-year universities.

“I think it says a lot about our program that we can help these kids figure what they want to do and help them decide what school to go to,” Johnston said.

Quigley also wants to parlay her basketball skills into an education. She still has one more year of high school and one more year of NABI, but her goal is to play California State University, Long Beach.

And find that ticket to a better life.

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ICYMI: Guilty verdict in recruiting case, a new betting lounge and feeding the homeless after the World Series

We all experience that feeling that the week can sometimes get away from you. News happens so quickly that it might feel like you don’t have a chance to know what is going on in the world. Each week, GlobalSport Matters will compile some of the best of the other stories in the sporting news.  These stories will include new breakthroughs in sport science, information about changing technology and just good reads about the global sporting community. Have a story you’d like us to know about and share? Let us know.

Guilty verdicts in NCAA pay-for-play trial

In the NCAA pay for play trial that has effected major blue blood college basketball programs, the jury found Adidas employee James Gatto, former Adidas consultant Merl Code, and Christian Dawkins, a former runner for an NBA agent, guilty.

After Game 2 of World Series, Red Sox Mookie Betts fed homeless

Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts celebrated Boston’s 4-2 World Series Game 2 victory against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday by giving back.  After the game ended, Betts was spotted providing hot meals to some of Boston’s homeless community gathered outside the Boston Public Library.

New Jersey Devils to open betting lounge in arena

The New Jersey Devils are the first professional sports organization in America to include a betting lounge in their arena. The hockey team will have a lounge with about 20-30 tv’s where avid sports gamblers can watch games, and talk betting in a market that has just legalized sports betting and is looking for its first breakthrough. If this goes well, look to see many teams in the near future looking at the NJ devils business model.

Defense beware: Playing the Chiefs can be exhausting

The Athletic looks at the innovative offense that the Kansas City Chiefs run. The last time Chris Harris Jr. played against the Chiefs, he ran over 14 miles throughout the course of the game. NFL players have wearable technologies and data chips in their pads that track a lot of useful real-time data, and this is something that will continue to innovate and mold how players rest and prep for their next game. Harris Jr. is definitely using the data from his last contest vs the Chiefs to prepare his body and mind for this weeks matchup.

Compiled by the student journalists in the Sports Knowledge Lab at Arizona State University