Leagues taking steps to further protect fans from foul balls

Philadelphia Phillies, protective netting, MLB
A sign warning fans of the danger of flying objects is posted behind home plate at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Spending an afternoon at the ballpark comes with a warning printed on the back of the ticket. Whether they realize it or not, fans assume the risk of being hit by a foul ball or errant shard from a broken bat during the game. When balls enter the stands, fans clamor to collect a souvenir, but some foul balls, especially line drives, prove hard to handle and dangerous to fans.

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Whether a foul ball or stray drive, sports fans around the world are at risk of serious injury every time they enter a stadium, arena or course. Teams and leagues are now taking steps to keep fans safer.

Two young fans have suffered serious injuries this season after being struck by hard-hit foul balls. The first was a 2-year-old girl attending the Chicago Cubs at Houston Astros game May 29, and the other was a young girl attending the Colorado Rockies at Los Angeles Dodgers game June 24. Both were hospitalized with serious head injuries.

These injuries have re-invigorated the debate about protective netting at baseball stadiums.

“One more fan having a severe injury or, in a really unfortunate situation, a death is something that is unacceptable,” Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Rich Hill told the Los Angeles Times. “You come to the ballpark for a reprieve and to take a break from the hectic schedule of life to enjoy watching us go out there and play. And you want to feel comfortable and safe.”

According a 2014 study by Bloomberg, an average of approximately 1,750 fans are hit by foul balls each year.

Plans to extend protective netting

MLB mandates teams have protective netting that extends to the end of the dugout. A few teams, including the Dodgers, are planning to extend protective netting beyond the dugout by the end of this season. 

The Washington Nationals announced June 20 they will install netting to the right and left field corners during the All-Star break. Managing Principal Owner and Vice Chairman Mark Lerner said the club is expanding the netting as a preemptive measure to improve fan safety.

Washington Nationals, netting
The protective netting at Nationals Park will extend almost corner to corner. (Courtesy Washington Nationals via Twitter)

The debate from both sides

Not all fans are on board with these changes though. Fans, especially season ticket holders, are afraid netting will obstruct their view of the field. They’re also worried nets will prevent them from catching foul balls.

“We sit here (down the third-base line) because of no netting,” Cubs fan Timothy Derby told the Chicago Tribune. “I understand behind home plate, but to have it extend to the foul pole is kind of like an obstruction. It’s not baseball.”

Players are generally in favor of increased netting.

The debate about protective netting is not new. In 2017, a young fan was hit in the head by a foul ball off the bat of Todd Frazier at Yankee Stadium. That incident led to the league-wide mandate in 2018 extending all netting to the end of the dugout. Beyond the league minimum, the decision on netting is left to each team.

Protective netting in Japanese baseball

Professional baseball teams in Japan have taken a different approach. According to a Forbes article, the Tokyo Dome has had protective netting from foul pole to foul pole since it opened in 1988. Additionally, they have extensive signage warning fans of the dangers of foul balls, ushers have whistles they blow when a ball leaves the field of play and the ushers check on fans after each foul ball that enters the stands.

To satisfy thrill-seeking fans, the stadium offers something called “excite seats.” Seats in front of the netting that give fans an unobstructed view of the action. But safety is still paramount. The seats come with a helmet and glove for each fan.

Baseball isn’t the only sport in which fans can be injured by objects leaving the field of play though. Hockey, cricket and golf face similar issues.


Not long ago, there was no netting at hockey arenas. If a puck cleared the boards, it hurled toward fans at speeds up to 100 miles per hour.

In 2002, 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil died from injuries she suffered after being hit in the head by a puck at a Columbus Blue Jackets game. The NHL was quick to act. By the end of the season, it mandated every team install 18-foot-high nets in the corners and ends of the ice. The nets haven’t eliminate fan injuries, but Cecil’s death remains the only one in NHL history.


Cricket grounds do not have protective netting for spectators. While some space exists between the field and the stands, no barrier separates fans from incoming balls. In Australia, preventive measures include verbal and visual warnings.

Cricket, warning sign, fan safety
Spectators at the Derbyshire v Yorkshire match at Queens Park, Chesterfield are reminded of the dangers of watching cricket (Photo by Neal Simpson – EMPICS/PA Images via Getty Images)

“At all our matches, we continually warn fans of this hazard through PA reads with accompanying vision screen graphics as well as targeting bays likely to be affected during warmup drills,” a Cricket Australia (CA) spokesman told the Sydney Morning Herald. “We provide education of certain shots over the PA system and vision screen, particularly with a free hit, with the sounding of the siren, and then utilise the siren when a free hit occurs. Finally, all of our event staff are briefed of this risk at prematch briefings to appropriately assist fans at the ground.”

In cricket, promotions are tied to catching sixes — balls hit outside the field of play. According to the BBC, New Zealand Cricket and “a brewery sponsor are offering $50,000 to any fan who catches a six one-handed while wearing a promotional T-shirt.” While some have called for protective netting at cricket grounds, the movement has not gained much traction.


Golf courses do not have protective netting either. Any netting along the course would prevent players from playing the ball where it lands. Ushers and a thin piece of rope are all that separate fans from the action.

Fans have been hit in the head by balls during competition, but few strikes have resulted in serious injuries. Most recently, a woman was hit in the eye by a golf ball at the 2018 Ryder Cup.

Golf is unlikely to add protective barriers between fans and the course. Rather, the sport will continue to rely on players yelling ‘fore’ and vigilant ushers to warn of incoming balls.

Legal issues

After an injury, fans can face difficulty trying to recover financially. Teams across the world are protected from injury lawsuits by a waiver usually printed on the back of the ticket. Fans assume all risk for any injury they may incur once they enter a stadium or arena.

This precedent dates to 1913 and the “Baseball Rule.” In Crane v. Kansas City Baseball & Exhibition Co., S.J. Crane was injured by a foul ball at a Kansas City Blues game. The court granted summary judgment in favor of the team for three reasons. One, foul balls are fundamentally part of baseball. Two, being struck by a foul ball is a well-known risk of attending a baseball game. And, finally, Crane voluntarily chose to sit in unprotected seats. 

According to the Boston Globe, the “Baseball Rule states that stadium owners and operators are not responsible for injuries sustained by foul balls or pieces of shattered bats, so long as netted or screened seats are in place for a reasonable number of spectators. The onus is on the fans to be alert during the game.”

The ruling is still upheld today, so owners and teams cannot be held liable for fan injuries during a game. Legal suits rarely result in monetary gains for those who are injured. While the 100-year-old legal doctrine has come under increasing criticism, fans must remain vigilant and rely on safety measures each team has in place. 

Sarah Farrell is a graduate student studying sports journalism at Arizona State University

Editor’s note: For the coming 2019-2020 academic year, the Global Sport Institute’s research theme will be “Sport and the body.” The Institute will conduct and fund research and host events that will explore a myriad of topics related to the body.

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Puerto Rican players pushing MLB to retire Clemente’s number

Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh Pirates
Roberto Clemente of the Pittsburgh Pirates was killed in a plane crash while attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to Nicaragua after an earthquake. (Photo courtesy Getty Images)

There’s a growing movement among current and former Puerto Rican-born Major League Baseball players to retire the No. 21 throughout the sport. The digits were once worn by the late Roberto Clemente.

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Major League Baseball retired Jackie Robinson’s number to honor him breaking the color barrier. Now Puerto Rican players are calling on the sport to retire Roberto Clemente’s number in honor of his death on a humanitarian mission.

Clemente was killed when his overloaded and ill-equipped cargo plane plunged into the waters off the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico, as he was taking supplies to earthquake-ravaged Nicaragua on Dec. 31, 1972. He was 38 years old.

Clemente, a right-handed hitter with tremendous skills as a right fielder, had smacked his 3,000th hit in his final at bat on the final day of the 1972 regular season.

In 1971, the Pirates won the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds, and Clemente had 12 hits, batting .414 with two homers in the seven games. Less than a year after his death, he was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in a special election, the first Puerto Rican to earn the honor.

How deeply ingrained is the legend of Clemente in Puerto Rico? The tales of his life and death are passed down on the island from father to son, said Red Sox catcher Christian Vasquez.

Chicago Cubs catcher Victor Caratini, a Puerto Rican native who started playing baseball when he was 5 years old, said through an interpreter he was taught about Clemente in elementary school.

“To give you an example of what kind of an impact he had on Puerto Rico and the game of baseball, even in the schools they teach about Roberto Clemente,” he said. “We had sections entirely dedicated to him and what he did not only to baseball, but to the humanitarian side of things.”

Baseball has a Roberto Clemente Humanitarian Award, bestowed every World Series upon a player who has given back to the community.

“There’s only one Roberto Clemente award,” said Alex Cora, a former player and current manager of the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox. “As far as retiring the number, I know what he means to my country; I know what he means to the Latino players; I hope it happens. It’d mean a lot to that community.”

“To give you an example of what kind of an impact he had on Puerto Rico and the game of baseball, even in the schools they teach about Roberto Clemente. We had sections entirely dedicated to him and what he did not only to baseball, but to the humanitarian side of things.” – Chicago Cubs catcher Victor Caratini

The movement to do so has been growing in recent years — long after then-Commissioner Bud Selig retired Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 throughout baseball in 1997. That was the 50th anniversary of Robinson shattering the color barrier in 1947, with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

There is no doubt about Robinson’s lasting impact on the sport; he opened the door for every African-American player who followed him.

But when Clemente died during a humanitarian mission, it was something that had never happened before and has not happened since.

“I was and am a huge fan of Mr. Robinson,” said Cubs manager Joe Maddon when asked about retiring Clemente’s number. “Obviously, that was an easy one to determine. Clemente was also one of my favorite players as a kid growing up. At that time I really didn’t understand what he meant to the people there. But as you get older and learn you come to see the significance.

“It’s very interesting. From my thin slice I would say, ‘Yes, let’s do something like that. It would mean a lot to a lot of people who are really significant in our game.’”

Why Clemente? Why Nicaragua?

The baseball player had an affinity for Nicaragua, having once played winter ball there. He managed a team of Puerto Rican All-Stars in an Amateur World Series tournament the previous November.

On Dec. 23, 1972, an earthquake measuring 6.2 on the Richter scale devastated the country, killing 7,000 people and leaving more than 250,000 homeless.

In the wake of the disaster, Clemente accepted the honorary chairmanship of a Nicaraguan earthquake relief organization, raising $150,000 and gathering 26 tons of food, clothing and medical supplies. Those supplies were shipped by sea and air to Managua.

When reports emerged that the country’s dictator, General Anastacio Somoza, wasn’t allowing those supplies to leave the docks and get to the people who needed them, Clemente decided he needed to travel to Managua to supervise the distribution.

That’s why Clemente was aboard the plane, carrying a fresh load of supplies, on that ill-fated night.

The flight left at 9 p.m., some 17 hours late, haphazardly loaded and overpacked. On board when the plane went down was Clemente, the pilot, an engineer and a radio journalist.

Compounding the myth of what happened that evening, neither Clemente’s body nor one thread of his clothing were ever salvaged from the shark-infested waters off the coast of the San Juan Airport.

Latin American influence

The role of Latin American players in baseball is increasing. On this past opening day, MLB reported 28.5 percent, or 251 players of the 1,200 on Major League rosters, were internationally born. Of those, 220 were from Latin America, including 18 from the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico.

Thus far, current Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has resisted the Clemente number retirement movement. Manfred said he believes that the Roberto Clemente Award, presented annually to the player who demonstrates Clemente’s commitment to community and understanding of the value of helping others, may be the most important in baseball.

But retiring No. 21 would be something very special.

“If it doesn’t happen, there’s an award there that’s very prestigious,” Cora said. “It’s a very special one. Seeing (St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina) get it last year because he was doing something in Colombia, that meant a lot to me. MLB is very considerate about that and it means a lot to the players.”

Why Cora?

Cora is very conscious about his community, declining an invitation from President Donald Trump to attend a Rose Garden celebration honoring his 2018 World Series-winning Red Sox.

Cora’s reason: The U.S. had not followed through on sending billions of dollars of aid to Puerto Rico, which is recovering from the direct hit it took from Hurricane Maria in September 2017. A disaster relief bill was signed by the president on June 6, nearly two years after the storms.

Cora was so serious about taking care of Puerto Rico he had a stipulation written into his contract when he was hired by the Red Sox that the team made a major contribution of goods and services to his hometown of Caguas, Puerto Rico.

Alex Cora, Boston Red Sox, World Series
Manager Alex Cora of the Boston Red Sox reacts before game five of the 2018 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Oct. 28, 2018 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)

The Red Sox talked about his prospective contract, his housing, his perks. That wasn’t good enough for Cora, who responded: “That’s all cool. But here’s what I want: I want a plane full of supplies for my home town. If you can do that, I’m the manager of the Boston Red Sox.”

Cora signed for $800,000, a contract that was extended after his Red Sox defeated the Dodgers in last year’s World Series.

While the deal may have been one of the lowest for a manager in MLB, the Red Sox made good on their promise. On Jan. 31, 2018, a JetBlue cargo plane delivered 10 tons of supplies to Caguas along with a donation of $200,000.

While waiting for MLB to retire Clemente’s number, many Puerto Rican players have taken to self-retiring it by refusing to wear that hallowed number.

“Yeah, that’s something we do back home,” Cora said.

Three teams already have retired No. 21. The Pirates retired Clemente’s number. The Atlanta Braves retired No. 21 in honor of Warren Spahn, and the Cleveland Indians retired it to honor Bob Lemon. Both are Hall of Fame pitchers.

Currently, 13 of the 30 clubs have a player wearing No. 21.  The Red Sox are not among them.

While that hardly qualifies as a movement, to some it’s a sign the game is heading in the right direction.

“It’s just a case-by-case basis for us Puerto Ricans,” Caratini said. “A lot of us don’t use it because he’s a legend. Other people use it because they want to honor a great man. But I do think it should be retired.”

Barry M. Bloom has been a baseball writer since 1976, and a National Baseball Hall of Fame voter since 1992. His sometimes award-winning national reports and columns appeared on MLB.com for the past 16 years, until recently. He’s now a contributing columnist for Forbes.com

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Inequality, corruption continue to hamper women’s football globally

Afghanistan, women's soccer, women's football, corruption
Indian forward Irom Prameshwori Devi heads the ball as Afghanistan goalkeeper Nadia Qudoos tries to stop the ball during their match in the 3rd South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) women’s football championship in 2014. Afghanistan’s women are fighting back against rampant sexual assault perpetrated on team members. (Photo courtesy Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images)

The 2019 Women’s World Cup has one match left to play — its final between the United States and the Netherlands, which will take place on July 7 in Decines-Charpieu, France. 

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While the Women’s World Cup has put the focus on the best of women’s football globally, in far more countries, the sport is ignored, overseen by corrupt organizations or simply not allowed.

This Women’s World Cup will be regarded as a triumph overall, particularly from revenue and attendance standpoints. Four nations — Chile, Jamaica, Scotland and South Africa — made their debuts, while Argentina and Italy returned after droughts that extended beyond a decade. From an on-field perspective, many of the 24 teams will feel proud of their accomplishments over the course of the 52-game tournament.

That pride will come in spite of problems promoting the women’s game within many of these nations’ borders. 

Most, if not all, of these countries continue to struggle with corruption in the women’s game. The effects have been even more pronounced in countries that did not make it to France for the World Cup. Star players on top teams have grown weary of the lack of advancement compared to men’s soccer, which has become the globe’s most lucrative sport, and the highest-profile player to take a stand prior to the Women’s World Cup was Lyon superstar Ada Hegerberg

The one-time Norway captain — subjected to sexism while receiving the Ballon d’Or in 2018 — elected to sit out the World Cup, the most dramatic escalation of her two-year standoff with the Norwegian federation. The 23-year-old has alleged the country generally does not look upon women’s soccer favorably, even as the federation struck a deal for equal pay between men and women.

Ada Hegerberg, Ballon d'Or, Norway
Lyon’s Norwegian forward Ada Hegerberg, winner of 2018 Women’s Ballon d’Or award for best player of the year, is the first woman to win the prize. She boycotted the 2019 Women’s World Cup because of pay inequality. (Photo by  ROMAIN LAFABREGUE/AFP/Getty Images)

Still, as one of the world’s most famous female soccer players, Hegerberg’s beliefs carry weight and can serve as an international barometer for the game. Even as Norway claims it has made progress in promoting women’s soccer, other nations continue to lag far, far behind.

Iran’s women’s team has never taken part in an international tournament, and the country actively harms interest in the game through its longtime ban on women entering stadia to watch soccer matches. Women were permitted to watch a 2018 World Cup match that was shown on the videoboard of Tehran’s Azadi Stadium, and FIFA took that opportunity to open a dialogue with Iranian officials regarding female attendees. However, the governing body would not provide a breakthrough date, and Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani does not believe the restrictions will be lifted anytime soon.

Elsewhere in the region, Afghanistan’s women’s team has started to fight back against sexual assault perpetrated by members of the Afghanistan Football Federation — including its former president, Keramuddin Keram, whom FIFA banned for life on June 8, 2019.

The systematic physical and psychological abuses committed at the highest levels of the game in the war-torn Muslim-majority country reportedly included as many as 25 girls abused during Keram’s 15-year tenure as president.

Led by captain Khalida Popal and American coaches Kelly Lindsey and Haley Carter, the Afghanistan team has started to train once more as they await justice. Despite not seeing a single dime for their efforts, the three women stand at the forefront of a rebuilding effort forged through an intricate combination of “crowdsourcing, a partnership with Soccer Without Borders, and their personal time.” 

On Afghanistan’s eastern border is Pakistan, another country with a football federation whose activities have severely affected women’s soccer. Pakistan’s women’s team did not qualify for the Asian Cup or the South Asian Football Federation Championship, extending a run that has seen the side miss international competitions each year since 2014. 

Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat — the federation’s president since 2003 — has overseen the sharp decline of both the men’s and women’s teams in Pakistan, but he has retained FIFA’s support even in light of possible election manipulation in 2015. Hayat also withdrew the women’s teams from international competition in 2016 — due to a third-party supervisor overseeing a factionalized Pakistan Football Federation. FIFA went on to suspend the federation outright.

Even after elections in December 2018, which saw Syed Ashfaq Hussain emerge victorious, Hayat continues as the effective chief of the PFF. FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation do not recognize Hussain as president.

Many of South America’s women’s teams actually fell off FIFA’s rankings list two years ago as federations on the continent essentially ignored scheduling friendlies and even failed to staff certain national sides properly. Only after several years of rehabilitation did Argentina and Chile reach the 2019 Women’s World Cup group stage — the former qualifying after a 12-year absence, the latter securing qualification for the first time. The two nations competed in the 2018 Copa America Femenina and finished second and third, respectively. In France, they narrowly missed advancing to the knockout stage, while regional powerhouse Brazil took the host nation to extra time in the Round of 16. 

Iran, football, soccer, women
Iranian women cheer for their team in the stands during an international friendly soccer match between Iran and Bolivia at the Azadi Stadium. The Iranian authorities have allowed women to attend the match after a request from the Football Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran.  (Photo by Saeid Zareian/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Colombia’s women’s team accused the nation’s governing body of sexual discrimination and providing inferior benefits to those of the men’s team shortly after the U.S. women sued U.S. Soccer for similar issues. Colombia has not had a head coach since June 2018, have not been paid, or had matches scheduled. 

Brazil has succeeded on the pitch despite a male-dominated federation that “shut women out of leadership positions for decades” and fired Emily Lima — its first female head coach — after 10 months. The move did not cost the team its superstar striker Marta, but five other players departed in response to Lima’s sacking.

Marta grew up and began her career within a soccer culture that had only recently emerged from a nearly 40-year ban on women partaking in sports because it was “incompatible with their nature.” Brazil’s national women’s league was only founded in 2013 — by that time, the well-traveled Marta was playing in Sweden, the country where she gained prominence in the early 2000s.

Brazil — often competitive internationally — has struggled with prejudice at home, and even the game’s most dominant country has grappled with its own federation over equal rights.

The United States national women’s team has a pending class-action lawsuit against the United States Soccer Federation. Long-standing “institutionalized gender discrimination” is central to the case, which has seen 28 national team players — including stars Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe — allege violations of the Equal Pay Act and a section of the Civil Rights Act. 

Upon the U.S. team’s return home following victory in the 2015 World Cup, U.S. Soccer scheduled practices and games on artificial turf rather than grass. Artificial turf has an infamous renown as a danger to players sprinting at high speeds as cleats can get caught on the surface. This can lead to severe leg injuries — such as the torn right ACL Rapinoe suffered in December 2015. Rapinoe recovered in time to be selected for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

Judging from the high quality of play at this year’s Women’s World Cup, there is a bright future ahead for women’s soccer. However, this future may not be realized fully until FIFA promotes a healthy relationship between national federations and national teams. Investment in the game and respect for the game have grown immensely in recent years, but real progress will stall unless world soccer’s governing body takes actionable steps to eliminate corruption of all types at all levels.

Jeremy Beren is a senior sports journalism major at Arizona State University

Editor’s note: The Global Sport Institute is studying athlete activism across the globe and how the push for equal pay, immigrant rights, criminal justice reform, civil rights and environmental justice along with gender equity are central to today’s athlete activism. 

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Wrestling gave former Green Beret passion, a second chance

Roman Rozell’s life story belongs on the big screen.  Born and raised in Apache Junction, Ariz., Rozell used wrestling as an escape from issues he was dealing with at home. While in college and with a second child on the way, Rozell enlisted in the military to support his growing family.

Rozell served in the Army, completing tours in Iraq and Kuwait. In a couple of his deployments he was involved in multiple improvised explosive device (IED) explosions and even a suicide bombing.

That did not deter him. He  decided to push himself further and opted to try out for Special Forces. While going through qualification to become a Green Beret, his wife battled medical issues. Rozell contemplated returning home to be with his family, but he suffered a personal tragedy of his own.

One thing remained a constant for him: His passion for wrestling still burned inside him and with the help of an associate athletic director at Arizona State University,  Rozell was able to fulfill his lifelong dream of wrestling at the collegiate level.

Editor’s note: Rozell is currently working with the Global Sport Institute and ASU’s Venture Devils to develop a program around his motivational platform.

Recognizing competition, Boston adds para athletics divisions

Boston Marathon, para athlete
Jose Sanchez crosses the finish line of the 121st Boston Marathon in Boston on April 17, 2017. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In 1975, the Boston Marathon was the first of the six Abbott World Marathon Majors to add a wheelchair division.

Black text that reads why this matters
Treating all competitors – including para athletes – equally means ensuring top competitors in all categories are rewarded accordingly. The Boston Marathon will be the first major race to do so for para athletes.

In 2020, Boston will be the first to include a competitive para athletics division for ambulatory para athletes.

Athletes in wheelchairs have had a designated division that recognizes their highest achievements with awards and prizes, but other para athletes have not. The Paralympic Games do not include a marathon for athletes who run with protheses.

The number of ambulatory athletes with physical challenges who compete in the Boston Marathon has grown steadily, said Marla Runyan, the para athlete manager with the Boston Athletic Association (BAA). Years ago, about a dozen athletes with limited or low vision ran Boston; now that number is well into the 50s, she said.

Even some of the most groundbreaking performances can go unnoticed without a division to recognize them.

“I have observed Paralympians coming to race in Boston and in other major marathons, and no one knows they’re there,” Runyan said.

In the 2019 Boston Marathon in April, Marko Cheseto finished in 2 hours, 42 minutes, 24 seconds, breaking the world record for runners with double lower limb prostheses. He was the first mobility-impaired runner to cross the line. “I ran the fastest time in the world. Yes, there is recognition that I ran it, but there are no prizes for winning it,” he said.

Marko Cheseto, Boston Marathon, para athlete, mobility impaired
Marko Cheseto races during the 2019 Boston Marathon. Cheseto was the first mobility-impaired runner to cross the finish line in 2 hours, 42 minutes, 24 seconds, breaking the world record for runners with double lower limb prostheses. (Photo by Marathon Foto via Marko Cheseto)

Athletes like him who devote themselves to training so they can achieve great things should have the opportunity to compete for prize money just like other athletes, he said.  

The athletes who run Boston have “tremendous athletic accolades behind them in terms of their performances, whether on the track in the Paralympic Games, or the World Cup, or the Commonwealth Games, and yet, we’re not recognizing them,” Runyan said. So she set out to create a framework that would.

The new classification categories the Boston Marathon recognizes include vision, upper limb and lower limb impairments, following the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Classification Code. To compete, athletes must meet qualifying standards for their age, gender and class. Awards and prize money will be given to the top three male and female finishers in each category. The aim is to establish a level playing field for competitive athletes with various disabilities. Other major marathons are likely to follow suit, Runyan added.

This framework mirrors what’s already in place for other athletes, Runyan pointed out.

“You have an elite field; you have an emerging elite field; you have athletes aspiring to run their personal best, and you have charity runners running for a cause — you have the full range of folks racing with different motivations and different athletic abilities, and that same continuum exists among the para athlete community.”

Runyan has a unique perspective on competing. In 2000, she became the first legally blind track and field athlete to compete for the U.S. Olympic Team, and she is the only visually impaired U.S. athlete who has competed in both the Olympics and Paralympic Games. She recalled wanting “to be seen and recognized as an athlete, first and foremost, and not as a person with a disability who participates in sport.”

It’s difficult to be seen as an athlete first “when you have a disability, because that’s what the media gravitates toward,” Runyan said. “And that’s what I hope we can start to change — we can start to tell stories of athletes first and foremost, and have that be the new story.”

Beyond Boston: “What it has the potential to do is create a greater visibility, so that our younger generation who is sitting there watching TV says, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s an amputee who just ran a 2:42 marathon. Maybe that can be me someday,’” Runyan said. “You have people you can identify with in the event, and I think we all look for that.”

Adrianne Haslet agreed. She had her left leg amputated after being injured in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, and she has since run Boston on a prosthetic leg.

“What it has the potential to do is create a greater visibility, so that our younger generation who is sitting there watching TV says, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s an amputee who just ran a 2:42 marathon. Maybe that can be me someday.’ You have people you can identify with in the event, and I think we all look for that.” – Marla Runyan, Boston Athletic Association’s para athlete manager

“I get letters and messages daily from amputees and from parents of new amputees — or a child that is about to become an amputee due to health issues — and they’ll say, ‘They’re looking at you and seeing that you’ve run,’ ” she explained.

Haslet was a competitive ballroom dancer before the bombing. Then, when she became a runner, “I saw the elites crossing the tape in marathons, 5Ks, and 10Ks, and thought to myself, ‘How awesome will it be when I am fast enough to do that?’” she recalled. “Then I looked and thought — wait, there is not a division for para athletes, for amputees.” So she made it her mission to push for one, and she approached the BAA.

“We should be included because we are athletes, and we are wanting to compete,” Haslet said. “To not even be included is demeaning, and I’m so grateful that the BAA has seen that and seen the opportunity and what it can do.”

Separate divisions are important for the same reason separate men’s and women’s divisions are important, Haslet explained.

“If someone said, ‘Well, why couldn’t the women just compete with the men?’ We aren’t going to put up with that. We want our own division. It shouldn’t be any different for an amputee runner.”

And the Boston Marathon’s announcement is already inspiring kids, Haslet said.

“That night when the announcement came,  I got videos of parents telling their children — you know those videos of parents telling their kids they’re going to Disneyland? — I got videos of them saying that they could train for the Boston marathon and win it.”

The opportunities for ambulatory para athletes to race marathons competitively are limited, Cheseto pointed out. In the Paralympics, “for my class, T-62, there is no marathon category. So this is a huge opportunity to get that para section in the Boston Marathon,” he said. Cheseto ran cross-country and track at the University of Alaska at Anchorage, and he lost both legs below the knee to frostbite.

“I want to show people that, regardless of our physical challenges, we as human beings have that resilience, and we are able to perform at our highest levels, regardless of our disabilities, given that opportunity,” Cheseto said.

Many people have talent but lack a platform to prove that they can perform at a high level, he added.

“I want to show people that, regardless of our physical challenges, we as human beings have that resilience, and we are able to perform at our highest levels, regardless of our disabilities, given that opportunity.” – Marko Cheseto, who broke world record for runners with double lower limb prothesis in 2019 Boston Marathon

The para divisions mark the BAA’s transition from “Athletes with Disabilities” to “Para Athletic Divisions” and “Adaptive Programs.” Runyan explained. “We wanted to come out from the label of disability — we wanted to update our language and terminology to align with the Paralympic movement and emphasize athletic ability.”

Adrianne Haslet, Boston Marathon
Adrianne Haslet runs the 2019 Boston Athletic Association 5k. (Photo courtesy Marathon Foto via B.A.A.)

Haslet also advocates focusing on ability, not disability.

“I want to show others who are doubting themselves in their lives — that are in my same position — that what they can do far outweighs what they cannot do,” she said.

“When Shalane Flanagan or Molly Huddle or Eliud Kipchoge runs the streets, we aren’t thinking about what they can’t do. We’re thinking about what they can do.”

And it’s not just about the Boston Marathon, Haslet said. “It’s about competing. It’s about belonging.”

Runyan added that the public is used to seeing stories of participatory para athletes, which is a good thing.

“But we’re missing out if we’re not also hearing and seeing athletes with very high goals and expectations athletically, who are setting world-best times and have goals of racing in the Paralympic games,” she said. “This framework evolved as an opportunity to recognize and elevate these athletes and their athletic achievement, first and foremost, while still maintaining our adaptive program, which provides opportunities for more recreational athletes.”

There’s room for improvement in educating people about high-achieving para athletes, especially in the U.S., Runyan said.

“Paralympians in the U.K. are household names. In the U.S., no one even knows,” she said. “And that’s unfortunate because there’s so many great athletes that we’re missing out on an opportunity to recognize. So my hope is that this is going to be a part of that change and part of that movement.”

Cheseto said he hopes that this “will also open other avenues, not only in marathons, but also road races like 10Ks and 5Ks, to get more para sections for these athletes to be able to compete at these different events.”

Haslet has become an advocate for amputee rights.

“When I became an amputee, I had no idea there were other amputee athletes out there,” Haslet recalled. “Of course there were, but I had no idea. The more people see para athletes, when they see someone running next to them in a race, or someone standing next to them in the grocery store line, I think they’re more accepting of what they can do instead of what they can’t do.”

“The more people see para athletes, when they see someone running next to them in a race, or someone standing next to them in the grocery store line, I think they’re more accepting of what they can do instead of what they can’t do.” – Adrienne Haslet, runner whose leg was amputated after 2013 Boston Marathon bombing

Changes elsewhere in sports might also be helping to redefine who qualifies as a serious athlete. Shaquem Griffin was drafted into the NFL. He had his left hand amputated when he was 4 after being born with amniotic band syndrome. Runner Justin Gallegos signed a contract with Nike, and he is the first athlete with cerebral palsy to do so.

“Griffin, being in the NFL, has clearly proven we are not defined by our disabilities — but overcoming what people think of us,” Haslet said. “It’s not even being defined by what we can do, because we could do it the whole time. It’s just being accepted by the masses.”

Both Haslet and Cheseto are looking forward to racing in Boston’s new para divisions in 2020.

Cheseto said he hopes the new divisions offer “encouragement to all these other people with physical challenges out there — just letting them know that, regardless of their situation, whether we are recognized or whether there is a platform for competition on all these events, the thing is: If we get out there and show the world that we can also perform, somebody’s going to make a change somewhere,” he said. “It’s our hard work and performing at a higher level that would trigger somebody to make that policy change.”

Beyond actually running, Haslet said, “I’m eager to hear how commentators will talk about it — eager for it to be a learning opportunity for the people listening and watching,” to learn the verbiage about the different classifications, as well as the para athletes’ athleticism and training.

For her part, Haslet said, “I want to see what happens if I take this training to the highest level I can and toe that line in Hopkinton. I want to see what I can do.”

Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor based in metro Detroit. You can read more of her work here

Editor’s note: For the coming 2019-2020 academic year, the Global Sport Institute’s research theme will be “Sport and the body.” The Institute will conduct and fund research and host events that will explore a myriad of topics related to the body.

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Analytics launching victories – and thousands of careers

Daniel Murphy, Colorado Rockies, analytics, MLB
Daniel Murphy of the Colorado Rockies applied his study of analytics to improve his production at the plate. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Not even Brad Pitt in the 2011 movie “Moneyball” could speak in terms of launch angle, exit velocity and spin rate.

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The use of analytics is not only changing the way games are played, it is creating another career opportunity for numbers-minded sports fans.

The baseball general manager the actor portrayed, Oakland’s Billy Beane, introduced a different way of analyzing a baseball player’s abilities and how it could translate into adding to the team’s victories.

The explosion of analytics across sports has provided athletes, coaching staffs and general managers data that can be applied to provide a competitive advantage for an individual and a team.

Colorado Rockies’ second baseman Daniel Murphy serves as an example of how the application of analytic data can boost performance. According to the Washington Post, when the left-handed hitter was with the New York Mets in 2015, his percentage of balls in play that were on the ground was 42.8 percent and fly balls 36.0. That season Murphy hit .281 with 14 home runs and had a slugging percentage of .449.

A year later, when Murphy was a member of the Washington Nationals, in a similar number of plate appearances, his groundball to flyball rate was virtually reversed: 36.3 to 41.9. His production soared, including an average of .347, 25 home runs and a slugging percentage of .595. Murphy finished second in the National League MVP race.

A key was the increasing of his launch angle to 16.6 degrees from 11.1.

The Dodgers’ Justin Turner serves as another example. He went from a player with 15 homers in his first 1,100 career at-bats to one who slugged 48 home runs in his roughly 1,000 at-bats during the 2016-17 seasons. In so doing, he did not sacrifice batting average, which was a career-best .322 in the latter season.

“We literally track every single shot in our practice gym and that can help players a lot with their shooting.” – Dallas Mavericks director of basketball analytics James Brocato

“You can’t slug by hitting balls on the ground,” he said to the Post. “You have to get the ball in the air if you want to slug, and guys who slug stick around, and the guys who don’t, don’t.”

Turner did. And his reward was a $64 million payday that offseason.

Similar to baseball’s launch angle is the angle at which a basketball travels to the hoop after being released. A 45-degree entry angle is ideal, though analysis may deviate by a degree or two.

“Different studies have shown a different optimal angle of entry from the ball,” said James Brocato, director of basketball analytics for the Dallas Mavericks. “Forty-five degrees is what you usually get, and some say 47 degrees. We know where a player’s shot is normally. If a player is missing short a lot, or missing long a lot, we can correct that. We literally track every single shot in our practice gym and that can help players a lot with their shooting.”

Analytics has also changed where on the court players are shooting.

“One thing the analytics has changed in basketball, the NBA at least, is there are more 3-pointers and fewer mid-range shots,” Brocato said. “You are now seeing players embrace the 3-point shot. As compared to a long two, players don’t shoot that different of a percentage. Getting the extra point is much more valuable.”

Brocato mentioned Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez as a prime example of the trend NBA fans have witnessed.

“He has never been a 3-pointer shooter and has always been a good mid-range shooter,” he said. “This season he started taking almost exclusively 3-pointers, had a hell of a year and the Bucks won the most games in the NBA (60) and narrowly missed out on going to the finals.”

Indeed, Lopez took 30 3-point shots in his first six non-injury marred seasons. He took more than 300 in both 2016-17 with Brooklyn and 2017-18 with the Lakers. This past season, 512 of his 786 field goal attempts (65.1 percent) were of the 3-point variety.

“That’s a pretty big success story,” Brocato said.

Justin Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers, analytics, MLB
Justin Turner of the Los Angeles Dodgers changed his approach at the plate and began hitting more home run because he studied the best angle to hit balls into the air, resulting in  more home runs. He was rewarded with a $64 million contract when he did. (Photo by Masterpress/Getty Images)

Accompanying the explosion of data utilized in professional sports is colleges and universities offering courses that include sports analytics or offering sports analytics as a standalone course. After all, with offices of professional sports teams adding analytical staff, or at least individuals who help in that area, the educational component is becoming critical.

“The last four years analytics has really taken off,” said Daniel McIntosh, a lecturer at Arizona State’s W.P. Carey School of Business, who during that time has consulted on analytics with the NBA. “Across basically every major sport you can find a team that is using analytics to create some kind of advantage.”

Baseball is the most stat heavy of the sports, something writer and historian Bill James brought to national attention through his many statistical abstracts and handbooks, the first of which was published in the late 1970s.

Major League Baseball, through its Statcast tracking system, has a glossary devoted to technical terms such as launch angle.

Basketball, football and hockey also incorporate analytics. While one sport may rely more on analytical data than another, each has different needs.

I don’t think it’s fair to say any sport is ahead, or behind, another in their use of analytics,” said Tim Smith, a professor of information technology management at the University of Tampa. “I believe that properties of the sport, such as slow-paced, fast-paced, the frequency of games, the number of players involved, etc., significantly impact the analytic techniques used.”

Regardless of the sport for which they are used, data derived from analytics is not eradicating observation through the trained eyes and instincts of veteran scouts and front office types who have made a living of poring over player reports while also relying on instinct.

“Initially people thought analytics was going to be some wonder cure-all and replace emotional decision making. Right now, (analytics) is probably used more to validate decisions or to support strategic initiatives than they are to replace human decisions.” – Daniel McIntosh, lecturer at Arizona State’s W.P. Carey School of Business,

“Initially people thought analytics was going to be some wonder cure-all and replace emotional decision making,” McIntosh said. “Right now, (analytics) is probably used more to validate decisions or to support strategic initiatives than they are to replace human decisions.”

Brocato agrees.

“All the stuff we do is supplemental,” he said. “It is more to be taken hand in hand with traditional scouting and things like that. Basketball is such a complex game with 10 working parts at all times that you have to take everything into context.”

Because a newer way of acquiring a competitive edge is bumping up against long-entrenched practices, how findings from data are communicated is critical. After all, if those making crucial playing personnel decisions, for example, do not understand what is being conveyed, then it is not going to matter how good any analytics model looks.

That’s one of the points of emphasis at Syracuse University, which offers a major in sports analytics. A model may make look pretty, but can the end user benefit from is usage?

“One of the key things that we focus on in our program is being able to communicate your findings,” said Rodney Paul, a sports economist and professor with the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics at Syracuse. “It’s one thing to be able to crunch the numbers and be able to come up with a model and a nice visualization. It’s another thing to be able to get the point across to the parties that actually are the decision makers, whether it’s the general manager, the coach or whoever it may be.”

Another key point in the classroom is analytics is not a “cure-all” or an absolute. A top draft pick is just as prone to injury and off-field issues regardless of analytics, which can’t predict the human element part of the equation.

Brook Lopez, Milwaukee Bucks,NBA
Brook Lopez of the Milwaukee Bucks shoots a three-pointer. Lopez changed his approach to shooting, going from taking primarily mid-range shots to move behind the three-point line and made more than 65% of his shots. Changing the launch angle helped. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

“Unfortunately, injuries happen, off-field things happen, random events happen,” McIntosh said. “The New Orleans Saints did everything correct. There was a bad call (that went against them late in the 2018 NFC championship game that may have prevented them from going to the Super Bowl). You cannot control that. If you have the proper mindset of what you can do with (analytics), then it can become an incredibly powerful part of an organization.”

The off-field component rose to the surface when McIntosh was consulting with an NBA team. Some red flags can be addressed by simply altering a player’s approach. However, it is not always that simple.

“Everything in our models and everything in our systems said something is not right with one of the players,” he said. “So we called (the team) and asked what’s going on with the player and the response on the other end of the phone was not to worry about it. We said, ‘Well, everything in our metrics and everything in our numbers, everything says worry about it.’”

McIntosh asked if he could receive some feedback from the team so it could be incorporated into the player’s performance data. He recalled, “The guy says, ‘I can’t tell you more than this, but he’s going through a divorce.’”

Since analytics is relatively new, uncertainty concerning acquiring an education in the discipline is understandable.

Somebody wanting to become a writer, for instance, would take journalism and/or related courses while perhaps acquiring hands-on experience by writing for a school newspaper. The paths in which to acquire education and experience in sports analytics may not seem as clear to some.

“The No. 1 thing I tell students is to just get started,” McIntosh said. “We direct them to Python and SQL (programming) conferences. Go to SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) and go to Sloan (sports analytics conferences) to be up to date and current in what is happening in that space. The most valuable skills are the technical skills.”

Getting started is what Brocato did. As a law student at Gonzaga in 2013, he spent free time researching basketball analytics and created a draft model to predict how college players would translate into the NBA. Next he thing he knew, he was presenting that model during his interview with the Mavericks, who hired him in 2014.

“The No. 1 thing I tell people whenever somebody asks me what they have to do to get into the NBA and what they have to learn, is to do something interesting with data,” he said. “Put it on a web site so that people can see it. That’s how I got in and how a pretty large percentage of guys (like me) in the NBA got in.”

A potential employee needs to know more than programming, though. Knowing the sport is key.

“You have to know about basketball because communication is pretty important in the industry, for sure,” he said.

Brocato noted the Mavericks have four full-time staffers, two programmers and three interns in the team’s analytics department. He also recommended learning Python for programming and how to do basic SQL queries.

“Those two are real important,” he said.

It is also important to speak the language.

In 2018, Paola Boivin taught a class at Arizona State that dealt with the future of sports. Within the course, a week was spent on analytics, including technical terminology that goes with the territory.  

“Part of the messaging to the students was that (analytics) is part of the story you’re going to cover and you have to understand what they are talking about and become familiar with some of the terminology that goes with it,” said Boivin, who teaches sports journalism programs at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “Analytics will become more a part of the curriculum in colleges because you have to be well versed and well educated in what you are covering.”

Being proficient in a second language could prove beneficial as well. The major offered at Syracuse includes 12 credit hours of a foreign language.

“It’s one thing to be able to crunch the numbers and be able to come up with a model and a nice visualization. It’s another thing to be able to get the point across to the parties that actually are the decision makers, whether it’s the general manager, the coach or whoever it may be.” – Rodney Paul, sports economist and professor with the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics at Syracuse

“The ability to communicate around the world opens many more possibilities as the sports analytics revolution moves across the globe,” Paul said.

The language requirement is a prime example of the emphasis placed on the well-rounded nature of individuals who want to work for a professional sports team or a similar organization. Technology, mathematics and communication skills are among the ingredients in building the foundation.  

What is being built above the foundation is growing larger and larger. As more major-league sports organizations come on board and expand their use of analytics, more opportunities are sure to arise.

“We are anticipating the spread of analytics across the college landscape,” Paul said. “(As students go through the education process,) they will find a lot of fascinating questions that people need answered, and that they can find a pretty neat job in the industry.”

In other words, what we are seeing today just might be the beginning.

“Analytics is not going away,” Boivin said. “So, I think you are going to see more colleges pay attention to analytics whether there are specific classes about it or classes that are including it.”

Indeed, analytics is not going away. As such, failure to get on board may render negative consequences. That includes those who implement the findings: the athletes.

“If it is part of the game, you might as well learn it,” said Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Matt Andriese, who has found analytics useful with, among other things, pitch location. “The game is changing and players just need to adapt. If you get stuck in your ways you might be out of the game.”

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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Investment, sponsorships key Women’s World Cup growth

Megan Rapinoe, USWNT, U.S. women's national soccer team, Women's World Cup
Megan Rapinoe of USA controls the ball against Sofia Jakobsson of Sweden during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.  (Photo by Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images)

Slightly less than 23 million viewers tuned in to watch the United States women’s national team defeat Japan 5-2 in the 2015 Women’s World Cup final. That was a record for a U.S. soccer match — men’s or women’s.

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The Women’s World Cup overcame humble origins to reach more than 764 million viewers in 2015, per FIFA’s official figures. Fresh investment has seen the competition become lucrative and more recognizable.

Expanded television coverage has been crucial to the strong numbers that have continued through the opening matches of this season’s World Cup. The team’s results alone generate attention — and are heightened by the U.S. men’s struggle for consistency and victories — but dedicated coverage by sports behemoth Fox, Fox Sports 1 and Fox Sports 2 has presented unique exposure opportunities. Streaming service Hulu secured a year-long partnership to broadcast the Women’s World Cup, a boon to the 30 million-plus Americans who have cut their cable cords.

The initial tournament, held in China in 1991, did not have FIFA’s World Cup branding. Attendance sunk dramatically in the 1995 Women’s World Cup, held at small stadiums in Sweden and won by Norway, but that set the stage for a remarkable rally four years later.

The 1999 Women’s World Cup final proved a breakthrough moment for the U.S. team. Brandi Chastain’s winning penalty kick at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., has been immortalized in American sports lore. Soccer frenzy swept the host country as attendance grew nine-fold. The final itself drew 90,185 spectators.

In addition, the field of teams increased from 12 to 16 ahead of the 1999 edition, and 24 nations have taken part in the 2015 and 2019 World Cups.

Increased investment helped raise the standard of play and the stature of the women’s game. Advertisers lined up to throw their hat in the ring prior to the start of this year’s World Cup — brands such as Nike, PlayStation and Volkswagen signed up to advertise with Turner Sports subsidiary Bleacher Report before France and South Korea kicked off on June 7. Bleacher Report in itself is a lucrative enterprise and has become well-known for its innovative multimedia content.

Four years ago, Fox Sports earned $40 million in ad revenue from the USWNT’s third World Cup win. Volkswagen has agreed to work with Fox Sports in addition to Bleacher Report, and the network signed beverage giant Coca-Cola as a sponsor.

Coca-Cola is highly desirable as a sponsor due to its global appeal. The corporation is an official marketing partner of FIFA, along with other recognizable international brands such as adidas and Qatar Airways. Among host nation France’s sponsors are electricity-generation giant EDF and banking group Credit Agricole — the fifth-largest company in France and the 82nd-largest in the world.

Japan — finalists in 2011 and 2015 — are sponsored by three Fortune Global 500 companies: MS&AD Insurance, automotive corporation Aisin Seiki and Mizuho Financial Group. Two-time World Cup winners Germany have an agreement with Volkswagen — the biggest company in the country and seventh-largest in the world. Die Nationalelf’s success means they can further count on sponsorships from Coca-Cola and Samsung.

The United States is the most successful side in the competition’s history, and, accordingly, have an impressive cadre of sponsors. This includes telecommunications titan AT&T, Anheuser-Busch, and Coca-Cola — with its subsidiary Powerade. These sponsorships have driven up awareness and revenue.

The expansion in revenue for the U.S. women’s team in particular was outlined in a June 2019 Wall Street Journal story. The United States Soccer Federation’s financial reports revealed the USWNT began to rake in more revenue than their male counterparts following the 2015 World Cup in Canada. Gate receipts showed between 2016 and 2018, the star-laden women’s team brought in nearly $1 million more than a men’s team that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

This revelation adds more fuel to the women’s team’s lawsuit against U.S. Soccer. The suit, filed on March 8, 2019, alleges the federation engaged in discriminatory practices.

The 28-player USWNT collectively filed suit in Los Angeles months before the opening match in France. Central to the case is the USWNT’s assertion that, in a comparison between the men’s and women’s teams, a member of the latter would earn 38 percent of a male player over the course of 20 non-tournament matches per year. Dissatisfaction with a collective bargaining agreement brokered by the USWNT and U.S. Soccer in 2017 has been augmented by claims it did not go far enough in the fight for equal pay and recognition. The team and U.S. Soccer agreed to mediation that will begin after the World Cup ends.

This edition of the Women’s World Cup arguably contains the most talented player pool in the tournament’s history, and it is on pace to break records. It remains to be seen whether the USWNT will win its suit against the federation and net payment on par with the men’s team, but their case could be bolstered by prominent investment that has contributed to immense growth.

Jeremy Beren is a senior sports journalism major at Arizona State University

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USWNT, U.S. Soccer agree to mediation over World Cup pay

U.S. women's national soccer team, USWNT, Women's World Cup, Chile
Players of the US celebrate after a goal during the FIFA Women’s World Cup first round soccer match between USA and Chile at Parc des Princes Stadium in Paris, France on June 16, 2019. (Photo by Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The U.S. women’s national team and U.S. Soccer Federation have agreed to mediation over the team’s pay discrimination lawsuit. Mediation will begin after the World Cup ends the Wall Street Journal reported.

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The lawsuit was a significant escalation of a long-running fight over pay equity and working conditions for the most dominant international women’s team. Mediation could mean a swift resolution to the pay dispute.

In the suit, filed on March 8 in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, the players accused the federation of “institutionalized gender discrimination.”

The team, one of the United States’ most successful competitors across international sport, claims the governing body for U.S. soccer discriminated against the players via their paychecks, how and where they played, how they trained and coached, received medical care and traveled to matches.

The WSJ reported that lawyers for the women contacted the U.S. Soccer Federation after the World Cup began on June 7 about the potential for mediation. A spokesman for U.S. Soccer told the Journal: “We look forward to everyone returning their focus to the efforts on the field as we aim to win another title.”

The U.S. team’s lawsuit is similar to the actions of the U.S. women’s hockey team before the 2018 Winter Olympics when the team threatened not to participate in the 2017 International Ice Hockey Federation world championships because of unequal treatment.  With help from the NHL, the parties reached a resolution on the pay gap between the women’s hockey team and the men’s reached a negotiated settlement. The women’s hockey team, much like the women’s soccer team, displayed sustained success in international competition, winning three straight IIHF world championships and two Olympic gold medals, three silvers and one bronze since the sport was introduced in the games in 1998. The team had threatened not to participate in last year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea if the salary issue was not resolved.

That resolution opened the doors to the team competing and winning their first gold medal since 1998, beating archrival Canada.

According to the New York Times, the American soccer players have requested class action status and are seeking to represent anyone who played for the team since Feb. 4, 2015.

The suit alleges violations of the Equal Pay Act and violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“Despite the fact that these female and male players are called upon to perform the same job responsibilities on their teams and participate in international competitions for their single common employer, the USSF, the female players have been consistently paid less money than their male counterparts,” the suit said. “This is true even though their performance has been superior to that of the male players – with the female players, in contrast to male players, becoming world champions.”

While the America women have won three of the seven Women’s World Cups played, the highest finish for the U.S. men’s national team in the World Cup’s nearly 90-year history of the men’s event was 2002, when the team reached the quarterfinals.. The U.S. men did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Both the men’s and women’s teams have separate collective bargaining agreements with U.S. Soccer, the NYT reported, with different payment structures. The men receive higher bonuses when they play for the U.S., but are paid only when they make the team. The women receive guaranteed salaries but with smaller match bonuses.

However, the multimillion dollar bonuses the teams receive from FIFA for participating in the World Cup are enormous – there is a pool of $400 million for the 32 men’s teams versus $30 million for the 24 women’s teams in the tournament.

The USWNT nearly went on strike before the 2016 Rio Olympic Games over pay and reached a contentious new collective bargaining agreement. Five players – including Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe – filed a federal complaint in 2016 accusing US Soccer of wage discrimination. The lack of resolution on that case led to this filing, the NYT reported.

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Podcast: History-making NFL broadcast natural progression for Andrea Kremer

Andrea Kremer, NFL
Andrea Kremer reports from the field before an NFL game for NBC in 2009. Kremer is a hall of famer and barrier breaker.  (Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

If you are a fan of the NFL and have watched or listened to a game during the past 30 years, you have seen the Emmy-Award winning work of Andrea Kremer.

Kremer was the first female correspondent at ESPN; she reported on issues ranging from the abuse of Toradol in the locker room to violence and sexual assault issues for both “Sunday NFL Countdown” and “Outside the Lines.” In 2006, Kremer left ESPN to join the “NBC Sunday Night Football” crew and contribute to”Football Night in America.”

While at NBC, she reported on the summer and winter Olympics for the network and was the first person to interview swimmer Michael Phelps when he became the most decorated Olympian ever. She has been a correspondent for HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” where she uncovered shocking sexual assault cases in Bikram Yoga.

But 2018 and 2019 have clearly been great years. In 2018, Kremer was selected the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award recipient and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the second woman, but first working mother. In 2019, Kremer along with ESPN’s Hannah Storm, became the first all-woman booth calling NFL games for Amazon Prime Video.

Kremer sat down with GlobalSport Matters’ executive editor Kathy Kudravi at the annual Association for Women in Sports Media conference in Tampa, Fla., to talk about her career, covering the NFL and why it is so important for children to see their mothers working in roles they love.

Social media – and winning – raising profile of USWNT

Carli Lloyd, USWNT, Women's World Cup
Carli Lloyd of the United States celebrates her goal during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup match between the USA and Chile at Parc des Princes on June 16, 2019 in Paris. (Photo by Marcio Machado/Getty Images)

The 2019 Women’s World Cup in France is underway, and the United States women’s national team’s defense of their title is off to the best possible start. Their first group stage game was a 13-0 victory against Thailand that shattered scoring records and reinforced the perception that Jill Ellis’ side is the team to beat. The team followed it with a 3-0 stroll against Chile. The team was listed as co-favorites before the World Cup began on June 7 and have lived up to the tag.

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Efforts from new media and U.S. Soccer – and a winning reputation – have set the stage for this iteration of the USWNT to be the most-viewed version

Interest in the team’s progress is high, illustrated by the ratings from the win against Thailand — Fox Sports’ strongest since the 2018 final of the men’s World Cup. The ratings, in part, have been fostered by the emergence of digital media as a promotional tool, and it has coincided with the USWNT’s resurgence as the premier international women’s soccer side.

The spotlight fell on Twitter usage, in particular, during previous World Cups. The platform has become an essential communication tool in light of the downturn in traditional media.

Twitter prepared for this World Cup by introducing the #GoldenTweet Awards in addition to a #FIFAWWC hashtag and individualized hashtags for each of the 24 participating nations. The #GoldenTweet Awards will see Twitter’s analytics team cull the most popular tweets from 13 countries, and the winners will receive a limited-edition Twitter bird trophy.

Despite a protracted evolution, strides have been made by the United States Soccer Federation — better known as U.S. Soccer — to champion its women’s team and its push toward a record fourth World Cup win.

The federation unveiled a new app and website geared toward boosting the fan experience and attempting to set up soccer as the United States’ leading sport. The free app contains exclusive content for both the men’s and women’s teams, but central to the mobile experience is the “WNT Everywhere” campaign. Engineered to increase the WNT players (sic) visibility” as they prepare to defend their World Cup crown, the app comes integrated facial-recognition technology that can unlock special content on the team’s star players.

Eleven murals have gone up in 10 cities across the United States, including Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. When users point their phones at these murals, the app opens the aforementioned exclusives.

In addition, the federation announced a new website layout with a more streamlined, user-friendly design optimized for mobile devices. It presents an “in-depth focus” on player profiles in addition to more detailed match coverage.

USA Today bolstered its flagship app with the addition of “augmented reality experiences” in advance of the Women’s World Cup. Similar to U.S. Soccer’s focus on player profiles, the “Meet the Team” experience lets users learn about WNT’s top players — all on a virtual field that features the latest results and upcoming matches.

The interactive game “Make the Save” puts users in the driver’s seat as USWNT goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher as she attempts to stop penalty kicks. Naeher was interviewed prior to the game’s release and her movements within the game were captured with photogrammetry.

Research from within the past five years indicates where U.S. Soccer and WNT players have come from in terms of promoting the team’s vast achievements. A 2014 study examined how U.S. Soccer presented and covered its women’s team during the 2011 World Cup, in which the side qualified for the final but lost to Japan on penalty kicks.

Former University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill lecturer Roxane Coche looked at how a “patriarchal ideology” pervades American sports, and her contention was this set of ideals contributes to how the mass media tends to overlook women’s sports — or provide only sporadic coverage. There are even concerns over production values on broadcasts.

Coche scrutinized how the federation presented its Twitter coverage of the women’s team as opposed to the men’s team. She found U.S. Soccer’s Twitter managed to reduce somewhat the phenomenon of hypersexualizing female athletes and turned attention toward on-field action and achievements. However, the federation’s main account “posted more about men’s soccer than it did about women’s… most pictures and web pages tweeted pertained to male soccer” even during the Women’s World Cup. This contributed to a perception that the women’s game was treated as a “niche product” in spite of the USWNT’s run to the final.

The study “23 Players, 23 Voices: An Examination of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team on Twitter During the 2015 World Cup” discussed female athletes’ self-promotion and presentation during a tournament of sufficient magnitude to warrant increased interest. In recent years, the athlete has emerged as the primary influencer and thus reduced reliance on public relations departments and mainstream media outlets. With the relatively piecemeal coverage offered to women’s soccer by mass media, members of the USWNT sometimes have to find a way to stand out.

Using the qualitative data analysis software NVivo 10, researchers Molly Hayes Sauder and Matthew Blaszka captured 2,612 tweets from all 23 players on the USWNT’s 2015 World Cup team. The researchers collected tweets over a 90-day period. These 90 days were broken up into three 30-day sections before, during and after the tournament. There was relatively equal tweet distribution during this period, with 33 percent of tweets sent prior to the first game in Canada, 30 percent over the course of the World Cup and 37 percent after the final.

Hayes Sauder and Blaszka broke down tweets into several categories which represented direct interactions with fans, comments on non-sports topics, sponsorship promotion and discussion of other sports. The researchers found the players seemed to prefer “a candid approach to communication as opposed to a polished performance” on their Twitter accounts, even as tweet frequency varied wildly. The study corroborated Coche’s findings as it pertained to U.S. Soccer’s focus on the women’s team through a separate account rather than the more widely-followed main account.

With all the buzz surrounding this Women’s World Cup, there is a chance to drive engagement and record social media analytics unlike any seen before in the women’s game. Renewed awareness will really boost a form of soccer that deserves more attention in the United States and worldwide.

Jeremy Beren is a senior sports journalism major at Arizona State University

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‘Urge for masculinity’: Homophobia remains entrenched in German football

Borussia Dortmund, homophobia protest, Bundesliga
Fans of Dortmund protest against homophobia during the Bundesliga match between Borussia Dortmund and Eintracht Frankfurt at Signal Iduna Park on April 15, 2017 in Dortmund, Germany. (Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images)

When former German international and current head of sport at VfB Stuttgart Thomas Hitzlsperger came out as gay in January 2014, he said he believed it was a good time to do so.

Black text that reads why this matters
German football leagues have an unhealthy level of trans- and homophobia, but a few teams are working to make matches LGBTQ friendly.

Heinz Bonn, who played for Hamburger SV in the Bundesliga, Germany’s top division, between 1970 and 1973, was the first German male footballer known to be gay. But that was only revealed after his death in 1991.

In 1997, Marcus Urban told his friends, family and closest teammates at FC Rot-Weiß Erfurt about his homosexuality, but he did not go public for another decade, after he had retired.

They remain the only known homosexual male footballers in or from Germany, and none came out publicly during their playing careers.

Homophobia remains a serious problem in German football: large cross sections of players, staff, governing bodies and supporters have created an unhealthy environment to be an openly-homosexual male footballer.

A European Union-wide study by German Sport University in Cologne found that 90% of the LGBT community believe sport is affected by homophobia and transphobia.

Justin Fashanu, Norwich City, Premier League
Justin Fashanu was the first openly gay professional football player and suffered homophobic abuse. He took his own life in 1998 after being accused of sexual assault. (Photo by Allsport UK /Allsport)

The effect homophobia can have is highlighted by the case of English football player Justin Fashanu, who suffered homophobic abuse after becoming the first openly gay professional footballer in October 1990.

He was targeted with both homophobic and racist abuse, and he was the victim of what he contested was a false allegation of sexual assault by a 17-year-old in March 1998. He took his own life weeks later, protesting his innocence in his note.

Fans continue to sing offensive chants and unveil homophobic banners in Germany, which left players and managers arguing against the idea of coming out as gay before Hitzlsperger’s announcement because, in former Werder Bremen manager Rudi Assauer’s words, “those who out themselves always end up busted by it.”

In 2006, Rund magazine published interviews with two closeted German footballers, having documented their lives from 2004. One of the players had a wife who he claimed did not know about his sexuality, and the other told teammates a close female friend was his partner when, in truth, he was gay. The players’ identities have never been revealed.

National team goalkeeper Tim Wiese said in 2010 that openly gay players would be destroyed by “merciless fans,” because football is a “macho sport.”

That year, Philipp Lahm said: “A player who chooses to out himself has to carry out his job in front of tens of thousands of spectators.”

“Football has an uncontrollable urge for masculinity and heteronormativity.” – Statement from Bayern Munich fan group

Their comments led Mario Gomez to become one of the first German players to encourage his homosexual teammates to be open about their identities, but he remained in the minority. He said those who managed to speak out would feel liberated because “being gay should no longer be a taboo topic.”

Hitzlsperger’s announcement, then, a year after he retired as a player, took courage. In his interview with Die Zeit, he said homosexuality was a taboo in the male football dressing room, and that some of the comments made about the subject, including from teammates, made it harder.

“I’m coming out about my homosexuality because I want to move the discussion about homosexuality among professional sportspeople forwards,” he said.

While he has moved from his playing career to the boardroom, German football has failed to move forwards regarding homosexuality.

His efforts were summed up in a statement by Bayern Munich supporters group Colegio: “Five years ago, Thomas Hitzlsperger came out as gay, after his career was done. Since then, nothing’s changed in Germany’s professional leagues.

“Football has an uncontrollable urge for masculinity and heteronormativity.”

The group made their message clear as their side faced Hitzlsperger’s team, Stuttgart, at the Allianz Arena. They unveiled a banner which read: “Everyone should love whoever they want. The rest should keep quiet! Fight homophobia!”

Similar banners and rainbow flags, in support of Germany’s LGBT population who may be on the pitch, watching on the terraces or supporting from home, have been shown at Werder Bremen and St. Pauli’s matches this year, but homophobia is still prevalent.

Last month, in a match against Köln, Dynamo Dresden fans showed a banner at the Stadion Dresden, which read: “It is Easter fun for children. In Köln, it is not only today that men chase after eggs.”

Thomas Hitzlsperger, Bundesliga, Stuttgart
Thomas Hitzlsperger, Sports Director of VfB Stuttgart, addresses the media earlier this year regarding the team’s relegation. Hitzlsperger came out in 2014, after he retired as a player. He is the last player to be open about his sexuality. (Photo by Fabian Sommer/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Days later, Borussia Dortmund fans held a banner behind the goal in Signal Iduna Park’s south stand that read: “‘Rock N Roll’ Schalke? You queers are still singing to Kay One,” in reference to the supposed demographic that listens to German singer Prince Kay One.

In December, a Red Star Leipzig player reported a rival from Naunhof for using homophobic language toward him, in a match in the Landesklasse Nord, the seventh tier. The case went to the Saxony Football Association court, who dismissed any sanction because it was “typical football language.”

It is important to recognise, though, that progress is being made. The German Football Association (DFB) worked closely with the Queer Football Fanclubs to welcome LGBT supporters to Germany’s match against Serbia in March, by showing rainbow flags, introducing unisex toilets and allowing fans to choose whether they wished to be searched by a male or female steward. This came after Germany introduced an intersex identity option to legal documents in January.

However, for as long as players, staff and supporters continue to demonstrate homophobic behaviour from the top to grassroots level, homosexual players will continue to struggle to follow Urban and Hitzlsperger’s leads. This makes the work of the Fußball für Vielfalt (Football for Diversity) campaign, in which clubs are educating their stakeholders about the LGBT community by working with various charities, so important for the future.

Ryan Plant is a freelance sports journalist from Lincolnshire, England. He is a recent football journalism graduate from the University of Derby. His portfolio can be found at wakelet.com/@ryanplant1998.

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No scholarship, no problem: Athletes use club teams as springboard to gold

The Pitt women’s lacrosse team will become a varsity sport for the 2021-22 season (Photo courtesy US Lacrosse)

On a hot night in May 2008 in Tempe, Arizona, Carlos Trujillo of the University of Oregon ran away from the competition to win the Pac-10 10,000 meters championship by almost seven seconds.

Black text that reads why this matters
Not making a collegiate team doesn’t mean the end to aspirations to the pros or Olympics. Club sports can keep young athletes engaged and provide a path to future success.

A runner from a storied program such as Oregon winning a championship normally would not be a surprise, but Trujillo’s story was far from typical. Despite winning four events at the Idaho high school state track and field championships during his senior year, he was not recruited by any colleges. Oregon’s varsity coach wasn’t interested when Trujillo tried to walk on as a freshman.

With his running career almost over before it started, Trujillo found a home with the University of Oregon Running Club and used it as a springboard to the Oregon varsity team, the Pac-10 championship and the 2016 Olympic marathon.

Unlike college varsity athletes, club sport athletes do not receive scholarships or preferential admissions, and most must pay significant dues to compete. On some club teams, athletes will handle all administrative duties, such as scheduling competitions, while other teams hire coaches to handle these duties. Most club sports athletes were overlooked by recruiters in high school, such as Trujillo, while others may have received some recruiting interest but decided not pursue collegiate varsity sports.

Carlos Trujillo, Oregon, marathon
Carlos Trujillo ran for the University of Oregon’s club team before ultimately moving to the varsity lineup. (Photo courtesy Oregon Athletic Department)

The relationship between club and varsity athletics varies from school to school and sport to sport. In some sports, a club team may coexist with a varsity program on campus. In other sports, the club exists because there is no varsity team. For example, at the University of Michigan, the men’s club rowing team and women’s club ice hockey teams are the only opportunities for men and women to compete in those sports. But several other clubs at Michigan, such as women’s lacrosse and women’s volleyball, have a varsity equivalent on campus. Club teams often compete only against clubs from other schools, but, in some sports, a club could compete against varsity teams during the regular season or preseason scrimmages. Since club sports are not eligible to compete at the NCAA championship level, most have established national governing bodies that hold club national championships.

Because club sports are not governed by the NCAA or university athletic departments, some are more relaxed and recreational, while others expect a high level of commitment. Club athletes from both environments have made it to elite levels in their sports.

Many collegiate club rowing teams demand hard work from their athletes, with practices five or more times per week. It’s common for alumni of club rowing teams to earn berths on Olympic and national teams. Three of the eight oarsmen in the 2004 gold-medal-winning Olympic men’s eight were collegiate club team alumni, and Amanda Elmore, the stroke of the gold-medal-winning women’s eight in 2016, rowed for Purdue University’s club team.

Since becoming the Michigan men’s rowing team head coach in 1993, Gregg Hartsuff has seen three of his Michigan oarsmen — Steve Warner, Matt Hughes, and Tom Peszek — make U.S. Olympic teams and 16 others row internationally for national teams. The team’s track record of producing elite athletes is not surprising, considering athletes participate in seven to 12 mandatory practices per week from September through May.

In his first few years as coach, Hartsuff found he had to change the team’s culture. “I realized I needed to increase the core of people who were really committed. We went through a process of eliminating excuses for missing practice,” Hartsuff recalled. “You filtered more recreational types out. You kept more competitive types in. And, ultimately, that’s what led to our emergence as a program.”

“I don’t think rowing is totally unique, but it is part of a very small set of sports that happen to be something that you can pick up late in life and make up for with effort and focus.” – Former Michigan and 2012 Olympic rower Tom Peszek

Hartsuff’s rowers must pay dues and participate in fundraisers. Hartsuff explained his team succeeds despite these obstacles: “While many of us are proud of what we do as a club, we’re not necessarily proud to be a club. It’s not something we like to tout. We identify as team. The two words are very different. Club is recreational, optional, etc., and ‘team’ has a competitive ring to it.”

Most Michigan rowers, such as the three Olympians, do not have prior rowing experience when they arrive on campus, but they have the desire to compete for a team. Unlike many other sports where athletes need to specialize at an earlier age to reach elite levels, Hartsuff said he believes it is possible for a college athlete with no rowing experience to reach national team level because “the [rowing] motion, while it can take years to perfect, you can become decently proficient at it inside of 3 to 4 years.”

Former Michigan rower and 2012 Olympian Tom Peszek agrees. “I don’t think rowing is totally unique, but it is part of a very small set of sports that happen to be something that you can pick up late in life and make up for with effort and focus,” he said.

After running cross-country in high school, Peszek assumed his competitive sports days were over until a former classmate told him to try rowing at Michigan. Peszek was not an immediate success. He failed to make the first freshman boat, but the team’s competitive nature captivated him at the first meeting for freshmen rowers.

“They talked about getting to go compete intercollegiately and race with the block M on your back,” Peszek said. “That kind of spoke to me. That was kind of the hook.”

Tom Peszak, USRowing
Tom Peszek, (left) assumed his competitive days were over when he left high school. But encouraged by a former classmate to try rowing at Michigan, Peszek competed on a club team and eventually made the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. (Photo courtesy US Rowing)

Determined, Peszek worked hard enough to make Michigan’s top eight his last three years and later represent the United States at multiple international regattas and the Olympics.

Unlike most club rowers, women’s collegiate club ice hockey players come to college with years of experience in their sport.

University of Rhode Island head coach Ashley Pagliarini’s players come with experience at the high school level or higher-level junior hockey, and many of her players drew interest from NCAA Division I and Division III schools before choosing Rhode Island. Pagliarini’s players face a demanding environment: a season that lasts from September to March and almost daily practices.

“We do our best to run our team like an NCAA team,” Pagliarini said. “We have prime ice time, a full coaching staff, a training staff, a team doctor and off-ice fitness testing.”

The team doctor is a volunteer, and the university’s kinesiology department provides free fitness testing, but Rhode Island’s players pay dues and fundraise to cover the staff’s salaries and team’s expenses.

Two of Pagliarini’s players, Sydney Collins and Kristen Levesque, excelled and were drafted by the CWHL’s Boston Blades.

“They were both two of the best players on and off the ice that our program has ever had,” Pagliarini said. “Two of the hardest workers I’ve ever coached. They were the complete package, and everything a coach would want in a player from their work ethic, leadership, commitment to the team, talent, and ability to make players around them better.”

“We do our best to run our team like an NCAA team. We have prime ice time, a full coaching staff, a training staff, a team doctor and off-ice fitness testing.” – University of Rhode Island women’s hockey coach Ashley Pagliarini

Not all college club sports are that structured, but they still produce athletes who succeed after their college playing days. Eric Wohl, head coach of San Diego State University’s men’s and women’s club soccer teams, conducts organized practices twice per week and does not give his players workouts outside of practice. However, Wohl encourages players who want to play at the varsity level to practice and work out outside of the team’s two practices. Several of his players have made it SDSU’s varsity team and semi-pro teams.

Aleks Berkolds started his college years with the SDSU varsity team but left. Wohl said Berkolds basically gave up soccer, but Wohl approached him and encouraged him to play for the club team. At Berkolds’ first practice with the club team, Wohl knew he was a special talent. Berkolds eventually worked his way back to the varsity team and was drafted by the Seattle Sounders in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft.

Kevin Tidgewell, head coach of the University of Pittsburgh’s successful women’s club lacrosse team which will be made a varsity sport beginning with the 2021-22 season, has said he does not believe it is common for club lacrosse players to make it to the professional or national team level. But he thinks his program’s schedule of three practices per week allows students to have a competitive sports experience while pursuing demanding degrees.

Tidgewell asserts lacrosse is “a great opportunity to develop leadership and other skills that are transferable” and teaches players to “deal with success and failure in a positive way.”

Sometimes, a relaxed approach is what an athlete needs to find his or her love for a sport. After Trujillo arrived at Oregon and was turned away by the varsity cross-country and track teams, he seldom ran, but he and his twin brother, Esteban, who was also a strong distance runner, decided to give the University of Oregon Running Club a try at the end of their freshman year.

Tom Heinonen, the running club coach, recalled, “In the spring of 2004, I was at a meet at Hayward Field. Just as the meet ended, these two guys walk up and said, ‘Can we be in the running club?’ ” Heinonen agreed to allow them to run with the club, which they did for a year.

“They clearly had talent, and anybody except (Oregon’s varsity track and cross-country coach at that time) would have said, ‘Sure, you can walk on to our team,’ ” Heinonen said.

“There’s so much pressure if you go to a big school, especially a school like Oregon with all that history. If I would have gone straight from high school to the program, I probably wouldn’t be running the way I’m running now just because of all the pressure. You can get lost in that and forget why you’re there.” – Former Oregon club runner Carlos Trujillo

Before Heinonen became the running club coach, he was Oregon’s varsity women’s cross-country and track and field coach from 1977 to 2003 and coached three national championship teams. Despite his remarkable success, Heinonen wants the running club to be for runners of all abilities and interest levels. He provides only one structured track workout per week, while the rest of the club’s runs are group runs that he observes, and he gives his runners pointers.

“The club program as I see it is providing a running setting for lots of people — not jogging, running,” Heinonen said. “And that means I want people to be comfortable, who just are looking for somebody to run with. And for people who want to compete regularly. And trying to make everybody welcome.”

For Trujillo, this was the perfect environment to start his collegiate running career.

“There’s so much pressure if you go to a big school, especially a school like Oregon with all that history,” Trujillo said. “If I would have gone straight from high school to the program, I probably wouldn’t be running the way I’m running now just because of all the pressure. You can get lost in that and forget why you’re there.”

Michigan men's 8, rowing
The Michigan men’s 8 team competes. (Photo courtesy Todd Gocken)

The running club “reminded you of why you love the sport,” Trujillo said. He credits Heinonen with saving his running career: “Tom reignited the fire of running in me. I was done. He got me back into it.”

Even with this laid-back atmosphere, the Oregon Running Club has placed runners on the varsity team besides Carlos and Esteban Trujillo.

Oregon hired Vin Lananna as the new varsity coach during the summer of 2005, and Lananna welcomed Trujillo and his brother as walk-ons to the varsity team. Trujillo ran fast enough to compete at cross-country and track meets, but he was not winning races and was not supposed to win the 2008 Pac-10 10,000 meters championship.

Trujillo said Lananna and assistant coach Andy Powell merely wanted Trujillo to get out in front for the first few laps to set an honest pace. As the race progressed, Trujillo fell back into the pack, but he felt strong and decided to go for it with about six laps to go.

“Everyone was off guard. They didn’t expect that, and even my teammates didn’t expect it,” recalled Trujillo. “Next thing I know, I crossed the line first.”

Trujillo still runs marathons and is training to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, but he also coaches. With his experience as a runner and a coach, Trujillo said he believes other runners could take a similar path to his. “If you’re patient with your training, if you’re patient with the process and not getting frustrated, and having fun and being consistent, I think anyone who hasn’t been much of a runner could make it pretty far,” said Trujillo.

Jeff Burtka is a freelance writer based in metro Detroit. He writes about running at the blog Avid Runners and about Michigan at the blog Lifelong Michigander.