Pressures of wrestling can exacerbate mental health issues

RyanMillhof, Pac-12, wrestling
Ryan Millhof celebrates a pin in the semifinals at the Pac-12 Championship on March 9, 2019. His victory qualified him for a third trip to the NCAA Championship. (Photo courtesy  Travis Whittaker)

This story or pages it links to discuss suicide and depression which may be upsetting to some people. If you are having thoughts of hurting yourself or need someone to talk to, please skip to the bottom of this article for resources.

When Ryan Millhof woke up in the emergency room at Tempe (Arizona) St. Luke’s hospital, he was groggy, confused, and being closely monitored by a slew of doctors. But, he was not alone.

Why, sport and the body
According to the National Institutes of Health, one in every five Americans suffers from a mental illness. The pressure of being a college athlete creates an environment where added stress and lack of resources leaves athletes in the dark.

The smell of antiseptic burned his nose as he slipped in and out of consciousness. Each time he woke, it was to a new face sitting beside his bed. No one would ask the question, but each of his visitors’ faces spoke louder than any of the words they could have uttered. Why?

On Jan. 21, 2019, the Division I All-American wrestler downed a cocktail of anti-anxiety medication and muscle relaxers in an attempt to take his life. 

After experiencing nearly two decades worth of the highs of victory, the disappointment of defeat, the years of sacrifice and countless injuries caught up, and it seemed like the only way out to the then 23-year-old Millhof who wrestled for Arizona State.

“When you take a bunch of medication or try to hurt yourself or whatever it is that you do, your world seems very, very small,” Millhof said. 

“You’re focused on all of the negative aspects and the negative identities you associate yourself with. When you come to, and you’re in the hospital, you see the world around you and you grasp the magnitude of the situation.”

The magnitude of the situation is significant. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), one in every five Americans will suffer from some form of mental illness at some point in their lives.

But Millhof is more than a statistic. He and an inexhaustible number of athletes within the sport of wrestling are living examples of the reality of the systemic shortcomings of mental health in athletics.

A study found that collegiate athletes have a 10%–15% chance of developing a mental illness severe enough to warrant counseling, which is 2% higher than their non-athletic counterparts.

According to the NCAA, there are more than 460,000 student-athletes currently participating in 34 different sports.

If those numbers hold true today, then the population of current student-athletes who will battle a mental illness while juggling the demands of being an athlete would fill nearly any MLB stadium: 46,000 people, give or take a few.

With an issue as complex and individualized as mental health, it’s difficult to identify a singular problem or simple solution. When a stigma becomes socialized and so ingrained in how we function as humans, it’s difficult to separate the assumptions associated with a stigma from fact.

But, the facts are simple: student-athletes are suffering, at a shocking rate, from mental illness —  and oftentimes, no one notices until it’s too late.

“You’re focused on all of the negative aspects and the negative identities you associate yourself with. When you come to, and you’re in the hospital, you see the world around you and you grasp the magnitude of the situation.” – Former Arizona State wrestler Ryan Millhof

Kristin Hoffner is a principal lecturer at Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions. Her research areas include sport psychology, coaching behaviors, team cohesion, performance psychology, and self esteem, among a number of other areas related to sport.

“When we look at NCAA Division I athletics, specifically, I think most people can immediately understand the high level of training, the high commitment,” Hoffner said. “With that can come very high levels of staleness, which is the precursor to burnout.”

Burnout is the term used to describe the psychological and physiological issues associated with the high-level demands of athletics with little opportunity for recovery. Often, a lack of recovery leads to an injury or performance slump.

“Performance slumps can then be wrapped into anxiety, attached to fear of failure,” Hoffner said. “They can start to manifest in depressive episodes because, for a lot of Division I athletes and really all athletes, it’s a big piece of their identity.”

Preserving this identity, in many cases, is a principal factor when considering the success of the athlete.

“When your identity starts to suffer, that can consistently kind of pull up the same kinds of things that are associated with depression and anxiety,” Hoffner said.

The depths of depression

The sport of wrestling, just like any other collegiate or elite-level sport, demands a unique level of discipline, work ethic, and intrinsic accountability. 

The demands of higher education paired with the complex structure of the athletic lifestyle leaves very little time for student-athletes to be anything outside of these identities.

“When I started getting to a higher level of wrestling (that) is when my depression and anxiety started becoming more noticeable,” Millhof said. “You’re dealing with higher-level emotions, physical aspects, schoolwork, and personal life.”

Injuries plagued Millhof’s 18-year career. Each injury and time away from the mat was a blow to the identity that Millhof had constructed for himself as an athlete. Just one month into the final season of his career, the 125-pound wrestler sustained a severe concussion, which changed the landscape of how he navigated his identity entirely.

“As someone that has struggled with anxiety and depression in the past, we know scientifically, concussions can raise those symptoms,” Millhof said. “I wasn’t able to get back on the mat as fast as I had wanted, and I put my all into wrestling but I couldn’t even compete.”

“I felt worthless.”

“When we look at NCAA Division I athletics, specifically, I think most people can immediately understand the high level of training, the high commitment. With that can come very high levels of staleness, which is the precursor to burnout.” – Kristin Hoffner, principal lecturer in Arizona State’s   College of Health Solutions

Millhof added that the concussion affected the way he thought, acted on a daily basis and interacted with friends and family. He said his thought process suffered, and the overall way his body felt was concurrent with his head injury: unpredictable.

Arizona State assistant wrestling coach Chris Pendleton noticed a change in Ryan’s behavior, but said that “the scary part is that it’s actually kind of normal for any athlete who has an injury because they’re isolated and away from the team.”

The NCAA Sport Science Institute lists a number of symptoms that are identified as “normal behavior” for an athlete to exhibit after sustaining an injury. Almost every symptom listed can also be interpreted as a symptom that is associated diagnostically with a depressive episode or disorder.

So how do athletes, coaches, and medical personnel distinguish between what is considered normal by the NCAA, and what is actually concerning behavior?

Coaches, athletic trainers, and athletes themselves cannot be expected to recognize changes in an athlete’s behavior, and what that change in behavior might mean. The normalization of symptoms that are synchronous with warning signs for serious mental conditions, however, can be more of a danger to an athlete than the condition is itself.

Penn State’s Kyle Conel, an All-American who previously wrestled at Kent State, said he has also been wrestling with depression since “sixth or seventh grade.”

While wrestling remained the single constant in his life, the highs and lows of the sport and the pressures he faced as a result of the sport, and life in general, destabilized his emotions.

“I kind of always knew that I had depression,” Conel said. “I just never went to a doctor for it, never talked to anyone about it. I just kept it to myself and kept everything bottled up.”

In the spring of 2016, coming off of what he described as a “spectacular redshirt-freshman season” at Kent State, Conel attempted to take his own life.

“It almost didn’t feel like I was a real person,” Conel said. “I was just going through the motions, in pretty much every part of life.”

Kyle’s depression seeped into nearly every area of his life, and it came amid other stressors in his life, including pressure from coaches, teammates, and fans of Kent State to carry on the legacy of success the program has for producing All-Americans.

“When I was at my worst point, I pretty much would just wake up, go to my workouts, go to class, and then go home,” Conel said. “When I would go home, I was so stressed out and depressed that I would basically stare at the wall until I went to bed.”
Rachel Watters represented the United States at 72 kg at the 2017 United World Wrestling Junior World Championships in Tampere, Finland. (Photo courtesy of Richard Immel)

Conel woke up 16 hours after ingesting an entire bottle of pills he had been prescribed after a surgery. He got up and went to his team’s weightlifting session, “just like nothing had happened.”

Luckily, Conel survived and in the aftermath, he confided in someone. After speaking with one of his academic advisors, Kyle got the help he needed to cope with his daily struggles.

He stepped away from the sport for a handful of months, but made the decision to return to the mat, despite knowing he would have to win back his teammates and coaches.

“Getting back into wrestling, I had a lot of pushback from my support system, which caused a lot of stress,” Conel said. “Some people really didn’t respect me for leaving the team. I was basically trying to win everyone over, which was stressful.”

The 197-pound wrestler from Ashtabula, Ohio capped of an impressive redshirt-junior campaign by knocking off the No. 1 seeded wrestler not once, but twice, en route to a third-place finish at the 2018 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.

But no amount of success, even in one of the most grueling weekends in sports, could fend off the depression that awaited Conel once he stepped off the medal podium.

“When I was at my worst point, I pretty much would just wake up, go to my workouts, go to class, and then go home. When I would go home, I was so stressed out and depressed that I would basically stare at the wall until I went to bed.” – Penn State wrestler Kyle Conel

“After that tournament, I probably went into one of the worst depressions of my life,” Conel said. “The hype and the attention was cool, but it got to be really overwhelming. I couldn’t focus on my school work. My academics definitely suffered.”

In addition to competing at the Division-1 level, majoring in computer science, and working in tech support for Kent State’s campus, the 23-year-old also served as a primary caregiver for his niece and two nephews.

I was busy from before sun up until sun down; all day, every day. That was another hard thing where I didn’t have as much time to relax,he said.

Conel added that a change in his mindset toward wrestling helped him appreciate the fact that he was able to compete in a sport that so many could not. He said that appreciation helped illuminate other areas of his life.

“I went into it with the mindset that I was doing it for myself, I wasn’t doing it for the people who have bad things to say about me,” Conel said. “I went in with the mentality of doing this for myself and being grateful for every single day –  the hard days, the easy days – I’m grateful that I have them.”

He completed his degree at Kent State University. After sustaining an injury his senior year, he was granted a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA, and used the graduate transfer rule to join the Nittany Lions’ powerhouse wrestling program this season.

Identifying with injury

An injury can happen at any moment and everything can change for athletes when they occur. Some of the most common injuries for wrestlers include ligament tears in the knee, dislocations or sprains to the elbow or shoulder, fractured and dislocated fingers and concussions.

Some injuries are easier to cope with than others. But the one thing that ties all injuries together is what is required mentally for the athlete to completely recover.

Sarah Hildebrandt is a resident-athlete at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and an alumna of the highly-decorated King University women’s wrestling team. She won two national titles for the Tornado at 123-pounds.

Injuries have accompanied Hildebrandt through most of her career; one of the many challenges of the sport she has found difficult to cope with through the years. 

“You do something your whole life, every single day, everything revolves around it and then just, boom, it’s gone,” she said. “You’re told you can’t do it for six or seven months.”

Prior to the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials, Hildebrandt suffered a knee injury. Two meniscus tears meant two more hurdles to clear in order to qualify for the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“You do something your whole life, every single day, everything revolves around it and then just, boom, it’s gone. You’re told you can’t do it for six or seven months.” – Olympic-hopeful wrestler Sarah Hildebrandt

Hildebrandt lost in the second round, ultimately placing fifth at the Trials. Helen Maroulis, who won the 53kg class that Hildenbrandt competed in, went on to become the first gold medalist in women’s freestyle wrestling for the United States. 

“Recovering after that was an unreal feeling. I remember I just kept thinking, ‘four whole years,’ ” Hildebrandt said. “I knew there was no way I could make an Olympic team when I’m out of commission halfway, and that was just straight heartbreak.”

Hildebrandt said one of the most difficult aspects of coming back from an injury is recovering mentally from the pain and disappointment.

“You’re kind of forced to think, ‘Who am I outside of wrestling?’ and that can be really scary,” she said.

The time between the heartbreak of Hildebrandt’s 2016 run and her next appearance on the 2018 world stage was driven by a transformation of both mental and physical practices that would set her apart from the rest of the competition.

“I think (injury) ends up being beneficial for my performance,” Hildebrandt said. “As the months go on, I’m kind of able to realign my emotions, find silver linings and actually come back to the sport much stronger.”

She went on to become the World Team member representing the U.S. at 53kg, bringing a silver medal home from the 2018 World Championships in Budapest, Hungary.

Hildebrandt was named the 2018 Women’s Wrestler of the Year by USA Wrestling, and recently defended her third career spot as a senior World Team member in June. 

Hildebrandt said she used her time away from the mat to reform the ways she thought about, and functioned within, the sport. She made monumental changes to her diet to make cutting weight easier, and chose to prioritize her health over anything that wasn’t making her a better wrestler.

She said the injuries she faced forced her away from the wrestling room and served as necessary mental breaks Hildebrandt didn’t even know she needed.

Are you really taking time off if during your time off, all you’re thinking about is how you should be working out and you should be eating this and doing that?” Hildebrandt said. 

“That’s not taking time off, and it’s mentally exhausting. When you’re experiencing anxiety from this sort of worrying, that’s not a break. Sometimes injuries end up being really good for people because it forces you into this time off and, whether you like it or not, you can’t be in the wrestling room.”

A fixation on food

Food is one of the most basic human needs. But when a sport is centered around the number that is displayed when an athlete steps on the scale, food goes from a thoughtless essential for most people to an obsession for a wrestler.

Cutting weight is often inevitable in wrestling. Athletes are disqualified from competition if they are even an ounce over their designated weight at the time of weigh-ins. So for many wrestlers, weight becomes a central focus.

In a 2007 mental health manual produced by the NCAA, participation in sports “for most individuals is a healthy experience, but aspects of the sport environment can increase the individual’s risk for an eating disorder.” 

But what happens when behavior that would normally be considered abnormal is a foundational trend within a sport?

Rachel Watters is a wrestler at Oklahoma City University (OCU) and a five-time age-group World Team member for the United States. She currently is second on the ladder for the women’s senior-level national team.

Although Watters said she thinks she’s been depressed for a while, she said that cutting weight heightens all of her feelings associated with depression.

Kyle Conel celebrates after a historic run at the 2018 NCAA Wrestling Championship. (Photo courtesy of Austin Bernard)

“I just remember having a really, really bad experience with it when I was cutting weight in high school,” Watters said. She used to have to cut as much as 15 pounds while wrestling in high school against boys in Iowa.

“I would be doing 12-pound swings from Sunday to Thursday, for months,” Watters said. “So that was where it got really, really bad, and where I realized I needed help.”

Watters recalled a night that she was in bed, unable to sleep because of dehydration. “My brain was just racing, and I remember feeling suicidal. I think it was definitely heightened because of the cutting weight.”

Watters was able to balance her weight expectations alongside her academic requirements during her freshman year at OCU, but it didn’t come easily.

“I was cutting pretty hard weight, classes were way harder, I was traveling a lot our freshman year,” she said. “My first ever finals week in college, I was cutting weight for the U.S. Open, which was in a matter of days.”

What made it worth it for Watters was the strong foundation and support system. Central to that system is her coach, Matt Stevens.

“He cares about you as a human being first, before wrestling,” Watters said, adding that having the support of her coaches made dealing with injuries, depression, and the struggles of weight management  bearable.

Hildebrandt cited a similar experience with the strong support she gets from her coaches, fellow athletes and family, and how this has helped her combat her own mental hurdles.

“I definitely struggle with body image issues,” Hildebrandt said. “I think that’s a huge part of my mental struggles. I have my whole life. Before wrestling I was a ballerina, another sport where the body is so analyzed, especially as a woman.”

Whether Sarah was battling issues within the realm of confidence and worth or weight management and image, her coaches were there almost every step of the way. 

“I think having worked with them for so long, I do feel comfortable enough to turn to my coaches and tell them that mentally, I’m not here right now and I can’t be doing this,” she said. “Or even on the other end, I think they know me well enough to know when I’m not okay.”

Hildebrandt said that she struggled with her weight, self-image, and mental health through college, which helped lead to her decision to leave school and become a resident-athlete at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“My junior year of college was when I won my first college national title and mentally I never felt worse,” Hildebrandt said. “It’s very clear that winning is not the answer to things you might be dealing with.”

In a sport where weight precision and body composition is the central focus, it’s hard for some athletes to see anything other than how many meals they might need to skip when they step on the scale. 

“My junior year of college was when I won my first college national title and mentally I never felt worse. It’s very clear that winning is not the answer to things you might be dealing with.” – Olympic-hopeful wrestler Sarah Hildebrandt

“You have to look at it, the number does matter,” Hildebrandt said. “On top of that, we kind of have almost bred this idea of, if you go down a weight class, you’ll be more successful. So, you’re too big, but go lose 20 pounds and then put on your one-piece Spandex singlet and you’ll be successful. It’s terrifying.”

Hildebrandt thought back to when she was in college; when she would win matches and have her arm raised, she would make sure to cover her torso with the other arm so that no one would be able to photograph her stomach through her singlet.

“I would remember to do that in the heat of the moment, seconds after winning a match,” she said. “Those pressures are there, and I think they do weigh deeply on a lot of athletes. We’re told our body needs to look like this, and we need to be this strong, so you need to cut this much weight.”

The unrealistic body image expectations and pressures that weigh deeply on an athlete, regardless of the sport, know no gender. 

According to the NCAA, eating disorders “are much less common among males, but it should be remembered that 10 to 25 percent of individuals with eating disorders are male.”

Eating disorders are a sensitive topic, especially for athletes, making intervention and treatment exceedingly difficult within an already-existing exercise regimen and training cycle.

The pressure to perform

Gianni Ghione had his first-ever anxiety attack after sustaining a shoulder injury during wrestling practice at the University of Pennsylvania.

“If you’ve never had one, they’re absolutely terrifying,” Ghione said. “You literally think you’re dying because you don’t know what’s happening to you.”

Then came the concussions. Ghione suffered two concussions within the span of a few months, each within minutes of his return to the mat from the previous injury. 

“I want to say that was rock bottom, but it wasn’t,” Ghione said. “It definitely got worse.”

Ghione said the stress caused a spike in his anxious tendencies and stemmed from a combination of his expectations to perform athletically and academically at an Ivy League university.

“My anxiety was at its peak. I was having multiple panic attacks a day, back to back,” Ghione said. “I lost 20 pounds in what felt like a week. I told myself I couldn’t live like this anymore.”

Chas Dorman, associate director of athletics communications at Penn, has worked for the Quakers for a decade, spending much of his time and energy on the wrestling program.

Sarah Hildebrandt represents the United States at 53kg for the women’s freestyle team. As of 2019, she is a world silver medalist, an Ivan Yarygin Grand Prix champion, and a 4x Pan-American champion. (Photo by McKenzie Pavacich)

“Penn is a place, across all sports, that is very high stress because there’s a lot of pressure,” Dorman said. “We’ve had some really tough experiences at the university, and within the athletic department. So, we’re trying to get as many resources together as we can to let our student-athletes know that battling through mental health issues is a fight worth winning.”

The Penn trains its community of faculty, athletics administration, and students to provide iCare, which the school calls a “first level of care.”

iCare has helped train nearly 3,000 people since its launch in 2014 in the areas of crisis intervention and general education of mental health.

Through the training, Associate Athletic Director Matt Valenti served as a resource to Ghione while he navigated the unfamiliar areas his anxiety created.

Valenti is a Penn wrestling alum  and a two-time NCAA champion and three-time All-American for the Quakers.

Ghione said that Valenti was one of the first people he called when his anxiety pushed him to what felt like a breaking point.

“He knew exactly what to say,” Ghione said. “He said, ‘Tell me everything. What do you need?’ ”

Working alongside his athletics administration and coaching staff, Ghione decided to go home to New Jersey before the end of his fall semester, hoping to return for the 2019 spring semester.

Ghione’s decision to take time away from both school and the sport led to a challenging time for reflection.

“Being around this level of competition, you have to have a certain level of perfectionism to your personality,” Ghione said. “When you expect a certain level out of yourself that’s so perfect, you’re never going to be good enough.”

Despite concerns surrounding his academic and athletic demands, Ghione ultimately took a leave of absence from the Penn in the spring of 2019. 

“I never understood anxiety or panic attacks, so I understand when people just don’t get it. If you’ve never gone through it, you’re not going to get it.” – Penn wrestler Gianni Ghione

“When it came to my coaches, I didn’t know what to expect,” Ghione said. “I didn’t know if they were ready to deal with it, because not a lot of people know how to deal with this level of mental health issues.”

To his surprise, Ghione said that his coaches and the athletics administration were equipped with the tools to prioritize Ghione’s health while helping him keep wrestling in his life.

Ghione’s coaching staff and teammates kept in constant contact during his leave. The team sent photos from road trips, which Ghione said made him “still feel like a part of the team.”

His absence from his team is nearing an end, as Ghione is listed on the 2019–2020 roster at 133/141 pounds for the Quakers.

Ghione said he recognized the stigma surrounding mental health, and realized that “a lot of people don’t seek help because they don’t want to admit they’re dealing with something.”

“Before I dealt with this, I didn’t understand how crippling it all is. I never understood anxiety or panic attacks, so I understand when people just don’t get it,” Ghione said. “If you’ve never gone through it, you’re not going to get it.”

Ghione has used his own experience to shine a light on mental health issues. During his leave of absence, he published a statement to his Twitter account, applying transparency to his situation.

“At the end of the day, if you want to get better, it does have to start with you,” Ghione said. “You can’t let your mental health take over your life. You have to be willing to fight back.”

Cultivation of constructive culture

The topic of mental health has been evolving from what can be perceived as taboo to something that is becoming embraced within society.

Sport can act as a double-edged sword for many athletes, serving as a source of stress, but also as an outlet for negative emotions.

Regardless of the sport, student-athletes and elite-level athletes have one thing in common: their lives are filled with an overwhelming amount of pressure and stress.

Destigmatizing and socializing mental health in sport can be accomplished through a process involving breaking down sport as a whole into many layers.

Looking at the issue of mental health from microscopic perspectives, like that of a single sport, coaches, athletes, team dynamics, and so on, can help target treatment and training for those who can help prevent the adverse health effects mental health issues can pose to an athlete.

Hoffner said that when it comes to college and elite-level sports, the athlete-coach relationship extends beyond the boundaries of sport.

“I think that the coach not only plays a coaching role, but a mentor role as well,” Hoffner said. “To be comfortable or feel comfortable enough to be able to divulge any sort of illness  – mental, physical, an injury  –  all of these things are critical to mental health maintenance.”

Pendleton said he feels the added responsibility every time he talks to the parent of an athlete the Sun Devils are recruiting.

“You know, coaching isn’t just the X’s and O’s of showing a wrestling move,” Pendleton said. “You are responsible for being that gap between them leaving high school and leaving their parents, to the real world. It’s a daunting job responsibility.”

Hoffner suggested that the ideal solution is athletic departments putting coaches through training that will help them recognize the warning signs of mental illness.

Sarah Hildebrandt sits next to her coach Izzy Izboinikov during a women’s freestyle practice at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. (Photo by McKenzie Pavacich)

“We have a big stigma with mental health in this country, so if athletes are experiencing this, they’ve kind of been conditioned to not speak up,” Hoffner said. “That may also be something that is socialized within a sport setting as well. But, coaches aren’t trained in these sorts of things, so to go to a coach, or to go to a teammate, (an athlete is) not always getting the best advice on how to effectively deal with it. Not because of any sort of malintent, but because of a lack of knowledge and training.”

As this silent epidemic continues to plague millions of Americans, the first step is to start a larger conversation about reducing the stigma associated with mental health.

As Millhof reflects on his life since that night in the hospital, he believes “talking about it” was the best thing for his recovery, but he also recognizes that his words could have an impact on someone else. So, he decided to tell his teammates what he had been through.

“Being a male and being a wrestler you really try to shy away from emotions,” Millhof said. “You really try to be like, ‘I’m okay. If anything’s bad I’ll toughen up. I’ll deal with it.’ And what scared me is if one of my teammates went through it, and I could have said something to help them.”

For Millhof, what started simply as a concussion evolved into a wakeup call for him and those around him.

“I was one of those guys, that was like, it’s never going to happen to me,” Millhof said. “You are going through things, and that makes you human.”

Millhof has since learned how to live with the stressors that almost took his life. He spends each day coaching a high school team in his native Georgia, giving back to the sport which has given him so much in life.

He is a wrestler, a coach, a soon-to-be husband, but above all, a survivor.

Mental health issues are a real, but treatable illness, and you are not alone. If you are having thoughts of hurting yourself or need someone to talk to, please take action now by calling 1-800-273-8255 or by visiting

McKenzie Pavacich is a masters sports journalism student at Arizona State University

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Love of baseball but lack of opportunities moves Thibaut from player to scout

Sara Thibaut made the USA Women’s National Baseball Trials roster in 2016. After failing to make the team two previous times. (Photo courtesy of Sara Thibaut)

FOLSOM, California – Since age 4, Sara Rose Thibaut has been in love with the game of baseball.

Women’s and girls’ interest in some traditionally male-only sports has grown exponentially in recent years, and new teams and championships are being created in response.

That love of baseball has led her to a different area of the game: baseball operations. It’s an opportunity Thibaut didn’t consider until she went to MLB’s Taking the Field program at the winter meetings last year.

MLB currently has only one female scout, Amanda Hopkins, who just finished her fourth full season with the Seattle Mariners. Hopkins, whose dad worked in baseball operations, knows the struggles of getting into the game. She talked with Thibaut and 11 other women at the Women’s Sports School Scout Baseball! program about her journey to the big leagues in October.

 “She (Amanda) said just to stay the course,” Thibaut said.

Staying the course is what Thibaut has had to do her whole life. Early on, she noticed the lack of female representation in the game of baseball.

“For baseball when I was young, I didn’t understand. I said, ‘Mom, why isn’t there girls on the field at these Major League Baseball games? Can I be the first?’ Then, of course, she said yes.”

Thibaut is an only child. And her parents were fully invested in all her interests.

“We focused 100% of our energy into what she wanted to do,” Sara’s mother, Patty Thibaut, said. 

“And, really, what we’ve been is her fans promoting her, you know, signing her up and making sure she gets to all the tryouts.”

Thibaut has played baseball for over 20 years now. She started playing in the Folsom National Little League, where she played every position from first base and the outfield to pitching. 

Thibaut, at age 11 pitched in the Folsom National Little League. (Photo courtesy of Sara Thibaut)

“Some of the kids really could have cared less sometimes,” Thibaut’s youth coach, Mark Bouchlin, said. “But she was there to play every team every year I coached her. And she had a good time doing it.”

She played Little League baseball until she entered Sacramento Waldorf High School, where she played varsity baseball all four years. She was an off-speed pitcher with a sidearm release. Thibaut also played in the infield.

“There’s not really any opportunities to play baseball after this (high school), so I started researching, and I then realized that there was a women’s national baseball team,” she said. 

Thibaut tried out for the women’s national baseball team twice before finally making the team’s 40-woman roster in 2016 on her third attempt. She did not make the final 20-woman roster that won gold at the 2016 World Cup in South Korea.

Off to Australia

Thibaut continued playing, joining the Melbourne Demons in an Australian women’s baseball league. The adjustment was hard.

Although the Australian baseball seasons run from October to February, Thibaut came home to Folsom for Christmas because she was homesick.

“It was awful,” Patty Thibaut said. “If it wasn’t for FaceTime, I would be (a) crazy woman. I mean, it was her first time away from home … She really was homesick.”

Seeing her parents at Christmas rejuvenated Sara Thibaut and made heading back to Australia to play easier. Patty watched her play whenever it was possible via Skype calls. 

Baseball Scouting

Thibaut came back to the states after playing baseball in Australia for a year and a half. And she started attending Folsom Lake College, where she earned a variety of associate’s degrees.

“When she wants something, she goes for it, and she is very determined,” said A.J. Richard, a member of the Society for Baseball Research (SABR) and creator of the Facebook group Women Belong in Baseball. “She’s not going to let anything stand in her way.”

Thibaut now goes to Sacramento State, graduating this fall with her bachelor’s degree in early childhood education and journalism. She plans on attending graduate school to get her master’s degree.

While taking classes at Sacramento State, she has worked at former MLB catcher Matt Walbeck’s Baseball Academy and played in the National Adult Baseball Association. Both have helped her to continue to cultivate how she looks at the game.

“There’s certain benchmarks that they’re looking for, you know; you have to pitch over 90 miles per hour,” Richard said. “And you have to do this and that, and yet look at a Greg Maddux. And so most of his career, he wasn’t pitching in the 90s, but he’s one of the greatest pitchers of all time. And you look at his statistics. He’s in the record books because he had so much control.”

Thibaut and a few of her teammates from the River City A’s, a National Adult Baseball Association team that she plays for and coaches. (Photo courtesy of Sara Thibaut)

Maddux’s emphasis on command is a different approach to how pitching is looked at in baseball. During his career, Maddux had only one season when he had over 200 strikeouts. This year alone, 24 pitchers had 200 or more strikeouts.

Thibaut finds that her take on baseball is different from that of her peers because of all the adversity she has faced to get to this point – trying out for the women’s national baseball team three times, not making the team’s trip to the 2016 games and riding the bench on her high school team before getting the opportunity to start.

“She can recognize that amazing ability to overcome barriers in other people,” Richard said.

MLB received a “C” for gender diversity in the latest race and gender report card from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) at the University of Central Florida; that mark was lower than those of several other professional leagues. Thibaut, however, doesn’t want other women who are interested in baseball to shy away from potential opportunities.

“You have to make your own opportunities,” Thibaut said. “I think just to continue that (baseball), just through everything through scouting, through playing, through coaching, and hopefully open up those doors for girls coming behind us to realize there’s an opportunity and it can happen.”

Thibaut not only wants to make her dreams of working in baseball operations happen, but she also plans to continue to give back to the game that has done so much for her.

Lamar Smith is a graduate student in sports journalism at Arizona State University

Japan showing world what a women’s wrestling powerhouse is

ASU sophomore Marlee Smith is walk-on on the Sun Devil wrestling team. She’s only the second woman to ever walk on to the team, and she’s currently the only female wrestler on the roster. (Photo by Sarah Farrell/Cronkite News)

Women’s freestyle wrestling has been part of the Olympics only since 2004, but in those 15 years, Japan has dominated the sport at every weight class. Two women, Saori Yoshida and Kaori Icho, have been on the forefront of that dominance.

Women’s and girls’ interest in some traditionally male-only sports has grown exponentially in recent years, and new teams and championships are being created in response.

For Yoshida, wrestling is a family affair. She began wrestling before she turned 5 years old. Her father, Eikatsu Yoshida, was a former Japanese national champion and coach for the Japanese women’s national team. He built a dojo at the family house where he taught Yoshida and her brothers wrestling. As Yoshida grew in the sport, her father served as her personal coach.

Her father died in 2014. As Yoshida retired from wrestling this year, she reminisced on the role her father played in her career

“I think that from heaven, he would say that I did really well,” Yoshia told The Asahi Shimbun.Japan has won 11 of the 18 gold medals contested in women’s freestyle wrestling at the Olympics. Yoshida and Icho have combined for seven of those gold medals.

Icho has been wrestling for much of her life as well. She was undefeated on the mat for 13 years of her career.

The women’s wrestling world championships have been contested since 1987, and Japan has been just as dominant on the mats there as well. Japanese wrestlers have won 87 total gold medals and 22 team world titles.

Now, a decade later, Japan is stepping up its commitment leading up to the 2020 Olympic Games with a lofty goal: to win 20 gold medals across all sports while serving as the host city.

In order to do so, leaders know they have to invest resources into underserved areas across sport and gender.

Japanese Women’s Wrestling

The Japan Wrestling Federation was founded in 1932. Similar to USA Wrestling, it serves as the governing body over the athletes in the three disciplines of wrestling at numerous age levels.

Kaori Icho made history in Athens in 2004, becoming one of the first Olympic gold medalists in the history of women’s wrestling and the first for Japan. Following suit was her teammate Yoshida, who would go on to win three Olympic golds before falling in 2016 to Helen Maroulis, the first female wrestler to claim Olympic gold for the United States.

Maroulis’ victory snapped the historic and seemingly never-ending reign of Yoshida, who was a dominant force in women’s wrestling for decades. She won three Olympic gold medals in a row, 13 consecutive world titles and four Asian Games titles. She had 119 consecutive victories from 2001 to 2008.

“It’s frustrating to see Yoshida lose,” head coach Kazuhito Sakae said in 2016. “But when you consider that she was going for her fourth Olympic gold medal, and the way she responds to expectations and the way she carries herself, she deserves even more than gold.” 

Icho joined a select group of athletes after she won four consecutive gold medals at the Olympics. She won three titles at the middleweight class (63kg) before transitioning to the newly created welterweight class (58kg) at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. In no surprise, she won at that weight class as well. 

She’s just the fourth athlete to complete such a feat, and the first woman to do so, joining the likes of American greats Carl Lewis and Al Oerter in athletics, and Michael Phelps in the pool.

“The thought of my fourth consecutive victory didn’t put any pressure on me, but I think these are the first Games when I’ve been a bit afraid,” Icho said after her gold-medal run in 2016. “There were many things going on inside my head, but I think I won this because of my desire.”

The desire stems from more than just athletic ability and competitiveness. It’s an understanding of the sport that stems generations, as the development of wrestling styles over the centuries has been heavily influenced by Japanese masters of martial arts.

As the sport became more solidified in its rules and styles over the course of the 20th century, Japan maintained a steady grip on its influence. Learning how to wrestle in Japan would be similar to learning how to play baseball with Babe Ruth or Jackie Robinson.

Beyond the deeply rooted understanding for the sport, the country itself holds its athletes to a professional standard. Athletes are awarded for winning Olympic medals, and in doing so, their sport as a whole also reaps financial benefits.

Kaori Icho, Japan, women's wrestling, Olympics
Kaori Icho of Japan with her gold medal after her victory over Valeriia Koblova Zholobova of Russia during the 2016 Rio Olympics.  (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

In 2010, Yoshida accepted an award of 2 million Yen (nearly $18,400 USD) from Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest media conglomerate, after successfully defending her world and Olympic titles. In addition, the Japan Wrestling Federation also received 3 million Yen (just over $27,500 USD).

“Japan as a nation is now taking seriously how sports for women ought to be,” Seiko Hashimoto said in 2016. “Up until now, there were no specific measures being taken for women in sport.”

Hashimoto represented Japan in seven consecutive summer and winter Olympic Games, competing as a speed skater from 1984 to 1994 and as a track cycling sprinter during the summers from 1988 to 1996. She also served as Japan’s Olympic chief of mission during the 2016 Games.

“We need to strengthen the National Training Center to underscore the strong performances we have seen already,” Hashimoto said shortly after the 2016 Games. “In Tokyo, we want to be number three in total medals, and to achieve this ambitious goal, we need to have training centers inside Japan but also abroad. We need to have a presence outside of Japan where athletes can train.”

As the 2020 Games near, Japan has stepped up its commitment to women’s sports, doing so by placing women at the forefront of wrestling events. 

In the past, women’s freestyle events have been grouped with men’s Greco-Roman, leaving men’s freestyle as the so-called main event. The 2020 Games will feature a women’s weight class bracket in its entirety each day of wrestling competition, alongside both men’s Greco-Roman and freestyle.

“The schedule announced by Tokyo 2020 will help wrestling ensure high attendance for each day of the competition,” said UWW president Nenad Lalovic. “This schedule will help us reach even more fans and create a positive and energetic environment for all our competitors. The stars of women’s wrestling will guarantee that interest level.”

Growth of Women’s Wrestling Worldwide

Wrestling was contested in the Olympics for more than a century before women were added to the field. In 2004, 108 years after the start of the modern Olympics, women took to the mat for the first time.

There were four weight classes in which 16 women earned medals at the 2004, 2008 and 2012 Games. Then, there were none.

Shortly after the 2012 Olympic Games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to drop wrestling from the Games. 

“In the view of the executive board, this was the best program for the Olympic Games in 2020,” said Mark Adams, IOC spokesperson. “It’s not a case of what’s wrong with wrestling. It is what’s right with the 25 core sports.”

There were reportedly a number of reasons, including a lack of popularity outside of Olympic years and a lack of globally known athletes from the sport, but it was also widely speculated that the lack of equal representation of women was a leading reason.

“(Wrestling) has been in the modern Olympics since 1896,” said Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. “In London, 29 different countries won medals. This is a popular sport.”

After a global push to reinstate one of the original Olympic events, it was women who arguably saved the sport completely.

Changes were made. The governing body for global wrestling, FILA, was reimagined as United World Wrestling in 2014. Within months of the original decision, and after working alongside the governing body to make changes to the rules and make the sport easier to understand, the IOC reversed its verdict through the 2024 Olympics.

In doing so, the sport was split up in a way to give women equal representation as men: six weight classes per discipline, with the same number of spots allocated for athletes across the sport. 

In 2012, 57 women competed at the London Games. In 2016, the added weight classes doubled the number in Rio.

India’s Sakshi Malik became the first female medalist for her country when she won a bronze in 2016. Malik was one of the last athletes to qualify for the Games; without the added weight classes and spots in her bracket, India could still be striving for its first female medalist today.

“It’s (the victory) the result of 12 years of wrestling day and night. I never gave up in the bout and gave it my maximum,” Malik told Indian television news channels after her victory.

The growth for women’s wrestling since its inception in the 2004 Games has become a motivating factor for women to strive to be more than just a world champion. The added weight classes and spots per bracket give more women from more countries a chance to achieve the ultimate goal in wrestling.

Increased interest across the world, but especially in the United States, adds a level of competition that fosters success and adds depth to world teams. But it also requires more coaches and places for women, and men, to train.

Introduction of Regional Training Centers in US

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations 2018-19 participation survey, about 21,000 students participate in girls wrestling in the United States. That’s up 5,000 from the previous year. Additionally, 18 states now sanction women’s wrestling at the high school level.

The increase in participation at the youth level has led to additional opportunities opening up for training beyond high school. Female wrestlers in the U.S. now have options that are more tailored to fit each wrestler.

Historically, there were two options for women to continue wrestling after high school. They could go to a university that had a women’s wrestling program, or they could try to claim one of the few resident-athlete spots at the U.S. Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs, Colorado. 

Smith often wrestles with the guys on the ASU team. ASU head coach Zeke Jones sees Smith’s presence in the wrestling room as a positive for his team as a whole. “She’s a tremendous training partner for our guys,” he said. “She just adds to the collective strength of what we’re doing.” (Photo by Sarah Farrell/Cronkite News)

Within the past decade, a shift has begun within American wrestling. Regional Training Centers (RTCs), often located near Division I programs, offer an elite training experience that is organized and sanctioned by USA Wrestling.

“The RTCs have been fantastic for developmental wrestling in the United States,” Arizona State University wrestling coach Zeke Jones said. “They’ve also been fantastic for women’s wrestling. [Female wrestlers] can train anywhere in the country that has a regional training center, and that’s mostly our best collegiate programs. So it gives our women a vehicle to train with the elite college athletes with aspirations of being the best in the world.”

Training at RTCs affords women access to experienced coaches, mentors and world-class facilities. 

RTCs give young wrestlers support to grow as athletes. There are over 40 RTCs located throughout the United States. 

In 1976, Art Martori, a former president of USA Wrestling, founded Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club. This RTC, located in Tempe, Arizona, is one of the oldest in the country. According to Martori, Sunkist supports 40 to 70 athletes around the country every year.

“We [provide the] assets necessary for them to do that,” Martori said. “That’s coaching. That’s travel. That’s getting them to the places they need to be in the United States and overseas. And getting them a stipend in which they can pay for their training, food and housing as necessary.”

Another reason Smith chose to come to ASU was to train with Kelsey Campbell. Campbell is an ASU alum, Olympian and mentor for Smith. (Photo by Sarah Farrell/Cronkite News)

While many RTCs are located within college wrestling programs, athletes don’t have to be in college to train at an RTC. Kelsey Campbell graduated from ASU in 2008 and competed on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. She trains in Tempe and receives a stipend from Sunkist to wrestle full time.

Martori’s daughter, Kim Martori, is the executive director of Sunkist and runs the day-to-day operations. She equated the role of RTCs in wrestling to that of clubs in other sports such as basketball and baseball. It gives young athletes access not only to top facilities and coaches but also to training partners, nutritionists and mental health professionals. It provides the support and the knowledge base needed for an athlete to become a professional wrestler.

“If you want that extremely elite experience, being part of a Division I program, we do have some of the best coaches in the world here [at ASU],” Campbell said. 

The added support and opportunities have helped the talent pool for women’s wrestling in the United States to continue to grow. In 2016, that led to the country’s first Olympic gold medal, the gold won by Maroulis. Through the years, the United States has been more consistent racking up World Championship medals as well. In 2019, American athletes claimed three gold medals.

A Look Forward to 2020

The 2020 Olympics are quickly approaching, and the Japanese wrestling program will have the added advantage of hosting the games in Tokyo.

Yoshida has retired, and Icho will likely not compete after failing to claim a spot on the Olympic squad. But that hardly hampers Japan’s medal hopes in 2020. Young talent like Risako Kawai, Mukaida Mayu, Nanami Irie, Hiroe Minagawa Suzuki, Yukako Kawai and Masako Furuichi all medaled at the recent World Championships in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan

The Americans are not far behind. In November, the top teams in the world were in Narita, Japan, for the World Cup. The American team, including Campbell, finished in second place. 

While the roster for U.S. Olympic team has not been finalized, the squad will have  many experienced wrestlers from the World Championships and the Rio Olympics. Jaccara Gwenisha Winchester, Tamyra Mariama Mensah-Stock and Adeline Gray all took gold at the 2019 World Championships. Maroulis and Gray have already claimed their qualifying spots and look to add to their breakout performances in 2016.

One of the biggest advantages for Smith training at ASU is having access to Division I facilities and coaches. She does all of the same practices and training sessions as her male teammates. (Photo by Sarah Farrell/Cronkite News)

Olympic hopefuls truly come from around the world. Medalists at the World Championships came from traditional powerhouse countries like Canada, Ukraine, Japan, China and the U.S. But medalists also came from countries like Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Estonia, India and Nigeria. Not only has women’s wrestling grown in the U.S., it has grown around the world as well.

While Yoshida will not return to the mat in 2020, she still plays an important role in the Tokyo Olympics and in the further development of women’s wrestling. She will deliver the Olympic flame, along with the former judoka Tadahiro Nomura, to Japan. She will also help develop young talent, like Kawai and Muya, as an assistant coach in 2020.

Around the world, there are still female firsts to look forward to: The first female two-time Olympic gold medalist for the United States, the first female Olympic gold medalist for India, the first-ever female to compete in a world or Olympic competition for Iran.

As the sport as a whole continues to battle for global recognition and solidify its spot in future Games, women play an irreplaceable role in driving growth in the sport. 

While the women of the 2004 Games and the era of dominance which followed are hanging up their shoes, they will continue to pass the torch to younger generations of female wrestlers to come.

Sarah Farrell and McKenzie Pavacich are masters sports journalism students at Arizona State University

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Women’s wrestling gaining traction in high schools


New research into patellofemoral pain means hope for athletes

knee pain, runnerWith any glimpse of a warm day in the winter, or the first sunny day that arrives in spring, there seems to be an unusually large number of people who head out for a run. For many though, this activity doesn’t last long.  Shortly after those first few runs, knee pain ensues.

Why, sport and the body
Patellofemoral pain impacts a lot of athletes. And if not treated it can possibly lead to structural damage in the knee.

One of the most common causes of knee pain in runners is patellofemoral pain. Affecting more than just runners, however, it is common in athletes who inflict regular, repetitive impact on the knee joint, have rapid stop-and-start motion, or in athletes who have a high intensity increase in load on the knee joint over a short period of time.

Formally known as Patellofemoral Pain (PFP), this condition presents when the aggravation appears in and around the joint between the patella (knee cap) and the femur. It is differentiated from pain caused by other conditions, such as Iliotibial Band Syndrome, in that the pain is localized to the knee cap, not on either side of the knee. Other symptoms include increases in pain when loading or during impact (i.e. running, squatting, descending stairs), and in prolonged periods of flexion, such as kneeling or sitting. It is a condition that is based on a diagnosis of exclusion, whereby practitioners typically seek to rule out all other possible diagnoses before landing on PFP.

A common condition, researchers and clinicians have been aware of its pervasiveness amongst the athletic population. Given the complexity of the knee joint, however, until recently clinicians did not have a consistent means of classifying the pain and its cause, nor the ability to provide consistent, research-backed treatment solutions. In addition, much of the research that has been done has not been collated together or synthesized into regulated guidelines. 

To address this, a group of practitioners and researchers from around the world published the Patellofemoral Pain Clinical Practice Guidelines. One of the authors of the publication, Christian Barton, explains that the aim of the publication was to adopt international insight into the subject matter and bring the content into a succinct set of parameters for practitioners to use. It has also allowed for consistency across academic institutions and in student training. Incoming practitioners can be educated and be up to date on the newest treatment recommendations, and be able to offer the best options for patients, complete with correct, individualized back-to-activity plans.

Based on the recently released guidelines, PFP is classified under four categories, according to its presenting causes:

  1. Overuse/Overload without other impairment: When the patient presents with recent history indicative of an increase in the magnitude or frequency of load on the knee joint, which is more than it can handle with adequate recovery. This is a common diagnosis for a runner, caused by increasing mileage or intensity too quickly, without adequate rest.
  2. Muscle performance deficits: This is a classification offered to those who have deficits in performance in muscles of the lower extremities, such as hips and quadriceps.
  3. Movement coordination deficits: A patient presenting with internal rotation of the knees (known as genu valgus), and thereby poor ability to control movement during tasks, such as running or squatting, may be classified with this as the cause. For runners, this can be a case of poor knee alignment or knock knees during activity.
  4. Mobility Impairments: This classification accounts for higher-than-normal foot mobility or flexibility, and deficits in other structures such as the hamstrings, quadriceps, calves or ITB.

Using these guidelines, it is possible to deduct a series of potential root causes of patellofemoral pain: foot mobility issues; weakness in the hamstrings, quadriceps, calves or hips; ineffective knee alignment; or simply “too much, too soon” when it comes to running volume and increases in intensity.

The guidelines are comprehensive in the content they offer for diagnosis and causes, but as Barton notes, these guidelines are not necessarily targeted for the public. Patients should be consulting a professional in assisting them to work through an individually recommended diagnosis and rehabilitation plan for their specific presentation of symptoms.

As with any condition, as Barton underscores, individuality is paramount. The guidelines do not propose to become a one-size-fits-all prescription, but rather a set of parameters around which practitioners and athletes can work to be funneled toward the treatment option that is most likely to be successful for them.

One recent study, for example, acknowledged that PFP sufferers often present with atypical movement in the frontal plane of the hips and pelvis. This could be maladaptive pelvic tilt, for instance, which is affecting the alignment down the chain and leading to pain in the knees. In this study, researchers concluded that the use of a protocol to increase step rate was effective for runners who were impacted by PFP from this cause. Increasing step rate or undergoing gait retraining, however, does not act as the single solution for PFP sufferers. The guidelines seek to support studies such as this one, giving patients and clinicians good launching points to craft an appropriate return to sport plan.

In many cases, one of the first of these launching points is an evaluation of the training history to assess the need for load management. Many athletes simply need to avoid a case of “too much too soon.”  In developing the guidelines, experts reviewed nearly 4,500 scientific articles seeking to simplify and systematize treatment across all athletes and modalities. In doing so, the key take-aways indicate:

  •     treatment plans need to be individualized
  •     electrophysical agents and long-term passive treatments are not beneficial
  •     a combination of education, and hip and knee exercises together offer the best long-term outcomes for most individuals

For many athletes, however, it’s not about treatment, but rather preventing the issue in the first place. Brodie Sharpe, a physiotherapist and the host of the Everyday Running Legends podcast, explains: “Patellofemoral pain was once believed to be due to ‘mal-tracking,’ of the patella.” No longer, however, is it necessarily caused by poor mechanics or poor technique, and as researcher Kay Crossley has recently published, it also may not be simply the VMO that needs attention. Instead, as the guidelines conclude, there are many possible causes and the mode of treatment for each will vary with symptoms and the athlete. Likewise, Sharpe explains that there may be a need for short-term treatment options, such as taping, which will help the athlete get back to sport sooner, while long-term rehabilitation work is occurring.

Barton concurs that load management is still one of the most accessible means of treatment and prevention, and this can be easily managed by the affected individual. ““The absolute key to preventing and managing PFP is being sensible of how much exercise you do. Be consistent with your exercise routine and avoid the ‘boom and bust’ mentality.”  From a clinician perspective, Barton also highlights that it is crucial for practitioners to look at the whole picture and be aware of the biopsychosocial model of pain: if a runner, for example has experienced PFP before and not seen relief, the brain may elicit pain due to a perceived threat, upon attempting to return to running. In cases like this, it is important to offer adequate education to build confidence in the runner that the structure is sound, and to build up a running program slowly to reduce regression.

If you’ve experienced it, you know the pain of PFP can be severe and debilitating, and make it seem like a serious condition that will never go away. These new guidelines, however, seek to offer some scientifically sound solutions for prevention, cause and treatment, and have the potential, moving forward, to dramatically change the landscape of what PFP means for athletes.

Laura Peill, a Canadian living in Australia, is an avid long-distance runner, nutritionist and Pilates instructor, who spends her time teaching and writing about movement. She uses these modalities to help individuals shift their mindset around health, and overcome hurdles holding them back from their own success.

Editor’s note: For the 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.

Sports patents offer a visual map of technological progress

Grambling State, college football, HBCU
Helmet technology has come a long way since the invention of college football 150 years ago.  (Photo by Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Sports evolve over time. The innovations in technology which fuel these changes enable athletes to achieve incredible feats and set world records previously considered unbeatable. 

Black text that reads why this matters
Examining sports patents over time offers a timeline of technological progress and helps people appreciate the commercial and aesthetic development of sports.

To protect the “technological advances they develop, inventors often seek to protect their novel ideas via the patent system,” the World Intellectual Property Organization explains. Giving inventors opportunity to profit and lay claim to their novel ideas provides them with a strong incentive to innovate and improve on the status quo.

And their patents also provide a timeline that tracks the evolution of sports.

The cycle of innovation which patents promote has resulted in modern sports equipment that is much lighter and better than older incarnations of the gear used by athletes a century ago.

“The evolution of sports can be told by means of the patent literature,” Vitor Moreira writes in Inventa International. Moreira notes that sports history can be traced through the drawings illustrated on patent applications. While some inventions never took off, others comprise key elements of the sports we know, love and play today. 

All tell a story.

Collectively, the patents offer a visual display of human technological progress. Examining them chronologically reveals milestones in sporting history and tells a story about the way commercialized sports arrived at the point they’re at today. 

While this is not close to an exhaustive look, here are a few that caught our eye:

Not all inventions take off

In 1904, J.E. Bennett proposed catchers working behind the plate replace their mitt with a human cage. The National Archives describe the contraption as “a rectangular open-wire frame reinforced by slotted walls of wood” and notes the patent drawing is an accurate depiction of the device. This invention seems more closely related to a vending machine than to a piece of catcher’s equipment. 

The "Base Ball Catcher" by J.E. Bennett. Patent drawing of equipment for a “Base Ball Catcher,” 3/22/1904. (National Archives Identifier 1593222)
Patent drawing for W. Dean’s Hockey Stick, 6/18/1901. (National Archives Identifier 5928299)
Patent drawing for helmet radio including a transistor amplifier. By George Sarles.
Patent drawing for A. Schemel’s Jacket for Football Players, 11/27/1906. (National Archives Identifier 6104280)
Arthur Ehrat's patent drawing for breakaway basketball rim. 
G.L. Pierce's patent for a basketball, filed March 5, 1928
Despite the existence of baseball glove technology in 1904, James Bennett – perhaps in an effort to be innovative – created a device that would prevent any current major league catcher from fielding his position. As he describes in his patent documentation, he intended for a pitcher to throw a ball into the cage attached to the middle of the catcher’s chest, where it would drop through a chute and into the catcher’s hand. 

Considering the device inhibits any physical movement, it’s reasonable to say Bennett regarded the catcher’s role as that of a passive receiver. Salvador Perez, Buster Posey, or any other catcher in the modern game would be unable to do their job while wearing this silly cage.

It took almost 40 years for the NFL to adopt the idea of putting a radio in a helmet

As Sports Illustrated points out, the Cleveland Browns experimented with placing a homemade radio receiver inside the helmet of quarterback George Ratterman in 1956

Interestingly, George Sarles, the Ohio inventor who initially approached the Browns with the helmet-radio idea, envisioned that his creation would have applications outside football, according to his patent application for HELMET RADIOS INCLUDING A TRANSISTOR AMPLIFIER

Graphic courtesy World Intellectual Property Organization

“The small radio receiving set is suitable for baseball caps,” Sarles wrote, pointing out that “the use of a radio receiving set within a cap or helmet could greatly reduce the hazards in the construction industry, mining, and in police and fire department work.” 

Despite the existence of Sarles’ helmet technology, nearly 40 years would pass before the NFL would decide in 1994 to allow quarterbacks to use built-in radios inside their helmets to communicate with coaches on the sidelines and in the pressbox.  

“Necessity is the mother of invention”


Shattering backboards with a slam dunk became a common occurrence from the late 1960s into the 1970s and 80s, when former NBA stars Gus Johnson and Darryl Dawkins shattered five of backboards between them. For years, the NBA struggled to find a solution to the game delays and safety risks caused by shattered glass backboards.

Initially, the league levied fines and suspensions to players who broke the backboard during gameplay, which angered players, who argued that the shattered boards were unintentional and shouldn’t warrant punishment. 

During this time, Randy Albrecht, an assistant college basketball coach, believed that the technology existed to build a better, safer basketball hoop. Albrecht approached his uncle Arthur Ehrat, a grain elevator worker, to explore the idea of inventing a rim that would prevent the problem. Ehrat attached a hinge and a spring from one of his John Deere cultivators to a basketball hoop rim. With the new setup, the rim could bend and snap back into place under pressure. 

Ehrat applied for a patent in 1976 and the NBA adopted the breakaway rim during the 1981-82 season. As Reid Creager explains in Inventor’s Digest, the backboards used in today’s NBA games are fashioned from “tempered glass or Plexiglass that is shatter resistant,” and “include a breakaway rim with a hinge and spring so that when a player dunks, the rim bends downward and quickly snaps back into a horizontal position once the player releases it.”

Using patent data to identify trends in sports 

Looking at data on sports patents over time is one way to identify and map sports patent trends over a long time period and on a large scale. According to information available in the free patent database Lens.Org, there has been a notable increase in the number of applications for sports patents filed in the U.S. in the last few decades.

The increase reflects the economic potential in sports, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization Magazine. More generally, exploring patterns in patent data can provide sports organizations and governments with useful, population-wide, information. 

Can patent data be used to determine which sport is most inclined to innovation? It’s certainly possible. And as J.E. Bennett’s “Base Ball Catcher” patent demonstrates, an invention need not be practical or useful to receive a patent. 

These data sets are probably more useful when leveraged as a way to understand the nature of sports economies. Patent information may be most useful for drawing data-driven inferences, such as Nike has more resources devoted to filing patents than rival shoe companies Adidas and Puma

Because it’s difficult to quantify productivity, technological advancement and industry resources, using patent data as a substitution for those measures could be where it has the greatest utility. 

Erica Block is a masters sports journalism student at Arizona State University


Worries about CTE altering the way soccer is played

Julie Ertz of the U.S. heads the soccer all during the She Believes Cup in 2019
Unites States midfielder Julie Ertz  heads the ball during the She Believes Cup match between the USA and Brazil on March 5, 2019.  Studies showing headers may contribute to CTE and dementia among players have the Professional Footballers Association calling for more studies on how to prevent the injury. (Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Growing up in Nnokwa, Idemili South area of Anambra state in southeastern Nigeria during the Nigerian civil war, Bennet Omalu knew next to nothing about American football. He didn’t watch the games, he didn’t know the teams, and he certainly didn’t know the name Mike Webster. 

Why, sport and the body
A recent study has FIFA and national football associations reconsidering changing the way soccer is played in an effort to reduce the risk of CTE and dementia.

But when he arrived in Seattle, Washington, in 1994 to complete an epidemiology fellowship at the University of Washington, Omalu was exposed to the American game. After Seattle, Omalu had a brief medical educational stint in New York before settling in Pittsburgh where he trained as a forensic pathologist under noted forensic consultant Cyril Wecht at the Allegheny County coroner’s office. 

Omalu’s knowledge of football took an adventurous twist in 2002 when he was assigned to perform an autopsy on Webster, the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers center. Webster had died at age 50, but to Omalu, he looked far older than his actual age. Football had taken a punishing toll on Webster’s body. It was Omalu’s job to measure the damage.

Omalu made a startling discovery: a disease never previously identified in footballers. The condition, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, was the first hard evidence that playing football could cause permanent brain damage. Players with CTE have battled depression, memory loss, and in some cases, dementia. And in Webster’s case, Omalu was certain that it was playing football that killed the Steelers legend.

CTE explained

CTE, according to the Boston University CTE Center, “is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma (often athletes).”

CTE has been identified in the brains of former professional athletes, ex-footballers, military veterans and even athletes who did not play beyond high school or college.

Boston University researchers determined that “repeated brain trauma triggers progressive degeneration of the brain tissue, including the buildup of an abnormal protein called tau.” In one study, they found subconcussive hits can lead to CTE.

“We’ve had an inkling that subconcussive hits — the ones that don’t (show) neurological signs and symptoms — may be associated with CTE,” Dr. Lee Goldstein, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine and lead investigator on the study, told NPR. “We now have solid scientific evidence to say that it so.”

Symptoms of CTE include memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse-control problems, aggression, depression, suicidal thoughts, Parkinson’s disease and eventually progressive dementia.

When Omalu started his study on ex-footballers and CTE he faced a huge obstacle from football authorities who tagged his study a threat to the sport. But the young doctor persevered and not only was his study right, he is now recognised globally as an expert. His study on CTE in relation to contact sports has prompted numerous studies globally — the latest a study titled ‘Football’s Influence on Lifelong Health and Dementia Risk’ that was commissioned by the Football Association (FA) and the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA). 

The conclusion of the study showed that former soccer players are approximately three and a half times more likely to die from neurodegenerative disease than the general population.

In the course of the study, which was led by consultant neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart of Glasgow University, medical records of 23,000 individuals from the general population were matched with 7,676 men who played professional football in Scotland and were born between 1900 and 1976.

Stewart’s findings report that the “risk ranged from a five-fold increase in Alzheimer’s disease, through an approximately four-fold increase in motor neuron disease, to a two-fold Parkinson’s disease in former professional footballers compared to population controls.”

Although on a positive note for soccer players, the study did find that while former players had a higher risk of death from neurodegenerative disease, they were less likely to die of other common diseases, such as heart disease and some cancers, including lung cancer.

Reacting to Dr. Stewart’s study, the FA in a statement said: “This is one of the most comprehensive studies ever commissioned globally into the long-term health of former professional footballers.”

“As you would expect, there are many questions relating to this data that do not, at present, have answers.

“The study does not determine whether the cause is due to concussions suffered by the group of professional footballers, or concussion management, or heading of the football, or style of play, or the design and composition of footballs over the years, or personal lifestyle, or some other factor.

“It recommended that we re-issue both the current FA Concussion Guidelines and best-practice advice for coaching heading, while also asking football to consider further steps to improve head injury management, for example by supporting UEFA’s proposals to introduce concussion substitutes.

“The Medical & Football Advisory Group also concluded that more research is needed into why players had been affected, but that there is not enough evidence at this stage to make other changes to the way the modern-day game is played.

The FA concluded that they have written to FIFA and UEFA to support further study.

Is CTE making a case in altering how soccer should be played?

When soccer is played in very hot atmospheric conditions, the referee allows a water break for players, an alteration to the game as it wasn’t part of the game at inception.

In the past, issues would arise when the ball passed the goal line and sometimes referees didn’t award a goal. But today technology has been introduced and the referee gets a strong vibration in his/her wrist whenever the ball gets past the goal line — another alteration or modification.

Today if a goal is given or disallowed there is a chance that the decision can be overturned thanks to the inclusion of video assistant referee (VAR). VAR today stands as the biggest change soccer has witnessed because some argued that spontaneity — which is the thrill of soccer — has been eliminated by the introduction of the video assistant referee. FIFA has stuck to its guns, saying that “the big moments in football must be gotten right.” 

FIFA as well as various other football associations have shown that soccer is not a rigid sport by adopting various modern modifications. It will make perfect sense for them to put forth their humane nature by modifying the way football is being played, putting CTE at the fire front.

And it is these series of modifications that have prompted  the U.S. soccer federation to make headers during soccer games for Under 12 a foul that will result in an indirect freekick. When a deliberate header occurs within the goal area, the indirect free kick would be taken on the goal area line parallel to the goal line at the point nearest to where the infringement occurred.

Additionally, this new mandate by the United States soccer governing body states that players who are 11 and 12 years old can receive heading instruction in training, but training the technique is limited to 30 minutes per week.  However, they are allowed to head the ball in competition.

Sadly, while all of these modifications are largely practiced in the U.S., another top footballing nation, England, is yet to make any modifications for their youth playing within the UK despite every indication showing that they are aware of the great risk headers pose to players, especially these young ones without fully developed skulls. 

Omalu had expressed his concerns about the damage constant hitting to the head causes. Various studies after Omalu have confirmed that the risk exists in ex-footballers more than the general population. It is only fair to say that now is the time for the CTE debate to linger in every footballing debate. It is not time to say someone is  “anti-football” when calling for a modification of the sport, for it is a duty to our shared humanity to put the health of these soccer players that we love dearly over our passion for the sport. 

Arinze Esomnofu is a Nigerian media professional, content editor and a freelance journalist. He is currently the country manager for Flashscore Nigeria.

Editor’s note: For the 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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Inspiring basketball documentary shows how rez ball can carry a nation


Window Rock Scouts arena (Photo courtesy Cronkite News)

When the Chinle Wildcats boys basketball team made a run for the state championship, the team inspired the 4,518 residents of Chinle, Arizona. And that inspiration gave life to a Netflix documentary, “Basketball or Nothing.”

Black text that reads why this matters
A Netflix documentary focuses on how basketball inspired the Navajo Nation with an amazing trip through the Arizona state tournament.

The documentary uses basketball as a teaching tool to show the team plays not only for each other, but to bring pride to their isolated community in Arizona’s Navajo Nation.

The American Indian Student Support Services at Arizona State University hosted a free screening of the documentary in November to honor Native American Heritage month at the Sun Devil Fitness Complex in Tempe.

All of the players on the team grew up playing “rezball,” which is a staple of Native American culture. Rezball involves a lot of running, cutting and playing an up-tempo style of basketball.

Josiah Tsosie, a senior on the senior laden 2017-18 Chinle High basketball team, had spent most of his life playing rezball before his coach, Raul Mendoza, was hired in 2016. Mendoza was already a notable coach on the reservation, having won a state title in 2011 with Holbrook High, also in the Navajo Nation, and with more than 30 years of coaching experience. 

When Mendoza took over at Chinle High, he got his team to abandon their rezball ways and instead embrace cutting, passing and defense.

“You have to have good chemistry for it to work,” Tsosie said. “You just add your own little bit of stuff to it, and that’s when it becomes something more than rezball.”

Chile High finished with a 4-17 record the year before Mendoza took over. After buying into the new coach’s system the Wildcats turned around their program, finishing the regular season 12-4 and on an eight-game win streak in his first year..

The momentum carried the team all the way to the 2018 3A AIA Basketball Final Four. The Wildcats lost in the semifinals, but became the first Chinle team in nearly a decade to make it to the Final Four in Phoenix.

Mendoza had a simple message for his team after the loss. He told them to focus on not losing the game itself, but how it makes them better people. 

Tsosie became the first person in his family to go to college. He received an  Obama scholarship and now is in the midst of his sophomore year at Arizona State.

“Having this opportunity to represent my people and be one of those people to have this scholarship and go to a big university like this is a dream come true,” Tsosie said. “It’s such a big deal. That’s why I want to be able to succeed.”

He has not only served as an example for his community in Chinle, but it’s being felt at ASU, too. The American Indian Student Support Services at ASU dedicated it’s “Rezball or Nothing” basketball tournament to Tsosie, with the idea being inspired by the “Basketball or Nothing” documentary.

“There are lessons learned playing (basket)ball,” said Laura Gonzales-Macias, interim director of the American Indian Student Support Services at ASU.  “And to those who are here (viewing), or up and coming, to inspire them to succeed and meet their goals.”

Lamar Smith is a graduate student in sports journalism at Arizona State University

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New school working to bring more women into baseball scouting

The inaugural “Scout School!” program by the Women’s Sports School included 12 women and was led by former MLB scout Don Mitchell. (Courtesy of Jennifer Blatt)

Twelve women took part in the Women’s Sports School’s (WSS) first-ever “Scout School!” program in Peoria, Az. During the five-day program in October, the women were taught the basics of scouting and got the chance to learn from several baseball professionals.

Major League Baseball currently only has one full-time female scout and ranks towards the bottom of professional leagues in gender diversity. One program is trying to change that.

Jennifer Blatt, founder of WSS,  got the idea after attending MLB’s “Take the Field” program a few years ago with the goal of getting more women exposed to the world of scouting.

“It’s empowering for them,” Blatt said, “to just be in the room with so many like-minded women.”

The program helped to strengthen the women’s knowledge of scouting and the thirst they have to work in baseball operations. And it’s part of a larger goal to get more women into baseball.

Students consisted of college students, baseball interns and part-time baseball writers.  A few were sponsored by the Arizona Diamondbacks. All of the students paid over $1,000 for instruction, materials and meals.

Boston Red Sox intern Julia Hernandez came to the Scout School to further her understanding of scouting. Her love for scouting is tied to the uncertainty of the process.

“It’s not like the NBA Draft and the NFL Draft where it’s like, you know, who’s going to go one… one in every single draft,” Hernandez said. “In baseball, things can go wrong. You can find something out about a guy the night before the draft and it completely throws a wrench into the entire process.”

Position players are graded on five tools: hitting, power, running speed, arm strength and fielding ability. Some tools are harder to predict than others.

“By far, the hitting tool and the power (tool) are the two most difficult,” former MLB Scout  Don Mitchell said. “Cody Bellinger hit one home run in high school.” 

The other three tools are easier to measure, he said.

Bellinger, who played for Hamilton High School in Chandler before becoming a star for the Los Angeles Dodgers, recently won the 2019 NL MVP award after a breakout year that saw him hit 47 home runs and also win Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards at his position.

Predicting hitting and power can be difficult because it’s hard to foresee how players will grow and how their bodies will develop, Mitchell said. Initial scouting reports cited strength as one of Bellinger’s major weaknesses .

At the end of each day, Scout School participants practiced the scouting techniques they learned in the classroom by evaluating players during Arizona Fall League games. The students used radar guns and stopwatches to track the velocity of pitches and the speed of each pitcher’s delivery.  During the first few days, Mitchell assigned each of the students specific players to observe during the games. During the last two days, the students were allowed to choose who they wished to scout.

Seattle Mariners scout Amanda Hopkins spoke to the scouts about her experience working in baseball. Listening to Hopkins talk about her journey to the big leagues was reassuring.

“Her insight was incredible,” Scout School student Sara Thibaut said. “Especially being the only major league woman scout, and just her advice, of staying the course.”

Hopkins, who has been a member of the Mariners staff for almost four years, is the only full-time female MLB scout.

The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) does a yearly race and gender report grading professional sports leagues. This year MLB received a “C” for gender diversity, lower than several other pro leagues, including the NBA which received a “B”.

Despite initiatives like “Take the Field”, Diversity Fellowship Program and the Diversity Pipeline, the number of women in the MLB central office and professional positions has declined since last year’s report.

“I’m really hopeful that through seminars like these, that women in particular, can gain a lot more working knowledge and therefore put them in a position to be strongly and seriously considered for jobs in baseball,” Mitchell said.

Lamar Smith is a graduate student in sports journalism  at Arizona State University

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Some athletes struggle with life after games end

Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts, retirement, NFL
Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts walks off the field after a report of his retirement after the Indianapolis Colts preseason game against the Chicago Bears at Lucas Oil Stadium on August 24, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

For some athletes, life after sports is hard. Players build their days around a disciplined schedule of practice, meals, working out and sleep. 

Black text that reads why this matters
For most athletes, the idea of a life after their pro career ends is not something they plan for, but for some it can lead to a totally new identity.

“This is what I tell people: Football is a great sport,” Brian Orakpo, former NFL outside linebacker told NBC Sports. “But it takes sacrifice. There’s nothing fun about an NFL practice. Nothing at all.”

Orakpo played 10 seasons in the NFL (six with the Washington Redskins and four with the Tennessee Titans), but said he knew for a while that he wanted to stop playing football around the 10-season mark.

“Pass the torch,” Orakpo told NBC Sports. “Move on. Too many guys roll the dice for one more contract.”

Orakpo stopped playing for the same reasons many of his peers did: injuries made the game less enjoyable for them, they started a family or they simply no longer find joy in playing their sport.

Injuries forced four-time Pro Bowl quarterback Andrew Luck to retire before the 2019 season started. In the last four years of his career, Luck missed 26 games, including the entire 2017 season because of injuries to his shoulder, ribs, spleen and abdominal muscle. He suffered a concussion and then required shoulder surgery. 

Then Luck ended up missing all of training camp in 2019 due to what was initially described as  a calf strain that he suffered in March. News about his retirement leaked out during the Colts third preseason game against the Bears.

“It’s been unceasing and unrelenting,” Luck told the Chicago Tribune. “I felt stuck in it and the only way I see out of it is to no longer play football. It has taken my joy of this game away.”

Former NFL offensive lineman Max Unger and Travis Swanson retired due to injury problems as well. Unger was told at the end of the 2018 season that arthritis pain in his right hip could be relieved with surgery. Instead, he opted to retire.

Swanson had knee surgery in college before accumulating a slew of injuries in the league.

“I had two shoulder surgeries in the NFL,” Swanson told NBC Sports. “Constant ligament tears, bone spurs, dislocations. And concussions. Stuff, literally, every year. My joints hurt, every day.”

Swanson played four years as a center for the Detroit Lions and one with the Miami Dolphins. He started a business called Alpha-Lit with his wife that rents illuminated letters for events to be used for backdrops and social media posts.

Unger moved back to Hawaii with his wife and two daughters. Orakpo owns a Gigi’s Cupcakes franchise in Bee Cave, Texas with former teammate Michael Griffin. He has started an app called Athlete Connect which helps athletes connect with personal trainers in their geographic area and he also has plans to start a third business with other retired athletes.

Luck hasn’t announced any plans regarding his life beyond football, although he has expressed interest in possibly becoming a high school history teacher and has a degree in architectural design from Stanford.

Planning for life after the game

Many players do not plan for life after football.

Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Jameel McClain, who is now the team’s director of player engagement, has been counseling NFL players on handling their post athletic endeavors.

“It’s always going to be a challenge to tell someone, ‘The moment you get in, you should be thinking about getting out of it,’ ” he told the Baltimore Sun.

McClain’s work with the Ravens includes financial education classes for second- and third-year players, arranging internships with technology companies or planning bonding activities for player wives and girlfriends, all different techniques to get to know the players on the team outside of football.  

“When it’s over, it’s really a loss of identity,” said Karen Gallagher, senior postdoctoral research scholar at the Global Sport Institute.

GSI has been researching how military veterans transition from the service in an effort to find ways to help athletes make the transition from their playing days to life beyond their sport. 

“You have put your body through a whole lot, you are more likely to sustain concussions (injury)… and you are losing the camaraderie,” Gallagher said.

Both military veterans and athletes deal with identity foreclosure, which is a stage of self-identity in which an individual has not yet explored their identity outside of a certain occupation or ideology. The void left at the end of a playing career can cause some athletes to isolate themselves.

“The worst thing you can do is not extend yourself beyond your sport,” Gallagher said.

Rob Gronkowski, former New England Patriots tight end, has begun to dive into several business ventures since he retired in March. According to Spotrac, Gronkowski earned about $53 million during his nine-year NFL career. 

He credited his ability to transition to other entrepreneurial efforts after his career ended because of how he saved money during his career. He told Business Insider he lived off his endorsement money while saving the majority of his contract money. 

In August, he announced his partnership with CBDMedic, a company that produces a cannabidiol-based pain relief ointment. Gronkowski credited the ointment with helping him cope with a lot of aches and pains he had from his football playing career.

Gronkowski also, recently became apart of the FOX Sports broadcast team as an NFL analyst.

Lamar Smith is a masters student in sports journalism at Arizona State University

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Sideline blue tents first stop on concussion diagnosis

Injury tent, UCLA
Injury tents, like this one behind UCLA quarterback Wilton Speight in 2018, are now common sights on the sideline of football games. It allows teams to treat injured players in private right on the sideline. (Photo by Scott Varley/Digital First Media/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images)

Usually at some point in an NFL game, the camera pans to the sideline, showing a player going into a tiny blue tent. This tent is where physicians conduct sideline exams on players potentially suffering from concussion-like symptoms. This is the only source of video allowed on the sidelines during games. Shown on a flat-screen TRU-Vu monitor, the Injury Video Review System is controlled with an Xbox remote, according to SportTechie. Due to the ongoing concern about concussions, the NFL requires that replays of hits be reviewed. During reviews, a team doctor is present, as is an unaffiliated neurotrauma consultant, or a UNC for short.  

Why, sport and the body
Allowing for privacy and uninterrupted space to test injured athletes, the blue tent space has become a common sight on football sidelines and a space to diagnose concussions.

It is the UNC’s job to review a player’s symptoms, checking off various boxes using a concussion assessment app from C3 Logix. Instead of needing to worry about having an entire computer system set up, the doctors and physicians have information at their fingertips with a Microsoft Surface tablet. 

While under the blue tent, the physician must check the pupils of the player, as well as his coordination and speech. The physician also asks  the player a series of questions, checking for confusion or amnesia. Using the tablet, the physician also can access the player’s medical history. 

Prior to a Monday night contest between the New England Patriots and the New York Jets this season, Dr. Allen Sills, the chief medical officer of the NFL, spoke with SportTechie about the process. “Right now, we do three negative exams for every one that’s positive,” he said. “That’s a ratio that we’re very comfortable with. We want to have a wide screening net.”

Even if a player is not diagnosed with a concussion, the work is not done. Whether or not the player returns to the game, he will continue to be observed for potential symptoms. By rule, the player is also required to receive a checkup the following day.

“Sometimes the only sign or symptom of a concussion is a personality change,” Sills said. “That can be very subtle. If you don’t know the player, you would have no way of knowing that.” To detect potentially slight changes, the UNC and team physician work together on evaluations. And either one can make the decision that a player is ineligible to return. 

When a player enters, the tent is surrounded by activity, but usually only a couple of personnel are allowed to enter. Unlike on the field, coaches have no authority in the tent and may not even enter the tent or disrupt the exam.  

To support the work on the sidelines, there’s a lot going on at the top of the stadium as well. Much like play-by-play commentators having spotters to help them out on the call, other spotters watch for potential injuries. A second UNC sits in a booth at the top of the stadium, along with two certified athletic trainers. Similar to the play-by-play spotters, the athletic trainers closely watch each play. They have binoculars in hand, plus television screens that can help them get better looks at each play. They also have assistance from video technicians. “We can really triple-check if we see something,” spotter Robb Rehberg told SportTechie. “Communication is the key here.”

In total, a minimum of 31 medical personnel work each NFL game. These include three UNCs, with one on each sideline and one in the booth. On top of that, there is also an airway management physician who specializes in emergency intubations. Every road team is given a Medical Liaison who can provide assistance with coordinating tests and exams with the local medical system. Each stadium has its own X-ray lab as well as its own Emergency Action Play, in case a serious injury were to occur. 

“You see doctors and trainers run out [onto the field], but that’s the tip of the iceberg,” Sills says. “There’s an enormous amount of resources that goes into the care of the players during the game.”

Blake Harris is a senior sports journalism student at Arizona State University 

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Digital doping invading virtual events, esports

A box filled with doping test vials
Digital doping doesn’t necessarily involve taking performance-enhancing drugs – although it can – but rather finding ways to manipulate virtual events or esports to a player’s advantage. (Photo by  MICHELE LIMINA/AFP/Getty Images)

Doping in sports is nothing new. Defined essentially as using banned substances or prohibited methods to gain a competitive advantage, doping has led to scandalous headlines across a spectrum of sports, from baseball to cycling to track and field. 

Why, sport and the body
Digital doping, like PED use, is a way for hackers to disrupt legitimate virtual or esports competitions by manipulating results to their benefit.

It has involved amateurs and professionals, men and women. Even esports are not immune to doping.

In 2015, gamer Kory Friesen revealed that he and his teammates were using Adderall during an Electronic Sports League event in Poland. Adderall is a performance-enhancing drug aimed to improve focus and concentration.

According to Transparency International, doping refers to “sports crimes that aim to chemically modify the performance of a player to influence the result of a match or competition.” From a legal perspective, the World Anti-Doping Agency code refers to doping as the occurrence of one or more of the anti-doping rule violations. 

Of course, doping runs contrary to the “spirit of sports” and to the essence of Olympism, which is the pursuit of human excellence through the dedicated perfection of each person’s natural talents and the celebration of the human spirit, body and mind through the values of sports. 

And now there’s a new twist to an old problem — digital doping.

Esports players are using computers and gaming platforms to cheat, altering software to obtain benefits within the game. The problem is how to address “digital doping” when organizers cannot control the software they are using.

Such was the case Cameron Jeffers, a British professional road cyclist who competes on real bikes but was caught cheating on a virtual bike.

Jeffers won the inaugural Zwift eRacing Championship, organized by British Cycling and broadcasted to British television viewers in March 2019. Zwift eRacing is a virtual reality online platform where real world racers compete with each other.

In order to compete, participants must link a stationary bike to a subscription and run it on a device. Racers win by completing stations or qualifying rounds. 

Six months after winning the award, British Cycling charged Jeffers with sporting misconduct for manipulating pre-race data in order to gain an unfair advantage via in-game equipment.

Jeffers had competed with the so-called “Tron” bike officially named the “Zwift Concept 21,” the fastest bike available on Zwift, but which requires an epic climb for riders to attain. Jeffers  obtained the special bike through the ANT+ simulator, an external platform that allows users to manipulate Zwift stats such as power, weight, and levels to unlock virtual equipment without going through the physical process of obtaining the so-called Tron bike.

Instead, he tricked the game to think he had climbed 50,000 meters.

Jeffers was disqualified from the event, and was sanctioned with a £250 fine and a six-month suspension. His award was given to James Phillips, following a resolution from British Cycling. Regarding the incident, British Cycling Integrity and Compliance Director Rod Findlay said that defending fair play in competition is at the core of the responsibilities of the British Cycling governing body. He also highlighted British Cycling’s ability to investigate Jeffers’s offense and the strength of their disciplinary regulations. 

The bottom line in this case is that, despite Cameron Jeffers’ “misconduct,” at the time he unlocked the bike there were no rules in place that prevented a racer from using an external simulator to improve their equipment ahead of the competition. 

So the simulator was not prohibited at that moment, and is it not prohibited today. 

There are other examples of virtual doping.

An actual “hacking” situation occurred in January 2019 when 12 professional players from the PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds European League were banned for using a program that allowed them to see where their opponents were located on a map. 

Six players received in-game bans for using the hack in public, but not professional, games and are facing a two-year suspension, while four other players were banned three years for cheating in professional qualifiers for the league. Yet another two players are facing a three-year ban for condoning the actions.

Although both the PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds pro players and Jeffers were banned for hacking a game, the Jeffers case is different, because while he was digitally doping, he is also a real-world professional cyclist. However, the charge of misconduct only affects him under the scope of Zwift’s virtual competition, not in the real world.

To prevent situations like the Jeffers case in the future, esports leagues must now work alongside developers and traditional sports-governing bodies to develop applications and virtual reality games especially designed for their competitions. Doing so will allow esports competitions to detect players’ behaviors aimed at obtaining an unfair advantage by altering software.

Also, esports leagues and traditional sports organizations should regulate this kind of player conduct so that dopers can be properly subjected to sanctions that extend to the real world as well.    

Victor Ocando is an international sports lawyer, who has worked as an external Legal Counsel for soccer clubs and sports agents in South America and Europe. He writes for several media outlets and is also a Sports Law online courses instructor. Follow him on Twitter @ocandovictor

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Teams, leagues increasingly moving toward mobile ticketing

mobile ticketing
A fan uses his mobile phone to enter a stadium. Fans can purchase tickets which are sent as a barcode within a regular SMS message, when they arrive at the ground they hover their phone over one of the designated ticket readers to gain entry. Southend United are currently the only club in the UK who offer this service. (Photo by Daniel Hambury – PA Images via Getty Images)

Across the sports industry, teams are moving away from old-fashioned paper tickets and toward mobile ticketing. The rise in mobile ticketing can be seen in sports like football, baseball, and basketball. Even concert venues are going the mobile route.

The move to all-mobile ticketing is meant to be sustainable and eliminate fraud but has become problematic for those without smart phones.

Justin Burleigh, chief product officer for North America at Ticketmaster, told CBS Local Sports that mobile ticketing solves two problems. 

“Our industry has fundamentally always been plagued by issues that are at the core of ticketing, which are anonymity and fraud,” Burleigh said.

Teams also want to have more engagement with the fans, which paper tickets can’t necessarily provide. It’s not always the person who initially purchases the ticket who ends up going to the game. The anonymity of not knowing who is actually in the seats makes it difficult for fans and teams to connect.

MLB has recently partnered with Clear, a biometric identification system, to build a stronger connection. A quick swipe or tap of the finger will be all fans need to get into stadiums. Clear technology is already in use by the New York Yankees, Colorado Rockies, Seattle Mariners, New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, the Los Angeles Football Club, Oakland Athletics, San Jose Quakes and at events in New York’s Madison Square Garden.

Biometric identification is another tool teams are using to show their commitment to better engagement with fans, and avoid the second issue in the two-part equation: fraud.

Sellers can make multiple copies of paper tickets and then sell them to multiple consumers. Mobile ticketing avoids this pitfall. 

A case study at Orlando City’s soccer stadium showed how a move to mobile ticketing can prevent fraud. The stadium went from 120 cases of fraud one season to none over the entirety of the next season.

While mobile ticketing arguably benefits teams and consumers, not all fans are happy with the move. There are bugs to work out.

At a Carolina Panthers preseason game this year, fans experienced long lines, issues with the team’s ticketing app and the frustration of not having a simple ticket to get into the game. Other critics have pointed out that some fans like to have the paper ticket as a momento from the experience. 

Panthers season ticket holder Ross Levin expressed his frustration with the new ticketing system to the Charlotte Observer.

“The days of us getting our paper tickets and enjoying that moment and opening them up and smelling them, those are over,” he said.

The Panthers weren’t the only team this season to have ticketing problems. Cleveland Browns fans experienced similar issues when their tickets wouldn’t load before a preseason game against the Washington Redskins.

One Browns fan told Cleveland’s ABC News 5 that she was so frustrated she broke into tears. 

According to Juniper Research, 1.9 billion fans are expected to use mobile ticketing by 2023, spending up to $23 billion. This year about 1.1 billion fans are expected to use mobile ticketing, spending about $14 billion, Juniper reported. 

Chris Pappas, 75, told the Charlotte Observer mobile ticketing is an added burden to people like him, who might not be as technologically savvy., Pappas owned a flip phone but had to trade it for an iPhone so that he can use the technology to buy tickets to watch his team play.

The NFL made the switch to go fully digital at the start of the 2018-2019 season. Teams across sports are starting to do the same. About a third of NBA teams have made the switch. The change isn’t taking place only in the U.S. Premiership Rugby tested mobile tickets for the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Final. 

Like Papas, some fans are not familiar with smartphones, but as the sports industry evolves, technology promises to play a larger role everyday.

Millard Thomas is a senior sports journalism student at Arizona State University

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