Team sports has much more to be critiqued

Michael Kurtz, Guest Columnist

When I took on the story of the unusual amount of sustained injuries over the 2021-22 Hamline Women’s Lacrosse season, I went in having a set perspective in my head on what exactly happened — which is by no means a way to report a story. Not only did I grow in my reporting skills, but I also grew in my perspective of what team sports in college as a whole entails for athletes.

Let’s talk about the reality of injuries in college sports. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) reported that 90% of all college athletes have some sort of injury while playing, and 54% of those athletes continued to play through those injuries. While many of them can be considered minor, the toll they take on athletes goes beyond just their physical health.

A study with the New York Times found that of a sample of 343 male college athletes, 51% of them had shown signs of depression after being injured, while 12% of them fell into severe depression.

While there are many benefits that go unnoticed — the lifelong memories athletes make competing, the success that individuals and teams have, the positive mental health athletes gain — the negatives are still the reality of college sports.

As an athlete who has played years of team sports (including lacrosse), it seemed clear to me what happened after speaking with both sides of the story. Yes, these injuries that occurred over the lacrosse season are legitimate, but the verbal and unspoken pressure by teammates and coaches to get better and play isn’t uncommon. Most of it isn’t even meant to be negative, but with a personnel issue that stemmed the entire season, it quickly turned into a dire situation in terms of a physical and mental toll.

To be clear, I love team sports. I played football and lacrosse in my late middle school years and have been running track for seven years now with four different teams, but let’s not pretend that everything is perfect.

The number of injuries over the course of the 2021-22 women’s lacrosse season may have been unprecedented, but there was nothing extraordinarily unique about the miscommunication among personnel in my opinion. The vast majority of team sports is centered around winning, even at the DIII level and especially on a lacrosse team that is shown to win a lot. Not to say that the lacrosse team’s issues came from wanting to win, but more of a numbers concern. This entire issue is more of a critique of team sports in general and the potential harm that all of them naturally inherit.

I experienced this first hand as a member of the track team. This past week, I decided to step away from track for good due to the treatment I received from former teammates and an injury that I’ve been recovering from for five months now. I felt unspoken but obvious judgment and neglect from those around, and I no longer received support from others. While the lacrosse team has expressed nothing but love for each other, I believe both situations suffered from miscommunication and pressure to perform.

My hope is that everyone can walk away from this situation and better understand how to support each other, which has been made a lot easier due to the hiring of a new head coach, Adam Dobis. When I spoke with him during our in-person interview, he only wanted to focus on the future of the program, the success they’re going to have this year, and the communication he has with the team on keeping everyone healthy, which I found to be a great message.

It was a big difference from the one sentence email responses I received from Athlete Director Jason Verdugo, who made it abundantly clear what was or wasn’t on the record and who we were and were not allowed to interview. I felt that I was speaking with an athletic department that did not want to consider that they potentially made mistakes, even though I came to conclude that there were truly many sides to this story.

Sports are beautiful and bring people together. I can’t count how many times I’ve cheered in front of my TV for the Vikings or Wild. Behind the team name and jerseys are people and at Hamline, they are our friends. We play sports and go hard for our teammates and coaches, but sometimes that can get in the way of preventing injuries from fully healing. Athletes compete at the DIII level because they enjoy it and want to continue and bringing compassion and empathy is incredibly important for a successful team culture.