A Mad, Mad World Redux

On October 24th, Erik Wemple of The Washington Post wrote a column criticizing The Atlantic for its decision to publish my article, “The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League-Obsessed Parents.”

In assailing The Atlantic for giving me a platform, he cited my journalistic malpractice as an associate editor at The New Republic in Washington, D.C. in the mid-1990s. (I was in my early 20s at the time, writing under my maiden name, Ruth Shalit.)

In his Oct. 24th column and a second on Oct. 30th, Wemple outlined in great detail his doubts and misgivings about my Atlantic piece. He raised the question that goes to the heart of any piece of journalism: “How much of it is true?”

My story is true and I stand by it. It is true both in its particular details and in its overarching thesis: wealthy parents in niche-sport hotbeds are spending vast sums of money and pushing their children through extreme training regimens in pursuit of an ever-dwindling supply of Ivy League recruiting spots — endangering the mental health of their own kids and crowding out less privileged young athletes in the process.

The article did contain several errors: I placed an anonymous lacrosse mom in Greenwich when she actually lives in an adjoining Connecticut town. I referred to “Olympic-sized” backyard hockey rinks when I should have written “commercially sized” or “professionally sized.” A fencing neck injury that was originally described to me as a “stab” to the jugular has been corrected to a “jab”; a thigh injury described as a “deep gash” is now characterized as “a skin rupture that bled through a fencing uniform.”

Most egregiously, to protect the anonymity of a source I called “Sloane,” I signed off on inserting a reference to a person who doesn’t exist. I described Sloane, in passing, as the mother of four children — three daughters and a son — when in truth she has only three daughters. I should not have misled readers, and I’ve apologized to The Atlantic for this error.

The editors of the magazine viewed my inclusion of a nonexistent son as a cardinal lapse and retracted the piece. That is their prerogative. Unfortunately, this decision has prompted widespread speculation that the article as a whole is not grounded in solid reporting, contains embellishments or is somehow fabricated or made-up.

It is none of these things.

Let’s begin with what’s been lost amid this systematic, intense and occasionally hairsplitting scrutiny of my work:

· The article includes quotes from sixteen named sources speaking in support of the central thesis of the piece. High school and college coaches, trainers, physical therapists, admissions advisors and sports governing body officials are all quoted at length and on the record. No one has disputed the accuracy of their quotes or my story. On the contrary, many have expressed support for the piece and called it an accurate portrait of youth-sports culture in affluent enclaves.

· All anonymous sources were contacted by fact-checkers from The Atlantic and their quotes confirmed prior to the publication of my article. None of this material is in dispute.

· The story went through The Atlantic’s usual rigorous editing and fact-checking process. The Atlantic then reviewed the piece a second time after Wemple raised his concerns. Other than the mistakes I cite above, I’m aware of no additional errors or corrections.

On October 29th, when Wemple contacted me with a list of questions about the piece, The Atlantic asked me not to respond. They requested instead that I send my answers to the magazine’s research department, which was in the midst of a line-by-line reexamination of the story.

I have since learned that, while The Atlantic reviewed my written answers to Erik Wemple for its own internal audit, the magazine did not forward my responses to Wemple.

With his questions still unanswered, Wemple has continued to raise doubts about the piece — and recently tweeted that The Atlantic’s retraction did not go far enough: “There’s still a lot in [the article] to correct, imo. The distortions and nonsense in the piece all lean in one direction — toward making the parents of Fairfield County appear more unreasonable and tyrannical and status-conscious than they are.”

I regret that I did not speak with Wemple while he was reporting on my story. I’d like to take this opportunity to answer his specific queries now, in the spirit of transparency and clarity, and for Atlantic readers who were drawn in by the piece and shared it with friends. They deserve to know if it is credible.

Here are the questions Erik Wemple emailed me on October 29th and the responses I provided to The Atlantic:

Wemple: Squash lessons: The piece makes the claim that parents routinely pay $400 for squash lessons of 45 minutes. I have seen some price listings, and most are in the $100 range, even in these well-to-do jurisdictions. Can you provide any examples of $400 squash lessons?

My response: First: my piece states that parents pay up to $400 — not that they routinely pay this rate. Second: the most sought-after instructors for top juniors don’t advertise their services via web listings. Examples of squash coaches who’ve charged $400 for a 45–60 minute lesson include Hisham Ashour, ex-pro and older brother of former world #1 Ramy Ashour; British coach and commentator Paul “PJ” Johnson; and former British national team coach David Pearson. Additionally, Natalie Grainger, former world #1 pro and former head squash instructor at Chelsea Piers in Stamford, CT, charged $350 for 45-minute private lessons in 2018.

The Atlantic’s fact-checker confirmed the accuracy of the $400 ceiling with top-tier squash coaches Wael El-Hindi and Imran Khan — both of whom served as on-the-record sources for the piece.

Wemple: [quoting from my article] “But more commonly, alpha sports parents followed the rulesat least those of the meritocracyonly to discover that they’d built the 80th- or 90th-best lacrosse midfielder in the country. Which, it turns out, barely qualifies you for a spot at the bottom of the roster at Bates.”

There are more than 70 lacrosse programs in Division I: https://www.ncsasports.org/mens-lacrosse/division-1-colleges [ncsasports.org]; there’s a similar number in Division II: https://www.ncsasports.org/mens-lacrosse/division-2-colleges [ncsasports.org]; there are more than 200 Division III lacrosse programs: https://www.ncsasports.org/mens-lacrosse/division-3-colleges [ncsasports.org]

Now: A college lacrosse team can carry up to 17 midfielders on their roster, and according to a lacrosse source, so that translates into about 4 per year. The point here is that the top 20 Division I schools should pretty well cycle through the 80 top midfielders in the country. Strikes me that a family with the 80–90-best midfielder can expect a great deal of competition for the kid’s services, from big schools. What’s the sourcing and the rationale for all this?

My response: Wemple is assuming that the paramount goal of the families featured in my article is to get their midfielder into a top-20 Division 1 lacrosse program. That’s not necessarily the goal. These families don’t want Towson, U Mass, University of Denver, Ohio State, Loyola Maryland or Syracuse — all top 20 Division One lacrosse schools. Instead, the goal is to leverage lacrosse into preferential admission to a top academic school that also happens to have an operative varsity lacrosse program.

The 80th or 90th best lacrosse midfielder in the country is likely to find all the spots at academically selective D1 schools have already been snapped up by more sought-after recruits. Division 2 schools tend to have larger, better-funded athletic programs than D3 schools — but are not as strong academically and would not be considered a desirable option for the families discussed in my piece.

The “best-fit” school for an 80th or 90th-ranked midfielder from Darien, New Canaan or Greenwich is likely to be a NESCAC school — a smaller, highly selective Division Three school such as Middlebury, Bowdoin or Bates.

In fact-checking the piece, The Atlantic’s research department verified the Bates assertion with several knowledgeable lacrosse sources, including Terry Foy, Publisher and CEO of Inside Lacrosse. Foy confirmed that Bates College sounded like a plausible end point for the 80th or 90th -ranked midfielder.

On November 13th, Matthew Clough, the 83rd-ranked lacrosse attacker in the country, committed to a Division Three program: Transylvania University in Lexington, KY.

https://www.insidelacrosse.com/recruiting/profile/71149

Wemple: I have confirmed that there was no cut in the throat of the 12-year-old girl; can you confirm on the record that there was not a cut to the skin and only a bruise?

[I’ve redacted the earlier part of Wemple’s question to avoid disclosing the identity of my anonymous source, Sloane.]

My response: Here, Wemple is stating that he’s tracked down Sloane — and that he believes I’ve mischaracterized a saber-fencing throat injury sustained by her 12-year-old daughter at Junior Fencing Nationals.

The piece does not contend that Sloane’s daughter sustained a “cut in the throat.” I describe the injury as a “stab,” a “jab,” a “wound” inflicted by a saber fencing blade that slipped under a protective bib. Generally, a non-penetrating wound is accompanied by bruising. Sloane had described her daughter’s injury as a hard jab to the throat with a saber fencing blade that resulted in “a giant purple, swollen golf ball on the side of the neck” next to the carotid artery.

In its Editor’s Note, The Atlantic states that it has “clarified a detail about a neck injury sustained by Sloane’s middle daughter, to be more precise about its severity.” I had based my description of Sloane’s daughter’s injury on Sloane’s account of what happened that day — an account which she subsequently repeated to the magazine’s fact-checker. The Atlantic’s clarification does not materially change the nature of the injury.

Wemple: I have also heard from a source with knowledge of the situation that this girl never suffered a gash to the thigh in her life. What’s the sourcing for this?

My response: In the fourth paragraph of my story, I note that Sloane’s daughter had “been hurt before while fencing — on one occasion gashed so deeply in the thigh that blood seeped through her pants.”

In emails to me and to my editors, Wemple initially stated that he had a source who told him that the leg injury never happened. He asked if we had copies of Sloane’s daughter’s medical records that we could provide to him as proof.

Several days later, he modified this allegation, acknowledging that there was a leg wound — but contending that it was not as deep as described.

Sloane’s description of her middle daughter’s leg injury, as it appears in my notes, is this:

“It happened before. [Sloane’s daughter] comes home with this huge gash on her leg. There’s a gash on one leg. There [are] bruises and gashes on another leg, blood coming out through her pants.”

While fencing on the whole is a safe, highly regulated sport, it’s not unusual for young fencers to sustain neck bruises, leg cuts, and other blunt sword-tip injuries. There are multiple accounts of such injuries on online fencing forums and message boards.

Following its own investigation, The Atlantic has clarified my description of Sloane’s daughter’s leg injury, changing the “deep gash” to “a skin rupture that bled through a fencing uniform.” I will leave it to readers to decide whether this edit materially changes the piece.

Wemple: The story reports this scene at a Chelsea Piers squash tournament: “When the break was over, the conversation in the bleachers turned to college prospects. ‘Georgetown has gone cold,’ a parent said. ‘But he may get the last spot at Columbia.’”

Georgetown University offers a club team; Columbia University has one of the most competitive varsity squash programs in the United States [csasquash.com]. So the question here relates to plausibility: How could a club program “go cold” on a squash prospect, while the prospect has a shot at making one of the best teams in the country? I know this is just overheard stuff, but if it’s this disjointed, why publish it, and isn’t there grounds here to question it?

My response: Georgetown University does not have a varsity squash team and does not recruit for squash. I’d assumed the parent in question was discussing recruiting prospects for another sport, perhaps a sibling’s sport.

The parents on the Chelsea Piers squash bleachers had kids who played multiple sports; I overheard talk of tennis, crew and Chelsea Piers versus Greenwich Aquatics water polo. I included this quote to try to capture the flavor of dialogue on the junior-squash sidelines and the intensely competitive culture that permeates all of these sports.

Wemple: Another quote from the same scene: “Did you see that kid Mohammed? … No, the other Mohammed. His academics aren’t strong, but his squash is unbelievable.” That’s from a parent in the bleachers at the tournament. First off, no one with the name Mohammed was registered to compete in that tournament [clublocker.com]. And second, what’s supposed to be the point of this?

My response: I may have misheard the name. Ahmad Haq, the №3-ranked U15 junior, was registered to compete in the Chelsea Piers tournament. Another top-ranked U13 player named Ahmed Rashed could have been “the other Ahmad” — not the other Mohammed.

Wemple: Wael El-Hindi is described as a “former World №8.” According to SquashInfo.com [squashinfo.com], he is precisely that. Barrett, though, also discusses Imran Khan [buffalotands.org], “a 39-year-old former top-10 pro-squash player.” SquashInfo.com places his highest world ranking at 240 [squashinfo.com]. This would appear to be an error, unless there’s some other ranking that distinguishes him as a top-10 talent.

My response: Imran Khan is top-10 ranked in US pro doubles squash:
https://www.sdaprotour.com/2013/12/december-2013-rankings/

A few final thoughts about the piece:

Contrary to speculation, The Atlantic did not come up with the idea for this story and “assign” it to me. The idea for the article was mine. I pitched it to The Atlantic in a two-page pitch and it was approved and contracted in November of 2019.

I live in Fairfield County. I saw this story unfolding all around me and I wanted to capture what I saw. Parents were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and upending their lives in pursuit of a recruited-athlete pathway that seemed increasingly chaotic and elusive. Kids were giving up school and friends and participation in music and the arts in order to strap themselves into rowing machines or practice drop shots for hours on end. Worse, the extreme expenditure on niche sports in communities like Greenwich and Darien appeared to be exacerbating inequities in athletics and leading to decreased opportunities for kids from poor and middle-class backgrounds.

I spent just under a year reporting and writing this story. I interviewed 117 parents, coaches, admissions counselors and student athletes. I reviewed hundreds of pages of NCAA participation data. I provided all of these interview transcripts and documents to The Atlantic’s research department. The piece was carefully fact-checked. In the days after the article came out, I received dozens of emails from current and former college athletes, coaches, and athletic directors who reached out to say that they agreed strongly with my assessment and hoped the piece would be a catalyst for reform.

This has been a difficult month for me. I wish that I’d had the poise to sit down and write this response a few weeks ago, but I needed some time to catch my breath. Writers are human beings too.

But is the article true?

The answer is yes.

I am sharing these additional details about my reporting in the hope that readers — especially young athletes — who were moved by the piece and felt it accurately depicted their world will continue to speak out about their experiences and seek redress for the problems I tried to bring to light.

https://cdn.theatlantic.com/assets/media/files/20201101_nichesports.pdf

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