I Trained Athletes in a Toxic Environment
5 min read | Mar 2021

I Trained Athletes in a Toxic Environment

The writer explains how she encountered gender inequality off the field.

Calathea / Millennial / Moderate / Certified Athletic Trainer

As a student in college, the outlook on your professional future is mostly rosy. You’re excited about your classes, and looking forward to getting a job and working your butt off doing what you love. Rarely do professors in the classroom address gender stereotyping before students enter the field. Athletics is no exception. Working in athletics seems awesome, and for the most part, it is. You get to travel with the team, work with athletes, cover the games and practices, and share in the victories and defeats. 

However, one not-so-awesome aspect of athletics, that isn’t often discussed, is gender stereotyping, as well as unequal treatment because of gender faced by the people who support the athletes.

As a female athletic trainer working at an NCAA institution, I know that unequal treatment and gender stereotyping are more prevalent than one might think. 55 percent of athletic trainers are female yet only 17.5 percent hold Division I head athletic trainer positions. The profession is still widely viewed as very male-dominated, and despite being in the minority, males frequently hold these positions of power.


My First Job in Athletics Made Me Want to Quit the Whole Field

Transitioning from student to clinician is not always smooth. Working independently as a clinician can be a harsh contrast to working as a student underneath an athletic trainer. While transitioning from student to professional, there are a few different scenarios that can play out. Your confidence can soar—you can feel like you’re on top of the world, living out your dreams and doing exactly what you wanted to do. Or it can seem not that different from when you were a student—the transition goes smoothly, and life goes on as normal. Or life comes to a screeching halt, your confidence is crushed, and you question why you wanted this job (and most of your life choices leading up to this point).

For me, it was route number three. 

My first boss coming out of undergrad, who oversaw my work as a graduate student earning my master’s degree in kinesiology and recreation, is not the type of boss anyone should have—or their first job or otherwise. The environment he created as head athletic trainer undermined my confidence through manipulation, lack of empathy and questioning every decision made by myself and my female coworkers (but not the male ones). His training room was a mentally unhealthy working environment, and the attitude he fostered in the entire athletics department was not of mutual respect and understanding, but of coaches (mostly male) holding power and using it to crush everyone else. 

We graduate student athletic trainers were treated as dispensable. The administration didn’t feel they had to listen to our thoughts, ideas or desires because we’d be gone in two years, and a new class of grad students would take our place. But I trudged forward through my doubts and lack of confidence, thinking that this is just what happens when you get a new job in a new place, unaware that this is not always normal. 

The Gender Gap in Our Workplace Was Impossible to Ignore

My male coworkers were never treated the way my female coworkers and I were, never questioned the way the females were for our plan of care regarding our athletes. I developed crippling anxiety of giving a definitive answer about the condition of my athletes to coaches, or even the athletes themselves, for fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. My female coworkers and I were judged much more harshly than the males were. One time, a male coworker sat and watched Hercules at his desk and my boss said nothing about him slacking off; that same week, I left baseball practice for five minutes one day to grab a coat and dinner from the athletic training room and was reprimanded for neglecting my job to fulfill basic human needs of food and warmth. 

My boss wasn’t the only issue, though.

More often than not, when visiting teams came for games, their staff assumed the male student athletic trainers were the certified athletic trainers, and would approach them directly—while brushing me off as if I were a student. Male athletes on the teams in my care would approach my male peers with injuries or concerns before coming to me. They called me “mean” for holding them out of play due to injuries when my male superior did not care enough to back up my decisions. Undergraduate students wouldn’t respect my authority as their preceptor regarding rules and standards. Coaches would ignore me or refuse to learn my name, even when I was the main clinician in charge of care for their team. And they'd be confused and dismissive when we were traveling and I'd request a separate hotel room from the male staff. 

I didn’t get much support from other staff members either. When I brought up my concerns about the working environment and the head athletic trainer, the answer I always received was, “There’s nothing we can do until he retires.” It only reinforced the cycle of shrugging our shoulders and brushing off gender inequality and mistreatment.


Gender Equality in Athletics Isn't Impossible—In Fact, It's Already Happening

This environment affected me in such a way that by the time I finished graduate school and left that job, I was completely questioning the entire profession, and whether I wanted to continue working in collegiate athletics at all. It took a lot of time and discernment, but I decided that I wouldn’t make a decision for my future based on the treatment I received at the hands of someone else, but on my own dreams, desires and convictions. And I’m glad that I did. Since graduating with my master’s degree, I’ve entered a new role as an assistant athletic trainer at another university, where the work environment is a stark contrast to what I experienced in graduate school. 

Here, there is both a female head athletic trainer and a female athletic director. The working environment is one of collaboration and respect among administrators, staff, coaches and athletes. I’m valued for what I bring to the table because I work hard and I’m good at my job, irrespective of my gender. The coaches for my teams actively seek out my advice and input for the care of their athletes, and everyone on staff is treated equally. I was relieved to find that the environment and treatment that I experienced at my first job is not the be-all-end-all in collegiate athletics, or even athletics in general. How athletes and staff members are treated is all about the environment that is created and fostered in the athletics department by the athletic director, head athletic trainer, administrators and coaches. 

Any job can be a bad job, but don’t let it tarnish the dreams you have for your career and life. Any job can have gender stereotyping, inequality or mistreatment. It’s about changing the conversation to one of equality and hoping—knowing—that there are places out there that are getting it right. 

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