MANHEIM, Pa. — Perhaps it’s no coincidence that since the day after Halloween the U.S. women’s field hockey team, headquartered in Pennsylvania at a place called Spooky Nook, has been haunted by troubles.
On Nov. 1 and 2, in Bhubaneswar, India, Team USA split a two-game series with the host nation. But because India scored one more aggregate goal, 6-5, it and not the United States earned the last of 12 spots in the women’s field for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“I’m devastated,” U.S. coach Janneke Schopman, a two-time Olympic medalist from the Netherlands, said at the time.
She is now also unemployed, having been fired — or “separated” as a USA Field Hockey news release termed the move — on Nov. 25.
The Olympic disappointment triggered a public rebellion in the typically low-profile sport. In a recently drafted, grievance-filled petition, both women and men players expressed discontent with USA Field Hockey’s progress in meeting the goals of its three-year-old strategic plan to grow the sport and improve the national teams’ performances.
For the women’s team, in particular, the negative developments marked a dramatic turnaround in perception.
Since 2013, the U.S. women have trained at the Spooky Nook Sports Complex. Located in Manheim, Lancaster County, it stands at the spiritual and competitive heart of American field hockey. Thirteen members of the 26-women national team are from Central and Southeastern Pennsylvania. Two of its stars come from the Philadelphia suburbs — midfielder Erin Matson from Chadds Ford and striker Margaux Paolino from Villanova.
The decision to make Pennsylvania the women’s home immediately paid dividends and until 2018 the national team was trending upward. It finished fifth at the 2016 Rio Olympics, won a gold medal at the 2017 Field Hockey Federation (FHF) World League semifinals, and that year climbed to an all-time-high international ranking of No. 4.
But today, eliminated from the Olympics for the first time since 2004, without a coach and engulfed in turmoil, they’ve fallen to No. 13. The men, meanwhile, who have only two Olympic appearances in the last 63 years, both via home-team byes at Los Angeles in 1984 and Atlanta in 1996, are No. 24.
The recent drop-off in performance along with ongoing concerns about finances, administrative leadership and facilities apparently prompted the players’ unhappiness.
“In order for both the Men’s and Women’s teams to succeed,” reads their petition to review USA Field Hockey’s mission to succeed internationally, “there are standards that need to be met in high-performance areas. Both teams feel those standards are not being met.”
That online petition, which as of Thursday had garnered 5,733 signatures, cites seven problem areas, ranging from talent to budget to facilities. National team players, it alleges, have been served rotten or undercooked food, wear subpar uniforms, don’t get adequate medical treatment or insurance, and lack sufficient financial support.
The immediate impact of this uprising has been silence. USA Field Hockey’s executive director, Simon Hoskins, and other administrators did not respond to repeated requests to be interviewed for this article, as did players on both teams.
Surprisingly, one of the petition’s chief targets is Spooky Nook, where the women’s team has its offices and where it practices and plays on indoor and outdoor fields. Only four years ago, then Field Hockey Federation president Leandro Negre had called it “the most amazing facility I’ve ever seen.”
But the petition characterized its outdoor field as “unusable” and “unsafe” and further claimed the privately owned complex did not contain adequate locker or meeting facilities. The men’s training site at Chula Vista, Cal., also drew criticism for a lack of meeting space.
The women’s national team already has relocated its 2020 home games to the University of North Carolina and its future in Pennsylvania remains in doubt.
“There have been ongoing discussions with the Nook about many issues,” said Ralf Heuser, a former USA Field Hockey Foundation board member and a longtime observer of the sport. “From what I understand, there was a fungus in the dome. Then the water system didn’t work properly. And there have always been discussions about when US Field hockey could use the fields since there are other sports and other organizations using them.”
A Spooky Nook spokesperson disputed the petition’s claims.
“[The field] is not, in any way, unsafe or unusable,” said Mackenzie Bender, the facility’s marketing manager. “It’s five years into a 10-year warranty. With it getting some heavy usage over the last five years, we did file a warranty claim, which was recently accepted. As soon as an install date can be agreed upon the outdoor field will be replaced.”
A top-five sport in terms of its international popularity, field hockey has never caught fire in the U.S., particularly among men.
The American women’s Olympic debut came in 1984, when they won their only medal, a bronze. The men have made just five Olympic appearances since 1932, when in a three-team field they captured their lone medal, a bronze.
Historically, there were separate governing bodies for U.S. men’s and women’s field hockey. But in 1993, the organizations merged. The only American sports federation with that kind of arrangement, USA Field Hockey in return was mandated by the 1998 Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act to increase participation among both genders.
“The belief at that time was that the sport would grow for both men and women,” said Heuser. “But they haven’t. It’s still a more than 95 percent female sport.”
Consequently, the bulk of the organization’s resources and money have been directed toward the women.
USA Field Hockey’s Futures program was established in 1990 to help transform top high school talent into international-caliber players. While nearly 5,000 girls under 19 participate each year, there’s no similar program for men.
High school girls play the sport in 21 states, with its popularity concentrated in the Mid-Atlantic and California. And college field hockey has benefited from Title IX, with the NCAA now sponsoring 263 women’s teams, 60 in Division I.
Meanwhile, there are no sanctioned men’s field hockey programs at either the high school or college level in the U.S. Approximately half the men’s squad is comprised of players with dual citizenships, many of whom compete in European professional leagues.
The women’s team listed expenses of $2.6 million in 2018, $1 million of which came from the USOC, the rest from USA Field Hockey and sponsorships. A total of $300,000 went toward stipends for the national women’s team.
The men got no USOC support and spent just $400,000 that same year. As a result, Heuser said, it’s a virtual pay-to-play system for them. Junior men, for example, are responsible not just their own travel expenses but for compensating their coaches.
“They have to pay for coaches’ salaries, pay for their airfares and meals,” said Heuser. “What it all means is that quite a few talented players haven’t been able to afford participating.”
While participation has grown slightly or remained steady through recent years, there were, according to USA Field Hockey figures, small declines between 2017 and 2018 in three age groups — under-12, under-19 and adults.
The players’ petition has a modest goal of 7,500 signatures, but whether it helps effect any significant change — in either organizational structure or team performances — won’t be known until after this summer’s Olympics, when a new cycle of international competition begins.
“They’re three years into a strategic plan that’s obviously failed,” said Heuser. “The ranking has been sliding. They failed to make the Olympics. The women’s coach has been fired. And there really has been no one to hold them accountable. Projects are born and then disappear into thin air.