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Women’s basketball confronts retention challenges, allegations of injury mishandling

When Malika Adda-Berkane ’20 was recruited to play basketball for Carleton, she did not expect that she would have to make the decision between her favorite sport and her dignity. But ongoing hostility from Head Coach Cassie Kosiba ’03 and inattention to a string of injuries brought Adda-Berkane to an inflection point.

“It was as if I was a non-existent member of the team,” said Adda-Berkane. “The idea was that you’re just not good enough.”

Adda-Berkane’s experience on the women’s basketball team may not be an anomaly. Between last season and this season, Malika was one of three women’s basketball players, excluding Class of 2018 graduates, who left the team. Over the past six years, 19 players who would have otherwise been eligible to remain on the team—meaning non-seniors—decided to quit.

In separate interviews with the Carletonian, several past and current players alleged that the team’s head coach, Cassie Kosiba ’03, enforces a culture of favoritism that has made for vastly different experiences between starting and non-starting players on the team. But several current and former players, as well as the team’s trainer, attributed the team’s retention numbers to injuries and to balancing academic rigor with the team’s time commitment.

Three past players and one current player—starters and non-starters alike—attested that Coach Kosiba had expected them to play while severely injured; that she would personally blame individual players for game losses; and that coaching attention is disproportionately focused on the team’s starting roster. Four past players and two current players also reported that it was not uncommon for them to see teammates leave practice in tears.

Kosiba declined to be interviewed, but issued the following statement: “I am proud of the Carleton Women’s Basketball Program, the student-athletes and young women it has produced and continue to be humbled by the privilege of guiding the program,” Coach Kosiba said in a statement to the Carletonian. “I continue to devote my time and effort to the college I love so dearly and will continue to provide an atmosphere designed to help our young student-athletes realize their athletic and human potential in a fair, challenging and nurturing environment.”

Assistant Coach Chris Dalhed and Assistant Coach Katie Lauer declined to comment for this story.

 

How practices are set up: starters and non-starters

During practices, the team is split into the “white team,” consisting of the team’s five starting players, and the “blue team,” consisting of non-starting players, according to several current and former players.

“The way that the practice was divvied up is [Coach Kosiba] would pick the white team and the blue team, and the white team would generally be the starters,” said Lynn Daniel ’18, a former player who was on the blue team.

“During practice, the starting five were constantly worked with,” said Adda-Berkane, who was also on the blue team. According to Adda-Berkane, this meant that the starting five, or white team, received a disproportionate amount of coaching. Adda-Berkane explained that coaching staff would neglect to teach white team plays to blue team members. Nevertheless, she said, coaching staff would reprimand the blue team for not knowing those specific plays.

“Once in season, our coaches do very little to develop us as players and as athletes,” said a starting player from last season who wished to remain anonymous. “We get out of shape despite practically begging them to run us and a couple of our starters for this season were basically ignored last year. They had not seen the court except for a few minutes or so per game last season, yet were expected to seamlessly transition when called up to play a lot of minutes this season. Not only did this hurt our performance this season, but it also put an insane amount of pressure on these players. I admire my teammates for their ability to fill the roles they were inadequately prepared for.”

“If you make a mistake and are on the starting five it’s much more easily forgiven than if you’re on the blue team,” Adda-Berkane said.

Not all sources agreed that the blue and white system was contentious, let alone unusual. “I would imagine this is pretty customary, for all basketball teams, that teams are split into people who are going to play and people who are not going to play the next day,” said one former player from the class of 2018, who played for four years and was a starter. “Your objective is to win games and you have sixteen players. Who do you spend the most time on? Do you spend time on the five players who are going to win, or on the ten players who are going to be on the bench?”

 

Injuries on the team influence players’ experiences, attention from coaching staff

Daniel, who was on the blue team, had no choice but to quit after she sustained a career-ending concussion during practice. “I was concussed that moment,” Daniel said. “I knew my career was over. I knew I would not be able to play sports anymore.”

Despite the severity of the concussion—Daniel had to go home and ultimately visited the Mayo Clinic, where she was told that she might never recover—the coaching staff did not follow up with her after the moment of impact, she said. “I walked off the court after that practice, went into the locker room, and they never came and checked on me,” Daniel said of the coaching staff. “I wasn’t one of the favorites.”

During the 2015-16 season, seven players, including Daniel, had season-ending injuries.

Daniel thinks that blue team players were more prone to injuries during practices because coaching staff would prepare the white team on specific plays and would not prepare the blue team for the same plays. “The blue team would get hurt because however hard the blue team would play, the white team would win, no matter what they did.”
“I’ve never seen so many people cry because of a coach,” Daniel added.

Meanwhile, Coach Kosiba would make announcements to the team if someone on the starting five was injured, according to Adda-Berkane.

Adda-Berkane, who was also on the blue team, expressed a similar experience with her injuries on the team. When Adda-Berkane joined Carleton women’s basketball as a first-year recruit in 2016, an injury during an informal first practice with the team “really derailed my season,” she said. Adda-Berkane was one of four first-years to join a team that had just lost eight players, seven of whom had quit, and one of whom had graduated.

“I just remember going to the first practice, and I really didn’t know the coach at this point, and the first thing I told her is that ‘I did roll my ankle, and I’m going to try to practice today. I thought I’d be better, I’ve been icing and resting, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it through the whole practice.’ And [Coach Kosiba] was extremely upset.”

Adda-Berkane added that she was sent to a trainer who is no longer at Carleton. The trainer taped her ankle and reassured her about her ability to play, although Adda-Berkane recalled “I was in pain.”

Listening to her mother’s advice, Adda-Berkane then went to a doctor off-campus, who told her that she needed to wear a boot and would need six to eight weeks to recover. The sprain was so swollen, Adda-Berkane said, that the doctor was initially unable to fit her ankle into a boot. But according to Adda-Berkane, Coach Kosiba was not happy that she had visited a doctor outside Carleton Athletics and told her that her recovery would have only amounted to two weeks if she had followed the team’s protocol.

Following complications with her ankle, Adda-Berkane hurt her knee. “I think after this point was really when I started being treated very differently than the rest of my teammates,” Adda-Berkane added.

It was not until Adda-Berkane sustained a concussion that she began to think Coach Kosiba cared less about the well-being of non-starting players. Adda-Berkane said that Kosiba “did not believe me” when she told the coach that she had been diagnosed with a concussion.

According to Assistant Athletic Trainer Cassie Alfveby, who has trained the women’s basketball team for the past two seasons, injuries on the team are “usually just a one-hit fluke type of thing, and sometimes it happens four or five times in a season. It’s not really anything super preventable.”

When players are injured, Alfveby said that the coaching staff usually asks for her opinion on whether playing on the injury would prolong the recovery time. “If the player feels comfortable and it’s not something I think might extend the time that they need to recover,” then Alfveby gives the green light for player participation.

“The problem comes in when the players don’t tell us something’s going on and then if I don’t know if something’s going on, I can’t tell the coaches, ‘No, they can’t play,’ because I’m just left out of the loop,” said Alfveby.

 

Some players challenge  coaching strategies, attitudes toward players

The anonymous starting player from last season acknowledged that players might feel frustrated with what she views as ineffective practices and consistent game losses.

“I believe that people quit because it’s sad and embarrassing to work so hard for five months to lose more than you win, or not win at all in my case,” she continued. “It’s especially hard at a place like Carleton where the course load is brutal, and you’re still expected to stand around in a gym for two and a half hours every day for a practice that feels like a huge waste of time. When we do drills or scout teams or go over offensive sets, nothing feels challenging and we don’t do them until we know them or perfect them. Our coaches don’t push us the way we need them to and they put pretty much all of the responsibility on us to make the team and each other better.”

“I think [Coach Kosiba] doesn’t understand how deep all of those pressures go on the player and she doesn’t allow any sort of mental room in herself or us,” Daniel added. “I think she thinks that we should just magically be able to succeed.”

Adda-Berkane shares Daniel’s concern, describing Kosiba as having a “tendency to punish players and make them think they’re at fault for their emotional and mental state.”

Adda-Berkane said that, at one point, Kosiba told her she owed her teammates an apology for having attended an office hour for one of her classes, even though she had informed the coach of her academic workload that week. “She regularly made me feel like I was the problem,” Adda-Berkane said.

“[Coach Kosiba] just doesn’t understand what it means to be in the high-intensity situation that we are in,” Daniel said. Daniel added that she does not think Kosiba understands “what it’s like to deal with having so much student debt and having to balance all of the courses and the pressure of entering today’s society, let alone social pressures of having to fit in with the team.”

“I love basketball so much,” Adda-Berkane said. “And at first I thought it was my fault.”

 

Not everyone blames Kosiba

Not all former and current players share the same view of Coach Kosiba, though. “I wholeheartedly enjoy playing on the women’s basketball team for Coach Kosiba and would not have traded my experience for the world,” said Leone. “We as a team support each other, and especially respect and support our coach, and will not take part in devaluing our program.”

The former player who graduated last spring said that, while she had seen teammates leave practices in tears during her four-year career on the team, the intensity of routine drills, especially after a long day of academic stress, might lend itself to high emotions. “The coaches maybe could have said [something pertaining to drill performance] nicer or better, but I don’t think that’s the coaches’ job and players could have reacted in a different way,” she added. But she still thinks “coaches have probably said things that have been the final straw in causing players to leave practice crying.”

“I wish more than anything that I could still be playing for Coach Kosiba and be on the women’s team,” said another former player. “Because of personal circumstances and a concussion history that began before Carleton, I made the difficult decision to stop playing. I had a wonderful experience playing on the team, and many of my favorite Carleton memories are associated with that time.”

When asked why players might leave the team, Katherine Miles ’18, who played for the team for four years and was a starter, acknowledged that Carleton’s position within the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) can be a source of frustration for players. “Some of those schools that are better at sports may have lower academic standards in general,” said Miles.

“The MIAC is one of the hardest conferences in the country,” added Miles. “We’re playing against teams like St. Thomas that should be a Division I school, there’s just no question.

“I think doing Division III women’s basketball at Carleton is an especially unique situation,” said the former player from the class of 2018. “Being a Division III athlete means you don’t get any funding. Being a women’s Division III athlete means you don’t get any fans. Being a basketball player at Carleton means you do it and you probably don’t find success in winning, and you have really hard schoolwork to do.”

Miles also cited Carleton’s academic rigor as a potential factor in the decision to remain on the team. “People get to Carleton and they experience academics and sometimes, it’s not worth it, and that’s not a bad thing,” Miles continued. “Because it’s a Division III school, it’s not like Division I, where you are basically doing a second job, and you’re getting paid for it by having your tuition paid for. At Carleton, that’s not the case. You don’t get a scholarship.”

The team’s trainer and a current captain also discussed the balance between Carleton’s academic workload and the time commitment necessary to play women’s basketball for the college.

“Sometimes players just get to college and realize it’s more than they can handle,” said Alfveby. “Being a student-athlete is a much more time-consuming thing than just being a student here, and already being a student here is something that’s super difficult. Adding on top of that 16 hours of practices a week for games. People just don’t have the time, and maybe they did in high school, and it just hit them after a season of ‘I can’t keep this up. I can’t keep doing this.’”

“Many players on DIII teams quit for a variety of reasons, whether that be they cannot handle the academic workload with sports, because they want to pursue internships and opportunities that they otherwise could not have, because of career-ending injuries, or because they don’t agree with the coaching style, an issue that they will have to face on any team or job after Carleton,” Cece Leone ’19 said in an email statement. Leone is a starter and team captain this year.

“If there is ever an issue with team culture, it most certainly stems from the coaching staff,” said the anonymous starting player from last season. “While I may not have suffered as much as my teammates and their stories are not mine to tell, I can attest to favoritism and unfair treatment on our team. It is unacceptable and divisive, and I wish I didn’t have to go to a newspaper to let that be known. But, as is customary in Carleton Athletics, everything is political and hierarchical, and it just wouldn’t be my place to intercede on my teammates’ behalf.”

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