Female athletic trainers making strides

Courtesy of New York Cosmos

Alyssa Alpert, 26, is the head athletic trainer for the New York Cosmos.

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- When she was in school studying to be an athletic trainer, Alyssa Alpert took a trip to Germany. There, she spent the day with FC Bayern Munich, and met with an athletic trainer working with the team.

"Walking to the training facility and looking over the pitch," Alpert said, "it was one of the most amazing things."

Alpert, now 26, has been named the head athletic trainer for the New York Cosmos, a legendary team that has been resurrected and is going into its second season in the North American Soccer League. The team was the league champ last season and trains at Mitchel Field in Uniondale.

Alpert is one of just a handful of women who have the head job for a professional men's team in any American sport. Bringing up that fact seems a little anachronistic. Are we still discussing this? Didn't women already break that barrier back when Alpert was watching "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"?

Well, no.

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

Sue Falsone was the first female head athletic trainer in baseball when the Los Angeles Dodgers hired her in 2012.

"I think back when athletic training started, sports were predominantly male," Alpert said. "At that point you wanted a male athletic trainer working with a male team. And you'll still find schools that have a female athletic trainer for all the female teams and a male athletic trainer for all the male teams. The knowledge base is not gender-specific by any means.

"Now, if you walk into an athletic training program at a university you're going to find either equal male and female, or more women than men."

Alpert is only starting to be aware of how rare it is for women to win those coveted head trainer jobs with professional teams. Even though women are now a majority in the industry -- a result of women coming into the business during the past decade -- they hold just a few of the most lucrative jobs.

In recent years, more women have been coming into the profession than men. In 2005, 47.6 percent of National Athletic Trainers' Association members were women, but in 2011 that number climbed to 50.9 percent. Student memberships illustrate the trend even more, with 60 percent of those held by women.

Sue Falsone was the first to break through the glass ceiling in baseball when the Los Angeles Dodgers hired her in 2012.

"The Dodgers are such a solid organization," Falsone said. "Whether it's Jackie Robinson or Fernando Valenzuela, they've always been the first."

Falsone remained the only woman in a head spot with a baseball team until she made the decision to step down last October to consult and pursue a few other projects, such as studying dry needling as a therapy. Leaving the Dodgers was a hard decision to make. It was the right call for her personally, but she was still the flag-holder for women in baseball and felt the responsibility.

"I did feel that way a little, but I had to make sure I was making the right decision for me rather than based on gender," Falsone said.

She is now working on an independent basis with athletes in many professional sports, not just baseball. There are other women who have broken through, including Judy Seto, who works for the Lakers, and Ariko Iso, who was an assistant athletic trainer for the Steelers and is now the head trainer at Oregon State University, her alma mater.

So is Alpert just one of the women who have risen to a rare plum of a job? Or is she on the crest of a demographics wave, which should ultimately give women equal access to the most high-profile jobs in the profession? NATA board member Kathy Dieringer, who owns three outpatient rehabilitation centers in Texas, says it's the latter.

"There weren't many opportunities 20 years ago for female athletic trainers to ascend to positions of leadership in professional sports and especially in professional sports for men," Dieringer said.

An athletic trainer's role is to help players prepare for and recover from practice and injuries. They are often the first line of defense when an injury happens in practice. But more often they're helping with rehab and keeping muscles ready.

You'll still find schools that have a female athletic trainer for all the female teams and a male athletic trainer for all the male teams. The knowledge base is not gender-specific by any means.
Alyssa Alpert

"We're health-care providers," Dieringer said. "So everyone should be comfortable working with a male or a female [athlete]."

Athletic trainers work in conjunction with a physician. They are required to have an undergraduate degree, and 70 percent have a master's degree, according to NATA. They also require certification.

If anything, Alpert's youth may have been a bigger issue than gender. She had a two-week tryout with the Cosmos before she was given the job. During the time, Cosmos coach Giovanni Savarese saw that she had the combination of professionalism and moxie needed to deal with the team.

"Players come to you with pain, they come wanting the right solutions, they want comfort but they need authority," Savarese said.

On a day leading up to a trip to Dubai, one of the players didn't want to take a dip in the cold tub, as advised by Alpert. He stalled; she encouraged. He debated the science behind cold tubs; she smiled and said, "Are we really going to have this conversation?"

Off to the cold tub.

"So young," she said with a laugh, "but you have to be confident in the knowledge that you have."

Alpert's older sister Alana works for Clarkson as an athletic trainer for the hockey team. Alpert grew up in musical theater and was a competitive dancer. One of her first jobs in the business was an internship for a traveling production of the Rockettes' "Christmas Spectacular." She learned all the moves and used to do her own version of the show backstage.

Now, she stays in shape with Olympic-style weightlifting and CrossFit competitions.

She finds that staying in shape is part of the job description. Every day before practice, Alpert sets up water and supplies by the field, and makes sure she is available to help tape players before they head out. She will be the first professional on the field when they are injured, and will help them recover from anything from strained muscles to ACL surgery.

When she was a graduate student at LIU Post on Long Island, Alpert worked with men's and women's teams, and once had to tell a player that her season was over because of a concussion.

"We had to put her health first and obviously you never want to tell an athlete they can't play their sport," Alpert said, "but it's always the health of the athlete first."

Iso, who worked with the Steelers, said that women have joined the profession but, anecdotally speaking, haven't always stuck around in the same numbers. The work requires late nights, and working for teams means a lot of travel. She wondered if some qualified women left the field before getting in position for the best jobs.

"No one is going to get a first job as a head athletic trainer," Iso said. "You have to stay in the field."

Although there may be individual circumstances when a male or female athletic trainer is preferred, overall Iso said change is coming, something that she and Falsone agree on.

"I had a really good experience and never felt I was chosen or not chosen because of my gender," Falsone said. "I think it's coming, whether it's person by person or in a wave."

Savarese said he wasn't looking at gender at all when making the hiring decision on Alpert. The Cosmos originally played in New York from 1970 until 1985. Pele was one of the biggest draws and is still part of the hierarchy of the storied franchise. Their regular season starts in April, and they needed to get a trainer in place.

"To be honest with you, I'm not looking for a girl or a boy," Savarese said. "I'm looking for someone good."

In professional sports, that attitude still counts as enlightened.

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