ESPN author and journalist talks sports and mental health at UMass

By Abigail Charpentier

(Caroline O’Connor/Collegian)

Over 130 people were packed into the Massachusetts Room of the Mullins Center on Thursday night to listen to sports journalist and ESPN columnist Kate Fagan talk about her book “What Made Maddy Run,” followed by a book signing after the lecture.

The lecture was opened by University of Massachusetts Senior Lecturer and Sports Journalism Director Steve Fox. He introduced Fagan and briefly listed some of her works at ESPN, sharing how he met Fagan a few years back when she visited the department after writing “Split Image,” a long-form story published by ESPN and the precursor to her book.

Fagan started her lecture by stating three disclaimers: She is not a mental health professional, she doesn’t want nervousness to overrule someone’s desire to ask a question, and she will not show the video associated with “Split Image,” because the video is three years old and there are aspects of it she would like to change.

Fagan gave a brief synopsis of Madison Holleran, a star athlete in soccer and track who was given a scholarship by University of Pennsylvania. Madison, who had a hard time transitioning at UPenn (among other things), committed suicide the first week of her second semester at the school.

“Something about the headlines, even though I wasn’t well-versed in discussing and researching suicide or mental health, they just seemed one-dimensional,” Fagan said.

Fagan went on to explain that while she focused heavily on the social media aspect of Madison’s story in her ESPN article, she left many topics in the story untouched.

“There were just a slew of angles that we had not fully explored in the magazine piece,” she said. “So, it was in the months after as we started to write down [other angles]…we had about eight or nine angles where we were like, ‘we need to do a longer version,’ and that’s how the book came to be.”

She then pinpointed some insight and conversation-starters she wanted the audience to leave with, including the topics of the transition to college, how insightful the lack of insight can be, the difference between “climbing a tree” and “climbing a ladder,” the concept of quitting and perfectionism.

About 30 minutes into the event, she opened the lecture up for questions from the audience. Questions ranged from similar stories of student athletes and the topic of suicide, to writing the book itself and her role as a human versus her role as a journalist in the situation.

One audience member asked, “How were you able to create boundaries for yourself and not become a character in the story?”

Fagan explained that the book is structured so that half of the chapters are Madison’s story from a reconstructive third person point of view, and the other half are essays where she explores “some cultural issues [she] thinks Madison is emblematic of.”

Another audience member asked, “If you could make a change to your book now, that was significant, what would it be and why?

“The big one is really driving home our fascination with suicide itself and our need to have answers around it…I didn’t articulate that at all in the book and I wish I had talked more about that because often what happens…somebody will ask me who I actually think is to blame [for Madison’s death],” Fagan said.

Meghan Gray, an English and journalism double major, who swims for UMass, enjoyed the lecture and thought it “covered all of the basic stuff we go through.”

Candace Burton, a sports management graduate student, is a fan of Kate Fagan and “loved the structure of Kate giving a basic overview and letting us go free and ask questions.”

“I thinks it’s a really interesting way to talk about the topic of suicide and more specifically, through the perspective of student athletes,” Burton said.

Greg Nevins, a freshman sports management manager, was very impressed with Fagan’s message. “She was so courageous to write that book and speak her feelings about it. I thought it was really powerful.”

“My favorite part was when she was explaining why she wrote the book and the hardest parts of writing it,” said Nevins. “It’s such a touchy topic she touched upon here and all the reasons she gave for being able to write this and speak about this just shows who she really is.”

Fagan visited UMass in 2015; six months after “Split Image” was published.

“It feels full circle because the discussion [she held at UMass] was part of the book,” Fagan said. “It’s really cool to use the discussions I had on college campuses to inform my thinking for this and to be able to come back to these places just feels rewarding.”

Abigail Charpentier can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @abigailcharp.