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Life Beyond the Game: The EJ Woods Story – How playing in Russia recalibrated his life

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Life Beyond the Game: The EJ Woods Story - How playing in Russia recalibrated his life

Life changed for EJ Woods playing for Spartak Moscow

EJ Woods is learning.

Facing a crystal blue sea and surrounded by the pristine white sands of Southern California, NOT admits he’s still searching for his inner paradise.

More than twelve years ago, NOT was involved in an incident that derailed his once promising football career. While he acknowledges and laments his actions that night, it is the unproven sexual misconduct accusations that still haunt him. It is the unfulfilled promise and lack of closure that continue to weigh on him to this day. Football is an integral part of EJ’s identity and reinventing himself has proven difficult.

While fans have long moved on, in 2008, news of Edmund Keith Woods Jr’s commitment to the UCLA Bruins was a big deal. His college stock was sky high. Football recruiting databases, like rivals.com and PrepStar had rated him as one of the top prospects in the nation. ESPN had him ranked just outside the top hundred, at 101. In fact, among the highly decorated 2008 recruiting class, which included the likes of Julio Jones and AJ Green, Edmund Jr. – or EJ for short – was ranked above future Heisman winner Mark Ingram and two-time Pro Bowler Kyle Rudolph.

EJ was recruited by college football heavyweights such as Texas A&M, Florida State and the 2010 national finalists – the Oregon Ducks. He was on the surest path to the NFL.

Or so he thought.

Unfortunately for EJ, he would not play a single down for the Bruins.

EJ had just returned from a winter break getaway with his girlfriend in Lake Tahoe. Sitting alongside his closest friends playing Mario Kart in his standard beige colored and wood furnished dorm room, the group received an invitation to a party to celebrate the start of the semester.

At the party, attended by numerous UCLA athletes, EJ committed the biggest mistake of his life.

With his girlfriend at his side, another female got in his face. While the events leading up to this point could not be independently verified – none of the other parties directly involved responded to a request for comment – what is certain is that EJ pushed the young woman in the facial area. Frank Mateljan, a spokesman for the city attorney’s office at the time, in a press release, said that Woods had pushed the woman back by the throat.

“That is the biggest regret of my life,” EJ says.

Upon being released to his family the same night, EJ was told to stay away from all team activities while his case was reviewed by the program’s executives and ordered to take anger management and problem-solving classes. His training was confined to personal sessions with a UCLA assistant coach.

Eventually, the suspension was lifted. EJ returned to the team, rising up the depth chart and even winning the starting position at defensive back. EJ still recalls a scrimmage at the famed Rose Bowl, where he dominated play and had the chance to interact with fans – both young and old – as well as pro players observing the next generation of talent. It was the was the highlight of his career at UCLA.

Things were starting to look up. Until March 13, 2009, that is.

On that day, in the early hours of the morning, EJ was charged with two counts of sexual battery and four counts of battery by City of Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo.

It got worse.

The Los Angeles Times got wind of the report and soon his name was plastered all over local outlets. The previously internal matter was now in the public eye. In a sign of the changing times – no longer was personal misconduct overshadowed by even the best of talent – EJ’s career at UCLA was over. And as history would have it, so was his pro football career.

According to EJ, on campus other students were quick to pass judgement before the facts were ever presented, turning him into a pariah.

“[This] was blown up to me seeming like this sex monster, which was not cool at all,” EJ says, adding that the reputation he developed was difficult to overcome. “I have a daughter right now… So, if I saw her hanging out with the girl at school that had a reputation of being a troublemaker. I would tell her… you need to distance yourself. And I think that I ended up being that kid that parents told their kids to stay away from. And that’s what hurt me the most.”

EJ Woods with camp attendees in Moscow

What most never learned is that four of the counts were dropped, including both counts of sexual battery. Or that the remaining charges were eventually dismissed.

City of Los Angeles City Attorney spokesperson Rob Wilcox, in a written statement, confirmed that NOT had pled no contest to two charges of battery in 2009 and that the two infractions were dismissed on October 3, 2016.

Facing mounting pressure NOT left UCLA.

Instead of taking the time to take care of his legal issues and do some soul-searching, NOT, more than ever, committed himself to the game he loves. In hindsight, this is one of EJ’s biggest regrets. In fact, a part of him believes that his chance to play pro-football may have been compromised by prioritizing the game over the legal process.

“Me rushing the [legal] process, I regret it more than anything in my life,” an emotional EJ said, with his usually sturdy voice quivering just a bit. He added that the reputational damage has been immeasurable.

The star defensive back’s reluctance to engage in soul-searching would become a common theme in the next decade of chaotic movement.

Following his departure from UCLA, EJ was offered a lifeline by Arizona State Sun Devils wide receivers coach Eric Yarber. The current Los Angeles Rams wideout coach was keen on bringing in the hard-hitting defensive player to shore up an Arizona State team that was falling short of expectations. Yarber offered the embattled Californian a deal – he would have a place with the Sun Devils conditional on him completing an associate degree while playing at a junior college.

However, without the oversight and guidance offered to athletes at top-notch programs like UCLA, EJ struggled. Hundreds of miles from home, in a far-less nurturing environment, EJ left Eastern Arizona College soon after his arrival, with a burglary, allegedly orchestrated by some of his teammates, being the last straw.

Yarber rescinded his offer.

EJ’s one-sided commitment to football did not end there. He embarked on a run that would see him bounce around between colleges in Utah, Oregon, California, and New Mexico.

His unrelenting desire to fulfill his promise on the field was beginning to backfire. EJ was self-destructing on and off the field. In-game, the increasingly frustrated defensive back would often deliver punishing hits resulting in frequent ejections and suspensions. And off field, he burned several bridges in desperate, but short-sighted attempts to revive his college career.

In rescinding his offer, Yarber had told EJ that by not following through on his end of the deal he failed to exhibit the personal growth that would allow him to thrive in the college environment. In retrospect, EJ agrees. And while he has no regrets about not finishing his studies, he laments the missed opportunity for personal growth, admitting that immaturity got the best of him too many times in his former life.

However, undeterred by a tumultuous college career, EJ still wasn’t ready for introspection. He began exploring the alternate routes to the NFL. He set his sights on the Canadian Football League, a path many NFL standouts took, only to later be told that he wasn’t a “fit” with a potential suitor. While his agent told him that it was part of a roster shuffle, EJ believes his past was catching up to him.

Having suffered another setback, at the suggestion of a former teammate and friend, EJ cast his gaze across the pond to Europe. Given his experience at the highest level of collegiate football, EJ says he was a hot commodity on Europlayers, an online platform that matches gridiron talent across the world with teams in Europe. EJ first went to Finland, then to Poland, then to Switzerland.

EJ Woods playing for the Warsaw Eagles in Poland Photo: Radoslaw Makuch

“I used Europlayers and European football to run away from my problems in America. I called it escaping reality,” EJ admits.

Meanwhile, his unrelenting pursuit of on-field glory was also taking a personal toll. He became distant with those he was closest to and those who were there for him at his lowest points. His relationship with his loved ones became strained.

The turning point came in 2018.

EJ was on his way to Turkey to join a local team when he had a last-minute change of heart opting to go to Russia because of the World Cup. While, Turkey, from a football standpoint, was a more appealing option, NOT finally putting himself before the game changed his life in ways he could not have imagined.

Life with family in California

After arriving in Russia, the Southern California native initially thought he would not stay for long. The tough-as-nails football player found the people cold and intimidating. First impressions, however, were deceiving and his new cohorts started to grow on him. EJ said that the tough, yet earnest nature of his teammates and the family environment was what got him to stay.

As much as he taught them about gridiron football, they taught EJ about himself.

“One thing about my Russian bros that they made me realize, [is that] there is more to life than just football. And that’s been like the hardest thing for me. Like, I’m just a football guy. Like bred… to play some damn football,” EJ says. “They gave me a different perspective. Like it’s just football, [it] isn’t life… and I’m a normally very serious person and they just made me smile.”

For the first time in years, his Russian teammates provided him with a fresh slate, looking past his earlier troubles and welcoming him as one their own, EJ says.

EJ recalls an episode where a visa mix-up landed him behind bars in Moscow. The former defensive back, who considers loyalty to be the value most important to him, said that his then-teammates and club officials at the American Football Club (AFC) Spartak Moscow rallied around him to clear up the misunderstanding and that was something he hadn’t experienced in years. The episode is emblematic of a man who says football was never about the fame, or the fortune but rather the comradery.

The culture shock spurred a change in attitude and life transformation.

EJ says that during his time in Moscow he began to move on from past mistakes and grievances. Opening up about past traumas and having others accept him was an essential part of the healing process.

EJ Woods #3 with Spartak Moscow

Before long, the now 31-year-old, who says the events of a decade ago forced him into a shell, was married. And not long after that his first daughter was born. He is now a father of two. EJ says his wife has also stressed the importance of not dwelling on the past or perceived slights throughout their time together.

Those who know him best marvel at the difference.

However, the transformation has not been easy. Separating the man from the player is an ongoing process. There are days when his mind wanders off to reminisce about past glory and what might have been. Occasionally he contemplates how he can get it all back. And in the darkest of times, he recalls the events of that winter evening over a decade ago.

Ultimately, EJ concedes that life beyond the game is becoming more of a priority, although he certainly remains open to any and all opportunities when it comes to the sport he loves. He has also learned to lean on the things he cherished about football – family and loyalty – in his new life. EJ speaks glowingly about his daughters and the responsibility he has for them. And the former college sports standout has also found a passion for investments.

After a 12-year rollercoaster ride, EJ the football player is slowly fading into the background. EJ the man, meanwhile, is learning to find himself.

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Column | Troubled ‘turbantor’ Harbhajan and his aggressive instincts

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The retirement of Harbhajan Singh from all forms of competitive cricket in December 2021 brought to close the career of a gifted cricketer who courted controversy at every turn of his career. During the first years of the 21st century, he was arguably the best spin bowler in the world and though his wicket-taking abilities hit a plateau after that, he sustained himself by the versatility that saw him play all formats of the game at the highest level with reasonable success. He was a regular in the national side and part of the team that won the International Cricket Council (ICC) T20 World Cup in 2007 and the ICC World Cup in 2011. Though he lost his place in the national squad in 2015, he continued playing in Indian Premier League (IPL) till he chose to hang up his playing boots last month.

Harbhajan Singh

Chennai Super Kings bowler Harbhajan Singh bowls during the 2019 Indian Premier League (IPL) match. Photo by Sajjad Hussain/AFP


Harbhajan kickstarted his career during the 1997-98 season when he found himself playing for the national side in March 1998 within four months after making his debut for Punjab in Ranji Trophy. His performances at the junior level and the absence of top quality off-spin bowlers were factors that prompted the selectors to try out this rookie bowler, then still in his teens. He did not set Kaveri on fire on his Test debut, which took place against Australia at Bangalore. Within one month, he made his bow in One Day Internationals (ODIs) as well but a string of below-par performances saw him lose his place in the side soon thereafter.

Harbhajan Singh

Indian off-spinner Harbhajan Singh appeals to the umpire at Buffalo Park in East London 19 October 2001. Photo: Tirsa Ellis/AFP


After going through a period of near oblivion when he was also thrown out of a training programme in National Cricket Academy on charges of indiscipline, Harbhajan staged a comeback to the national side in the winter of 2000-2001 with a performance that will be remembered by followers of the game in India for all times. Australia, led by Steve Waugh, had landed in India to conquer the “final frontier”. The visitors were on a high, having won the previous 15 matches on the trot and looked forward to creating a new world record with 17 consecutive triumphs in Tests, while also winning the series. And when they won the first Test at Mumbai by a margin of 10 wickets, everyone thought that they were on their way to attaining both their goals.

Harbhajan Singh

Indian players incluing Sourav Ganguly (R), Harbhajan Singh (3rd L), Shiv Sundar Singh (fourth from L, with helmet), VVS Laxman (2nd from R) run to celebrate India’s victory over Australia. Photo: Arko Datta/AFP


The Kolkata Test against Australia in February 2001 is known as “Laxman’s Test”, for his knock of 281 runs in the second innings which helped India to script a magnificent turnaround and win this game, after trailing in the first innings by 274 runs. Harbhajan also had a crucial role to play in this victory as he took 13 wickets (7 for 123 in first innings and 6 for 73 in the second), including a hat-trick on the first day. In the last Test at Chennai, Harbhajan again played a stellar role, bagging 15 wickets for 217 runs (7 for 133 in first and 8 for 84 in second innings) to finish the series with a tally of 32 wickets. Aussie batsmen did not have any answer for his wiles and even such accomplished performers as Rickey Ponting and Adam Gilchrist appeared shell-shocked while facing him. Australian media nicknamed him as “Turbanator”- a tribute to his destructive capacity with the ball.

Harbhajan Singh

Indian spinners Anil Kumble (L) and Harbhajan Singh at the Ferozeshah Kotla ground in New Delhi. Photo: Ravi Raveendran/AFP


Harbhajan’s career did not ever attain the stratospheric heights that this performance promised. The surfeit of limited overs’ cricket made him focus more on restricting runs than on “buying” wickets. This resulted in bowling a flatter line without “giving the ball air”; the classic loop which is the hallmark of a top-class off-spinner also disappeared. This made him a less destructive bowler except on helpful surfaces and the returns also started growing thinner. When Anil Kumble returned to the side after recovering from an injury, Harbhajan moved into the slot of support spin bowler.

Harbhajan Singh

Injured spinner Harbhajan Singh watches the action on the first day of the third Test Match being played at the MCG in Melbourne 26 December 2003. Photo: William West/AFP


A finger injury caused Harbhajan to return home during the tour to Australia in 2003-04. He returned to the side the next season and was amongst wickets with most of the games being played at home. However, the arrival of Greg Chappell as coach and the exit of Sourav Ganguly as captain of the national side in 2005 caused hiccups in Harbhajan’s career. He was the first Indian cricketer to publicly criticise Chappell and his methods and said that the coach was “instilling fear and insecurity” in the side. Though his explanation was called for, Harbhajan managed to escape action and issued a statement lauding Chappell soon thereafter!

Harbhajan Singh

Gerg Chappell (L), talks with Harbhajan Singh (R), during a net practice session at The Punjab Cricket Association (PCA) stadium in Mohali. Photo: Raveendran/AFP


Harbhajan found himself in the midst of one of the biggest controversies in cricket when India toured Australia in 2007-08. In the second Test at Adelaide, Australia lodged a formal complaint that he indulged in racial abuse against Andrew Symonds. The relations between the two sides were at a low ebb and this incident even threatened to disrupt the conduct of the remaining part of the tour. Harbhajan vehemently denied the charges and the Indian team management supported him. But Mike Proctor, the match referee, found him guilty and slapped a punishment. India promptly appealed against this verdict and got a stay, which allowed the tour to go on. Eventually, the ICC appeals Commissioner Justice John Hansen overturned the verdict of the match referee and absolved Harbhajan.

Harbhajan Singh

(L to R) Australian players Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, Andrew Symonds and Matthew Hayden are seen along side Indian player Harbhajan Singh and assistant Indian team manager M.V. Sridhar prior to the start of the appeal hearing against a three-match ban imposed on Indian cricketer Harbhajan Singh by the ICC at the Adelaide Federal Court, 29 January 2008. Photo: Robert Cianflone/Pool/AFP


Controversy continued to dog Harbhajan even after the closure of this episode. During the Indian Premier League (IPL) matches in 2008, he slapped fellow India teammate S Sreesanth after the game between Kings XI Punjab and Mumbai Indians, which the latter side, led by Harbhajan, lost. The slapping of a national player in full view of television cameras drew widespread criticism and Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) moved fast and initiated action against Harbhajan.

Harbhajan Singh

Indian cricketers Harbhajan Singh (L) and S Sreesanth. Photo: AFP


Incidentally, this was not the first time that Harbhajan had got physical with Sreesanth. During the Champions Cup trophy match in 2007, he had shoulder charged the fast bowler when he was walking to the top of his bowling mark. BCCI had chosen to ignore this incident despite it being witnessed across the country. But the “slapgate” was too serious to be brushed under the carpet and Harbhajan was barred from playing the remaining matches of that season of IPL, besides a five-match suspension from ODI’s.

Harbhajan’s international career took a severe reverse when he was injured during the tour to England in 2011. He was not selected for the tour to Australia in 2011-12 and his appearances in international matches became sporadic after that. He played his last Test in August 2015 and his final appearance in an ODI took place two months later, though he continued to play domestic first-class cricket till 2017. Since then, his appearances on the cricket field were limited to playing in IPL, where he picked up 150 wickets in 13 editions.

Harbhajan Singh

Harbhajan Singh hold his Man of the Series trophy after India defeated Australia by two wickets in the the third test, hence winning the series in Madras 22 March 2001. Photo: Ravi Raveendran/AFP


A tally of 417 wickets in Tests and 269 scalps in ODI’s makes Harbhajan the second most successful off-spinner to play for India, after Ravichandran Ashwin. He could also wield the willow effectively as evident from a total of 2,224 runs in Tests with 2 centuries and 9 fifties. He was also the first spin bowler from India to adjust to the demands of all versions of cricket effectively. But his tendency to create controversies and lack of amenability to discipline cast a cloud over his career which could have reached much greater heights given the prodigious talent he was blessed with.

Sreesanth

S Sreesanth with teammate Harbhajan Singh. Photo: Alexander Joe/AFP


Followers of the game from Kerala could be forgiven for not harbouring a soft spot towards this highly competitive cricketer as he is considered to be the bugbear of Sreesanth and the source of all troubles that the Kochi born pacer found himself in. News reports indicate that the two cricketers subsequently spoke to each other and resolved their differences. But it would be difficult for the fans to forgive so easily as the bad taste created by those incidents does not vanish quickly. The same is the case with cricketers and cricket-loving public of Australia, as could be understood from the observations in the autobiography of Gilchrist, despite Harbhajan and Symonds sharing the same dugout in IPL.

In retrospect, one is forced to conclude that it would have been better for Indian cricket if the aggressive instincts of Harbhajan Singh were channelled properly on the cricket field and outside.

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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Sports Betting’s Next Big Election Battles Are in California

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Sports Betting’s Next Big Election Battles Are in California

TEMECULA, Calif. — Legal sports betting in the United States accelerated in 2021 as a flurry of states either overcame legislative logjams, as Ohio did just before Christmas, or signed off on online wagering, as New York did just after Election Day.

But those efforts are likely to pale in comparison to the all-out lobbying, campaigning and legal jousting in 2022 involving what a DraftKings executive recently called “one of the holy grails” in sports betting: California.

By November, Californians may be asked to vote on as many as four sports betting initiatives. That’s why deep-pocketed interests, including national sports books and Native American casinos, have been gearing up to spend $200 million to persuade voters in California to support their particular proposal — or to reject the others.

One measure that has already qualified for the state ballot, sponsored by powerful tribes in California, would add sports wagering, but only in person, at tribal casinos or horse racing tracks. Online betting initiatives, now gathering signatures, dangle the prospect of making bets anywhere through the internet. Others offer a middle ground.

If one of the measures passes, nearly two-thirds of Americans will live in states that allow or regulate sports betting. And with California and New York on board, sports wagering would essentially be national in scope, fueling a market that Goldman Sachs recently estimated could grow to $40 billion in revenues in a decade from $900 million now.

Yet gambling expansion in California has often fallen short or been torpedoed by competing interests. Indeed, California’s card rooms, which primarily operate around larger cities and offer a more limited range of games, just filed a lawsuit to invalidate the qualified tribal measure.

“We’re never going to get sports betting figured out at any level unless California comes on board,” Jason Giles, executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association, said at a recent sports betting conference at the Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula. “That will be the game changer for the United States.”

Since the Supreme Court’s decision in 2018 to strike down a federal law banning commercial sports betting in states other than Nevada, more than 30 states have authorized sports wagering, including about a dozen in the last year. More than 20 states have gone live.

New York just started mobile sports betting after awarding licenses for it to two coalitions featuring marquee names, Caesars Sportsbook and Bally’s Interactive. Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio signed a bill legalizing sports betting in late December. And legislators in Wyoming and Arizona, among others, quickly approved sports betting.

“Look at this massive expansion across the country and where we are — it’s becoming very mainstream,” said Brandt Iden, a former state representative in Michigan who pushed to legalize sports betting in his home state. Iden is now head of government affairs for Sportradar, which collects and analyzes data for sports books. “I talk to legislators who say, you know what, I don’t support gambling, but everybody is doing it.”

Of the holdouts, Texas considered several bills in 2021, and some lawmakers expect momentum when the legislature reconvenes in 2023. Florida, meanwhile, is a mess: A federal judge recently blocked the Seminole Tribe’s new sports betting app, and DraftKings and FanDuel are racing to gather enough signatures to get a referendum on the 2022 ballot.

In California, gambling — mostly on slot machines and blackjack — has been legal for two decades on tribal lands under compacts negotiated with the state. The state also permits gambling at horse racing tracks, which was legalized in 1933, and card rooms, which trace their lineage to poker-playing miners during the Gold Rush.

Any changes would require constitutional amendments through a voter referendum, or legislation backed by the voters.

Previous attempts have bogged down; online poker, for instance, failed in part because the tribes themselves were split. But now there appears to be less resistance on moral and philosophical grounds.

“If we think about progressive legislation, or legislation to protect consumer welfare, California lies at the forefront, whether we want to talk about minimum wage or privacy protection,” said Marc Edelman, a law professor at Baruch College who has written extensively on sports gambling. “If California legalizes sports gambling it becomes very unlikely that another state would arise as the consumer-oriented opposer of sports gambling.”

This time, the push to expand gambling began before the pandemic, from a coalition of 18 tribes that have dominated casino gambling in the state.

Across the United States, tribal gambling generated $27.8 billion in revenue in its fiscal year from Oct. 1, 2019, to Sept. 30, 2020, despite the pandemic. California is the biggest state, with 66 tribal casinos on federally recognized lands, mostly far from the coast, yielding about $8 billion, with much of that coming from slot machines.

Under the tribes’ initiative, which is backed by a political action committee that has raised more than $13 million, sports wagering would be permitted at tribal casinos and horse tracks. Roulette and games played with dice, such as craps, would also be allowed under the proposal, which qualified for the ballot in May 2021 after collecting more than one million valid signatures.

One thing that is not included is online betting, because the initiative is intended to be “a very measured, incremental step,” said Mark Macarro, tribal chairman of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians in Riverside County.

“We think this is the right thing to do for tribes and tribal sovereignty,” he said at the conference here. “There’s enough skittishness out there about what could happen to brick-and-mortar facilities.”

The initiative would also create a new civil enforcement tool allowing anyone suspicious of any illegal gambling operations to file lawsuits. It is this provision that has fueled two separate but related efforts by California’s card rooms to defeat the tribes, and to get their own sports betting measure passed.

California has more than 80 card rooms ranging from pub-like places with a few poker tables to sleek behemoths with 270 tables accompanied by restaurants and plentiful A.T.M.s. Collectively, they employ 23,000 people in urban areas, many of them Asian, Black and Hispanic, and pump in $300 million in federal, state and local tax revenues each year, according to the California Gaming Association, a trade group.

Many municipal budgets rely heavily on the card rooms to finance vital services and bolster juvenile justice and other programs, said Mayor Tasha Cerda of Gardena, which has two card rooms. She has backed an initiative that would permit sports betting at the card rooms, tribal casinos and racetracks, as well as allow for internet sports betting. That initiative has raised $450,000 to date. Meanwhile, some of the bigger card rooms have poured more than $24 million into a “No” campaign against the tribes’ initiative.

During a recent tour of Hollywood Park Casino in Inglewood, adjacent to SoFi Stadium, the host of the Super Bowl next month and the College Football Playoff national championship in 2023, Deven Kumar, the casino’s general manager, estimated sports betting could increase revenues — already hurt by the coronavirus pandemic — by 20 percent to 25 percent. He and James T. Butts Jr., Inglewood’s mayor, warned that the tribes’ civil enforcement provision could drain their existing business by up to 75 percent, compounded by the inevitable legal costs.

“They are attempting to make gambling a monopoly at the expense of others,” Butts said. “They are not the disenfranchised group they once were. The minority majority cities deserve the opportunity for equity as well.”

In the city of Hawaiian Gardens, where the Gardens Casino supplied 68 percent of the tax revenues in the 2019-20 municipal budget, Keith A. Sharp, the casino’s general counsel, said sports betting could transform Sundays at the casino — now mostly empty — into bustling periods where customers could wager on N.F.L. games while also playing baccarat or other games.

If the card rooms were hobbled, however, Nary Chin, a longtime card dealer and single mother of four, said she feared for her future.

“I learned English in the card room, not school,” said an emotional Chin, who immigrated from Cambodia in 1984. “I am very grateful. This is my home. If I didn’t have this job, I don’t know what I’d do.”

The third initiative comes from online sports books, including DraftKings and FanDuel, that want to enter California for the first time and offer online betting.

The measure requires those companies to partner with tribes, and its supporters say voters can pass both their initiative and the tribes’ in-person one. Most of the state’s profits would be dedicated to homelessness measures, and to the tribes themselves. It would also allow betting on nonathletic events, like award shows and video game contests, but not youth sports or elections, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.

“We view brick-and-mortar as very complementary to mobile,” Jonathan Edson, FanDuel’s senior vice president for business development, said at the sports betting conference.

“California is one of the holy grails in sports,” added Jeremy Elbaum, senior vice president for business development at DraftKings.

The supporters, buffeted by an initial $100 million from seven sports books, have lined up mayors in Long Beach, Oakland, Fresno and Sacramento, plus advocates working to combat a homeless crisis. They are confident they will collect enough signatures to be certified by the June ballot deadline.

“We are focused on ongoing stable revenue to fund the key programs that we know we need,” said Tommy Newman, vice president for engagement and activation at the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. “If we’re honest, this is regulating and capturing value from something that is happening, for people in communities that absolutely need the investment.”

In November, a fourth initiative arrived supporting both online and in-person betting, backed by a different group of tribes, including the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.

“Out-of-state and international gaming operators want to rewrite the balanced system California has created so that the future belongs to them, paying a pittance to serious local and statewide social problems, and trying to divide the Tribes by offering temporary riches to a few while taking future growth opportunities away from the rest,” the tribes wrote in their application to the California attorney general.

A lawyer for the tribes, Scott Crowell, did not respond to messages seeking comment.

Some gambling analysts believe that a plethora of initiatives may confuse voters, who may just say no to everything. Another wild card is a lawsuit filed in December by two card rooms claiming that the qualified tribal initiative violates the state constitution, which says initiatives can focus only on one subject, because the tribes are trying to add retail sports betting as well as add more table games.

Still, no matter the outcome of the lawsuit or the ballot measures, many sports and technology companies are building audiences through free-to-play games, contests, fantasy sports and national marketing campaigns, even in states where sports betting has not yet been cleared, said Rob Phythian, founder and chief executive of SharpLink Gaming, a technology company.

Teams like the Minnesota Vikings have hired companies like SharpLink to build fantasy games. That could be consequential in California, where there are 19 teams in the N.F.L., M.L.B., N.B.A., N.H.L. and W.N.B.A. — by far the most of any state.

“We’re just a bridge to betting,” Phythian said. “It’s sort of like training the muscle.”

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Addressing maternal health inequities | AAMC

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Addressing maternal health inequities | AAMC

Kysha Shaw lives with a lot of uncertainty. Among other things, the 42-year-old single mother of three worries about COVID-19, schools closing, and drug use and crime in her West Baltimore neighborhood.

“I love this community, but it can be really sad,” she says. “You see people begging for shoes and clothes. You might see someone slumped over with a needle in their arm. People sell drugs in front of the convenience stores.”

But Shaw is determined to keep herself and her children healthy, which she’s done thanks in part to an innovative effort called B’more for Healthy Babies Upton/Druid Heights (BHB U/DH). Founded in 2011, the program is part of a citywide initiative and is a partnership between the local community, the University of Maryland Medical Center, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

BHB-U/DH supports mothers and babies in West Baltimore, where 92% of residents are Black and 66% of children live below the federal poverty level. It provides prenatal education, support groups, smoking cessation, some rental assistance, and connection to a range of social services. Among other achievements, the effort has reduced infant mortality by 75%.

Experts believe that programs like BHB U/DH are essential if the United States hopes to address the inequities in maternal health found in so many crowded cities and remote rural towns.

The statistics are striking: Black and American Indian/Alaskan Native women are two to three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than White women. Black women are twice as likely to experience serious perinatal complications. And early indicators suggest that COVID-19 is only exacerbating such inequities.

What’s more, advanced degrees and full bank accounts don’t close the gap. In fact, a college-educated Black woman faces a 60% greater risk of maternal death than a White woman with no high school diploma. Why is that? Experts point to the effects of subtle and explicit racism as well as weathering, the biological fallout of ongoing stress that can cause premature aging and related health problems.

Faced with this worrisome reality, researchers and providers are working to improve the health of vulnerable pregnant people before, during, and after childbirth.

“It’s incredible, some of the things I’ve heard our moms go through when they’re seeking care. It’s heartbreaking.”

Kamilah Dixon-Shambley, MD
Medical director of Moms2B

“Inequities are so pervasive and persistent that they require multisector efforts,” says AAMC Health Equity Research Analyst Funmi Makinde, MPH. “We need to address transportation, employment, and housing as well as physician shortages, and we need more diverse providers. We need high-quality data that are shared publicly to ensure accountability. The list goes on.”

Throughout all this work, it’s crucial to include the perspectives of patients who are often overlooked, experts say. In one recent survey, 20% of Black, biracial, and Latinx people felt their medical requests were refused or ignored, compared with 11% of White people.

“It’s incredible, some of the things I’ve heard our moms go through when they’re seeking care. It’s heartbreaking,” says Kamilah Dixon-Shambley, MD, medical director of Moms2B, an Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center program that provides yearlong supports and health education to low-income new and expectant mothers. “It’s crucial that patients and the community can trust their providers.”

Below, AAMCNews profiles multifaceted efforts to address maternal health inequities across the country.

Data that save lives

In 2006, California officials noted a worrisome trend: Maternal mortality was on the rise, even as the state recorded the most births nationwide.

Hoping to reverse the disturbing death rate, they turned to Stanford University School of Medicine to co-found the multistakeholder group that became the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative (CMQCC).

Serious number-crunching has fueled much of the CMQCC’s work. For one, it collects and analyzes hospitals’ raw data to quickly identify areas ripe for improvement, including racial and ethnic disparities.

“We send hospitals back reports, and they are flabbergasted when data are broken down by race and ethnicity. They may see that their Black patients have 6 percentage points higher C-section rates than Whites,” says CMQCC Medical Director Elliott Main, MD. “That really spurs them on to look at addressing racism in labor and delivery.”

CMQCC experts also use data to identify the need for and then create step-by-step provider toolkits on key causes of birth-related complications. One on postpartum hemorrhage, which covers such crucial moves as measuring and effectively treating blood loss, reduced disparities between Black and White patients by nearly 80%.

“The standardized protocols in toolkits take away a lot of provider subjectivity,” Main says. “Subjectivity is the entrée for biases that impact patient care.”

And hospitals in the collaborative — there are more than 200 of them — can receive training on implementing the toolkits. “A toolkit that sits on the shelf does nothing,” he adds.

“We send hospitals back reports, and they are flabbergasted when data are broken down by race and ethnicity. … That really spurs them on to look at addressing racism in labor and delivery.”

Elliott Main, MD
Medical director of the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative

All of these efforts have borne fruit: Since the launch of the collaborative, California’s maternal deaths have dropped by 65%.

Now, the CMQCC is crafting additional equity-related recommendations, such as handing expectant patients a staff-signed commitment promising to treat every patient with dignity and engage them in all birth-related decisions.

Also high on the CMQCC agenda is assessing the approaches of maternal mortality review committees, the bodies that study every pregnancy-related death.

“Often a problem is that review materials are medical-centric, and obviously the patient can’t tell her own story,” says Main. “We’re now exploring interviewing family members who lost a relative for their perspective. I think that’s going to be the future of committee reviews.”

Hands-on help

Pregnancy always brings some stress, but the tension is much higher for patients who struggle to understand English and the intricacies of the U.S. health care system.

That’s why Crista Johnson-Agbakwu, MD, founded Valleywise Health’s Refugee Women’s Health Clinic in Arizona in 2008.

Since then, the Phoenix-based center has served more than 16,000 patients, many from countries across Africa. Arizona, which ranks high on the list of states resettling refugees, is now integrating evacuees from Afghanistan, says Johnson-Agbakwu.

“These are people who have escaped war and gender-based violence and other human rights atrocities,” she notes. “It’s important to understand the communities’ needs and meet the priorities they identify.”

To help do that, the clinic hires cultural health navigators (CHNs) — lay health care workers steeped in the culture and language of those they serve. “CHNs deeply understand patients’ background, religion, and lived experience and can interpret their health care through those lenses.”

CHNs offer patients ongoing supports, from accompanying them to prenatal visits to facilitating a smooth hospital discharge. And they can chart all interactions in electronic health records so that physicians know what’s been done or discussed.

“These are people who have escaped war and gender-based violence and other human rights atrocities. It’s important to understand the communities’ needs.”

Crista Johnson-Agbakwu, MD
Founder of Valleywise Health’s Refugee Women’s Health Clinic

Like Baltimore’s BHB, Ohio’s Moms2B, and similar programs, the clinic’s supports are accompanied by classes on perinatal health. But its offerings include a tour of the hospital labor and delivery unit — a crucial support for participants unaccustomed to Western, medicalized births.

“Things like IV lines and beeping noises and blood pressure cuffs can be very scary for this population,” says Johnson-Agbakwu. “They’re used to being mobile in labor and can interpret what we do as tying them to the bed. The tour helps demystify a lot of this.”

In all its work, the clinic strives to honor patients’ perspectives. “We try to go beyond checking the boxes of ensuring medical care,” she says. “We are engaging in care that’s anchored in mutual respect. That’s a piece that can be missing in achieving maternal health equity.”

Reaching rural patients

Many of the patients treated by Vidant Health in eastern North Carolina face significant pregnancy-related risks. More than half are overweight or obese, and many have diabetes or hypertension. The poverty rate of this population is twice the national average, and nearly all live in remote rural areas.

Black people — who comprise roughly a third of Vidant’s birthing patients — often fare the worst. In one recent nine-year period, they represented nearly 70% of maternal deaths in the region.

And Vidant Medical Center, based in Greenville, is the only large hospital in an expanse covering 29 counties.

Since 2017, Vidant has been working to support providers throughout the region in efforts to ensure high-quality care during obstetrical emergencies.

One major focus is drills in birth-related crises. These simulations — hundreds have been held in 18 hospitals over the past three years — cover emergency cesarean sections, maternal resuscitation, and more.

The scenarios unfold realistically: A Vidant staff member assumes the role of a patient, and the local team races to save her — calling for emergency assistance, rushing to get instruments, and suggesting necessary maneuvers.

“In a small hospital, these emergencies happen maybe once every two or three years,” which makes it tough to keep skills fresh, says James deVente, MD, PhD, medical director of obstetrics at Vidant Medical Center. “We give them a chance to practice skills over and over so that when something actually happens, they’re ready.”

Traveling to provide training is not always the best option, though. So Vidant providers have also logged thousands of hours advising local providers on how to handle their toughest perinatal cases.

Now, in an effort launched in July 2020, Vidant experts also remotely treat high-risk patients, working in collaboration with 15 local obstetricians.

“Patients often need to drive 60 miles or more each way to be seen [at Vidant],” says Alan Sacks, MD, who heads the Maternal Outreach Through Telehealth for Rural Sites (MOTHeRS) Project. “Appointments can be a costly ordeal in wages lost for a day off from work, child care, and transportation. The project is patient-centered. We basically go to them.”

In addition to telehealth services like remote ultrasound, the effort screens all participants for food insecurity. Those in need immediately receive a food package and are connected to a local food bank. All patients with diabetes or obesity also receive ongoing nutrition counseling.

Sacks highlights another key component of the program: mental health care.

“Mental health disorders carry a 50% increase in severe maternal morbidity and mortality. Nearly 9% of maternal deaths are attributable to mental health disorders. All of these figures are higher in African American patients. The situation and statistics are tragic and can fuel a worrisome intergenerational cycle.”

Looking ahead, Sacks hopes to expand the MOTHeRS Project to additional remote locations. Meanwhile, Vidant’s efforts so far have made a difference. For example, the infant mortality rate in the region dropped by 24% in recent years.

“There’s more work to be done,” says deVente. “But we set out to make this region a better place to give birth and be born, and I think we’ve succeeded in doing that.”

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