- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 3, 2004

Peyton Manning does not miss a National Football League game without a very public and detailed explanation. Ditto fellow superstars Kobe Bryant of the National Basketball Association and Derek Jeter of Major League Baseball.

That decidedly is not the case with one of the Women’s National Basketball Association’s biggest stars, Chamique Holdsclaw.

The Washington Mystics forward has missed three of her team’s past four games and four of its practices, and it is not certain that she will return when the Mystics resume play on Sept. 1. Holdsclaw did play against the Detroit Shock on Wednesday, performed poorly and broke into tears late in the game.

Yet, the reason for her absence is a mystery, one that enters its 11th day today. The team cited only an undisclosed “minor medical issue” upon which club and league officials and Holdsclaw’s representatives have declined to elaborate.

The mercurial star on Thursday released a four-sentence statement in which she cited only the “need to focus on my medical issues.”

Any NBA or WNBA player, including Holdsclaw, has rights under their collective-bargaining agreements to prevent the public release of medical information that is career-threatening or life-threatening or is not the result of a basketball-related injury. That provision would suggest Holdsclaw’s medical issue falls under this category.

Holdsclaw was the No. 1 pick overall in the 1999 draft and was named rookie of the year that season. She is a three-time WNBA All-Star and currently ranks second in the league in scoring. She remains a focus of marketing by both the Mystics and the league.

The injury-reporting rules and relentless press scrutiny of the major men’s sports leagues would make it difficult for a star of Holdsclaw’s magnitude to avoid addressing the issue publicly.

The refusal to divulge information on Holdsclaw’s condition departs radically from the practices of the men’s leagues and breaks every cardinal rule of public relations.

“When possible, it is always in the best interests of everybody, including the player, to disclose at least some information on what the condition is,” said Larry Kelly, a former public relations director for hockey’s Dallas Stars and baseball’s Texas Rangers and now a Boston-based communications consultant. “That way, you retain control over the story, you limit the amount of speculation that gets out there and you’re not spending all your time addressing rumors.”

Such a strategy has been used in many medical disclosures that have been difficult and embarrassing for the athletes involved.

Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers, for example, held a press conference to announce that he had tested HIV-positive. Quarterback Brett Favre of the Green Bay Packers publicly disclosed that he was receiving treatment for an addiction to painkillers, and Chris Mullin of the Golden State Warriors similarly announced that he was voluntarily entering alcohol rehabilitation.

Those disclosures all were made without the intrigue that now surrounds Holdsclaw.

The NFL requires weekly injury reports during the season. Major League Baseball and the NBA do not require regular injury reports, but placing any player on the disabled list does require a team to list a reason on a written form.

The NHL for years required weekly reports, but it now operates without any formal leaguewide policies. That’s because hockey injury reports are notorious for being left purposely vague in order to deny opponents an advantage.

For example, a player’s cracked ribs could be listed as an “upper body contusion.” But those reports, like those in use in the other sports, still provided some base level of information to help explain sudden, medically related absences.

Injuries not requiring a trip to the disabled list in baseball or basketball almost always are promptly disclosed.

“It simply makes no sense to keep that sort of stuff under wraps,” said New York Yankees spokesman Jason Zillo. “If Derek Jeter doesn’t play for three days, it’s not because he’s not doing well. It means something else is going on. So we just say what’s happening. It doesn’t do any good to do otherwise.”

The Yankees are wrestling with a somewhat similar situation with first baseman Jason Giambi.

The former All-Star is battling a benign tumor as well as the aftereffects of a recent bout with parasites. Federal medical privacy rules precluded the Yankees from disclosing the location of the tumor or a treatment schedule.

But the team issued several press statements as Giambi’s tests and evaluations continued, all aimed at reducing media hysteria and keeping fans informed.

The WNBA, meanwhile, also requires formal notification of any additions to the disabled list. But explaining, or not explaining, all day-to-day absences is left to the discretion of the individual teams and varies widely among the clubs.

Mystics officials say their silence is based on Holdsclaw’s “request for privacy.”

“This is strictly a team issue,” said WNBA spokesman Sharon Robustelli. “This matter is really being handled by the Mystics.”

The Mystics placed a link on their Web site, www.wnba.com/ mystics, to allow fans a means to send their best wishes to Holdsclaw.

But the question remains: Best wishes for what?

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