Longtime University of Washington goalies coach Amy Griffin is not an activist by nature. But 15 years ago, she identified what she believed was a trend that she couldn’t ignore in good conscience — young goalies being diagnosed with blood cancer.

It started when she ran into two of her former goalkeepers at University Village, an outdoor mall in northeast Seattle. The two young women had grown up playing soccer in the same Seattle neighborhoods, on the same fields. When Griffin saw them at University Village, they had another thing in common: Both were bald from undergoing chemotherapy treatment for lymphoma.

After working with goalkeepers for decades (and playing in goal for the U.S. Women’s National Team), Griffin recognizes certain personality traits particular to goalies. Being a goaltender, especially at a high level, requires relentless optimism in the face of inevitable heartache: You can make spectacular saves, but it’s the one mistake people remember.

That day at University Village, Griffin saw that goalie attitude — unrelenting optimism and a sense of common fate — in her two former players. They saw their diagnoses as an ironic twist that was related somehow to their role on the field. Typical goalkeepers, they said, shaking their heads and smiling.

But also, “Why us?”

“One of them said, ‘I wonder if it’s the stuff in the field,” Griffin recalled. “I wonder if it’s those little black dots, because we’re eating them, we get them in our eyes, we get them in our abrasions.”

Those little black dots are the crumb rubber used as infill on more than 13,000 playing and practice fields across the U.S. Each of those fields uses 20,000 to 40,000 shredded waste tires to provide cushioning and traction. While waste tires are heavily regulated because they contain known carcinogens and heavy metals, when those same tires are chopped up and put on playing fields, they are unregulated.

For more than a decade, parents, coaches, and players have worried that the crushed-up tires pose health risks. Studies to date, both in the U.S. and Europe, have revealed extensive toxic chemicals within crumb rubber, but most conclude the level of exposure people have when playing or practicing on artificial turf is too low to put them in danger.

Meanwhile, Griffin’s list of former goalies and other athletes with cancer continues to grow. The list now includes close to 300 people, more than half of whom have a form of blood cancer.

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