The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College kids giving up their cellphones: the incredible tale of the Maryland women’s team

(By Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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The Maryland women’s basketball team reached plenty of milestones this season. The Terps won the Big Ten regular season title. They won the Big Ten tournament. They won 28 straight games. In consecutive postseason games they knocked off undefeated Princeton, longtime rival Duke, and women’s power Tennessee. And in the process, they clinched their second straight Final Four berth.

And yet this may be the most amazing thing the Terps did this season: they voluntarily forfeited their cell phones for more than 72 hours last weekend, turning them in Friday evening in Spokane, and not getting them back until late Monday night, following their win over Tennessee.

If I go 30 minutes without my phone, I start to quiver a bit. A day without my phone would give me cold sweats. More than three days? I’d be off to meet my maker, thanks very much.

“To give up our phones is probably one of the best things we decided to do as a team,” guard Lexie Brown said. “I mean, I like my phone. But this has taught me I don’t need it.”

The Terps have had phone-free periods for years, giving them up before pregame meals at home games, and the night before games when on the road. But the policy expanded three years ago, after Maryland knocked off Texas A&M in the Sweet 16. Players got their phones back, and were subsequently blown out by Notre Dame.

After the season, then-freshman Brene Moseley talked to Coach Brenda Frese about what had happened: the crush of messages from family members and friends, the number of people who had opinions about their past win or their upcoming matchup, the amount of time players spent responding to everyone.

“All of our phones were blowing up. It was ridiculous. It was just hard to focus in,” Moseley said. “I didn’t even want my phone anymore. It was just too much.”

So Frese asked players what they thought about giving up their phones for the entire length of their NCAA tournament road trips. The locker room agreed. Parents were given contact information for the team’s director of basketball operations in case there were an emergency. The Terps told their friends they were going to be unreachable. And then they disappeared into, like, 1995 or something.

“To live without your phone that long is really hard, especially for us; we live by our phones,” former star Maryland Alyssa Thomas said, speaking of her generation. “At first we would all be checking our pockets, thinking we lost our phones or something.”

But then a weird thing happened, and this is where the tale turns into some sort of sociology dissertation. The players — or some of them, at least — discovered that they actually liked not having their phones. They didn’t spend any time reading about their opponents, or surfing media reports. They played card games together, and watched men’s and women’s tournament games on television. They did more homework, or had long conversations, or took naps.

“Sometimes you’ll find yourself twiddling your thumbs — like, what are we supposed to do? — but it helps us enjoy each other more,” Brown said. “Not that we’re forced to talk to each other or be around each other, but we’re more engaged, more in the moment.”

Last week in Spokane — when players also turned in their laptops and iPads — they explored the city together. And they’ve started talking about technology more like NPR-obsessed middle-aged parents than like Instagram-addled 20-year-olds. They’ll be screen-free this weekend in Tampa, where they take on Connecticut on Sunday in a Final Four semifinal matchup.

“Phones are so much a part of society, that it’s ingrained in everything,” Moseley said. “The biggest thing our coaches focused on this season was being present in the moment. It’s hard to do that if you’re on your phone. It’s hard to embrace this experience — the Elite Eight, the Final Four, everything we’ve done — it’s hard to embrace that if you’re not in the moment, in the room, present with whatever we’re doing.”

“Our generation, we’re on our phones a lot,” Malina Howard said. “You can get caught up in everything on Twitter and Instagram and everything else, and not focus on the games. I think it helps me focus, and it makes you enjoy the experience more. I think that’s one of the things I’ve taken away from this: just being present with my teammates and enjoying the moments and the memories that we’re making together.”

Players even said they’ve brought this philosophy beyond the Maryland locker room. Thomas, now a professional, still puts her phone away on game days. And when Howard visits her family, she now makes a conscious effort to put her phone down and immerse herself in conversation.

“It’s something that’s in the back of my mind when I’m around other people,” she said. “That’s a big life lesson I’ve taken away from being at Maryland: being present in the moment.”

The Terps aren’t alone here; Connecticut’s players went without cell phones during a team trip to Italy, and they’re off Twitter entirely during the basketball season. Maryland’s players haven’t turned into modernity-fearing technophobes; during an off-day last year, they snuck in some calls to family members on a working landline in their locker room. And  as soon as they got their phones back late Monday, they began responding to the avalanche of waiting messages.

“Probably 100, and that’s just texts,” Brown said.

“Almost 200 texts,” Howard said.

“I didn’t even look at the number,” Moseley said. “The texts were just flying in. We all got at least 100-plus. Most of the people are people you love and care about, and you want to give them personal messages to let them know you appreciate what they’re saying, but it’s tough to go through every text message.”

Of course they’ll one day become normal American adults, tethered to their technology 365 days a year. But for now, they’re in some stranger, quieter place.

“It’s funny,” Moseley said, remembering those hundreds of messages. “When we got our phones back, it was like we wanted to give them right back.”