Readers of the Atlantic may well believe that fencing is the goriest of sports. Over a couple of paragraphs in a recent story on niche sports and college athletics, Ruth S. Barrett writes of two injuries sustained last year by a girl from Fairfield County, Conn.:

In Columbus, Ohio, at the junior-fencing nationals with the couple’s two younger girls and son, [the father] reported that their middle daughter, a 12-year-old saber fencer, had been stabbed in the jugular during her first bout. The wound was right next to the carotid artery, and he was withdrawing her from the tournament and flying home.
She’d been hurt before while fencing—on one occasion gashed so deeply in the thigh that blood seeped through her pants—but this was the first time a blade had jabbed her in the throat. It was a Fourth of July massacre.

The Erik Wemple Blog wrote last week that these counted as freakish events in one of the world’s safest sports. The Atlantic has already issued one correction on the story — a claim about Olympic-size backyard hockey rinks — prompted by this blog’s questions. Now there appear to be yet more problems.

The gore that Barrett — who formerly went by the name Ruth Shalit while racking up a scandal-ridden record in Washington decades ago — described in the Atlantic has riled up the community of fencers in Fairfield County, a place whose affluence drives the narrative behind the piece. Most prominent among Ivy League-fixated parents in this story is “Sloane,” the alleged middle name of a woman who is said to have three daughters and a son. Her 12-year-old is the one who allegedly took a saber to the jugular.

Insiders had no difficulty identifying the family of “Sloane.” There is only one child, after all, in the 12-year-old saber fencing group at that tournament who withdrew. (Credit to Stefan Fatsis of Slate’s “Hang Up and Listen” podcast, who provided helpful sleuthing to this blog.) She was matched against six other fencers in a “pool” on July 7, 2019. In a Facebook posting, the parent of a competing fencer noted that the 12-year-old “lifted her head at the end of her lunge,” providing a gap for the saber of her opponent to poke her in the neck. She fenced another bout but lost and felt tentative. “No blood, no medic called to the strip, but lots of tears,” reads the Facebook post.

Another parent who was at the competition supported that account in its entirety, in a call with this blog. The referee for this pool of contenders, Bruce Capin, told us that he officiates so many matches that he cannot remember specific mishaps. But he is sure about one thing: “I don’t remember any blood," Capin said.

Some “massacre.”

Returning to Barrett’s text, there’s no explicit mention of blood flowing from the neck of the 12-year-old. There’s merely a reference to being “stabbed in the jugular”; to that vein’s proximity to the carotid artery; and to a “wound,” which, according to Merriam-Webster, “typically involves laceration or breaking of a membrane (such as the skin) and usually damage to underlying tissues.” Perhaps the Atlantic could have just reported that the kid suffered a bruise?

The other injury claim — the bloody gash in the thigh — is harder to track down, in large part because the story is unspecific about where and when it occurred. We asked the Atlantic to detail its sourcing for this claim.

Why depict fencing as a youth bloodbath? That’s an easy one: The reader appeal of Barrett’s piece is that entitled and self-unaware richies along Connecticut’s Gold Coast are shoehorning kids into a few niche-sport slots at Harvard, Stanford, Princeton. The story works much, much better when the kids bloody themselves in medieval fashion to advance their parents’ college-admissions schemes.

Yet how much of it is true? “This feature went through our usual rigorous editing and fact-checking process. We fact-check every magazine piece extremely thoroughly,” the Atlantic noted in a statement last week to the Erik Wemple Blog. Atlantic writers past and present marvel at the thoroughness of the fact-checking crew.

Those folks appear to have missed some stuff:

• Sloane’s middle name. The story relies on anonymized parents to provide quotes depicting them as unaware tyrants. “Sloane" is the alleged middle name of the mother guiding her athletic daughters through Fairfield’s cutthroat sporting world, an allowance designed to protect her privacy and her kids’ "college-recruitment chances.” Except public records searches for the mother’s real name show no “Sloane” whatsoever, which would make it a pseudonym.

• Where’s the son? The Atlantic reports that Sloane’s husband took the “couple’s two younger girls and son” to Ohio. Sources close to the family say there is no son. The marquee photo on the father’s Facebook page shows three smiling girls.

• An improbable phone call. At the top of the article, Barrett writes that during the July 4 weekend last year, Sloane "was crouched in the vestibule of the Bay Club in Redwood City, strategizing on the phone with her husband about a ‘malicious refereeing’ dispute that had victimized her daughter at the California Summer Gold tournament. He had his own problem. In Columbus, Ohio, at the junior-fencing nationals with the couple’s two younger girls and son, he reported that their middle daughter, a 12-year-old saber fencer, had been stabbed.”

The text gives the impression that the two crises were overlapping. But the California Summer Gold tournament in Redwood City took place from June 28 to 30, a week before the “massacre” in Columbus on July 7. Could Sloane have alighted on the squash-tourney vestibule a full week after the competition concluded? That’s possible, but US Squash, which accredits the tournament, confirms that all on-site tournament business had concluded the week prior.

• Lacrosse weirdness: Bates College of Lewiston, Maine, ducks into the Atlantic story just long enough to become party to a misimpression: “Alpha sports parents followed the rules," writes Barrett, "only to discover that they’d built the 80th- or 90th-best lacrosse midfielder in the country. Which, it turns out, barely qualifies you for a spot at the bottom of the roster at Bates.”

Arithmetic exposes the distortion here. There are about 400 collegiate lacrosse programs in the United States — 70-plus in Division I, with top contenders including several Ivy League schools. All of them need to recruit several midfielders per year. Casey D’Annolfo, head lacrosse coach at Tufts University, which has won three national championships in the past decade and competes in the same conference as Bates, says, “If we got the 80th-best midfielder in the class, he would make the team without question, and if he continued on that trajectory, he would most likely be a starter for us and have the potential to be an All-American for us.” Speaking of the Atlantic’s lacrosse-recruiting assessment, D’Annolfo said, “We got a good laugh out of it at Bates’s expense, but we all know what a ridiculous and inaccurate statement it is."

• Nonsensical quotes: In a scene from a squash tournament at Chelsea Piers in Stamford in January, Barrett reports overhearing a parent saying, “Georgetown has gone cold. But he may get the last spot at Columbia.” But Georgetown University offers only a club squash team, meaning that it does not recruit and does not go “cold” on anyone. “We cross our fingers,” says Georgetown club team captain Luca Perper. Columbia University, by contrast, has one of the most competitive varsity squash programs in the United States.

Another quote from the same scene: “Did you see that kid Mohammed? … No, the other Mohammed. His academics aren’t strong, but his squash is unbelievable.” No one with the name Mohammed was registered to compete in that tournament.

The Atlantic has told this blog that it knew it was working with Ruth Shalit Barrett. This is the same author who sustained plagiarism scandals and claims that she stretched quotes — and embroidered details. What better occasion to deploy the entire fact-checking department?

The Erik Wemple Blog has been asking the Atlantic for responses on these items over the past several days. A magazine spokesperson responded: “We are conducting a review of charges related to the accuracy of certain sections of this piece. When we complete our review, we will report to our readers fully any information that needs to be corrected.” Attempts to secure comment from Barrett have been unsuccessful.

Fairfield County’s athletically motivated parents form a topic situated over a number of Atlantic obsessions: elite institutions, education, money, merit and social advancement. The magazine has already saturated this subject area, with reporting by Adam Harris and a barnburner of an essay by Caitlin Flanagan recounting her own history in college guidance counseling. “Every parent assumed that whatever alchemy of good genes and good credit had gotten his child a spot at the prep school was the same one that would land him a spot at a hyper-selective college,” wrote Flanagan.

What does Barrett’s piece add to the mix? Very little, in fact: A piece in the Daily Princetonian from October 2019 — under the byline of Liam O’Connor — provided the template for Barrett’s piece, complete with a data analysis of the hometowns of Ivy League athletes, with Connecticut’s Gold Coast having the “highest concentration" thereof. There’s a link in Barrett’s piece to the Daily Princetonian story, so Atlantic readers can get the same story, minus the pitch-perfect quotes from unidentified parents.

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