Watson Case rekindles old fight for massage therapy industry

By TERESA M. WALKER, AP Professional Football Writer

CLEVELAND, AP — Michelle Krause still grapples with the challenge of acknowledging that she’s a massage therapist when she first meets someone, dreading their misguided reaction or comments even after 18 years in the profession.

“That doesn’t make you want to share, so I didn’t,” says Krause, 52, a former firefighter who changed careers after suffering a neck injury on the job – and got some money. help to recover from a massage. therapy. “So I was telling people I was doing nutrition and finance, so they wouldn’t want to talk to me about my work.”

Krause was among hundreds of therapists from across the country who gathered for the American Massage Therapy Association’s three-day national convention, which began Thursday. It was a chance to talk about a job made harder amid the pandemic, the 2021 attack on three Atlanta-area massage businesses in which eight people were killed, and the lingering stain of the ongoing case of NFL quarterback Deshaun Watson that has perpetuated the stigma of sex workers around the industry.

The latter is in their face every day of the conference, which is held in Cleveland. Watson is now the Browns’ quarterback and his new workplace is one block from the convention center and the conference attendees’ hotel across the street.

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They can avoid the rappel by taking an alternate route to the convention center – walking underground.

Not that these professionals want to hide. They didn’t ask for any of this and they’re not happy about it.

The convention was planned three years ago, long before the first report of the quarterback accused of sexual misconduct with a massage therapist and Watson’s request to be traded by the Houston Texans. The NFL handed Watson an 11-game suspension and $5 million fine this month and said the matter is now closed.

But it’s far from over for this group of professionals and the AMTA, which believes that the penalties are not severe enough.

“It puzzles me that something like this could happen,” said Amber Rasmussen, a 21-year-old therapist currently working in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Massage therapy as a licensed profession has a long history, dating back to 1916 when Ohio became the first state to license operators. Therapists are currently regulated or certified by 45 states, with hundreds of hours required to obtain a license, and many more in continuing education to maintain certification. Massage therapy is now covered by Medicare Advantage programs and some insurance.

There are stories of massage therapists leaving the industry after the recent crises, although no definitive figures are available indicating a mass exodus.

The roughly 2,000 therapists at this year’s convention are similar to 2019, the last gathering after the 2020 and 2021 conferences were canceled due to the pandemic.

Michaele Colizza, the association’s national president, said there is still work to be done to educate the public about the important role massage therapy plays in health care, pain management and keeping athletes fit. and the continuation of their sporting activities.

“AMTA strongly believes that any customer who crosses the line to inappropriately touch should face the legal consequences,” Colizza said in a statement. “Furthermore, irresponsible remarks made by attorneys or in media coverage endanger licensed professional massage therapists by condoning inappropriate conduct in a massage environment.”

“We believe massage is and should always be about health and wellness in a safe environment,” she said.

Michael Phelps was the keynote speaker on Thursday. Krause recalled how everyone wanted to try cupping as therapy after seeing the 23-time Olympic gold medalist use it at the 2016 Summer Games. Phelps, who won 28 medals overall, also acknowledged massage therapy, positive publicity for the industry.

But that was fleeting — the Atlanta murders by a white gunman who targeted Asian spa companies and the Watson case cast therapists in a different light.

“It’s really upsetting,” said Krause, who had to block a former firefighter colleague for his inappropriate joke on his work page. “It’s disrespectful.”

NFL players are still permitted to use their own massage therapists outside of team headquarters. Part of Watson’s rules limit him to massage sessions with club-approved therapists for the rest of his career.

Although there were no anti-Watson demonstrations outside the Huntingdon Convention Center in Cleveland or any mention of the Browns quarterback inside, there was an undercurrent that suggested he was a impetus to what some believe needs to be done in the future.

Conference topics focused on education, ethics, vetting potential clients, and setting boundaries. The therapists also spoke of a renewed diligence in where they work and how they do their work.

Mary Czech, of Whitmore Lake, Michigan, said for her, unfortunately, the latest controversy is not something new.

The college graduate is fully licensed in her home state and certified in massage oncology. She has made sure for 20 years in the profession that she knows how to escape from a massage parlor if a client is acting inappropriately, down to the location of the nearest phone and police department.

“It’s something I struggle with,” said the 55-year-old. “I’ve always had a security plan, and that’s not right.”

Watson’s case has reignited the disconnect between what massage therapists do and what people think they do.

Krause only works by reference now. The former firefighter recalled an incident 16 years ago when a man grabbed her arm and complimented her bicep.

“I actually twisted his arm…and said, ‘I’m touching you. You don’t touch me,” said Krause, of Severna Park, Maryland. “He tried to hug me at the end of the session, and thank God I was in a more public place.

Dawn Menning of Aberdeen, South Dakota, said she wore scrubs to convey the professional look of the massage.

“I wear medical clothes, I wear scrubs,” said Menning, who also keeps a large wooden spoon nearby in case anyone tries anything inappropriate. “I’m trying to give the impression that you’re here for therapeutic treatment, and there’s nothing else.”

Mentoring young therapists is another key, say experienced therapists, reminding them that they have the right to refuse service.

Tonia McGeorge, 36, from Ipswich, South Dakota, does house calls, has her own mobile studio and also works at a spa in Aberdeen.

“It could be someone who has $1 million,” McGeorge said. “But is it worth your career and your reputation? … Your reputation is your integrity.

It’s the big battle for a profession where so many women run their own businesses.

Marcella Thompson of Louisville, Kentucky, said a therapist received a call from a potential client requesting further services. The therapist warned the caller that she would follow the law by sharing his name and number with the police.

“We need to be less intimidated,” Thompson said, “and be tougher and make sure those boundaries are crystal clear.”

Czech organizes its own demonstration against Watson. The Michigan native, who has been a bit of a Browns fan during her struggles with the Detroit Lions, thought about attending Cleveland’s preseason finale on Saturday night while in town.

But frustrated with the NFL, Czech said: “I’m not going to attend a Browns game now.”

AP Sports Writer Tom Withers contributed to this report.

Follow Teresa M. Walker at https://twitter.com/TeresaMWalker

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