Creating Equitable Change

March 28, 2024 by Beth Sitzler
Creating equitable change. Michael Martinez, MS, LAT, ATC

“I’m so fortunate. I think I have touched almost every setting of athletic training,” said Michael Martinez, MS, LAT, ATC, looking back on his 26-year career in the profession.

With experience working in the professional, elite amateur, collegiate and secondary school settings, Martinez has turned his attention to higher education. Not only is Martinez the associate director of training and development for inclusive excellence at Ball State University in Indiana, he is currently earning his Doctor of Higher Education and researching the lived experiences of athletic training students.

Growing up, Martinez was always interested in health care. Originally, he wanted to become a physician, but as a “diehard wrestler,” he didn’t want to leave athletics behind. He earned his physical therapist aid certificate then attended Cerritos Community College on a recommendation from an AT teaching the course. The AT referred Martinez to the athletic training facility to learn more about athletic training. That fateful trip would set him on a new path. 

“The first day I walked in there, I was like, ‘This is exactly what I want to do,’” he said. “I think people saw that in me, too. I got comments from the head athletic trainer, Beverly Sweet, [ATC]. She said, ‘You’re a natural in here.’”

Martinez’s athletic training career began in the Cerritos Community College athletic training facility as a student. He said he was drawn to the challenges and excitement each new day brought to the athletic training staff. This exposure and learning led to a career that would include a multitude of AT experiences.

After becoming certified, Martinez worked in an out-patient physical therapy facility, which allowed him to hone his rehabilitation and patient care skills. He then took a position as a graduate assistant at California State University at Fullerton, where he met his longtime mentor and friend, NATA Past President Julie Max, AT Ret. After graduating with his master’s degree, he worked as an AT at the University of California at Santa Barbara, followed by the University of Maryland. Introduced through per diem work on the weekends, Martinez began caring for elite professional and amateur athletes with the U.S. Soccer Federation, among other organizations.

Martinez’s experience in physical therapy introduced him to the secondary school setting through an outreach opportunity. This led to his first position as the full-time AT in a what he describes as an “amazing high school AT experience.”

“A friend of mine was the first athletic trainer at the high school,” he said. “She was getting ready to leave and said, ‘Mike, you have to take this job. It's perfect for you.’ I applied and became the head athletic trainer and sports medicine director at San Juan Hills High School. It was one of the best experiences of my career. I loved it. The students were amazing.

“I left in 2014, and 10 years later, I still receive messages from my former high school students. I’m blown away by that connection. Those relationships and friendships last for a really long time.”

Although Martinez explored different settings, he knew he wanted to get his doctoral degree. Inspired by the constantly changing information that was coming out during the COVID-19 pandemic, Martinez said he shifted his focus from a clinical DAT program to a research-focused EdD program.

He transferred to Ball State, and, when considering his research focus, he began reflecting on his personal experiences and the role his identity played in them. This roused his interest in the shared experiences of athletic training students of color, drawing attention to systematic and institutional barriers that can impede learning and future career success for these students.

“I had these similar experiences while at the community college and then as an undergraduate and graduate student,” he said. “Then I went back, at age 42, to get a doctoral degree and was having those similar experiences again.”

For example, Martinez said that throughout his educational career, quick judgments were often made about his ability, intellect and navigational knowledge.

“I was an AP student up into my senior year of high school,” he said. “When I went to register for classes, the academic advisor at the community college was literally trying to put me in remedial courses.”

He also encountered systemic barriers that required high levels of self-advocacy to overcome.

“I had issues in my undergrad getting financial aid,” he said, explaining that he didn’t have access to his parents’ information that financial aid required. “I was initially told I couldn’t get [financial aid without this information]. But I was persistent. I went back and went back and, finally, someone told me I could appeal the process and get financial aid.  

“For someone like me, [going to college] was my way out of a low socioeconomic status. To have things structurally say, ‘We’re not even going to support you, so you’re out.’ … I tell people, I wouldn’t even be sitting here today if that barrier had kept me out of school.”

Martinez said that through his qualitative study, he is assessing the lived experiences of Latinx students in professional athletic training educational programs to understand the challenges they face to reduce barriers and improve equity. Martinez said he has finished data collection and is currently writing his research manuscript, which he plans to submit for publication.

“We get excited when we hear a story of success, but how many stories are sad stories versus stories of success?” he said.

“I’m hoping that I can continue to do this research to highlight the lived experience through interviews with the people who actually face those challenges and face the inequities and discrimination that come along with any marginalized identity.”

Improving higher education and reducing barriers for students is important to Martinez because he’s been there and he personally understands how detrimental it can be to face those challenges unsupported.

“I had to find my way, and I know the tears associated with it, the stress associated with it, the moments where you’re like, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ and you feel very alone,” he said. “Why should another student endure that if they don’t have to?”

In October 2023, Martinez stepped into the role of associate director of training and development for inclusive excellence at Ball State, a position that has allowed him to assist faculty and personnel at the university in their own pursuits of equity and inclusion.

“I get to have a positive impact and share what equity looks like and how we are validating our students of all backgrounds and identities and any marginalized community,” he said.

His efforts extend beyond his workday and doctoral student endeavors: Martinez is also the inaugural Great Lakes Athletic Trainers’ Association DEIA officer.

“I get to instill a sense of equity and look at our policies and procedures and ask, ‘How can we be more equitable? How can we assist our members?’” he said. “I’m fortunate that GLATA has been supportive of a lot of my initiatives to bring down barriers and improve equity for students.” 

Of the projects he’s been able to assist with in his position as GLATA DEIA officer, one of which he is especially proud is the creation of the GLATA Diversity & Inclusion Student Scholarship, which was awarded to two students in 2023.

“I’m just so grateful to help support these students and, hopefully, reduce some of the barriers, stress and challenges they may face,” he said.

This isn’t Martinez’s first foray into volunteerism; he began giving back to the profession 15 years ago while living in California.

“Julie Max and Robert Kersey, [PhD, ATC,] had been involved as association volunteers, and I recognized the impact they had,” he said of his volunteer influences. “They were true examples and models of service and gratitude. I think it’s innately who I am to provide service, and they just helped foster and encourage that and got me to get involved.”

From attending one of the first California Athletic Trainers’ Association Capitol Hill Day events to currently representing District Four on the NATA Professional Development Committee, Martinez has filled multiple roles and “collaborated with a lot of great people,” he said.

As NATA celebrates the impact of athletic trainers “From Head to Toe” this National Athletic Training Month, Martinez said, to him, it means showing up, unapologetically, as one’s authentic self, and using that empowerment to create equitable change that improves patient care, policy and procedure as well as supports the profession’s “diverse population of amazing students and ATs.”