*Update 2:15 pm EST, January 3, 2023: Please note that Carl Schmits, Equipment Standards and Facilities Development, has provided response to some content of this article in the comments section.*
*Update 2:20 am EST, January 5, 2023: The Pickleball Studio released a podcast episode yesterday with lots of nuggets on the paddle controversy. You can listen here.*
There is a lot that goes on behind the scenes in professional pickleball that never sees the light of day. It’s a world that most consumers of pickleball, including here at NML, will never be privy to. However, every now and again, we stumble across some information that catches our attention. It is not always the case we publicize this information but, as many of you may know, sometimes we do. This is another one of those publishing occasions.
This particular story for us began on December 4, 2022, when an individual in the Facebook group, The Kitchen – A Pickleball Community, posed a question to the group. The question related to a paddle that the racquet club the individual works at got their hands on. The individual claimed it was one of Catherine Parenteau’s personal paddles, a Paddletek Tempest Reign Pro. The following is a screenshot of the entire post:
Despite all of the hullaballoo surrounding illegal paddles in 2022, this was the first we had heard of a paddle company altering one of its paddles in such a way that deviates so substantially from what is sold to the public.
The Facebook post stated that Parenteau’s paddle was “clearly raw carbon fiber and had a ton of grit to the paddle face.” Naturally, we took this post with a grain of salt, including whether this was even Parenteau’s personal paddle, but it was something worth looking into. Senior pro stalwart and Paddletek sponsored player, Rick Witsken, commented on the post and appeared to be unfamiliar with any such practice by Paddletek. Grain of salt and Witsken’s comment aside, the author of the post seemingly had no reason to put out a false story about Catherine Parenteau. We have since learned that the author of the post deleted the post of his own volition.
In the aftermath of Crbn-Gate, we learned quite a bit about the unspoken secrets about pro pickleball paddles. For example, it was (and still probably is) commonly accepted that paddle companies will provide their pros with their grittiest paddles in comparison to the ones sold to the general public.
At this point, we can draw the conclusion that USA Pickleball likely turns a blind eye to many paddles that may not meet the standards it has set. We saw this with the lack of follow-up on JOOLA paddles following the Crbn-Gate controversy in light of the Donn Paben video and JOOLA President, Richard Lee’s, video where he unofficially and unintentionally posted himself testing a paddle that did not meet USA Pickleball Standards – he did the math wrong.
At a minimum, there is a serious lack of transparency in USA Pickleball’s procedures for keeping paddle manufacturers accountable. There continues to be little, if any, follow-up from USA Pickleball after a paddle has been approved. Once a paddle has been approved, any paddle manufacturer, from the big guns like JOOLA and Paddletek to your local, small-scale company, is essentially free to make modifications to paddles post-approval with limited fear of repercussions.
The hammer was laid down on Crbn because of the uproar from pros and paddle companies pressuring USA Pickleball to clamp down on what were almost certainly illegal to very illegal paddles. It is important to remember that the Crbn-Gate situation did not result from any standard follow-up procedure from USA Pickleball.
One person who goes by PB & J Pickleball on YouTube, has put out a series of videos where he conducts unofficial paddle tests. A number of these paddles have failed the unofficial tests, including the JOOLA Ben John’s Hyperion CFS 16mm, Crbn 1 16mm, Electrum Pro, Diadem Warrior Edge, JOOLA Radius 16mm, JOOLA Solaire, and Electrum Pro II. We are not aware of any steps USA Pickleball has taken to address the possible concerns of these paddles being illegal.
The PPA took a crack at paddle legality accountability by implementing their Paddle Compliance and Testing Policy following the Crbn fiasco. The policy is flawed in many respects. Nevertheless, the PPA put a mechanism in place by which players can keep one another accountable and challenge what they believe to be an illegal paddle. Since the policy was implemented, we have only seen one challenge and it did not go well.
Anna Leigh Waters challenged the JOOLA paddle Parris Todd used to beat her in singles at the Orange County Cup. The challenge was unsuccessful. It was not only a bad look for Anna Leigh from a sore loser’s perspective, but it was also suspect in that her mixed doubles partner, Ben Johns, is JOOLA’s top sponsored player. What did Anna Leigh and her team think they knew about the JOOLA paddle Parris Todd was using when the challenge was made? The PPA never released the results of the challenge by Anna Leigh.
Bringing this back to the origin of this story, our digging has led to confirmation with respect to the question posed by the author that piqued our interest. We can confirm that we have heard from multiple reliable sources that Paddletek provides special surfacing on its paddles for Catherine Parenteau and Andrea Koop, and possibly others. We should be clear that Parenteau and Koop are the only two players that were named specifically to us. Our understanding is that Parenteau has gone back and forth between using a modified, special surface (added grit) paddle in 2022, eventually returning to the special surface paddle that has not been approved by USA Pickleball.
Ironically, Anna Leigh Waters is Paddletek’s marquee player. In our follow-up on this potential controversy, we have not received any information specifically about Anna Leigh Waters using special surfacing for her paddles from Paddletek.
While Parenteau and Koop are the two players that were specifically named to us in terms of pros who use modified, unapproved paddles, this information coming to us about paddle controversy raises more questions about the number of players out there using paddles that either have not been approved by USA Pickleball or would fail the USA Pickleball paddle testing process.
The first question that may come to mind for readers is why there have not been more player challenges if it is an open secret that there are illegal paddles out there. This is a question we do not have an answer for. The best we can come up with, which is simply a hypothesis, is that players do not want to be in the Anna Leigh Waters position where they are wrong about a paddle. Whistleblowers are not often met kindly by their peers, especially when they get it wrong. A player contemplating using the paddle challenge policy may not want to risk being a pariah in the small, intimate pro community.
An inherent flaw in the PPA’s paddle compliance policy is that it falls on the players to keep others accountable. It should not be left to the players to hold one another accountable. It should be on the regulator, USA Pickleball, and/or the tours to ensure paddles are compliant.
Unfortunately, in all likelihood, the tours have no interest in being paddle watch dogs. They care about keeping their pros and sponsors happy. A lot of sponsorship money for tours comes from paddle companies, which is also likely why USA Pickleball turns a blind eye to what is going on in front of them.
What will be the result of this article? Probably nothing. If the Crbn-Gate fiasco did not change anything, except for Crbn, we do not have confidence anything will be done until power players in the pickleball world leverage their influence to effect change. This is an integrity question that continues to head down the slippery slope of the system slowly being taken advantage of.
This is not a question of what the rules should be. It’s that the system is being gamed in a manner that is providing a benefit to the elite in the sport. The elite few who have sponsors willing to skirt the rules in the hopes of furthering the success of those they have significant financial investment in.
It’s time for this to stop and for the entities that have the ability to effect change in pro pickleball to figure this out to ensure a level playing field for all players.
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