Multiple Perspectives About “The Injury Epidemic” Facing Female Athletes

5 08 2009

Given the continuing discussion about injuries of female athletes, particularly ACL tears, I decided to revisit a blog piece I wrote before One Sport Voice was born.

kneeinjuryIn 2008, a controversial book—Michael Sokolove’s Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women’s Sport—was released, along with a companion article which appeared in the May 11 issue of the New York Times Magazine. The premise of the book asserts that “[the] immutable facts of anatomy and physiology? cause girls to incur significantly more sport injuries (e.g., ACL tears, concussions) than their male counterparts, resulting in what Sokolove terms a female “injury epidemic?

As a response to the underlying premise (and purported facts) of Warrior Girls, the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport felt it necessary to provide a scholarly critique from relevant academic disciplines. The TC invited internationally recognized scholars from the U of Minnesota in Public Health, Sports Medicine, Sport Psychology and Sociology to read the book and respond independently. You can read all the pieces, including Sokolove’s detailed responses and rebuttals here. The intellectual exchange is very interesting as it is from multiple persons perspectives, not all of whom agree. I’m going to post my sociological critique below, with some added updated information and thoughts.

A Sociological Perspective on Warrior Girls
Let me begin by stating that sport injuries and sport injury prevention are very real and important issues—for both girls and boys. I am aware of the data which states female athletes are 8 times as likely as male athletes to tear an ACL. However, framing the issue of sport injuries as an inevitable biological difference based on the sex of the athlete is sensationalistic and irresponsible. First, an argument based primarily on biology and physiology altogether ignores that sport performance (and therefore injury) is also shaped by social forces such as coaches’ and parents’ beliefs about what it means to be a “female athlete?” Second, this sort of deterministic approach assumes that males, by definition, are naturally (physically) superior to females. In this framework, male athletes are the norm to which females are constantly compared, and any gender differences are therefore constructed as inherent female deficiencies. The consequence of such biology-is-destiny arguments? Professor Cheryl Cooky, Purdue University, sums it up best: “Concerns regarding the supposed biological limitations of the female body to withstand rigorous athletic competition have historically served to justify restricting girls’ and women’s access to sport”.

Though Sokolove does indicate that we should also be concerned about sport injuries males sustain, rarely, if ever, are books published devoted to the negative consequences of sport participation on the health and well-being of boys and men. Interestingly, a search for a similar book or article on the “epidemic” of male sport injuries yielded nothing, despite published research which indicates that NFL players’ life expectancy is 15-20 years lower than the general American male population and that many suffer ill effects from playing professional football, including obesity, heart disease, chronic pain and crippling arthritis. I prefer Mark Hyman’s blog and book Until It Hurts: Americas Obsession With Youth Sports, as both provide a more gender-balanced approach to youth sport injuries-including much discussion about “Tommy John” syndrome in boys’ baseball.

The anatomy-is-destiny perspective also ignores the reality that some female athletes are stronger, have better motor skills, and are more coordinated than some male athletes, and that risk for injury runs along a continuum, rather than a sex-determined binary. In the final analysis, males and females are more similar than they are different—both compete in sports and both get injured in a variety of sports and physical activities. As a result, concerns relating to all the correlates of sport injury, social and psychological as well as biological and physiological, need to be given equal consideration.

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