A Fascinating Piece from the New York Times Detailing the Injuries of Female Athletes

Michael Sokolove has published what will be a national conversation-starter in the New York Times magazine that will come out this weekend. In “The Uneven Playing Field,” Sokolove details at tremendous length the high injury risks girls and women face in playing contact sports. I found the piece compelling, frightening, and reflective of common sense: girls are not built like guys, and thus when they play contact sports with tenacity and abandon, they will often face very serious injury.

I’ve blogged about this before. My blogs on the subject were met with a strong reaction from some readers. Some did not like my suggestion that contact sports are inherently unfeminine and incongruent with robust, biblically informed femininity. It is fine for people to disagree with my viewpoints, but I would encourage all readers of this blog who have a stake in girl’s sports–or who may one day have such a stake–to read this piece this weekend and to consider the highlighted quotations I’ve pasted below. In Sokolove’s piece (which you will need to register on the NYT site to read before Sunday), you will find frightening testimony to the claim that women simply are not designed for heavy contact in the way that men are.

Here’s what Sokolove has found as a recurring trend in women’s sport–

“This casualty rate was not due to some random spike in South Florida. It is part of a national trend in the wake of Title IX and the explosion of sports participation among girls and young women. From travel teams up through some of the signature programs in women’s college sports, women are suffering injuries that take them off the field for weeks or seasons at a time, or sometimes forever.

Girls and boys diverge in their physical abilities as they enter puberty and move through adolescence. Higher levels of testosterone allow boys to add muscle and, even without much effort on their part, get stronger. In turn, they become less flexible. Girls, as their estrogen levels increase, tend to add fat rather than muscle. They must train rigorously to get significantly stronger. The influence of estrogen makes girls’ ligaments lax, and they outperform boys in tests of overall body flexibility — a performance advantage in many sports, but also an injury risk when not accompanied by sufficient muscle to keep joints in stable, safe positions. Girls tend to run differently than boys — in a less-flexed, more-upright posture — which may put them at greater risk when changing directions and landing from jumps. Because of their wider hips, they are more likely to be knock-kneed — yet another suspected risk factor.

This divergence between the sexes occurs just at the moment when we increasingly ask more of young athletes, especially if they show talent: play longer, play harder, play faster, play for higher stakes. And we ask this of boys and girls equally — unmindful of physical differences. The pressure to concentrate on a “best” sport before even entering middle school — and to play it year-round — is bad for all kids. They wear down the same muscle groups day after day. They have no time to rejuvenate, let alone get stronger. By playing constantly, they multiply their risks and simply give themselves too many opportunities to get hurt.”

Here are the rates at which girls seriously (very seriously) injure themselves compared to boys–

“If girls and young women ruptured their A.C.L.’s at just twice the rate of boys and young men, it would be notable. Three times the rate would be astounding. But some researchers believe that in sports that both sexes play, and with similar rules — soccer, basketball, volleyball — female athletes rupture their A.C.L.’s at rates as high as five times that of males.

The N.C.A.A.’s Injury Surveillance System tracks injuries suffered by athletes at its member schools, calculating the frequency of certain injuries by the number of occurrences per 1,000 “athletic exposures” — practices and games. The rate for women’s soccer is 0.25 per 1,000, or 1 in 4,000, compared with 0.10 for male soccer players. The rate for women’s basketball is 0.24, more than three times the rate of 0.07 for the men. The A.C.L. injury rate for girls may be higher — perhaps much higher — than it is for college-age women because of a spike that seems to occur as girls hit puberty.

Here are the inherent genetic differences between men and women–

“Women tend to be more erect and upright when they land, and they land harder,” he said. “They bend less through the knees and hips and the rest of their bodies, and they don’t absorb the impact of the landing in the same way that males do. I don’t want to sound horrible about it, but we can make a woman athlete run and jump more like a man.”

Here are the ideals that get in the way of common sense wisdom, not to mention biblical principles–

“The bigger barrier, though, may be political. Advocates for women’s sports have had to keep a laser focus on one thing: making sure they have equal access to high-school and college sports. It’s hard to fight for equal rights while also broadcasting alarm about injuries that might suggest women are too delicate to play certain games or to play them at a high level of intensity. There are parallels in the workplace, where sex differences can easily be perceived as weakness. A woman must have maternity leave. She may ask for a quiet room to nurse her baby or pump breast milk and is the one more likely to press for on-site child care. In high-powered settings like law firms, she may be less likely, over time, to be willing to work 80 hours a week. She does not always conform to the model of the default employee: a man.”

This article, as is clear, is nothing less than an earthquake in the field of gender studies. It is part of Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women’s Sports, which will be published in June. I would encourage all readers to order the book and read it. I am guessing that, while one may not agree with every point made in it, it will offer eloquent testimony to the simple principles of common sense and biblical wisdom. Common sense tells us that, despite what our egalitarian society may tell us on many levels, men and women are intrinsically, inherently, unalterably different. This is not in any way to say that one sex is better than the other. The two sexes are equipped for different tasks, and their bodies reflect this reality, whether postmoderns–or anyone else, for that matter–accept it or not. It is readily apparent that women’s bodies are not made to withstand the same physical challenges that men’s bodies can tolerate.

Furthermore, the Scripture tells us just this. Women, we learn in the Bible, are the weaker vessel (1 Peter 3:7). Though many men, even strong Christian men, stutter when they come across this text, the Bible’s teaching could not be clearer. It is for this reason that biblical men, when they are godly, take on the hard physical tasks of life, which includes provision, protection, and cultivation of one’s domain. The culture does not believe the Bible on this matter. We see evident proof of this disbelief in the sports culture that has exploded in America, in which it is heresy to challenge the idea that men and women are physically different and might have different roles in life. Yet from unexpected sources such as that quoted above comes strong proof that, shockingly, the Bible’s truth is true. Indeed, when men and women follow this truth, they are blessed, not cursed; when women do not seek the physical roles of men, they are blessed, not broken, as they so frequently appear to be in this frightening article.

  • Under Authority

    Hey Owen,

    Thanks for pointing out the great article and adding such helpful analysis. I think you’re dead on about this… statistical proof that women are physically different from men ought to be treated much more seriously, and should call into question the national obsession with having women do the same sports as men. Even without the biblical perspective on the issue (which I again think you are right on) this deserves attention.

  • Casey Shutt

    Hi Owen,
    I stumbled upon your blog via Between Two Worlds. I have enjoyed your posts and I think we share some similar intersts.

    Thanks for the analysis on this NYT story that underscores a very obvious reality: men and women are different. Always nice when biblical notions sprout up amongst the weeds.

  • Healyhatman

    Take your biblical gender roles and choke on them :)

    So what if they get injured more? You’re going to what, tell them because they’re weaker they can’t play contact sports? Maybe give them alternatives. Instead of contact sports, force them into cooking, cleaning and childcare classes! Put them back in their biblical place as it were.

  • 4given

    Excellent post.

  • A Woman

    Women, physical strength, and the BIBLE- “she sets about her work vigorously; he arms are STRONG for her tasks.” Proverbs 31:17

  • Anonymous

    Owen Owen Owen Owen… Owen,

    I am one of the statistics that your articles SO boldly scrutinizes. I obliterated my ACL, had to have my knee cap relocated and tore my meniscus all because I am “knocked kneed.” But despite being told I would never play sports again I am skiing, golfing, running and doing what ever sport I feel like. Statistics are just scientists and mathematicians way of manipulating peoples mind in to believing that there is a problem.

    You failed to mention that your article clearly states “Studies of U.S. high-school athletics indicate that, when it comes to raw numbers, boys suffer more sports injuries.” Now if you manage to find that line you will notice that I failed to include material the statisticians claim complicates the issue. Just a lovely flaw of reporting statistics.

    I do not have qualms with your article, it does hit on important issues such as pushing players through physical therapy after an injury and the pressure to needing to be on top of the game all the time. What I do not like is how you seem to so boldly agreeing that women should be off to playing field and performing to their more “Godly duties” of being meek and humble to men.

    You do touch on feminism issues time and time again. The way I read it is you do not like women tampering with man’s territory. Whether it is on the sports field or in the office. I do not have the same depth of bible knowledge to get in a biblical debate over who is right but as a female, with a brain and who continues to study and embrace the opportunities that are before me I challenge you to look outside and realize that is it 2008. I know that God loves me for what I can do and he did not make me to stay in the kitchen.

    Hannah.

  • 1PEt 3 7 compares wife to husband

    What verses robustly defend your distaste for women in contact sports? Why don’t you site all of these verses as opposed to a NYT article? Why does this bother you so much? How does this tarnish the gospel anymore than men taking steroids, using their athletic prowess for womanizing, self-engradnization etc? SHouldn’t they be banned as well from sports?

    How does woman being the “weaker vessel” support not playing sports? That verse is comparing the wife to the husband. And that verse talks about how beauty (and i suppose femininity) comes from the inner self (not outward physcial characterisitics). You can have a gentle and quiet SPIRIT/attitude while playing sports. And wouldn’t this attitude need to be displayed by men playing sports too (gentleness and lack of contentiousness is a fruit of the spirit for all christians)?

    Further, I can tell you that bearing a child is much worse than any hour long sports game–infact women DIED giving child birth b/c of the toll it takes on their bodies. Women who play sports just get knee injuries. Which would you rather suffer?

  • Ashley

    A woman playing a sport does not in itself make them biblically unfeminine. Biblical feminity has more to do with character qualities(inner self) than physical activity outside of sexual actions. I think there is christian freedom in playing sports male or female. I think the way you conduct yourself when playing can be clearly godly and non-godly. Yes, there are definitely women that play sports who have an unbiblical attitudes and behave in offensive ways–and even more men.

    I appreciate your desire to counter culture. However, it sounds like you are trying to go to the other extreme. The answer to egalitarism and feminism is NOT hyperfeminity. It’s biblical feminity. I do not disagree that woman are built different than men. They were built different so that they could have children NOT so that they should NOT engage in physical activity. I don’t think these injuries are God’s curse on women that play sports.

    Biblical manhood and womanhood is not dependent on physicality. Women can be bigger than men….does that mean they are less feminine? What about small men? Are they less masculine? Some women are stronger than men and some men are weaker than women….does this changer their identity as a male or female. WHy this focus on sports and not character? There are some beautiful unfaithful non-christian “girly girls” who don’t play contact sports. Are they more feminine than a christian woman who plays frisbee?

  • consumed w/ women playing sports

    I”m not sure why you speak so confidently as though you are an expert on biblical femininity. Do you have any experience in this department? You are happy to propose all these laws and standards for other people to live up to. Shouldn’t you be spending more time evaluating your own sinful nature and studying and praying how God can help you be a more biblical man. Focus on biblical manhood–this is where you need to be the expert. I’m interested to see you’re ideas.

    God didn’t give man woman b/c man was so great and so smart and so strong. NO, he gave you woman b/c man needed help and couldn’t do alone.

  • Marie Rochat

    I would like to point out that perhaps the reason women suffer more injuries than men is because they did not grow up partaking in sports as frequently or intensely as men. Jumping, landing, twisting, and all the other movements that go along with sports are learned movements. In fact it was mentioned in the article that“we can make a woman athlete run and jump more like a man.” I would argue that men are more likely to be taught how to run and jump correctly due to their higher rates of participation in athletics at a young age. Thus, to say that men get injured less frequently because their way of jumping and running is superior would be incorrect. Men don’t own a certain way of jumping and running. And since when did landing upright become feminine and, landing with more bend in the knees become masculine? It seems ridiculous to inscribe gender to something like degree of knee bend. This is not a matter of one type of running and jumping being male and one way being female, but rather it is an issue of one way being mechanically correct and one way being mechanically incorrect.

    Women are just as capable of jumping and running like men, the problem is that they are not taught to do so, because competitive athletic competition for females is not encouraged in our society to the degree that it is for males. It is far less common to see female athletes taken to the gym and shown how to properly use their bodies in mechanically correct fashion that will reduce injuries through weight training, than it is for male athletes. Also, weight training greatly reduces muscle imbalances which are one of the reasons females experience more ACL tears. Male athletes are taught and encouraged to weight train, where as women are often times discouraged from weight lifting, because of the stigma attached to being too strong or getting to muscular. This results in male athletes learning the proper mechanics of movements through weight training and also allows them to build the strength to maintain proper mechanics during athletic play. Females are just as capable of learning proper mechanic and building adequate strength to minimize injury rates. Men’s and Women’s sports are not treated equally. Men are given much better access to training, after all the top names in coaching, athletic training, and strength training go into men’s sports, because there is no money to be mad made in women’s sports. Resultantly male athletes benefit from this and are at an advantage because of it, which can be seen in the form of fewer injuries due to better preparation and training.

    In other words, the rate of injuries suffered by female athletes is not a reflection of females as being unfit for contact and weaker than males, but rather a reflection of the differences in opportunity and coaching afforded to female athletes. Mr. Strachan, I can assure you with great confidence that if we were to get in a full force head on collision tackle on a rugby field chances are I would come out on top. I’m nothing special, just 5’1” 139lbs., but I have been trained to properly use my body in athletics, meaning I jump and run correctly, and I have built the necessary strength to maintain proper mechanics. As a result I routinely play full contact rugby with full grown male peers and suffer no more injuries then they. I assert that there are many females such as myself who can hold their own in contact sports. As we see inequality decrease between the genders in the realm of sports, I believe we will also see a shrinking of the gap in injury rates between male and female athletes. This will be due to equal access to body mechanics training and strength training.

    Marie Rochat
    Student of Sociology
    Oregon State University

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