Monday, May 12, 2008

NYT on Girls and Sports Injuries

The New York Times magazine devoted its main story this week to the rate of injuries for girls playing sports such as soccer, and how the injury rate is startlingly higher than that of boys. It's a long and interesting article that offers a lot to discuss, and this blog post is just a starting point for discussion of the piece and the issues that it raises.

The article focused largely on high school girls playing soccer, and how the rate of serious knee injuries is about five times than of boys. The article explains some of this differential through the biological changes that occur when girls go through puberty, such as ligaments becoming looser in order to afford the body more flexibility, which in turn leads to knee and ankle injuries at higher rates than for boys, whose ligaments are more rigid, which helps keep muscles and bones in place. There also seems to be a growing concern over these injuries as the number of girls and women playing high school and college sports has increased dramatically in the last 35 years since Title IX has been in effect.

Overall, I thought the message of the article was a good one -- if girls are engaged in sports that boys have traditionally played, and the play of those sports requires movements and motions that are perhaps geared toward the way boys' bodies often develop, then we should be aware of the potential for higher injury risk to girls and take preventative measures, such as specific warm-up exercises that have been helpful to strengthen the knees and improve form, to try to reduce risk of injury.

My concerns about the article relate to its premise that people are either blindly pushing for girls to play sports to "even the playing field" with boys, without regard to potential injury risks (described in the article as "hard-liners"), or they are concerned about girls' health and want attention drawn to the disparity in injury rates. What about having it both ways? There are many of us who would like to see more encouragement, support and opportunity for girls and women to play sports, AND who would like to see more health research regarding injury rates and better ideas to prevent those injuries.

The second concern is related to the tone of the piece. The cover art, of a girl with a bandaged head being bonked on the head with a soccer ball, with the words "Hurt Girls" above it, seems to diminish the female athletes, and at the same time not give a second thought to boys who suffer serious injuries in sports. I am a firm believer that health research ought to take gender into account, when appropriate, to analyze problems and develop potential solutions, and we shouldn't just lump knee injuries for boys and girls into the same category when there's evidence that the problem ought to be treated differently. However, the article seemed to be editorializing as to whether it was appropriate for girls to play "rough" sports where they might get hurt, whereas we accept the idea that boys "play rough" and that their injuries are just part of the game (another NYT article discusses the knee injuries of professional football players, and how it's just the price that athletes pay for being able to play the game they love).