Rough Sports Not For Girls–They’d Get Hurt (NYT cover story)

Part 1 of 3
(disclaimer: My title is not the actual title in the New York Times. The actual title (and link to story) is The Uneven Playing Field.)

“Every girl has a large store of vital and nervous energy upon which to draw in the great crisis of motherhood. If the foolish virgin uses up this deposit in daily expenditures of energy on the hockey field or tennis court, as a boy can afford to do, then she is left bankrupt in her great crisis and her children will have to pay the price.”  –New York Times, 1921 as quoted in Women in Sport: Issues & Controversies.

“Everyone wants girls to have as many opportunities in sports as boys. But can we live with the greater rate of injuries they suffer?” –New York Times, 2008.

 Michael Sokolove *could* have written an important piece for the New York Times. It could have been a piece exposing sports culture as potentially hazardous to the lives of young athletes. It could have been an article stressing injury prevention tactics. It could have been a wake up call for young athletes, parents & coaches.

Instead, his article was part fear tactic that screamed at readers: “LOOK WHAT TITLE IX IS DOING!!! IT’S HURTING OUR DAUGHTERS!!!”

His piece focused on a high school soccer player, Janelle Pierson.  For Janelle, as the article paints it, soccer is more than just a sport. It’s her daily breath, her entire life summed up in one game. When she tore her anterior cruciate ligament (A.C.L.) in her right knee, she went back to the game five months after the reparitive operation. And just 20 months before the operation, she’d had the same injury on her other knee.

No pain no gain.

Sokolove details the parental angst of the Piersons. Maria Pierson, watching her daughter at a game and worried sick that her daughter would get injured-again. When Janelle and an opposing team member were going for the ball and collided, Mrs. Pierson lost it; “‘No! No! Oh no!’ she yelled. She jumped up from her seat and her sunglasses went flying off her head into the row below. Janelle emerged unscathed. Her mother retrieved her glasses and exhaled. For the moment, Janelle was fine.”

Janelle’s dad, on the other hand, was worried more about ‘philosophical’ aspects of Janelle’s choices, and worried about what impact Title IX has on Janelle’s injuries. As Sokolove writes: “Title IX, the federal law enacted in 1972 mandating equal opportunity in sports has helped to shape a couple of generations of girls who believe they are as capable and tough as any boy. With a mix of resignation and pride, Rich Pierson said to me: ‘We’ve raised these girls to be headstrong and independent. That’s Janelle.'”

The article goes on to say that girls-especially the girls involved in sports like soccer and basketball-have a higher risk of tearing their A.C.L’s, that the physical differences between girls and boys contribute to the problems girls face on the field/court/rink/etc,  that tournament schedules play hell on a teenage girl’s body and that girls may well be trying to tough it out just to prove to boys, so often thought of as the “strong” sex, that they can do it.

What the article should say is that sports have a tendency toward injury, especially when the no pain, no gain motto is followed. Especially when teams have hectic tournament schedules that play them hard and often in a short period of time. Especially when coaches don’t do the coaching they should be doing–if a student athlete falls wrong and gets hurt because of a lack of training-that’s a problem. And especiallywhen there’s no injury prevention. While Sokolove says many of these things, it’s all with the gender card highlighted. Instead of shining the spotlight on athletic problems, he’s shining it on the “weaker sex”–so physically different that our athletic abilities are impaired and we place ourselves in danger every time we get on that field.

Sokolove’s article brought up some interesting questions on gender difference. I’ve been used to women in sports and have never thought “hmm, what could the way the female body is formed change athletic ability? Is there really a huge difference? and does it really affect our performance in sports?”

The answers, according to Gloria Beim, MD (physician to the US National Track Cycling Team) and Ruth Winter, M.S.–there are differences, they aren’t huge and they can affect a sport in both positive and negative ways, but either way–the differences are no reason for discouragement from a sport. Just because an athlete happens to be female doesn’t mean she can’t succeed.

The Role of Sex in Sports Performance

The intro to The Female Athlete’s Body Book: How to Prevent and Treat Sports Injuries in Women and Girls (2003), is telling.

“Our female bodies are constructed and function differently from men’s, and that gives us both advantages and disadvantages. Unfortunately, many coaches, physicians, and athletes have not recognized the differences; as a result, female athletes often have inadequate training, suffer unnecessary injuries, and may not reach their full potential.”

In The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football: Sexism and the American Culture of Sports (1995),Mariah Burton Nelson (lead basketball scorer at Stanford in ’78, a pro-basketball player in France and on the first Women’s Basketball League) also notes that there are differences.

Men, she says, have more lean muscle mass (convenient in sports requiring explosive power–aka most of the sports men have invented…shocking, isn’t it!) Meanwhile “less muscle-bound, women generally have better flexibility, useful in gymnastics, diving, and skating. Our lower center of gravity can help in hockey, golf, tennis, baseball, and even basketball.” With that said the question remains: does sex then influence victory?

Not so much, says Mariah. For most sports, success is determined by physical/mental preparation, competitive spirit, self discipline and other non-gendered factors. Men’s strength advantage is marginal…in other words, there’s more variation among individual men than there is between the average man and the average woman.

In the Body Book, Beim &Winter explore women’s strengths and weaknesses in each individual sport. If you turn to the chapter on soccer (chapter 2), you’ll find that the dreaded A.C.L’s are included among the most frequent injury list, in addition to sprained ankles, muscle cramps, broken legs, hurt heads (thanks to the head butting of the ball or other collisions) among others. Unlike Sokolove, the authors do not place fault of injury on the idea that “girls are going to get hurt like this because they’re designed to get hurt that way…” Instead, the authors say “This (insert injury here) could well happen to you. Here’s what to do so you can prevent it. and if it does happen, here’s how you can get past it.”

And they’re happy to add the benefits of a game like soccer, which Sokolove so easily forgets:

    • Playing any position (minus the goal keeper) is to have a complete lower body and cardiovascular workout-soccer involves all muscles of the lower body and promotes good eye-foot coordination
    • anyone can play (size isn’t as important as it is in sports like basketball or football)
    • Specialized positions encourages teamwork and participation
    • As a sport, soccer helps improve self-esteem and body image.

 In “The Uneven Playing Field,” Sokolove quotes Sandra Schultz, an A.C.L. researcher who teaches graduate courses in athletic training and sports medicine at UNC-G as saying that advocates for women in sports and Title IX will ignore the injuries that come from the battlefield..oops, field, rather…or court… In her view the people that support organizations like the Women’s Sports Foundation are going to encourage sports at the expense of individual players.

Well, isn’t it nice to know how critics of girls in sports get to say that while they go on to ignore the benefits of sports and–in addition–the benefits derived from Title IX.

Let’s forget about how after Title IX was implemented, girls in the high school level sports went from 7% participation pre-Title IX to 41.5% in 2001. On the college level, women made up 2% of the athletic participants. In 2001-43%

And from 1987-1999, the number of girls aged 6 and over playing basketball increased 15% to 12.67 million while the number of girls of the same ages increased by 20% to 7.3 million. (numbers from the Feminist Majority Foundation)

Let’s face it. Girls (like boys) just wanna have fun.



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