In 1972, Title IX, the federal law mandating equal opportunity in sports, opened new doors for women interested in athletic competition, spawning subsequent generations of girls who believe they are every bit as tough and capable as any of their male counterparts. Pre-Title IX about 300,000 girls participated in high school sports; today, there’s three million. As a former three-sport athlete, I count myself a lucky beneficiary of those changing laws and attitudes.
But, as a recent New York Times Magazine article points out, not all is equal: women suffer higher rates of injuries in several categories than men.
Girls, the article says, “are more likely to suffer chronic knee pain as well as shinsplints and stress fractures. Some research indicates that they are more prone to ankle sprains, as well as hip and back pain. And for all the justifiable attention paid to concussions among football players, females appear to be more prone to them in sports that the sexes play in common.” The most shocking difference, though, is injuries to the ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament, in the knee, where, in sports that both sexes play, female athletes rupture their ACL’s at rates as high as five times that of males.
The story questions whether we are setting up generations of women for future chronic pain and injury and chronicles the emotional struggles of several talented female athletes as they race through rehab and endure pain in order to play.
The Times story struck a personal chord with me, not just as a former female athlete, but as one that spent nearly as much time on crutches and doing physical therapy as I did on the court. The first injury wasn’t from an organized sport; in third grade, as I competed in a playground game I fell, landing squarely on my kneecap on asphalt and breaking the bone in several pieces. By junior high, I was heavily involved in three sports – basketball, volleyball and softball – and had already torn two ligaments and dislocated my knee once.
My high school career started with another dislocation, and I opted to undergo my second knee surgery, a reconstructive measure that added two screws meant to hold the knee in place. It didn’t work, and several more dislocations have followed.
The injuries will certainly follow me for the rest of my life – the knee’s condition is so poor and arthritis so significant that when I went to visit a specialist in Utah, having only seen my x-rays, he walked into the room expecting to find an 80-year-old. But, as many of the athletes in the New York Times story suggested, I don’t regret having played, even if in the end it will have made things worse.
I do hope, however, that people realize that, at least in this area, boys and girls may not be equal – certainly not less tough or less able to compete, just different. And that they understand those physical differences might require better training, like some researchers in the story are developing, for girls to prevent the injuries they’re especially prone to. Because, while I don’t regret my choices to continue playing through injury, future female athletes should have every opportunity to avoid those injuries altogether.
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