Injuries and imagery in women’s sports

(This is a topic I wanted to examine in my recent series “Women’s Sports Without Illusions,” especially after a perceptive reader brought it up. I pledged to address it in a new phase of my inquiry that continues on this blog and elsewhere. So here’s a little bonus coverage.)

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SLAM Online contributor Clay Kallam points to some uncomfortable biological truths about women athletes when ruminating off the likely season-ending injuries to Candace Parker (knee) and Lauren Jackson (hip), two of the WNBA’s most visible stars:

“The rate of ACL tears, arguably the most devastating knee injury and arguably the one with the greatest chance to have long-term impacts on knee health, is four times greater for women than men. Anyone involved in the sport for any length of time has seen far too many players go down in pain, from WNBA all-stars to freshman girls trying the game for the first time.

“And at some point, we all have to come to terms with this painful sacrifice that so many women and girls make for the sport. Yes, women are tough and strong, but it’s also true that a variety of factors make them much more vulnerable to crushing, debilitating injuries.”

Kallam, who has coached girls high school basketball in California for many years, is raising a taboo that women’s sports would rather not acknowledge, and that author Michael Sokolove found quite revealing while researching “Warrior Girls,” his 2008 book about female youth sports injuries. (Here’s the article in The New York Times Magazine that led to the book.)

Difference = Unequal?

For example, Sokolove was surprised to discover that the Women’s Sports Foundation did no physiological research into the topic. The WSF has since teamed up with the University of Michigan to create the Sports, Health and Research Policy Center that will open this fall. Its mission is to “generate interdisciplinary research on issues related to women’s sports, health, gender issues and kinesiology.” And here’s the real kicker:

“As a result of the collaboration, the new center will generate a variety of information and tools central to the foundation and university’s educational role of supporting evidence-based public debate that informs public policy and encourages elimination of the obstacles girls and women face in sports participation.”

That last part is a reference to legal, sociological and cultural barriers that figure to prompt calls for more gender equity measures; there’s no specific mention of female sports injuries being part of SHARP’s research efforts that I could find. This think tank will be housed within Michigan’s Institute for Research on Women and Gender, so there you go.

(Update: In this recent interview with espnW, WSF chief executive officer Kathryn Olson said the SHARP Center will indeed address injuries, including ACLs and concussions. This is encouraging; and it bears watching as the center holds a conference next spring.)

But the real heat Sokolove received for his book came from sports feminist academics at the University of Minnesota who went on an all-out offensive to refute his claims.

The Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport entitled its response “Anatomy Isn’t Destiny,” marshalling perspectives from the public health, sports medicine, orthopedic surgery, sports psychology and sociology faculties at the university. Read as one, this is an attempt to diminish real physical differences that get in the way of larger political gender equity aims:

“Sokolove skillfully links the sport ethic—striving for distinction, accepting risks, playing through pain and not accepting barriers in the pursuit of goals—with a Mars-Venus dichotomy whereby females are routinely portrayed as different from (and inherently inferior to) males. He seems determined to create a moral panic for already overly concerned sport parents who are understandably trying to do what is best for their daughters.”

The Tucker Center was decent enough to give Sokolove space to reply to its criticisms, which he keenly understands:

“The overall concern of your scholars seems to be that my book – as well as any overt discussion about injuries among women athletes – is going to drive women off the playing field. I’d say it is injuries that takes athletes off the field – not information and discussion. And not one of the hundreds of emails I’ve received from female athletes, or parents of athletes, have said the book had induced anyone to leave their sport.”

But wait, there’s more:

“There’s a problem out there, and I believe that advocates of women’s sports – those at the Tucker Center and elsewhere who have done important work in advocating for Title IX and its rigorous enforcement – have a responsibility to take it on as a cause.”

Bemoaning the body electric

The Tucker Center does indeed look into these matters, but it hardly amounts to a cause. Tucker Center associate director Nicole LaVoi, one of Sokolove’s biggest critics, spends far more time writing for the center and on her blog about the “sexualization” of female athletes in media, almost to the point of obsession. Last week, Time magazine quoted her in a story about the Women’s Tennis Association’s latest provocative portrayal of its most attractive players, and comments like this have become her stock-in-trade:

“Yes, these women are beautiful, but we see lots of cleavage and legs, and it’s set to music that is reminiscent of soft-core porn. That might be interesting and titillating, but it isn’t going to make me turn on Wimbledon.”

So will only Whistler’s Mother do?

I shouldn’t revive the old saw about beauty being in the eye of the beholder, nor should I elaborate that this isn’t about what LaVoi would watch. But I just did by way of arguing that there’s nothing tasteless in any of this. She apparently wants her muscle without even a hint of glamour (a staple of women’s tennis since the marvelous Suzanne Lenglen dared to bob her hair, among other 1920s taboos). This is typical of the legion of sports feminists who disdain any association between female athleticism and aesthetics. As I wrote in my women’s sports series, they prefer an androgynous ideal that trumps sex in favor of gender. We all know which is more fun, and which is decidedly not.

In the same Time piece, Penn State sports journalism professor Marie Hardin complains that such imagery revolves around homophobia:

“There’s this idea of the lesbian bogeywoman, the predatory lesbian in sports. Unfortunately there’s a real fear mongering that doesn’t help women’s sports at all.”

But her rhetoric actually marginalizes women’s sports, especially by implying that women athletes shouldn’t get all Hester Prynne about themselves:

“There’s a real tension there. What female athletes choose to do to empower themselves personally does often times chip away at the collective power of female athletes and of women’s sports.”

Is this what she teaches her journalism students? That women athletes should not make their own choices if those choices offend The Sisterhood?

“The collective power of female athletes” is the abiding cause of sports feminists, and anything that interferes with that objective as they define it is emphatically denounced or shunted aside. Individual preferences or experiences do not fit in this dogmatic, airtight narrative, as I also wrote.

If LaVoi, Hardin, et al, were less concerned about how women athletes look in pictorials than with what happens when they get hurt, they might better justify their credentials as “experts” on topics about which contrary points of view are rarely allowed to enter the public discourse.

You don’t have to be an academic to understand that what they’re postulating isn’t scholarship, but pure advocacy.

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  1. Posted July 6, 2011 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

    Hmmmm would be my first reaction. You raise some valid points throughout your post. I agree that injury in sport is not analyzed enough and is often accepted as collateral damage in the world of sports; however, I disagree that Lavoi or Harden’s words are rhetoric. The representation of women in sports is merely a manifestation of what society is willing to accept at that moment in time from women in general. I would argue that the majority of women’s sports advertisements marginalize women unintentionally (or intentionally) because women of colour, lesbians, and women of lower classes are either not represented or are stereotypically represented. There is a reason that Francesa Schiavone and Svetlana Kuznetsova, despite being two of the bigger personalities in tennis, are not nearly as ‘marketable’ as Ana ‘I can’t string together 2 wins’ Ivanovic (no malice intended, I actually love Ivanovic but never get to watch her because she never wins!) or Maria ‘bring your earplugs’ Sharapova. Gender roles and heteronormativity reign supreme in sports, probably more so than in any other area. Anyways, that said, I do agree that the ‘culture of injury’ needs more attention for both genders, but I do not think that any one topic is more relevant than the other.

  2. Posted July 7, 2011 at 2:51 am | Permalink

    Links to issues and articles on females ACL injuries/issues/preventive exercises. Think some of your readers might appreciate the information.

    The first link is a recent NY Times article. Got a lot of play in the media:

    The next two links are posts that Vern Gambetta posted on his blog in response to the NY Times Article. He blasted
    their thesis. As you know, Vern is one of the foremost authorities on athletic movement:

    Brian McCormick posts on female athletes and ACL injuries:

    Good breakdown on ACL issues from LA84

  3. Posted July 7, 2011 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Oh Courtney, you were making some fairly good points until you typed in the word “heteronormativity.” Why in the world do women’s sports activists insist on doing this? Most people don’t know what words like that mean, and they smack of ideology.

    I also don’t understand what I call the “Representation Obsession” over media and advertising imagery. Is it not possible for adult female athletes to make decisions about how they want to portray themselves without being accused of playing into “stereotypes” or settling into traditional “gender roles? Can you not understand that not all women are hung up on these things, as you are, and that that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re trying to flee from suggestions of homosexuality?

    What I would love women’s sports activists to do is to really study media and advertising from a business, and not a feminist, point of view. They might see that the major objective here is to appeal to the widest range of potential consumers and not put women down. I’m not optimistic, however, that you’ll ever change your seat.

    Clarence, many thanks for the links. As I said at the outset, I wasn’t able to dig into this topic in my recent series but I want to explore the injury issue more from here and the links you provided will help us all understand this better.

  4. Burn
    Posted July 7, 2011 at 11:48 am | Permalink

    I believe the ACL injury frequency for women’s basketball / volleyball / soccer is one of the biggest scandals in sports today. It doesn’t matter if the frequency is 2 or 4 or 8 times greater than the male injury frequency the blatant and intentional ignoring of this problem by the women’s sports power structure is unbelievable.

    I would have thought Sokolov’s book would have brought more attention to the problem, but he got froze out. The really concerning thing to me is that we have thousands of girls and women permanently damaging their bodies purely due to gender politics. The lack of acknowledgement of this problem by the women’s sports power structure is cynical, incompetent and if it fell in the professional realm it would be considered malpractice, particularly relative to these doctors of kinesiology.

    It makes me wonder if any of the people involved in covering this up are acquainted with women who have torn their ACLs or gone through surgery & rehab. If they had they would probably have more empathy. It should be remembered that successful surgery on an ACL doesn’t head off the risk of re-injury, future problems including arthritis and other joint related maladies that only deteriorate with time.

    Finally I really feel sorry for are the parents of young girls who want them to participate but are not given any methods to mitigate the risk of these injuries. They have no idea of the risk they are taking while only trying to have their daughters involved in competitive athletics. What a shame.

    Thanks to Clarence for the links. Some of the best pieces I’ve seen on the subject.

    Another great post Wendy. I hope this information gets the visibility it deserves.

  5. Posted July 7, 2011 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the comments Burn. I’m curious to know what you might suggest to address this in spite of the gender politics you mentioned, and your background and interest in the topic. It seems like you’ve got some very deep-seated reasons for sounding off as you have here and elsewhere on my blog.

    I appreciate the perspective and the candor, and the desire to shed some light on the topic.

  6. Posted July 7, 2011 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    Actually my undergrad is in sport management so I very much understand the intentions behind sports marketing. My graduate studies are in socio-cultural sports studies so, as you can see, my studies conflict heavily with each other. Personally, I think that too much emphasis is placed on business thinking (seeing how we live in a capitalist society) to the detriment of women. I certainly understand where you are coming from and would hate to deny any women of agency and say that they have no idea what they are doing. Pamela Anderson is a great example of someone who knows exactly what she is doing – playing up her looks for the camera when in fact she has a great head on her shoulders and is laughing all the way to the bank. My issue comes more from advertising that says “hey look we are empowering women” etc. etc. when in fact they are doing exactly what you are saying – trying to make a buck and sell a product. That’s fine but, as judge judy would say “don’t pee on my leg and tell me its raining”.

    And as for your comment on heteronormativity – does not everything smack of ideology? Isn’t everything political?

  7. Burn
    Posted July 8, 2011 at 10:50 am | Permalink


    I wish I had the answer. Sokolov’s book called out the problem and a reasonable person would have thought that those that pull the levers behind the curtain in women’s sports would have rushed to address it and protect women athletes. Instead we see just the opposite. We see gender feminist ideology trumping the protection of women athletes for no good reason other than to protect their pet theories. You are the first person after Sokolov that has had the guts to even bring it up. I think the fact that you are a woman with deep and legitimate experience in the sports world positions you uniquely to make an issue of this. That said there isn’t going to be any love out there for you from the Sisterhood. Facts get in the way of their theories.

    I was a college scholarship athlete back in the day ( football, free safety) and have been educating myself on Title IX and women’s sports over the past two years. I’ve observed that whenever anyone brings up something that doesn’t fit with the “accepted vision” for women’s sports they are shunned or ignored. The ACL injury situation is a great example. There are all kinds of studies out there that document the problem, but still the people in power in women’s sports ignore reality because it doesn’t match up with their ideology. My take on it is these people are exceptionally cynical and based upon the actions to date aren’t interested in helping girls and women at risk of ACL injuries. If they were something would have happened long before now. I believe the only way to get action is to embarrass them into it and frankly that will be tough because they really don’t care. If there was any other situation where women were being injured at these rates compared to men there would be massive government funded studies, commissions and all sorts of resources being thrown at the problem. Instead we have silence.

    I do think that some kind of disclosure that discusses the frequency & risks of ACL injuries that would have to be read and signed by an athlete and her parents prior to participation would be a good starting place. If I was a person that didn’t know anything about athletics and had a daughter that wanted to participate I would like to know the risks before agreeing to let her play. Injuries in sports are part of the deal, but parents should have visibility on the risk before the fact. As you know ACL injuries have life altering impacts that frequently don’t manifest for years or decades. I doubt that those in charge of women’s sports would agree to this approach for the reasons previously stated.

    I thought you stated very well in your series what playing sports meant to you in your life. The truth is that eventually we all reach levels of competition at which we just aren’t good enough to play. It happened to you, me and every athlete that has ever played with very few exceptions. What we gain from sports is the knowledge that when you get knocked on your ass you have to get up and keep playing. You learn to work with others successfully towards group goals. I attribute much of my success in life to having been an athlete and I’m betting you can say the same thing. Everyone deserves that opportunity. I just wish that those in power could focus on the right issues and leave the politics for others.

  8. Burn
    Posted July 9, 2011 at 11:23 am | Permalink


    I wasn’t going to respond to your posts but I feel compelled to do so. I appreciate you posting because you’ve proven my point better than I could have. I’m curious how you can say that the culture of injury needs more attention but you don’t feel any one topic is more relevant than others given the historical, documented female ACL injury data. The fact that you can take that position given what we know to be true means one of two things; either you consider thousands of women blowing out their knees to be collateral damage to your ideology or you just plain don’t care about these women on a personal level. I would think that someone with a BA in sports management working on a graduate degree in the sports arena would be capable of seeing how illogical her position on this issue is. I’d appreciate a response as to how you can justify your stance.

    I guess it is an inconvenient truth for you that in a capitalistic society “business thinking” is what generates profits which in turn pay taxes and make our society work to the substantial benefit of both men and women. I get that it is fashionable and politically correct in academia to discuss how capitalism and the patriarchy are intertwined and both exist only to oppress women. The fact that it appears you have spent most of your adult life in academia may explain your position. If you ever actually take a position in the private sector you will see reality is significantly different from what your professors have taught you. The unfortunate truth is that few if any of your instructors have likely spent much time in the private sector so they remain blissfully ignorant of how the world really works.

    Given your sports management degree you must be familiar how men and women differ as to their interest in paying to attend sporting events. What I find particularly fascinating is that in spite of women spending the majority of the money in our economy they have been generally unwilling to spend at a level sufficient to support many women’s professional sports at a viable business level. That’s a problem you and the Sisterhood should solve instead of blaming everyone else including capitalism. To be clear I welcome the success of women’s professional sports, but they need to stand on their own as a business.

    I think your final paragraph really says it all. Actually everything doesn’t smack of ideology nor is everything political. There is nothing ideological or political about a blow out knee. Ask someone that has had one. The fact that you close out your post with that missive speaks volumes as to your worldview. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so damaging. This ACL injury issue is about more than women injuring their knees. It shows in painful, stark reality what is really going on with those in power in women’s sports. It exposes their intellectual dishonesty and disregard for the girls and women they are supposed to be positioning to participate in athletics in a positive way.

    Finally, I challenge anyone reading this blog string to respond in a meaningful, fact based way to this ACL injury issue. If there is something I am missing I want to know what it is. If I am wrong I’ll gladly admit it. Wendy is already getting the “freeze out” over at The Women Talk Sports Blog which is how it normally goes. The people in charge of women’s sports traditionally don’t address fact-based problems, they ignore them. Let’s see if they have the character to accept my challenge.

  9. Posted July 10, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    1.) Humour me on this one – Bono has stated “we [Product RED] are for labour issues. Labour issues are very serious but six and a half thousand dying Africans are more important.” I liken your statement to Bono’s, as an attempt to rank suffering. I assume what Bono meant was that 6,500 dying African’s is more important to HIM than labour issues, but I’m sure labour issues/breast cancer/environmental degradation etc. are equally important issues, if not more, to different people. I’m sure if you and I were to come up with a list of the 10 most important issues in sports they would differ quite a bit and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Obviously, ACL injuries is a passionate topic for you and I commend your enthusiasm, but I don’t appreciate you attacking me for attempting to support your cause. If you notice in my original response, I supported this article’s stance on injury, what I disagreed with was the attack on women’s media studies.

    2.) Injuries are political in the way they are treated, played through and spoken about. We applaud athletes for playing through pain, for ‘taking one for the team’, we see those who ‘succumb’ to injury as weak – those are the political ideologies of sport and they all contribute to the culture of injury in sport. I have never blown out my knee *knock on wood* but I did battle through 2 years of shoulder tendinitis as a junior tennis player. The last thing I wanted to do was to go to a doctor and have him tell me I had to stop competing. I saw all my favourite players tape themselves up and inject themselves with cortisone to make sure they could play. I would be lying to you if I said that seeing the behaviours of professionals didn’t have any effect on the way I have approached injury as an athlete. Admittedly, I have done little research on injuries but I can certainly say that the notion of playing through pain in order to be a contributing individual to the team stems from a larger neoliberal political ideology.

    3.) Yes, I am well aware of the fact that women do not support women’s sports but your statement that me and the ‘sisterhood’ should deal with it on our own demonstrates the problem with gender discrepancies. Women’s liberation as a gender is interwoven with the liberation of men and masculinity. The state of women says more about the state of MEN than it does about women’s “shortcomings” or “achievements”.

    4.) To your point on the “disregard for girls and women” – I agree:

    “If women were human, would we be a cash crop shipped from Thailand in containers into New York brothels? Would we be trafficked for sexual use and entertainment worldwide? Would we be kept from learning to read and write? If women were human, would our violation be enjoyed by our violators? And, if we were human, when these things happened, would virtually nothing be done about it?” (Mackinnon, 2006:41)

    I argue that ACL injuries are merely another manifestation of a lack of concern, understanding, and respect for women as a gender.

    5.) People in charge of SPORTS in general do not address the problems that counter the status quo OR at least the “profitable” quo.

  10. Burn
    Posted July 12, 2011 at 4:02 am | Permalink


    I’m not going to restate my position. I’ve been clear in my facts and challenge. You’ve done a great job reconfirming why the ACL situation won’t get fixed if folks with your mindset are running things. A few closing observations are in order.

    No reasonable person would call your position “supportive”. Launching into the standard Sisterhood diatribe certainly isn’t. Your unwillingness to acknowledge that women have a unique need due to their ACL injury history is exactly what has allowed the situation to develop into what it is. Please save your Bono quotes for someone who thinks it’s cool. I don’t. It’s a typical academically inspired smokescreen in which you try to show people how insightful you are without coming close to addressing the issue. Might work on your thesis, not so much in the real world. By the way, disagreeing with you is not attacking you. Do yourself a favor and don’t play the victim.

    Big difference between treating tendinitis and ripping out an ACL. The former being pretty standard fare if a person is involved in many sports at a reasonably competitive level and later nearly always being a life-altering event even if the surgery is 100% successful. I suggest you read Michael Sokolov’s book and the links Clarence supplied above if you are interested on some real world info and data instead of the political rhetoric you appear to be used to digesting and spewing back.

    As you note my statement is a fact. Your rebuttal is a feminist theory. Why am I not surprised you are assigning the blame to men? You are a degreed person so I assume you’ve studied some history of cultural movements in which a group takes the position that everything they do is great and if everyone else would just come around to their way of thinking things would work out fine. They normally end very badly. If you need some examples let me know.

    A Mackinnon quote?!? If you’re going down that road don’t forget Daly and Dworkin. Wendy has been pretty lucky to keep things like this off her blog. There are plenty of gender feminist websites out there that love things like this. Suggest you take it there. What we are talking about here is women in power in women’s sports not taking care of other women on the issue of ACL injuries due specifically to the politically inspired elitist arrogance of people like you. Probably the most disgusting aspect of this situation is the willingness of your ilk to play the victim when you already have the tools at your disposal to help women address this on a personal level and still refuse to do so. Not Good Karma.

    As you should know, in a capitalist society consumer demand drives what products are offered. If they aren’t profitable they don’t survive. Capitalism certainly isn’t perfect, but it beats everything else that is out there. Do yourself and the world a favor and stay in academia after you graduate. It’s the only place your worldview is allowed to propagate.