Everyone knows an athlete who has been sidelined by injury. I can think of two off the top of my head: star football players I knew in high school and college, both of whom suffered career-ending knee injuries and struggled with almost existential crises as they adjusted to life as regular humans instead of campus gods.
But in a provocative cover story this week in The New York Times Sunday magazine, "Hurt Girls" (adapted from the forthcoming book Warrior Girls: Protecting Our Daughters Against the Injury Epidemic in Women's Sports), author Michael Sokolove posits that female athletes suffer far greater rates of injury than males. The injury crisis is so severe, relates Sokolove, it casts the whole Title IX revolution in women's sports in a grim light.
"I'm afraid for her and for all these girls," Sokolove quotes the mother of an injured soccer player saying. "What's it going to be like for them at 40 years old? They're in so much pain now. Knees and backs and hips, and they just keep on going.... Are they going to look back and regret it?"
Research suggests girls are destroying their knees by popping the ACL ligament, which requires reconstructive surgery, at five times the rate of boys. But Sokolove gets his most sensational statistics by excluding football injuries.
More boy athletes get injured overall, since there are more boys in sports. And the rates of male injuries are much higher if you include contact sports. But "battle of the sexes" sports coverage generates controversy and buzz.
So Sokolove peppers his piece with quotes like, "I don't want to sound horrible about it, but we can make a woman athlete run and jump more like a man." He watches a girls' soccer match with a physical therapist, who says of one player, "She moves more like a boy. Believe me, that's a good thing."
The real culprit here is not the entry of women into previously male-dominated sports, or the female body as inherently weaker or poorly formed, as Sokolove suggests. Rather, it is the intense focus of younger and younger athletes on a single activity, with year-round practice and club matches in the off-season.
Sokolove puts his finger on something important when he quotes a soccer dad who describes the sport as being like the "country club" for his parents' generation: "It's where your leisure time goes. It becomes your social set."
Parents have lost all perspective. Instead of letting their kids horse around in the backyard or dabble in a variety of activities, they are turning girls and boys alike into peewee-size professional athletes who dominate the family calendar with a frantic schedule of sports camps, clubs and out-of-town tournaments.
No wonder the kids are burning out. We are training them like Soviet Bloc Olympians from the time they start kindergarten. It would be a lot better for everyone if the adults had a drink and let the kids run off to have a little unstructured time with their friends.
In some ways, the boys have it worse. Too often, they are surrounded by hovering adults who seem to worry that they won't turn out manly enough, and push them to take on a sport. Pity the kid who is fascinated by bugs but couldn't care less about hockey.
I think of my 6'7" uncle, whose high school basketball coach made him run laps on a sprained ankle to "toughen him up." He quit, scandalizing the small Texas community where he lived. But my grandmother backed him up.
One of the beautiful things about women's sports is the relative freedom from this kind of fun-spoiling social pressure. Girls can be athletes, or they can do something else. At least until now, adults didn't seem so crazed about making their daughters perform on the field. The sheer joy of athletic participation is a gift for girls.
And women's sports can act as an antidote to the toxic culture we foist on young girls. Instead of feeling inferior and insecure, and constantly worrying about how they look, girl athletes focus on what their bodies can do. They become actors instead of objects, and begin to feel great about themselves.
I've experienced the liberating effects of sports on girls both as an athlete and as a coach. I hope my own daughters have the same opportunity to enjoy sports, to push themselves hard and achieve their goals, and to bask in the glow of hard work and camaraderie.
Participation in sports has profoundly changed the way women see themselves. That's one reason graduates of women's high school and college sports are so grateful for Title IX.
Sokolove suggests that the politics of women's sports might prevent people from acknowledging the high injury rates of young women athletes or adopting the regimen of injury-preventing exercises he prescribes (the one that is supposed to make girls run and jump more like boys). But why put it in those terms? There is no reason to insult girls by suggesting that they are inherently weak if all you want to do is help make them stronger.
Any athlete, male or female, whether the star quarterback on the football team or a star midfielder in girls' soccer, would be glad to benefit from exercises that could prevent career-ending injuries. And all parents should rethink the kind of intense, semi-professional kids' sports leagues that are draining the fun out of sports.
Ruth Conniff, the mother of three, is political editor of The Progressive.