The Real Price of Women’s Basketball
There’s a painful sacrifice so many make for the sport.
by Clay Kallam
Every once in a while, I get the freshman boys’ team to scrimmage against my high school varsity—or I bring a few older boys to simulate players we might face, or to apply a serious fullcourt press.
I always get the first-timers off to the side and say something like this: “Guys, the first thing you have to realize is that women have babies, and that’s a much, much harder thing than any of us will ever do. So there’s no need to treat the girls like they’re not tough enough to deal with you; they’re going to go through 24 hours of labor, and you won’t, so just go out there and play hard.”
This year, we scrimmaged the undefeated boys’ frosh team, and they didn’t believe me—we knocked them down, hit threes and thumped them pretty good. Of course, when we scrimmaged again, the boys showed us no mercy and hammered us, but that was the idea, after all.
So I don’t subscribe to the theory that the woman is the weaker vessel, and we need to take special care with these delicate flowers lest they wilt in the heat of competition. At the same time, though, anyone involved in women’s basketball must come to grips with the harsh truth that females are more vulnerable to serious injury than males, and that every coach, player or fan will have to find a way to justify the pain that is the heavy price of women’s basketball.
Of course, we all know about Lauren Jackson’s hip injury and Candace Parker’s knee injury—and somehow I think if two former MVPs were lost to season-ending injuries in the NBA (or the NHL or wherever), there would be a serious look at the sport. Maybe nothing would change, but the focus would definitely sharpen on the dangers of the game.
In addition, though, both Jackson and Parker have battled injuries throughout their careers. Parker tore her ACL in high school, missed a season at Tennessee and had her shoulder operated as well. Jackson’s litany of leg and back injuries hasn’t been as serious, but this hip labrum tear could be the beginning of the end of her marvelous career.
The injuries, however, aren’t just to stars. Shanna Crossley tore her ACL a couple years ago, and when I talked to her about it, she said, “I was in shock because I had done everything right.” That is, she had lifted weights, sweated through plyometric exercises and done all that a modern athlete could do to protect herself.
And then, playing two-on-two with no one around her, she tore her ACL in 2007. A serious professional athlete, she went through the grueling rehab and got back on the court in 2009. This January, she tore her left ACL again.
These kinds of stories are far too common in women’s basketball. 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.
I have to say I still struggle with it, and I still cringe any time a girl goes down. I can’t watch their pain, and if I’m the one who has to go on the court to comfort them as they sob in agony, I have nothing to say beyond meaningless platitudes.
Yesterday, one of the top young players on the West Coast hurt her knee in a warmup tournament for the summer recruiting circuit. She came back from the hospital later in the day, her leg wrapped, and the word was she heard something pop in the back of her knee.
When she walked by, I struggled for words, and finally settled for a sympathetic pat on the back.
Sure, she’s tough enough to have babies, and tough enough to deal with any guy who challenges her on the court—but if she did tear her ACL (and here’s hoping she didn’t), that will be cold comfort in her year of rehab and the very real possibility that she will never be the player she was before she crumpled to the floor.