The flood of media attention highlighting damaged brains, dementia and suicides in retired NFL players has made concussions synonymous with football. That attention was greatly needed; the debilitating consequences of brain injuries in football players of all ages has been severely overlooked. But the focus of this controversy has been far too narrow. It’s true that young players need better equipment and stricter safety standards on the gridiron. But in many of the most popular sports, boys aren’t the ones most likely to be afflicted by concussions. Girls are. In a study of collegiate athletes, the highest rate of concussions was reported not by male football players, but by female ice hockey players.
Recent studies of high school and collegiate athletes have shown that girls and women suffer from concussions at higher rates than boys and men in similar sports — often significantly higher. For instance, in a recent analysis of college athletic injuries, female softball players experienced concussions at double the rate of male baseball players. Women also experienced higher rates of concussions than men in basketball and soccer. Across all sports in the study, the highest rate of concussions was reported not by male football players, but by female ice hockey players. In that sport, a woman experienced a concussion once every 1,100 games or practices — nearly three times the rate experienced in football. The gender disparity exists in high school sports, too. One study, analyzing concussion data for athletes in 25 high schools, found that in soccer, girls experienced concussions at twice the rate of boys.
We have some evidence that the brains of female athletes are more susceptible — or, at least, react differently — to injury compared to their male counterparts. We should stop assuming that concussions are a men’s issue. We shouldn’t simply accept that the best practices for boys’ and men’s sports will protect girls and women in the same way. The bodies of female athletes are different and their brains deserve just as much attention.