How Inequality Could Make Women’s Soccer Injuries Worse

Nov 3, 2021

It’s no secret that women’s soccer - as do many women’s sports - faces a major problem with equality. The pay gap is the most recognizable issue, but it goes deeper than money. The lack of funding and resources may actually have indirect (or direct effects) on women’s safety in the sport. This post will take a look at how inequality can influence women’s injuries and what needs to change. 

Artificial Turf Worsens Women’s Injuries 

Back in 2015, the USWNT took a triumphant stand against FIFA by refusing to play on artificial turf. They finally settled in December 2020, and the team will no longer be confined to playing on artificial turf. 

When the 2023 FIFA World Cup rolls around, they will finally be allowed to play on natural grass fields. This decision was long overdue and it doesn’t erase the damage it has done to women soccer players for several decades. Artificial turf has likely contributed to many women’s injuries. 

ACL Tears on Artificial Turf

Back in November 2014, FIFA officials defended the use of artificial turf, saying that it posed no immediate danger to women players. Jan Ekstrand, a professor in Sports Medicine and the former vice-chairman of the UEFA Medical Committee, stood at the forefront of FIFA’s defense. 

The total risk of injury is the same on football turf as it is on natural grass. We see the same result in all studies, there is no increase in injuries when playing on FIFA-certified football turf.”

Of course, studies and personal experience had other things to say. In 2012, a study from the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that knee injuries occurred 40% more often on artificial turf than on natural grass fields. The lead author of the study, Jason Dragoo, a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, found that 318 ACL injuries for every 100,000 practices, scrimmages, or games, were more likely to occur on artificial turf. 

And then you have personal experiences from the likes of stars such as Alex Morgan. Back in 2014, she explained what it’s like to play on artificial turf

"When I play on grass, my body doesn't ache," she says. "It can get sore, but it doesn't pulse and my legs don't ache. When I play on turf, my legs can pulse and ache for up to 24 hours and it could take 3-5 days to recover, whereas [on] grass, after 24 hours I'm ready to play again."

Morgan has also seen her teammates suffer injuries that prematurely ended their seasons, and she believes artificial turf is to blame. She saw her teammate Nikki Marshall suffer an ACL tear because her foot got too firmly planted into the turf, something that wouldn’t happen on grass. 

Dr. Michael Freitas, associate professor of clinical orthopedics and team doctor for the Western New York Flash, says turf likely aggravates such injuries. 

"When your foot hits the grass and you twist, your foot is going to come out of contact with the ground easier than it would on an artificial surface," he says. "So that rotation is then taken up in your ligament, which can rupture, as opposed to your foot breaking contact with the grass, which allows that force to be dissipated."

ACL tears and foot injuries aren’t the only concerns that artificial turf brings. 

Artificial turf isn’t soft like natural grass blades - it’s much sharper. So when players fall and slide on it, they’re more likely to bruise and cut their skin, resulting in turf burn injuries. Worse, turf is more likely to carry staph germs, namely, antibiotic-resistant ones. The risk of acquiring a staph infection on turf is 16 times higher than it is on grass

And if that’s not enough, turf can fatigue players faster. Synthetic turf heats far more than regular grass, putting more strain on players’ feet, which leads to overexertion and getting tired quicker. There are also fears of chemical toxicity and cancer. Crumb rubber, tiny black beads embedded in turf, may contain cancer-causing compounds such as benzene, carbon black, and lead. 

The reality is turf brings an added degree of injury risk for all soccer players. Unfortunately, women in soccer have been confined to playing on turf, and unlike their male counterparts, don’t have the option of playing on grass, which is safer. 

Less Research and Attention on Female Injury Risk 

Over the past 50 years, researchers have learned plenty about brain injuries and their effects on soccer players. The only problem is that the research has been focused mainly on men. This is troubling because women are more likely to suffer concussions and are at a greater risk for more severe effects. The media’s focus on concussion dangers in male athletes only compounds the issue.

Consider this: A study from Northwestern University found that female high school players were three times more likely to suffer concussions than male players. An NCAA study found that women’s soccer had the largest concussion estimate with over 1100 annual reports, but only 7% of published papers on concussions mentioned anything substantial about women. 

To say that this is problematic is an understatement. The lack of focus on women raises a question - “what if everything we know about concussions largely applies to men and not women?”

It’s not a stretch to ask. For example, it’s only recently that researchers found that women suffer heart attacks differently than men do. We’ve known about the effects of heart attacks on humans for well over a century, but only recently have we acknowledged that women have different experiences. Their risk factors and symptoms may differ, and women may require different diagnostics and treatments. 

Who's to say that concussions aren’t the same? The unfortunate reality is that we may only discover more differences decades from now if we don’t put more focus on women’s concussion research. 

What Can We Do For Women in Soccer Right Now?

The boldest thing we can do for women in soccer is to advocate for equality when it comes to their health and safety. That would mean allowing them to play on natural grass like men - a development that is underway but still much too slow. It would also mean a greater commitment to researching concussions in women, not just men. 

Of course, that’s an uphill battle. The next best and most practical solution at the moment is to encourage more protective measures for women players. Women’s soccer protective gear is paramount, not to mention, great conditioning and focus on technique. 

Protective Gear to Keep Women Safe on the Pitch

  • Turf-burn resistant equipment - Artificial turf can cut through the skin when a player slides on it, resulting in turf burn injuries. That’s why we recommend women playing on turf wear protective gear such as tear-resistant leggings to keep their skin safe from turf burns. 
  • Impact-resistant equipment - Since turf is harder than natural grass, falling on it can result in more painful impacts. Wearing impact-absorbing gear such as our armoured crop tops can cushion the blow of hard hits on turf surfaces. 
  • Soccer concussion headgear - Women are more prone to concussions and the long-term effects of brain injuries. Wearing soccer concussion headgear may reduce the risk of brain injury, or at the very least, the severity of one. 

Conditioning to Keep Women Safe from Injury

  • Training visual awareness - Research has shown that increased visual awareness can help players avoid collisions with other players, resulting in fewer injuries. Coaches should train women players to improve their visual awareness and skills with the right exercises. 
  • Proper header technique - Heading the ball may contribute to brain injuries. However, the proper heading techniques can reduce the impact forces women are subject to when heading the ball and lower their risk of brain injuries. 
  • Muscle-strengthening and conditioning - Women have some vulnerable muscle groups that increase injury risks, including the neck muscles (concussions) and leg muscles (ACL tears). Strengthening these muscles can help protect the brain and susceptible joints from injury. 

Injury & Inequality in Women’s Soccer Go Hand in Hand

In recent years, the pay gap has stood at the forefront of inequality in women’s soccer. Unfortunately, inequality also exists in terms of how we address women’s health and safety on the pitch. Frankly, the leagues that govern women’s soccer aren’t doing enough to prevent common injuries to female athletes. And the efforts that are now being made have come too late. 

Nevertheless, we - the players, the parents, the coaches - can make the game safer. We can promote a culture of safety by spreading concussion awareness and education for all those involved in women’s soccer. That also means encouraging the use of soccer concussion headgear, training/conditioning, and awareness of concussion protocols. 

These solutions aren’t perfect, but they can protect the health (and lives) of women until they get the same access to a safer game that men get. 

Looking for protective soccer gear for women? Browse through our selection of women’s apparel and accessories.

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