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Sokolove Responds to the Tucker Center’s Critique


I am gratified to see that you have opened a blog on my book, Warrior Girls, on the website of the Tucker Center. My hope was to start a needed discussion, and that has been occurring on the Internet and across various venues since its publication in June. I am, however, stunned by the tone of your moderator, and also by some of the comments that imply I have written a dishonest book. Those of us in journalism and academia have our own different and important roles to play. I wouldn’t dream of so casually labeling an academic’s work in such a way. Warrior Girls is the product of close to three years’ research and of hundreds of interviews with athletes, coaches, parents, doctors and scientists across various fields.

Readers of your blog are led to assume it’s some dashed-off political polemic, but it is anything but, and it has not been received that way by readers, reviewers or by the scientists who gave their time to me. More importantly, it has not been received in such a way by any of the girls and young women who I wrote about. (The book is not, by the way, a “best-seller,” just to correct that particular error.)

Now, to address some specific points: The moderator begins by writing: “The premise of the book asserts that “[the] immutable facts of anatomy and physiology”? cause girls to incur significantly more sports injuries (e.g., ACL tears, concussions) than their male counterparts, resulting in what Sokolove terms a female “injury epidemic.” No careful or fair reading of the book could possibly conclude that is the premise of the book. What I write – and devote CHAPTERS to – is the belief of researchers that the prevalence of certain injuries (not just ACLs) seem to have gender-specific causes, probably related to movement patterns, but that these factors can be MODIFIED, and risks possibly lessened, through thoughtful training. I do state that male and female athletes are different, and those differences should be considered in how they are trained and coached in order to prevent injuries. That’s quite different than the moderator’s cherry-picked quote and the contention that I believe it’s all inevitable and therefore I must want to scare girls off the playing fields. Why would I have written a book that addresses research into sports injuries and new ideas on training methods – as well as, notably, critiques of how our youth sports culture is manufacturing injuries – if I believed female athletes were just doomed by biology and physiology? I didn’t, and readers have not interpreted the book that way.

That quote identified by the moderator as the “premise” of Warrior Girls speaks directly to the issue of concussions. What I stated was that with all the millions of dollars and the vast amount of attention devoted to studying concussions in male football players, no one was paying nearly enough attention to concussions among female athletes. In fact, concussion rates in women’s collegiate soccer and men’s college football are roughly the same. Most of the general public would be surprised by that. Concussions among women’s NCAA ice hockey players (in a small sample because it’s a relatively new sport) were more than twice that of football players. Does anyone disagree that we ought to pay some attention to concussions among the women, too – or should we just focus on all the cool new technology being rigged to football helmets so the boys will be OK?

The “immutable” fact of anatomy I referenced is that females tend to have smaller heads and weaker necks than men – that the neck works as a “shock absorber” – and therefore, female athletes may be more prone to concussions. Concussions in male soccer almost always result from head-to-head or elbow-to-head contact. Women and girls sometimes suffer concussions from head-to-ground contact and occasionally (although rarely) from heading the ball.

I am happy to have my facts (or “purported facts,” in the hackneyed construction of your moderator) knocked down. So if any medical professional disagrees that females tend to have smaller heads and weaker necks, I’d be happy to hear from them. Perhaps girls need to be encouraged – even more so than boys — to wear protective headgear. If that headgear is judged insufficient, maybe research dollars need to be devoted to designing better ones. Concussions, particularly in teenagers, can have devastating effects. If we’re more worried about them occurring in boys than girls, devote more research dollars to studying concussions in boys than girls, and are afraid to even talk about a possible gender difference relating to how concussions are suffered, I would not say that serves the cause of women’s athletics.

Dr. LaVoi quotes a Cal State Fullerton professor: “Concerns regarding the supposed biological limitations of the female body to withstand rigorous athletic competition have historically served to justify restricting girls’ and women’s access to sport.”
I agree! In fact, I wrote: “It is not unreasonable to want to steer clear of the whole volatile subject of gender difference, of any research or discussion of it whatsoever. Women, almost always, have come out on the losing end of it . . . “ That was part of a chapter devoted in large part to the sorry, shameful history of research into gender difference. It’s fine that Dr. LaVoi would quote the California professor, but an odd omission that she wouldn’t note that Warrior Girls, the book at the center of this scholarly blog, made the very same point. What I concluded was that the history of research into gender difference – and fears that differences will be equated with inferiority – was inhibiting a needed conversation.

Dr. LaVoi goes on to state and restate that I have simply written a “biology as destiny” book, but she does not offer up any supporting evidence, grapple with the material or take specific issue with anything that I’ve written. The question I would pose to her is this: Did you really, truly read the book? Or are you just responding to the moderator’s prompt? (And by the way, it’s OK if the book does not appeal to you. Perhaps you have better things to read, or you’re so disgusted by what you presume to be my thesis that you can’t really engage with it. I understand. But what’s not intellectually honest is to comment on a book if what you’re really doing is adding commentary to commentary without engaging the original material.)

Drs Stovitz and Arendt write that I “fudged” statistics. I know and respect Dr. Arendt’s work. I would respectfully disagree with her view. The statistics they cite relate to a particular prevention program whose peer-reviewed research has reflected promising results on preventing ACL ruptures; if the program works just half as well as its claims, I’d highly recommend it. They criticize my “over-the-top” and “emotional” approach. I am a journalist. We tell stories. We do tend to deal in more emotion than academics. I would not ask Drs. Arendt and Stovitz to put more emotion into their medical or epidemiological research. It’s unclear to me why they’d like me to subtract it from mine.

I would note, however, that experts in this field whose research helped guide me told me repeatedly (pre- and post-publication) they were thankful for my project because it helped remind them that their real subject was people, not numbers. When a mother or father watch their teenage girl play soccer – after she has rehabbed from her second ACL injury – they are emotional. They are anxious and frightened. That is not emotion that I have to invent or hype up. It’s there, believe me.

One other point on Stovitz and Arendt: They write, “We don’t know why girls suffer ACL injuries at rates higher than boys. Theories include factors such as differences in strength, joint laxity and gait. The author presents each theory as a “known risk factor” implying that all girls inherently contain every risk factor which places all females at enormous risk.”

It’s simply not true that I “imply” that all girls inherently contain every risk factor. What I do write is that the greater rates of non-contact ACL tears – in sports like soccer and basketball that males and females play under similar rules — certainly do indicate that girls and women, in general, are more at risk.

In my book, I write of a club soccer team in South Florida in which 18 mid-teen girls had suffered a total of eight ACL ruptures. I wrote of a high school soccer team in Bethesda that in the span of a few weeks suffered two ACL tears, a serious ankle sprain, a back injury and two serious concussions. If someone can find boys teams with similar rate of injuries, I’d be surprised. Last season, two starters on Uconn’s women’s basketball team were lost to ACL tears. The season before that, the Pac-10 conference lost nearly every one of its point guards to ACL tears. Not long before Abby Wambach broke her leg before the Beijing Games, two of her teammates on the U.S. women’s soccer team were lost within the span of about a month to ACL tears. It wasn’t big news. It was routine. None of the other players expressed any surprise. They’d seen it before, repeatedly.

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.

It is interesting to me that Dr. Wiese-Bjornstal is the one contributor to the blog who did not reflexively attack my work, despite what seemed like an open invitation to do so. I don’t think it’s coincidental that she described herself as a parent of a female athlete — as I am, as well. (My daughter is an NCAA athlete.) I would suspect she knows what’s going on at field level and the physical and emotional toll.

The moderator offers up “concluding thoughts.” Concluding thoughts? We’re done? Maybe that’s why you didn’t get any comments. Visitors to your site didn’t feel invited into an open or fair-minded conversation. What are we concluding? All thoughts of girls and sports injuries, now that my book (and reputation for honest work) has been discredited?
The moderator also writes that the Tucker Center “felt it necessary to provide a scholarly” critique of my book. With all due respect, what I’ve seen so far does not seem scholarly. With few exceptions, contributors did not engage with the material – they wrote from their own preconceived notions. I strongly suspect that some may have felt superior enough in their opinions to critique the book without actually reading it.

More importantly, does the Tucker Center – and do other advocates for women’s sports – also feel that it is necessary to take on the injury issue, support research, call attention to prevention programs, speak out forcefully about an unhealthy youth sports culture that is hurting kids? I write that the youth sports culture, with its emphasis on year-round play and early specialization, is bad for all kids – but is taking a greater toll on girls. That is one of the premises of the book, and I stand by it.

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.

I would respectfully request that you post this response on your site. Thank you.


Michael Sokolove

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