Last week the Journal Communication and Sport published a new study from UCLA and Perdue University researchers, which is a 5-year update to a 25 year longitudinal study on media coverage of women’s sports. They found that the amount of coverage of these sports “remains dismally low” despite the “dramatic movement of women and girls to sports.” Among outlets examined, coverage of women’s sports events dropped from 5% in 1989 to only 3.2% in 2014- even though viewership has risen across most sports, including soccer.
Believe it or not, there’s a sizable audience out there. Monday’s Team USA opener against Australia drew the largest television audience on record for a Women’s World Cup stage game. The 2011 Women’s World Cup final between the U.S. and Japan was ESPN’s most-watched soccer broadcast ever. And ABC’s most-viewed soccer match of all time is still the 1999 Women’s World Cup final.
The amount of coverage of this year’s Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) Women’s World Cup has paled in comparison to last year’s men’s tournament. As one journalist described, unlike for the Men’s World Cup last year, for the Women’s
There are no auto-populated Google results for the match schedule. No CNN breaking news alerts for game results. Fox Sports, which is providing coverage of the tournament, didn’t create a bracket for fans. Even poor Siri [who the journalist asked for a game time] is lost.
But it’s not only women’s sports events that are being under-covered. It seems the injuries these athletes receive are under-covered too- despite medical evidence that shows women and girls are twice as likely to get a concussion during a sports game. News coverage of the dangers of concussions has received increased popularity. Nearly every week another report comes out about the risks of head injuries caused by sports. (See, for example, [here], [here]) These stories- mostly focused on men’s sports- are only telling half the story.
Dr. Christopher Giza, a pediatric neurologist and sports concussion expert who directs UCLA's Steve Tisch BrainSPORT Program explained,
"We hear about concussion a lot as a boys' problem, mostly because of (American) football, but in sports where the rules are the same, it turns out that women are actually at a higher risk. Women in general have smaller necks and smaller muscle mass. (They have) less strong neck muscles. The bigger the mass is, the harder it is to move. So when (a typical male head) gets hit there is less movement, you have less possibility for brain movement injury."
In addition, the American Medical Association recently recognized the growing problem of concussions in women’s/girl’s sports and instituted new guidelines to help parents and coaches deal with these types of injuries. Writes Reuters:
The influential doctors' group recommended that young athletes suspected of having a concussion be removed immediately from a game and permitted to return only with a doctor's written approval.… Fifty-nine percent of middle-school girl soccer players reported playing with concussion symptoms, with less than half assessed by a doctor or other qualified health professional, the AMA said, citing a recent study.
But the practice of leagues and institutions ignoring the problem of concussions in women’s soccer may be coming to a close- partially because of the attention being drawn by some high-profile lawsuits recently filed. In her suit filed last week against the University of Illinois, Casey Conine, a former women’s soccer player, claims her head injury was mishandled and the team ignored protocol. As a result of her injuries, she was forced to drop out of school and suffers from debilitating headaches. According to the New York Times,
Per Illinois’s concussion guidelines, players must be evaluated by a physician before returning to full-contact activity, but Conine said she was sent on a trip to the East Coast two weeks later and told by the trainer, Brittany Scott, that she was cleared to play, despite no follow-up examination by a doctor. Against Maryland, Conine played 65 minutes in a double-overtime game and repeatedly headed the ball. Coming off the field, she said, she felt as if she would vomit.
And the litigation builds on the momentum of a class action lawsuit filed last year against FIFA which seeks to force changes to the organizations concussion policy.
The suit seeks an injunction that would change the way soccer is played at all levels. Children under 17 would be limited in how many times they could head the ball. The suit also seeks to require professional and other advanced leagues, which are currently limited to three substitutions a game, to allow temporary substitutions while a player is examined for a head injury. Medical testing would also be available for soccer players who competed as long ago as 2002 and are now coping with the effects of concussions.
In addition, a judge is currently considering a settlement agreement in another well-publicized, concussion-related class action. As the Times describes,
The filing (by Conine against the University of Illinois) comes while a federal judge is considering a proposed settlement in a class-action head-injury lawsuit brought against the N.C.A.A., and it highlights the fact that head-trauma issues go beyond American football. An N.C.A.A. study estimated that its women’s soccer players sustained over 5,700 concussions from 2004 to 2009, more than one and a half times the number for men’s soccer players.
And there are signs that show FIFA may be taking these injuries seriously (especially in the wake of the NFL’s $1 billion concussion-related settlement). In response to what some are calling the “silent epidemic” of concussion injuries in women’s soccer, the league met with players last week to put them “on notice” that risky behavior would be deterred through the use of yellow and red penalty cards. The league is also discussing rule changes as past of it’s lawsuit settlement.
But even in light of the most recent responses, some still believe that FIFA and other sports leagues are not doing enough to protect the players. Some athletes, like Ali Krieger of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, have started to wear a specialty headband made of military grade materials that is designed to protect the skull from a hard impact. Other headgear is being developed that would alert coaches and trainers to when a player may have been injured.
"I think any sort of head, concussion issues, it's a big deal," [said USA forward Abby Wambach]. "You wanna make sure everybody leaves the game in as good condition as they came to it."