The Greater Risk Female Athletes Face

As the Super Bowl approaches, the spotlight has fallen on the problem of brain damage in football players — a condition known as CTE. Caused by concussion after concussion, the NFL spent decades saying that neuroscientists were exaggerating the effects of CTE. (Hint: They weren't.) In the midst of the books and documentaries suggesting the sport is inherently dangerous to the brain, and that no helmet can protect against that much blunt force, we've forgotten something important: Women play violent sports, too. Now, a new University of Washington study has found that young female soccer players suffer a striking amount of concussions, and, just like NFL players, tend to jump back into the game without giving the brain a chance to recover.

Female athletes suffer more concussions than men in most sports, according to recent studies. Of course, one concussion likely won't cause permanent brain damage. But when female soccer players younger than 14, as were monitored in the University of Washington study, are suffering concussions and going straight back into the game, we've got a real problem on our hands. Thirteen percent of those female athletes suffered a concussion each season, noted the study, and more than half went back into the game afterwards.

And then there's women's ice hockey, which has one of the highest rates of concussion for all college sports. And women's basketball —which doesn't allow for body checks like men's basketball — yet sees almost twice as many concussions as its male counterpart.

Concussions are worse for the female brain than the male brain, though it's not entirely clear why (researchers have speculated that it's because blood flows differently to the female brain.) Female athletes suffer more concussions in general, and see longer recovery times and poorer memory recall, which means the brain is damaged to a greater extent.

Usually, the brain recovers from a single concussion. A concussion is defined as a traumatic brain injury, and the medical community recommends a restful period to allow the brain to recover: no bright screens, lots of rest, and so on. Unfortunately, in the case of the University of Washington's young soccer players, as well as many NFL players past and present, the athletes jump straight back into the game. And that's when it gets scary: A second concussion, before the brain has had a chance to recover or even after it has, is exponentially worse than the first.

What's been shown to happen in football players who suffer numerous concussions is a condition called CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy — in boxing, it's called being "punch-drunk." During a player's career, the brain suffers blow after blow after blow, and retired players later display many symptoms of brain damage: dementia; loss of motor skills; depression; homicidal and suicidal behavior, and so on. After death, the brains of Junior Seau, Mike Webster, and a number of other former NFL players whose retired lives spiraled out of control were shown to be riddled with CTE.

It's unclear how many athletes will suffer from the condition. Some CTE experts say close to every NFL player will suffer from the condition to some degree. The NFL says that it's far rarer, though recent investigative reports have claimed the league has spent decades trying to cover up the prevalence of CTE. But because the condition is so newly discovered — it only obtained its name and status as a valid neurological disorder a decade ago — a lot is still unclear about the disease.

So far, CTE has been diagnosed in American and Canadian footballers; professional wrestlers; baseball players; and ice hockey players. But it can only be confirmed via brain autopsy, so the athletes who have been diagnosed with the condition are numbered. They're predominantly male. They're also all dead.

To date, only 33 dead ex-NFL players have been diagnosed with CTE, along with a small handful from other sports. But according to this list, not a single one of those diagnosed with CTE was a female athlete, and there's little evidence that anybody's looking for them.

We know that repeated concussions have caused brain damage in male athletes. We know that concussions are particularly damaging to the female brain. What's completely unclear is how sports like baseball, ice hockey, and basketball — all of which, of course, are played by innumerable women — could harm the brains of female athletes in particular.

That's not to say that we should underplay the problem of brain damage in men. But we must pay attention to the issue in women's sporting events, too, even though female sporting events have less popular appeal. There's a colossal and potentially catastrophic lack of research and attention paid to CTE and athletic brain damage in general — but when we tackle that problem, we need to make sure we tackle it for female athletes, too.