In 1998, Brandi Chastain gave the world an unforgettable moment in sports – and changed women’s sports forever. While her goal (and infamous sports bra) became the headline seen all around the globe, it’s her current contributions to women’s sports that might have the biggest impact of all: neuroscience.
Recent years have seen a growing awareness of the lack of research on women throughout the health care ecosystem. For decades drugs and devices have been created using male test subjects and clinical trial enrollees. With results from those extrapolated to women. Even women in the military serve wearing gear designed for male bodies – increasing their likelihood of physical injury. But without fundamental information (ie: data) specific to women, crucial decisions about everything from equipment to care to treatment will continue to be insufficient.
In her book Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perezcontends that, “because so much data fails to take into account gender, because it treats men as the default and women as atypical, bias and discrimination are baked into our system.”
This is particularly true in the field of neuroscience, where sex differences have been woefully neglected, despite the field growing leaps and bounds in the last three decades. But this could all change in the near future, as women like Brandi Chastain drive change on and off the sport field.
Sport As Diplomacy
Since 1991, the Women’s World Cup has provided a platform around the globe for women and girls. Giving way to conversations about equal pay, equal play, sexual assault, disparities, and now, brain health and injury. And in 2019, the first FIFA Women’s Football Convention took place, assembling leaders from all over the world of sport and politics to discuss issues around development and empowerment of young women through football. During that event, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women said that we’ve reached a place in history where male FIFA players have not taken brain injury seriously. But women can lead the way by addressing the issue and making other women aware. Further, that players should be holding each other and coaches accountable during play.
Rianne Shorel, a former futbol (soccer) player and now an ambassador for the Women’s World Cup has become a leading voice for those suffering from sports-related brain injuries. She has dealt with the effects of concussion for nearly 11 years, after it ended her professional career. But like Chastain and Akers, Schorel loves her sport and cherishes the time she played. Now using her platform to educate others and write books on the seriousness of understanding brain health through sport.
And she’s not alone. With increasing frequency – just like in American football – people are coming forward with stories of how brain injury changed their life. Great Britain’s gold medal-winning hockey caption Alex Danson asserts that she, “lost my identity and the ability to read after concussion.” While Brandi Chastain says that she’s “absolutely done a 180” on her views about headers in soccer, knowing now what the world does about concussion and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).
Science, Like Sport, Is Meant To Be Objective
The slogan for the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France is “Dare to Shine” (or “Le Moment de Briller” in French). And while the best female soccer players from 24 countries have done just that, shine, the retired players making a difference in neuroscience are also shining.
To date, research has found that concussions rates are similar to or higher than others for women in soccer. But thanks to a new program, called SHINE (Soccer, Head Impacts and Neurological Effects) Boston University researchers will follow former players. This is important to both Akers and Chastain, who both note that they have some memory issues – although it is unknown if they are from normal aging or the thousands of headers over their many years of play.
To better understand these headers, Dr. Bob Stern of BU has devoted much time to studying the impact of “sub-concussive trauma,” or the long-term effects of repeated head trauma. The team at BU will follow 20 former female soccer players who are 40 years and older to learn more about brain injury, degeneration, and the role that contact sport might have in athletes.
And thanks to leaders like Akers and Chastain, women in soccer will once again move the world forward. “This is the first time they’re looking at female soccer players, female brains and it’s important to have this conversation. This needs to be looked at equally for women and men, and until now, it hasn’t been,” Akers told ESPN.