Earlier this week Sue Falsone announced via twitter that she was resigning from her position as the head athletic trainer (AT)* of the LA Dodgers. In 2011, Falsone had become the first female head AT of a major league male professional team in the United States. It took until 2011 to have the first ever (smh) we’ve got a long way to go, ladies. Falsone’s exit means that there are no longer any female head ATs in major professional sports; none in the NFL, none in the NBA, none in the MLB and none in the NHL. That the resignation of one head AT would mean that there are no longer any female head ATs in all of major league sports is incredible…in a bad way.
What gives? Why aren’t there more female ATs in professional sports? It can’t be that there is a shortage of female ATs. The National Association for Athletic Trainers (NATA) reported that half, 15,000, of its members are female; so there are plenty of willing and able bodies available to do the work. It also can’t be that women aren’t as capable as men of rendering medical services. There are too many successful, female physicians for me to ever believe that. So why is there such a discrepancy between the number of available female ATs and the number of female ATs in professional sports? If you guessed gender-bias, you guessed right.
Back in 2010, a study out of North Carolina State University** (NC State) on NCAA Division I football players showed several things:
- Male football players were more comfortable with male athletic trainers for treatment of BOTH general medical conditions and sex-specific injuries and conditions.
- With respect to care for depression, players preferred female athletic trainers. However, the players indicated similar levels of comfort with both male and female athletic trainers for overall psychological conditions.
- Players exhibited a greater level of comfort with male athletic trainers and perceived female athletic trainers to fit into more stereotypical gender roles, which are characterized by traits that are incongruous with those perceived to be necessary for a leadership position, i.e. compassionate, nurturing, submissive.
- While most NCAA schools had head athletic trainers, only 15.2% were female.
Prior studies had shown that athletes (male and female) preferred same-gender ATs when dealing with gender specific injuries. But this study showed that, with college football players at least, there was a preference for treatment from male ATs unless they were being treated for depression. In other words, it was ok for a female AT to be consulted for a mental health issue, but not for a dislocated shoulder (for example). The study theorized that these preferences were a result of stereotypical gender-role expectations and resistance to women in the male locker room. The gender-role assumptions and stereotypes that echo with players and administrators alike, that women are nurturers who don’t really belong in the rough and tough sports arena or in positions of leadership, has kept women out of the locker room and out of high level administration roles.
While the NC State study may have focused on college sports, the study’s results most certainly are indicative of the sentiments and practices in professional sports. Many professional athletes were once college athletes, and if their beliefs about females as ATs and leaders were developed in a chauvinistic environment and were left uncorrected, those beliefs continue with them in the professional arena. The data suggests that that’s just what happens. According to the NATA, of its 15,000 female members, only 61 ATs held positions in women’s professional sports, and only 2 held positions in men’s professional sports. Those numbers are astounding and disheartening. Less than 1% of NATA female ATs work in professional sports. If working with professional athletes is the pinnacle of an AT career, that means that only an inkling of female ATs are reaching their dreams.
While the figures and results paint a bleak picture for female ATs, I think the future will in fact be brighter. As women’s sports grow, so will the demand to place women in higher positions of authority and expertise. And as those women are successful, they will undoubtedly open doors for others like them. That’s the hope that I spoke of in my article about NCAA administrators. Falsone may be gone for now, but I truly believe that other women will be given similar opportunities. Let’s just hope we don’t have to wait another decade before it happens.
*To be clear, an athletic trainer is defined as an allied health care professional trained in prevention, assessment, treatment and rehabilitation of musculoskeletal injuries and illnesses.
**This report the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I Football Players’ Perceptions of Women in the Athletic Training Room Using a Role Congruity Framework, is accessible at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2902033/. All facts cited in this article were gathered from the NC State report.