It’s no secret that ACL injuries are more common in female footballers, with much in the media recently talking about it. It’s an epidemic in women’s sports and the effects of the injury go much further than that of ligament damage.
In a sport where only the elite players can participate in a league where they get the level of protection that an athlete deserves, the divisions off of the pitch are evident. Even if you are a player in the WSL, the facilities are not always what the marketing of an all-professional league would lead you to believe. Only a select few clubs actually provide the adequate facilities for a professional athlete, and the wages at the lower end of the league’s spectrum of clubs often leave players in a position where football is a very risky business to be in, especially with the risk of a debilitating injury such as that to an anterior cruciate ligament.
In January, the Daily Mail reported on the ‘hidden side of the women’s game.’ They stated that few clubs are paying their players over £20,000 a year, Birmingham require their squad to bring packed lunches to training as they cannot provide catering facilities, and an ex-Brighton player stated that their club’s accommodation had a rat problem.
Reece Land, joint managing director of the Women’s Sport Alliance and founder of sports management company NextGen Sport Solutions, spoke to VAVEL UK this week about the issues of an ACL injury for players across women’s football’s pyramid.
After an injury is sustained in a match, the first step is confirming what this injury actually is:
"If you’re in the Super League then that process is going to be ten times quicker because for example, if you are at Manchester City or Chelsea or Everton then you have access to the men’s facilities.’ Many of those in the WSL will also get access to private medical insurance, which makes the entire experience much easier for the player."
However, it’s a different world if you are an athlete applying your trade with many of the clubs lower down the footballing pyramid. If you are in the FA Women’s Championship or National League, then it is likely that the process will involve seeing a GP, then referral onto a specialist, then you will go for surgery. It can take ‘up to six months’ before many players even get their operation date.
As an injury, one such as an ACL tear has complications that go much further than just damage to the muscles. As a player in the top division, things such as financial worries and those with your mental health are alleviated compared to lower down the division, especially due to the access to facilities and having a contract to fall back on which acts as a safety net.
Lower down the pyramid
The discontinuity of protection for players between even the Women’s Super League and the Championship is incredibly evident. Even just looking back to the summer, the story of Gemma Bryan’s injury, where she reported that she had received no support off of her club, Crystal Palace, after suffering an ACL injury.
The WSA and NextGen Sport Solutions help to alleviate the stresses of what else can happen with a player once an injury like this occurs. Organisations like these work directly with the athlete to ensure the process after sustaining an injury is as stress-free as possible by taking care of several factors and ensuring the player can fully focus on their important rehab stage. The last thing that anybody wants is a player worrying about having to pay their rent whilst they’re laid in hospital after surgery.
The cost of implementing private medical insurance to clubs in the championship is one that could definitely make a large dent into the budgets of a number of sides:
“At NextGen Sport Solutions, we tried to give it out to every single one of our clients regardless of what division they were in, what league, what country and only one insurer would work with us.
“The only insurer that would work with us, we were quoted about £75 per player. If you look at the Championship or National League - say at Watford or Crawley or Plymouth or MK Dons, can they really afford to pay £1500 a month?
“After we got the quote we were then told by the insurer we were unable to offer it regardless due to one very small reason that was out of our remit'
More assistance for players
A member’s organisation such as that of the Women’s Sport Alliance can enact great change in the industry, and be a vital lifeline for many players. Players have taken well to the organisation, with over 200 female athletes signing up in the past month.
If a player is not in the top flight, then the real issues are often the sort of thing that supporters wouldn’t think would happen.
“We had one of our players quite recently who did an ACL. That player is on a zero-hours contract with a large coffee shop so when that player did the ACL originally, they were unavailable to work or even walk for the first month.”
Something as trivial as the terms of a players’ other job can drastically affect their personal financial situation. Zero-hours contracts are bad enough in any industry, but when coupled in with the additional risk that comes with being an athlete, it can be a deadly scenario. In this situation, the money that the player was earning from football just could not cover the basics whilst out of work, anybody can easily fall behind on rent, phone bill, or car insurance payments, but organisations like this can provide a safety net whilst an athlete recovers from an injury.
“One of the benefits of the WSA was that they have that financial assistance, so if you need £500, for example, to make sure that your rent or overheads are covered, then you have something to fall back onto.”
Football is an industry where the Professional Footballers Association is a name known by many supporters, and something that the WSA is easy to be compared to. However, the WSA’s status as a members-only organisation that is not a union places it in a unique position and allows them to offer completely different things to the athlete
“It is similar to what the PFA is but we don't class the PFA as a competitor as we are offering completely different things. When people do look at what we are, they seem to compare us to the PFA but we are completely different”