May 10, 2023 

The WNBA has an injury (tracking) issue

'It does kind of feel like you're reading a book with half the pages ripped out'

An unfortunate reality is that injury incidence is increasing across professional sports. The NBA is often at the center of injury-related discussions, in large part due to the strategies teams often employ to try to limit them (i.e. load management). MLB is also facing a persistent rise in injuries, particularly among pitchers, with little evidence that a swoon is in sight.

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Of course, the injury pandemic isn’t isolated to male professional leagues, though they get the bulk of the headlines. However, the degree to which the injury bug is biting the WNBA remains largely elusive despite the existence of a tested method for tracking. 

The WNBA, like many professional sports leagues, has control over a centralized electronic medical record, or EMR, in which teams are required to enter all injury occurrences and details. This can range from injuries that result in significant lost time to minor bumps and bruises that are ultimately of little consequence, but required treatment nonetheless. 

However, sources tell The Next that the league doesn’t enforce the utilization of the EMR—so many teams do not, at least not to the fullest extent—leaving the information of little value for critical examination. As such, the true extent to which the injury epidemic has hit the WNBA is, in many respects, unknowable.

Teams, for better or worse, often rely on injury data when negotiating contracts and trades. It can be challenging for front offices to obtain accurate and complete information about an athlete when the EMR is utilized.

“It does kind of feel like you’re reading a book with half the pages ripped out if people aren’t diligent in adding that kind of information,” a front office executive told The Next. The league did not respond when asked for comment via email.

Many academic studies have found that injury rates are higher among women athletes compared to men, but the bulk of the research is conducted among men. Canadian soccer athlete Janine Beckie recently called for more research into the rise of injuries in women’s soccer, in particular. 

According to the league Collective Bargaining Agreement, which mentions that the WNBA holds the right to develop a “new” EMR beginning in 2020, the purpose of the injury database is to “(i) allow for the WNBA (but not the Teams) to conduct player health and safety reviews; (ii) allow for authorized academic researchers to access the data (on a de-identified basis) and conduct studies designed to improve player health and broaden medical knowledge…; and (iii) give players the ability to access their own health information easily and to grant access to such information to physicians of their choice both during and after their careers.”

Injury rates can be estimated, as academics have done in the past, by relying on publicly available injury information published in the form of injury reports. A recent study by a team of doctors at the University of Chicago found that 195 total injuries resulting in 1,352 total missed games occurred in the WNBA between 2015 and 2019. Intuitively, ankle and knee injuries were the most common with ACL tears resulting in the most total games missed (376) followed by ankles sprains (117), meniscus tears (113), and Achilles tendon ruptures (101). 

An older study published in 2006 comparing injury rates between NBA and WNBA athletes found that the women suffered more injuries, particularly of the lower extremities, and with a greater number of in-game knee injuries. 

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(It should be noted that in this study the authors report that they obtained their data from the WNBA league office. They write, “The National Basketball Athletic Trainers’ Association maintains a database of all injuries and illnesses occurring to NBA players that (1) required physician referral and/or prescription medication, (2) resulted in a practice or game being missed, or (3) caused emergency care to be rendered to the athlete. These records are based on standardized league-wide injury-reporting instruments that are completed by the team’s athletic trainer and then cosigned by the team physician. We obtained the official injury records from the WNBA league office. These reporting instruments are identical to those used in the NBA.” .)

However, these studies, while illuminating and indicative of overall trends, leave significant and important holes in the data, all of which could be filled by a complete EMR.

For starters, the data from the 2020 study do not include injuries that did not result in lost playing time. While these ailments are, by definition, minor, that does not mean they are necessarily insignificant. Tracking all injuries—major and minor—could provide valuable information to the league and independent researchers seeking to determine factors that are associated with more significant injuries, such as ACL or Achilles tears. This information could then be utilized to develop and implement league-wide injury prevention programs and education to improve player health and, ultimately, performance. 

Additionally, the data from both studies don’t necessarily include injuries that occurred when the athletes were playing in foreign leagues. One of the best predictors of future injury is past injury, so all suffered overseas serve as another important variable in WNBA injury rates. This is especially true as participating in foreign competition results in many athletes playing virtually year-round, another significant injury risk factor.

Not all around the league agree that the utilization of the league EMR is wanting. “In the past, it had been bad. That’s 10 years ago, but the staffing was difficult to be able to maintain some of that. But it’s been improving without a doubt,” one league source said. “Without a doubt, it’s been improving and the league’s been all over making sure people are getting the information in. The difference ends up being that the staff is increased now. Now, I can say, it does a good job. Previous years, it was not up to the standard that you’d like to have in a professional league.”

These examples are simply the tip of an ever-growing iceberg, the depths of which are impossible to fully appreciate. It’s known injury rates are rising, but the reasons for why they may be in the WNBA are multifactorial, complex, and unclear, and may remain that way without the implementation a complete EMR.

For now, teams—and the individual players themselves—are left to their own devices to track, treat, and prevent injuries. 

Howard Megdal contributed reporting to this story.

Written by Lucas Seehafer

Lucas Seehafer is a general reporter for The Next. He is also a physical therapist and professor at the undergraduate level. His work has previously appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Forbes, FanSided, and various other websites.

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