July 14, 2023 

WNBA missing from Elite Basketball Rehab Conference

Speakers and WNBA injury data both absent in sports medicine

Las Vegas is the hot spot for all things basketball right now. NBA Summer League kicked off on July 7, mere days before the WNBA All-Star Game festivities would begin on July 14. Fans of professional basketball could come to Vegas for a week and watch the debut of Victor Wembanyama, the highly touted 19-year-old first pick of the 2023 NBA Draft by the San Antonio Spurs, followed by catching their favorite W players a few sleeps later.

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The Las Vegas Aces beat the Phoenix Mercury 98-72 on July 11 in front of a sold-out crowd at Michelob Ultra Arena. Brittney Griner returned to Vegas for the first time since being detained in Russia and Kelsey Plum was coming off a franchise-record 40-point game in Minnesota on July 9. NBA players sat courtside along with basketball royalty like WNBA legend Ticha Penicheiro and Hall of Fame head coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Another event this weekend that many wouldn’t know about was the Elite Basketball Rehab Conference. held July 8-9 at the University of Las Vegas. This was aligned with NBA Summer League so that team medical providers could speak to an audience eager to find their path to elite basketball sports medicine. It was an excellent inaugural event of its kind, spotlighting some of the brightest minds in basketball rehabilitation and performance.

Here’s the full list of speakers, but the lineup was stacked with clinicians, both men and women, from the top tier of basketball. The NBA and its teams had a very large contingent of presenters, as well as some women’s college basketball representation with the associate athletic trainer for Notre Dame women’s basketball, Anne Marquez. But there was one very noticeable absence: there were no WNBA medical providers. Additionally, none of the research studies discussed included WNBA injury data.

In general, if you’re searching for information on the internet, you use a search engine like Google to find possible websites answering your question. A commonly used search engine in medicine is PubMed. A PubMed search for “NBA Injuries” on July 12 elicited 175 research articles, but “WNBA Injuries” had only 14 results. Of the 14 WNBA papers, 11 have been published since 2019 while there were 96 in the NBA during that same period.

Presenters at medical conferences share their own research data or summarize the information they’ve gathered from papers published by others. Rich Willy from the Montana Running Lab presented a talk about bone stress injuries at the conference. Dr. Willy included at least two sources directly from NBA data. One of the NBA studies he referenced examined ten years of NBA injury data and how bone stress injuries impacted players’ performance and return to play. It was written by NBA consultants and funded by the NBA Players Association. The other paper reported five years of NBA injuries with the purpose of identifying and managing risk factors. Wouldn’t all that information be helpful for women’s basketball players?

I asked Dr. Willy if he thought the mechanisms or treatments might differ in female basketball players such as in the WNBA. He said, “I looked. There’s no available data in the WNBA. The female NCAA database has evidence of the ‘female athlete triad’, but they don’t seem to be checking the boxes at the population level. On the individual athlete, it could be an inadvertent low energy availability issue.”

What does this mean in layman’s terms? It means that the mechanisms for the injury in the NBA might not be the same as in the WNBA. In the NBA, these injuries seem to occur because they ramp up their training too quickly and have a lot of impact. In the WNBA, we don’t know why they happen, but if the NCAA database is correct, it could potentially be related to nutrition (part of the female athlete triad).

If the underlying cause of the injury is different, the treatment would not be the same. The WNBA’s athletic trainers do not have sufficient data on elite women’s basketball players to adequately describe injury prevention opportunities or appropriate treatment strategies to best help these athletes recover. They need to collaborate and aggregate their data to optimize the health of the league.

When asked about including WNBA or Las Vegas Aces medical providers in the speaker list, event organizer Erik Meira responded, “This was considered but it was a big challenge with the league being in the middle of their season, limited travel funds for speakers (2023 was the first year of the conference), and the Aces being on the road. Do know that the W is on the radar for sure!” The conference is planning to return to Las Vegas again next year, so hopefully that feedback will be incorporated into the planning of the event.

Lucas Seehafer, physical therapist and fellow writer at The Next, also determined WNBA data tracking was an issue. He started to track data based on what the teams reported. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but the need to do this work is high. The WNBA Player’s Association might consider including more injury-related content in their next collective bargaining agreement, pushing for teams to use their electronic medical records for injury tracking and to push for active reviews of the data, published findings, and working together to reduce overall injuries and time lost from games.

The conference shed light on how severely lacking WNBA injury data collection and reporting is. Nobody wants to see their favorite players getting hurt. And The Next doesn’t want to keep writing articles with headlines filled with injuries, either.

Written by Abby Gordon

Abby Gordon is a Board-Certified Sports Physical Therapist at Seattle Children's Hospital. She was the Team Physical Therapist for the Seattle Storm from 2015 to 2022 and the Travel Coordinator and Equipment Manager for the Connecticut Sun from 2007 to 2010. After four seasons working as a team manager for the UConn Huskies Women's Basketball team, she graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2007 with a Bachelor's in Exercise Science and in 2014 with a Doctorate in Physical Therapy. She writes about WNBA Injuries and Sports Medicine Issues in Women's Basketball for The Next.

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