Last November, 26-year-old Alexis Marianes was in the middle of an intramural soccer game at the Du Burns Arena in Canton when a player on the opposing team swept her feet out from under her. Marianes did a "halfway back-flip" and landed squarely on her head, resulting in a concussion.
"I couldn't read or open my eyes for four days," Marianes said. "I'd just lay in bed crying."
As Baltimore's social sports leagues continue to grow, so do the number of injuries associated with them. While official numbers are hard to come by, doctors say they have seen a rise in the number of broken bones, torn ACLs and concussions among those in their 20s and early 30s from seemingly innocuous sports such as kickball, two-hand touch football and indoor soccer. Co-ed leagues, the presence of alcohol and failure to properly stretch before games can all be factors, they say.
John Bielawski, regional director of MedStar Sports Medicine in Baltimore, says his facility has seen "quite a bit of trauma" and serious injuries resulting from male players colliding with women, including broken arms, fractured ankles, torn ACLs and, what MedStar considers its biggest concern: concussions.
"The more participants you have, the greater the possibility for problems," Bielawski said. "Add that factor to alcohol [consumption] and the raging hormones with the males who think it's Division I football when it's really flag football."
Baltimore's social leagues have grown rapidly in recent years, led by the Baltimore Sports & Social Club (BSSC), which began in 1998 with 200 players and has ballooned to more than 25,000 participants this year. (The fall season for many sports such as kickball and football began in earnest last week.) And the Kickball League of Baltimore, which began in 2001, has expanded from four teams to 260, according to league co-owner Jim Figlozzi.
"In the past five or six years, we've been leveling off ... but it's because we don't have enough fields," Figlozzi, of Owings Mills, said of participation rates. "If the city had more fields, we'd probably have more teams."
Although serious injuries can occur on the kickball field (Figlozzi said that years ago, a player broke his leg rounding third base in a freak accident), they're more common in social league sports such as football, softball and soccer.
There are no in-depth studies on social sports and the incidence of injuries, according to Jennifer Kramer, a certified athletic trainer for the National Center for Sports Safety. Creating a centralized database to gather the information would be an overwhelming project, she says.
"A study would be great, but my question would be the logistics of it," Kramer said. "How would we collect the data? Who would enter it? It would be a big task."
Mike Cray, president of BSSC, says "nothing else matters except the safety of the players." His league, which is the city's largest and extends to Annapolis, is the only Maryland sports and social club affiliated with MedStar. At football games, a MedStar trainer is on hand to assist any injured players. From March 2011 until now, there have been 51 injuries, ranging from bruises needing ice to torn ACLs, according to Cray.
For every BSSC sport, a player must sign a waiver before the season begins. Cray says his league has never faced any lawsuits.
Cray believes his league's emphasis on socializing, and not winning or losing, explains its rapid growth.
"Our football is 100 percent noncontact. Other leagues around the area allow all that," Cray said. "Then they come play my league, and that's why they have 50 teams and we have 200. I focus on sportsmanship."
For Liz Wilkinson, a 29-year-old from Elkridge, joining the Kickball League of Baltimore meant meeting new people and staying active. She says she "didn't think twice" about injuries.
Since 2007, Wilkinson has dislocated her kneecap twice and broken her wrist while playing co-ed kickball. While making a defensive grab at first base, she used her hand to break her fall and fractured her wrist. The knee problems began while running bases.
"I was sliding into a base, and I didn't really know how to slide," she said. Slightly embarrassed, Wilkinson quickly added, "I can be a little competitive."
For former high school athletes who are now in their late 20s, that competitive nature can lead to accidents on the field. Dr. James Dreese, a University of Maryland orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine, has seen the rate of sports-related injuries rise in the fall and spring, when participation in social sports leagues is at its highest. He says these types of injuries can be painful reminders that these players — many of them young professionals — are no longer the athletes they were in high school or college.
"A person who is not involved in sports normally, and then goes out and plays a sport — they're going to be at risk for injury higher than younger players," Dreese said.
Three months after her concussion, Marianes — who had never played soccer before and was participating in the bronze, or lowest-skill, league — returned to the field only to suffer another concussion. This time, a male player ran at her full speed, couldn't stop and "slammed [her] head in the board." Marianes, a predoctoral fellow from Charles Village, missed the next day of work.