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Growing co-ed sports leagues mean more injuries for young adults

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.

"I see more injuries in soccer than BSSC football," Marianes said. "I've seen people blow their ACLs out. People are way too intense. These guys are trying to make these plays they did 10 years ago, and they can't make them anymore. And it's usually girls getting the brunt ... of it."

In the past 14 years, Cray said, he has banned only four players for "unsportsmanlike conduct." Overzealous acts, such as a hard slide in softball, will result in the player's ejection from the game and a one-week suspension, he said.

Cray, who instructs coaches to remove "ultra-competitive" players, says the word "competitive" doesn't appear once on BSSC's website. The purpose of the league, he says, is to meet new people. He proudly mentions there have been more than 150 marriages resulting from BSSC.

"If you're mean to a girl on the field, she's not going to talk to you at the bar," Cray said.

Sometimes, the drinking starts early. While league commissioners say alcohol consumption is not permitted at the games (it is technically illegal at Baltimore City and Baltimore County parks to have alcohol without a permit, which none of the leagues has), the presence of beer and other drinks is fairly common, numerous players said.

Bobby Hamilton, a 31-year-old who lives in Fells Point, said he broke his wrist in a BSSC kickball game in April after colliding with two tipsy female players on the base path.

"Their initial reaction was to giggle," he said.

While outside factors all play a role in intramural injuries — from alcohol consumption before the game to less-than-ideal playing fields to just being at the wrong place at the wrong time — Dreese said that sometimes, there's no avoiding getting hurt.

"Injury rates are most tied to the rate of participation," Dreese said. "The majority of injuries are just going to happen."

Hamilton, who played sports throughout high school and college, acknowledged that his "overall fitness level and coordination aren't what they used to be," but he added that the mix of athletes and socializers is part of the problem, too.

"It's the weirdest mix out there," Hamilton said. "There's dudes in $300 worth of Under Armour going 120 percent, and girls doing it just for the social aspect. It's a recipe for trouble."

Broken bones and bruised egos aside, the risk of injury is not enough to dissuade young professionals in search of a good time with their peers. When Wilkinson broke her wrist, her father urged her to quit the kickball league.

"It was eight months before my wedding, and my dad was saying, 'What if it had happened right before it?' " she said. "But it's something a group of our friends get together and play every week. You can't do things in life wondering, 'What if?' "

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Avoiding injury

Not all injuries are avoidable, but the risk of minor "overuse" ailments, such as hamstring pulls and ankle sprains can be lessened with a little preparation, according to doctors. Here are their tips:

Stretch more: Alexis Marianes said she feels "kind of silly" stretching before a social sports league game because it could appear she's taking a recreational activity too seriously. But stretching warms up your body, improving muscle elasticity in the process.

Wear proper equipment: In many cases, including football and kickball, field conditions worsen over the course of a day. Whether it's from rain or dew, things can get slippery out there, leading to possible injury. "I keep telling players to go to the clearance rack ... and get a pair of cheap soccer shoes. The plastic cleats will help," said BSSC President Mike Cray.

Stay active year round: This is a no-brainer, but its benefits can't be understated. "We get busy in our working lives, but four or five days per week of 30 minutes of cardio will keep you in better playing shape," said Jennifer Kramer of the National Center for Sports Safety.

Hold off on the alcohol: Alcohol consumption affects motor skills and balance, so playing while drunk, or even buzzed, can lead to an injury. "Have your fun, but be responsible about what you're doing," said Dr. Harrison Youmans of Union Memorial Hospital.

Don't make it worse: If you have a nagging injury, get it checked out before taking on more physical activity. "Don't play hurt," Youmans said. "Follow up with somebody."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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