DAVID GREENE, HOST:
In Your Health today, we're picking up our summer series on sports and health. Girls and boys in this country play one sport more than any other, and that's basketball. But as Americans get older, the gender gap in basketball gets wider. This came out in a recent poll NPR conducted with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. NPR's Tom Goldman explores why so many adult women basketball players give up the game they once loved.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Certainly not all women are giving up the sport. When 30-year-old Tanya Martin calls for the ball, it's a good idea for her male teammates to get it to her. Martin averages more than 20 points a game playing with men in and around Portland, Ore., like in this league game at Portland's Hillside Community Center. She's also really good at volleyball, but the basketball court, Martin says, is her place to escape.
TANYA MARTIN: It's kind of like my beach. It's the one time that my mind can actually just not think about anything else but playing.
GOLDMAN: Martin gets this mental and physical boost about four days a week, playing games with both men and women. But even if she played only one day, that would put her ahead of many of the adult women included in the NPR Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard poll. Nearly equal proportions of men and women age 30 and over who played sports when they were younger said basketball was the sport they played most often in their youth - 19 percent of these men, 20 percent of these women.
But the poll shows by the time they became adults, there was a big difference. Among adults who played sports in the past year, 14 percent of men but only 5 percent of women said basketball is what they played most often. Why the drop-off? The poll was conducted anonymously. Independently, we asked women why they quit playing as adults after being heavily involved in the game.
JODI OSTLUND: My name is Jodi Ostlund. I'm 36 years old, and I live in central Kansas.
GOLDMAN: Numerous scientific studies confirm female athletes are more likely than men to suffer knee injuries, including ACL tears. And basketball can be ruthless with its jumping, pivoting and pounding. For Jodi Ostlund, that painful reality began after she got a basketball scholarship to Bethel College in Kansas.
OSTLUND: I had two ACL injuries playing competitive basketball and a third ACL tear after college.
CORREEN SCHALL: Correen Schall, I am 35 years old, and I live in Columbus, Ohio.
GOLDMAN: Correen Schall avoided major injury while playing basketball in high school and college and rec ball after. The main reason she stopped - she had three kids in four years. And Shaw says even in the most equal of marriages, like hers, mothers still often are the default parent.
SCHALL: Because we're so involved in just the day-to-day care when they're little. When I was nursing, I couldn't not be home.
GOLDMAN: Her kids are older now. Schall says she'd love to find her way back into basketball, the sport that gave her a true sense of self.
SCHALL: I like the team, the sense of camaraderie, the sense of working together. I like being able to be full-out aggressive and have it be welcomed instead of criticized to some degree.
GOLDMAN: That's a feeling shared by Nikia Smith Robert. Aggressiveness was mandatory when she was a kid. She grew up playing street ball with the boys in Harlem and kept playing into adulthood. After stopping to have her first child, Smith Robert came back to the game, but she was a different player.
NIKIA SMITH ROBERT: I lost my nerve.
GOLDMAN: No diving for balls, no battling for rebounds.
SMITH ROBERT: There was more at risk, so I didn't want to risk injury if that meant being out of a job or losing a job or not being able to properly care for my child.
GOLDMAN: She's 36 now, a chaplain and Ph.D. theology student in Southern California and out of the game, but taking baby steps back through her kids.
SMITH ROBERT: I'm starting to teach my very dainty daughter (laughter) how to be more comfortable with a basketball, and I'm playing with my son because I want them to still see me as a baller. So that's important to me. It's a part of my history and identity.
GOLDMAN: For many women, the key to a return is finding the right game, the right group, and that opportunity isn't often there. Thirty-two-year-old Courtney Weigand is an economist with the U.S. Treasury Department.
COURTNEY WEIGAND: People are just way recreational or very, very competitive. And I just really haven't found a league that is at my skill level.
GOLDMAN: Are opportunities limited because there aren't enough players or are there not enough players because opportunities are limited? Many of the women we contacted said pickup basketball, dominated by men, isn't an option. Some said it was dangerous, with the men often bigger and more physical. Others said it's an affront to the fundamentally sound basketball they learned as girls. As one respondent wrote, the selfishness in a pickup game, the suppressed sexist decisions and the sloppy fundamentals can borderline ruin it.
The scene at Portland's Hillside Center seems to be an antidote to what ails adult women's basketball. Women of varying abilities are playing a pretty crisp, officiated game. There are working mothers, like Tanya Martin and like Lei Hart. She played college ball at George Washington University. She's a 41-year-old lawyer who has carved out the time, even with two kids.
LEI HART: I bring one with me. I don't schedule anything else for Monday night. And if I don't have to work, then I'm able to be here.
GOLDMAN: But Portland is not immune to the national trend. Hart's team, Bonnie's Ballers, is one of roughly 20 women's teams in the city league compared with more than 200 for men. Mikal Duilio started the league 23 years ago. He says the demands of home life are the biggest deterrent to more women playing, and he's trying to figure out a solution.
MIKAL DUILIO: What products can I create for them? Can they play at 6? Can there be a league that's only 6:45?
GOLDMAN: Of course the nature of basketball, requiring a high level of fitness, a durable body and specific skills, weeds out women and men as they age. But if people we talked to are an indication, many more adult women are leaving the game before they're ready. And this prompted 28-year-old Julia Hartsell Chisholm from Asheville, N.C., to email us this call to arms - ladies, where have you gone? Can't we bring women's basketball to a place where it's not only the elite who continue to play? Can't we peel ourselves away from what our futures have brought us - motherhood or careers - to play the sport we once did everything in our power to play? Tom Goldman, NPR News.