While the pressure mounts on football and hockey to prevent traumatic brain injuries, other team contact sports such as soccer and rugby have been mostly immune to criticism. That could all change following the first documented case of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy found in a deceased American soccer player who headed the ball frequently.
A New York Times investigation also revealed that C.T.E. probably damaged the brain of an English rugby player who died in 2002.
Soccer must respond to its own concussion crisis. There is no choice. Soccer’s international governing body FIFA does not want to put itself in the defensive position the NFL has been put in by first denying that head injuries were a problem, then dismissing medical evidence and now dealing with a messy lawsuit from former players with a $765 million initial settlement that a judge recently rejected as not being generous enough.
FIFA must be proactive in dealing with soccer’s head injury problem.
It could be argued that the stakes are even higher for soccer given that it is the most popular sport in the world, and the risk to players from head injuries could thus be exponentially larger than football, hockey or even rugby. An article in Medical Daily describes heading the ball as soccer’s main problem because a player may head the ball up to 12 times in an average game and potentially hundreds of times during practice sessions.
Soccer balls can travel at speeds up to 50 miles per hour when they collide with a player’s forehead, which is the same blunt force as a punch from an amateur boxer. These are the same types of sub-concussive blows to the head that are being targeted as the main reason why so many former NFL offensive and defensive linemen experience CTE later in life.
Dr. Michael Lipton, an expert in magnetic resonance research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University, conducted a study with his colleagues that found that frequently heading a soccer ball resulted in higher probability of reduced cognitive functions and signs of brain damage.
“We studied soccer players because soccer is the world’s most popular sport. Soccer is widely played by people of all ages and there is concern that heading the ball – a key component of the sport – might damage the brain,” said Lipton.
So what can FIFA do? First of all, come out with a big announcement that they are investing lots of money into medical research which examines the effect that frequent heading of the ball has on degenerative brain disease and other cognitive and neurological conditions. There should be an awareness campaign launched around the world that heading the ball frequently could be risky, and youth rec leagues might want to consider banning headers since the brain is still developing all the way until the age of 25 and is thus more vulnerable to head injuries.
If more medical research reveals that heading the ball is causing CTE, then FIFA must seriously consider changing the rules. Helmets or protective padding probably wouldn’t be enough as helmets in football and hockey have not helped stop head injuries. There needs to be a discussion on how integral heading the ball is to the game and if eliminating heading would alter soccer so much as to be unrecognizable.
Could heading be penalized the same way that touching the ball with hands and arms is?