Heading Into Trouble

Concussions resulting from playing American football, especially at a young age, have sparked a debate about the sport and the long-term health of its players. People around the world, in countries where football isn’t even played, know the risks and physical costs of playing the game. But what about concussions in the world’s most popular sport: soccer?

Soccer’s physicality and health risks are often overlooked, especially in the United States where we are used to seeing athletes in our sports push their bodies to their limit. While obviously not as physical or dangerous as American football, soccer does result in many injuries, sometimes ones that end careers or could present long-term health damages to the players.

Many concussions are worsened by prior brain damage caused by concussions that players received at a young age. Some young players also sustain injuries that present distractions from their studies or everyday lives, and sometimes can permanently debilitate them.

In order to prevent such injuries, the US Soccer Federation (USSF) banned heading for players under the age of 10 in the United States, both during practice and during games. The USSF announced the decision in November and the regulations have now come into effect. Players from ages 11 to 13 will also only be allowed to practice headers for a limited amount of time in particular drills—some prevalent heading drills will also be banned, but headers will be unrestricted during games. 

Along with the ban and restrictions, the USSF hopes that their new regulations will “improve concussion awareness and education among youth coaches, referees, parents and players.” These guidelines follow the ones put in place by FIFA late last year, which instruct the referee to stop play for up to three minutes if there is a suspected head injury. This was a good move on the part of FIFA, allowing medical teams to examine players and pull them out of the game if necessary before further damage occurs that can worsen the concussion.

The move by the USSF has been met with both support and opposition. Many professional players have supported the move due to their own experiences and are increasingly aware that concussions can pose drastic damages to their health.

Cindy Parlow Cone heading a ball for the USWNT

Cindy Parlow Cone heading a ball for the USWNT

Recently, DC United’s Davy Arnaud retired from a long career in Major League Soccer in fears of aggravating a concussion he received last year; Brandi Chastain also retired from her highly successful career, especially for the US Women’s National Team, because of a concussion; Cindy Parlow Cone, now coach of Portland Thorns FC in the US’s National Women’s Soccer League, retired due to a concussion and continues to feel symptoms that prevent her from performing everyday activities. Other players are learning from these examples and are now understanding the real risks of headers, prompting their support for the regulation.

So concussions are undoubtedly a serious issue that can threaten careers and even lives. One study even finds that concussions resulting from soccer are more damaging than ones resulting from American football, largely due to the lack of protective headgear in soccer (an issue that the ban’s staunch supporter and US Women’s National Team legend Abby Wambach is working towards fixing).

But the USSF’s move has received resistance as well. Opponents fear that the consequences of the regulations for the players and the US’s ability to compete on an international level will outweigh the potential brain damages that players get.

Opponents also do not think that concussions are enough of an issue to take such drastic measures. According to one study, only 0.045% of males and 0.0278% of females that played soccer received concussions from playing or practicing, and of those that did receive concussions, only 30.6% of males and 25.3% of females got their concussions from heading related activities. Concussions are overwhelmingly not caused by headers. And when they were caused by heading related activities or situations, 78.1% of males and 61.9% of females received their concussions from contact with another player rather than heading the ball itself.

This doesn’t mean that opponents to the regulations believe concussions don’t happen in soccer, or that they aren’t an important aspect of the health of players. On the contrary, it is almost unanimously agreed upon that concussions are an extremely dangerous aspect of playing soccer and that headers play a large role in inflicted concussions.

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However, heading is an integral part of the game, and the US will fall behind in comparison to the skills of the rest of the world if we do not practice headers at an early age. Much of the heading practice starts around the age of 5 or 6, so the ban will put young players up to 8 years behind others around the world in developing crucial, fundamental skills of the game. Players know the risks to playing a dangerous game—just like any other sport, players can break bones or become paralyzed from freak accidents, or worse; unfortunately, these tragedies to occur. And the vast majority of players’ careers are not affected by concussions.

I am surprised by my own opinion on this issue. I am usually unwaveringly in favor of players’ rights and safety, but when it comes at the cost of falling behind to such an extent that it will be hard for the US to compete on an international level, and when headers aren’t the main cause of concussions in soccer anyways, the USSF has made a move that may disadvantage the US’s future in the sport.

These steps are important, but should only be made along with other soccer federations around the world. The USSF’s actions will send a good message to soccer fans, players, organizations, and teams around the world to focus more on the health of the players and adapt the game in order to ensure players have long-lasting careers and lives after the game.

For now, though, the potentially disastrous disadvantages of the ban will hurt US soccer in the long run. Just when the US was gaining a foothold on the international stage, these regulations may hinder our competitiveness in the world’s most popular game.

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