Head Games

Football's concussion epidemic is well known. Youth soccer's problem is becoming more so. How much safety is enough, or too much?
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Nothing is safe. Well, blogging.

Image via eHow.

Sports are fun, and sports are dangerous. Those are basically the only two incontrovertibly true things about sports as things-to-do-with-one's-body. They’re games, so: fun. But they’re games that involve snapping of arms in awkward directions; sliding around on ice with sharp blades on one's feet and big wooden sticks in hand; kicking balls with sharp-studded boots and then purposely smashing that same ball with one’s face. This is before we get into the martial-scented, brain-scattering chaos that is American football.

So whether it’s Derrick Rose in the Playoffs or some dudes in the park tossing around a Frisbee on a Sunday, there’s always the chance something terrible happens to a sports-playing person's body—knees only bend certain ways, ground is hard, gravity is real, ankles sometimes just fail. Maybe it’s not an acceptance and just hopeful, willful purposeful ignorance, but it’s all the same in the end—we trade the risk for the fun, or otherwise arbitrage the two, because playing sports is more enjoyable than not. And while a broken ankle or a fucked-up collarbone is a bummer, it’s also a physical screw-up that people recover from, whether thanks to the latest in cast/splint/sling technology or with a self-prescription of ibuprofen and DVR'ed episodes of Happy Endings (which, seriously, is good). Professional athletes need all those things functioning at maximum capacity—ankles un-sprained, collarbones unbroken, and so on—at all times, because it is how they make their money. The rest of us just deal with getting progressively achier and worse at our sports of choice as our lives progress, secure in the knowledge that it doesn't really matter all that much. For kids, though, it's a little different.

On balance, the character-building, fresh-air, good-fun good outweighs the screaming-thwarted-creepy-Little-League-dad bad when it comes to youth sports. That, or that and the parental wish to get kids the hell out of the house for a few hours a couple days a week, is why over 40 million kids in this country participate in youth sports. Again, it's worth it: children risk getting hurt in order to have fun/make friends/learn “teamwork”/pick flowers/be “active”/receive post-game snacks and et cetera, and parents accept the bargain. But with youth soccer being among the most popular of these sports, a recent Rock Center report on the wild ubiquity of concussions among young soccer players is scary in the extreme.

The report's goofy news magazine aesthetics aside—and "aside" is a good place to leave the take-your-shoes-off-at-the-door, six-girls-on-a-couch-confessional, potato-nosed-psycho-soccer-dad stuff—this is harrowing, depressing stuff. There’s a girl who needs to be interviewed in dark rooms and one who admits to suicidal thoughts, not to mention the nonchalant use of “concussion” in the plural among teenagers. No high-school girl should have to live with ever-present headaches, thoughts of taking her own life, or an inability to be in regular, daily, classroom-fluorescent light. They certainly should not have to live with all that because they played soccer—something most kids do, under adult supervision and for good, clean reasons—for fun.

According to a study from the American Journal of Sports Medicine, girls’ soccer is the second-leading sport-as-cause-of-concussion behind football. Granted, it’s 47.1 percent (of all concussions reported among high school athletes from 2008-2010) for football and then a big drop to 8.2 percent for girl’s soccer, with a bunch of other sports hovering around 5 percent. It’s not football, not at all, but trauma is intrinsic in football in a way it isn't in soccer. And yet the number is the number, and a big enough one to convince some doctors to suggest a ban on heading the ball up until the age of 14.

That almost certainly won’t happen, but not because it's an awful idea. It won't happen because these are sports, and football would’ve been canceled and banned decades ago if, as a whole, our country was able to think so dispassionately about things like this. And besides, soccer without heading isn’t soccer. At the risk of sounding too much like one of the pro-football, head-injuries-are-part-of-the-game, I-EAT-MEAT cheerleaders ESPN trots out after every concussion-related suicide, soccer needs heading. Heading gives the game another dimension and opens the sport up both to different possibilities and to a certain type of player who’d be less effective if the ball had to stay on the ground. Soccer's restrictions and restraints have a lot to do with its elegance and weirdly complex simplicity; stripping away one of the limited ways in which soccer gets done shrinks the game, leaves it as something smaller and different and worse. The less diverse a game is—in ways to play and people who can play—the less interesting it becomes. Soccer without heading would be missing some of its most interesting plays, and would hobble some of its most interesting players.

While precautions can be taken—teaching proper heading technique, neck-strengthening exercise, telling players to be more careful in general—adults can’t, and parents rightly shouldn't, rely on youth coaches teaching these things. Not because youth coaches are not, often, some of our best citizens, but because this is an awful lot of responsibility to give to someone whose qualification for his or her coaching gig, at the youth level, generally boils down to owning a whistle and possibly a dry-erase board. Besides that, many of these head injuries come not from ball-to-head contact but from the collisions that result when players try to head the same ball and one head makes contact with another person’s head or knee or elbow. Coaches can try to teach kids to be more careful with where they put their heads, and should. Ditto for teaching them how best to apply head to soccer ball. But in the end these are still kids, and can be trusted to do things right only and exactly as far as kids can ever be trusted to do things right.

A few weeks ago, Kurt Warner made some people angry because he said that he’ll think twice before letting his children play football; this was, apparently, a violation of the loyalty that all NFL players are supposed to have to the very violence that shook Kurt Warner’s brain into concussion status at least six times. Then, last week, Tom Brady’s dad admitted that he might not have let Tom Brady play football if he knew what he now knows about head injuries and football. A Tom Brady who was not an NFL player surely would be fine, but the NFL is a definitively worse place without Brady’s scooter-riding, water-sliding, transcendent-football-throwing presence. And yet his father's logic is hard to argue with.

That’s a sad thought, but it’s sad because the NFL—and, to a lesser extent, football in general—is stuck in a know-nothing feedback loop of intransigency that’s spitting out both record profits and ratings and wheelchair-ridden, suicidal, middle-aged men as byproducts. Any parent concerned with his/her child’s health—that is, every parent—is, at least, going to hesitate for a long while before letting his/her son put on a helmet and get his head smashed up in pursuit of fun/camaraderie/friendship, let alone a college scholarship or NFL payday.

Now, youth soccer's concussion numbers aren’t anywhere near as large or as clearly a result of the sport as they are for football; they could be either a blip or an upward trend. But, either way, they are not encouraging. If multiple concussions turn out to be a symptom of the girls’ version of soccer—which doesn’t necessarily appear to be the case—then yes, something needs to change, even if most likely won’t. Kids get injured playing sports, but sports aren’t supposed to injure kids and scuttle their brains; they ought, to the greatest extent possible, not do those things. Maybe heading needs to be banned or they all need to wear helmets or some other change that would make the sport seem really weird but perhaps be a bit more safe. As a former player, that all sounds strange to me; as a non-doctor, I can't offer a diagnosis; as a non-father, this is admittedly abstract for me, in a sense. But even a safer, shrunken-down, less-dynamic version of soccer is better—and more human, and better for humans—than its all-American, presumably-better-to-watch, ultimately-mind-frying counterpart. We can assume, I think, that Abby Wambach’s father isn't second-guessing anything.


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Great stuff! My own son is 5, but he definitely isn't allowed to head a full sized ball until he reaches the 12-14 age range. Their skulls and brains are still forming, even if I'm sad to see him not perfect his technique while little.

A couple comments because I follow this issue pretty closely:

1) The answer for football in the long term will be *getting rid* of helmets. Don't ask me how this will occur -- it obviously has implications for shoulder pads, etc. If you watch any videos of rugby guys tackling, note how they get their heads out of the way when making a hit. Using the helmet as a weapon has been engrained in football. The more padding or the "safer" you make a helmet the more you communicate to the player that he is not in danger by continuing to do what he is. When players start by learning to get the head out of the way at a young age (when players are moving slowly) it will be a natural progression as they game increases in speed.

2) It's amazing how far our country is actually behind others like Canada and Australia in coaching education and certifications. These countries have made a point to educate coaches and allow them to become certified at various levels *within a particular age*. E.g. beginner, intermediate advanced, expert for youth (or high school or whatever). Their are regional and national bodies designed to do this very thing. Making coaching education a priority in the USA would certainly help combat the issue in girls' soccer.

Thanks for the thoughtful piece.

AAL makes 1 excellent point and 1 interesting point. I agree that football should get rid of helmets (and probably all padding... I think I'd let my kid play rugby. Football? No).

On the second point, as someone who has had to recruit soccer coaches at the youngest (and hence easiest) level of AYSO, I can say that 1. you are right about education... our training for U5 coaches is an hour long, and equal parts AYSO values and "Ways to get 4 year olds to focus on you for 45 minutes" 101. Having said that, increasing educational requirements and certifications would effectively kill AYSO (or pick your youth soccer league of choice) in many parts of the country. It's difficult to recruit with the minimal standards we had, even for a team of 5 4 or 5-year olds. Having said THAT, I don't exactly have a good answer for the problem...