Brain Injury in Soccer

BRAIN INJURY IN SOCCER

It shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it was. Audiences at least year’s Women’s World Cup semifinals were paralyzed in shock as they watched medics rush to the rescue of Morgan Brian and Alexandra Popp. The two opposing players illustrated, in real time, the dangers of soccer head trauma.

Just seconds before, Germany’s women’s team had a free kick. Morgan Brian, a defender for the United States, jumped up to “head” the ball. Unfortunately, Alexandra Popp made the same move, only a split-second later. As the ball bounced effortlessly off Brian’s forehead, her skull descended backward, and cracked unexpectedly against Popp’s forehead. The force couldn’t have been any greater if they had actually been trying to assault one another.

As it happened, the head collision was not the biggest surprise of the night. Just minutes after medics rushed to their aid, the two women rejoined the game. (Popp spent the remaining 90 minutes on the field with her head still oozing red, wrapped in medical tape.)

Both teams avowed that neither woman displayed symptoms of a concussion. But their word was bolstered only by team medics; no neutral doctors were consulted.

Most suspicious gazes were pointed toward the international soccer association FIFA. The association’s rules continue to fly in the face of growing evidence that soccer presents just as much potential for head injury as sports’ most violent games.

Special Interests Mean Lack of Protection

It has long been suspected that FIFA is more concerned about its own interests than the players’. Now-confirmed rumors of racketeering and bribery support the idea that the organization is less interested in player safety, and more concerned about lucrative media and event contracts that channel money to certain countries.

As the New York Times reported back in the summer of 2015, after the collision between Brian and Popp,

“…there can be enormous pressure for a player to remain in the game and for a physician to assent. A player’s health could be put at risk. But international soccer appears resistant to the necessary independence of medical experts.”

News of the death of Brazilian team captain (and 1958 World Cup winner) Bellini from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), the same disease made infamous for claiming so many victims in professional football and boxing, has sent ripple effects across the soccer world. Experts and former players have called for a change to the rules of international soccer. For example, many have argued that in the case of Brian and Popp, an extra player substitution should have been allowed beyond the customary three. This would be an emergency substitution granted in the case of a player head injury.

Many feel that the simplest solution is to disallow “headers,” or intentional head contact with the ball. This has been bolstered by the recent case of Patrick Grange, a college soccer star who died in the midst of training for the Chicago Fire. It was discovered after his death he had C.T.E. Grange was known for his ability to “head” the ball. How safe can it be, some argue, for soccer players to consistently make forceful contact between their heads and the ball?

But as Mother Jones reports, the vast majority of soccer injuries don’t come from headers. Rather, they come from on-field collisions. A player might dive for a goal and end up crashing into the goal post. Just as easily, a goalie might grasp the ball but not get out of the way before another player’s foot or knee smashes into his or her face.

In some cases, even a collision with the soccer field itself can be responsible for violent injury. In the case of the 2015 Women’s World Cup semifinals, the artificial turf at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium was reportedly much harder than most field’s. U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd told the New York Times,

“I think there’s cement basically laid underneath it…When you stepped on it, you could feel how hard it is.”

Many complaints were lodged with FIFA about this issue well before the soccer match took place. The organization did nothing to rectify it. The sad truth is that when vast amounts of money are involved, as they are in professional sports, the powers that be resist change. They often maintain that the show must go on, regardless of the safety of those who are putting it on.

It is the same reason that the National Football League drags its heels to change safety policies, despite the evidence of C.T.E. among their players. And since soccer is regulated on an international level, it is vastly more difficult to change rules than it is in the NFL.

Protecting Children

The big question, of course, is how this affects children. In the United States, the numbers of young children playing soccer are much greater than those playing football. They start at an even younger age, some as early as four years old. Many parents assume that soccer is a “safe” sport compared to others with heavy equipment, like baseball, or sports with a lot of physical contact, like football.

The result is that youth soccer has become one of the leading causes of concussions for kids in the U.S. Parents are struggling to know what to do about it. Many are making the natural assumption that headers are at fault, and are pushing for changes to the game’s rules. And in the case of children’s soccer, they may have a point. Since children’s brains are still very much in development, it would seem much more dangerous for them to repeatedly make contact with their heads against the soccer ball.

In fact, the case of Patrick Grange bears this out. Researchers speculate that his C.T.E. was not the result of the many headers he performed during his adult soccer career, but the result of his practicing headers at the age of three.

As research continues to press forward in the arena of soccer head injuries, parents must use their best judgment and persevere on behalf of their children’s safety. Where children are concerned, sports are meant to be healthy and fun. The risks of head injury are not something to be left to special interests. In the words of Brandi Chastain, the U.S. 1999 World Cup winner who now campaigns against headers in children’s soccer, “It definitely needs to be discussed and understood.”

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