Heading In Soccer: Is the Game Headed for Trouble?
I probably should have given a little more thought to my response after Dr. Joseph Zappala, one of California’s leading sports medicine practitioners, said he was pushing for heading to be banned for soccer players aged under 14.
I was having trouble remembering where I put my reading glasses and there was a name of an English center forward known for his heading prowess that I just couldn’t quite put my finger on.
“What a ridiculous idea,” I told Dr. Zappala as we walked out into the parking lot at his South West Health Spine and Sport clinic in Costa Mesa. “I’ve been playing center back my whole life and it never did me any harm.”
We shook hands. “Er…do you remember where I left my car?”
It was only when I’d located my car exactly where I’d left it less than an hour earlier that it occurred to me that he probably had a point.
Ten minutes of research on Google persuaded me that he was right. Brandi Chastain, USA’s game-winning penalty scorer in the nation’s last World Cup win in 1999, had a similar change of heart after initially telling an interviewer that children simply needed better coaching and that it wasn’t necessary to prevent them heading the ball altogether.
Now Brandi and her 1999 teammates Joy Fawcett and Cindy Parlow Cone are at the forefront of a nationwide effort to get the word out to parents, coaches and governing bodies that players shouldn’t head the ball until they are in high school.
Chastain and advocates like Dr Zappala, a member of California’s Southern Section Athletic Training Board and a member of the National Concusson Registry, say that delaying heading until 14 would protect players brains during some of their most vulnerable years. From the ages of 10 to 12, a child’s brain is still growing and forming its cognitive and mood pathways.
Dr Zappala, who works with world class athletes like US champion trampoline star Charlotte Drury, former Oakland Raiders Full Back Nick Bell, world number six amateur golfer Beau Hossler and dozens of young soccer and American Football players, sees the damage misdirected training at an early age can do.
Players are turning up for treatment with “adult” injuries like Anterior Cruciate Ligament tears and shoulders requiring surgery at the ages of 12-14.
“I believe that everybody has a pitch count,” he says. “Your daughter may only be 12 but she only gets to kick so many soccer balls in her lifetime. It’s important to make them all count.”
The problem is that football fans are all too happy to applaud the beauty and grace of headers like Robin van Persie’s swan dive for Holland in the last World Cup or the sheer power of a John Terry clearance in the EPL. They are less likely to welcome constraints on what many see as an integral part of the game.
Up until reasonably recently, there was little research data to support the belief that heading hurts the head other than Dr Zappala’s common sense assertion that banging your bonce over and over again with a solid object is never going to be too healthy for the brain.
But the studies are beginning to pile up. And some of the stories make for grim reading, especially for a center back.
The manufacture of soccer balls has moved on since the first footballers kicked a hog’s head around in medieval times. The invention of the india rubber bladder in the late 19th century at least allowed the use of a round ball but when the leather was waterlogged it became twice the weight and it wasn’t unusual for a player to be knocked out cold on impact.
Stanley Matthews, the legendary winger of the 1930s-60s, was supposedly so deft with a cross that he could ensure the laces of the ball faced away from the center forward’s head in front of goal.
Today’s hi-tech balls are a vast improvement, but experts say the danger remains, particularly to young, impressionable heads. The damage can be steady, but inexorable.
Last year, the New York Times reported that Bellini, Brazil’s captain in the 1958 World Cup, died from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. The degenerative brain disorder is best known for its effect on boxers and NFL players.
US semi-pro player Patrick Grange died of the same disease in 2012 at the age of 29.
Best known to English fans was former international Jeff Astle, a legendary striker for the Midlands club West Bromwich Albion, who passed away prematurely aged 59.
The local coroner’s verdict in the Astle case was “death by industrial accident.”
Astle was remembered as a terrific header of the ball. But it seems he paid a heavy price for his prowess.
“In terms of head injuries and dementia, in boxers and others that I have seen, it was amongst the worst. It was quite a remarkably scarred brain,” Willie Stewart, a consultant neuropathologist at Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital and one of Britain’s leading experts on traumatic brain injury told Sam Knight of The New Yorker.
Knight reports that a group of parents and players has launched a class-action lawsuit in California accusing FIFA, the sport’s world governing body, along with U.S. Soccer, the American Youth Soccer Organization, and others, of presiding over an “epidemic” of football concussions.
The lawsuit claims about 50,000 high-school soccer players were concussed in 2010, more players than in basketball, baseball, softball, and wrestling combined, and insists that limits be placed on the number of times that players under seventeen can head the ball.
In 2013, the journal Radiology published results of a study that looked at 39 amateur adult soccer players who had played since childhood. According to the New York Times, that report concluded that heading had caused noticeable changes in the brain and brought “poorer neurocognitive performance.”
Chastain echoed Dr. Zappala’s mantra to protect children in their formative stages to prolong their sporting lives. “If we can help curb the amount of potentially risky situations in our sport, why not do that?” she said. “I would love for U.S. Soccer to take this on, because it will only help kids stay healthy. Why not protect our kids for as long as we can?”
To its eternal credit, the US took action while the rest of the world prvarictaed on the FIFA corruption scandal. Maybe it's time to lead the way on this issue with such importance to our game's future.
So I was wrong with my instinctive response to protect the age-old traditions of the game I love that could, ultimately, kill me. As a way of making amends to Dr. Zappala I’m thinking of donating my brain for sports science research when I’m gone.
Perhaps then somebody will discover what happened to those car keys I lost in 2009!