Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Wrongheaded

US Soccer has banned heading the ball for kids under ten. This follows increasing evidence that heading the soccer ball causes brain damage, concussions, and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Many think the ban should be extended to those four or more years older. Stefan Fatsis looks at the facts and the history, but my favorite excerpt is this prelim:

On a turf field at a Washington, D.C., elementary school not long ago, the Jaguars were playing the Thunderbolts in a big fifth-grade boys’ soccer game. The airborne ball struck a Jaguar head. It bounced to a Thunderbolt head. Then another Thunderbolt head. And then a Jaguar head and another Jaguar head and finally to the ground. With each successive header, the parents oohed and cheered—how cute! how cool!—their delight echoing off of the school’s brick walls.

The game was part of a daylong school soccer tournament, and I was watching with the all-girls rec team that I coach. I don’t allow my team to head the ball. Naturally, then, when the girls saw the Jags and T-bolts Ping-Ponging the ball around the field with their noggins, they turned to gauge my response. I smirked and shook my head. Then, with the timing of a seasoned stand-up comic, one of the girls announced, “No wonder they’re all so dumb!”

It was less a statement of fact, of course, than an exquisite preadolescent takedown of the opposite sex. But lurking, literally, beneath every header is a mystery: Can the routine act of heading a soccer ball cause traumatic brain injury? The answer to this question still isn’t entirely clear, but I believe we know enough to say this much: It makes no sense to allow young children to knock their heads repeatedly against a soccer ball.

Not only can contact with the ball cause concussions, but the act of attempting a header is likely to cause collisions with heads, elbows and sometimes feet of other players. The hardest knock I ever took in soccer was from another player's elbow when we both were going for a header.

Children have disproportionately large heads and weak neck muscles that make them poorly prepared for collisions with the ball. Their brains are also more fragile.