Sports fans in the US would have to be living under a rock to not know about the ongoing problems the NFL has faced with player safety and concussions. On a seemingly daily basis former players are coming forward to speak about their post-career lives and the mental issues they have faced after playing the contact sport. Here in Houston, former Houston Texans player Eric Winston has announced that he will be donating his brain to science posthumously.
While the NFL has felt the glare of the main spot light of concussion awareness and CTE, there has been a trickle-down effect to other major sports in the United States. In soccer, concern around concussions caused by heading the ball and collisions has risen greatly over the last few years, including concern for players who display concussion-like symptoms during games.
It is believed that over time experiencing multiple concussions can lead to CTE. A degenerative brain disease, a diagnosis of CTE can only come from posthumously studying the deceased's brain. Brandi Chastain, beloved star from the 1999 US Women's World Cup team, has felt these effects and has decided to help soccer learn more about the impact of CTE on their own players by announcing she will donate her brain to science.
Brandi's announcement will do more than just provide another brain to study, she will also be providing one of the few female brains that will be studied for the purpose of CTE research. Research studies have heavily leaned towards studying male brains over their female counter-parts and while we could speculate the reasons behind such an imbalance, the bottom line clearly shows more studies are needed on the impact of CTE on women's brains. A study back in 2013 actually found girls ages 11-14 get more concussions than their male counter-parts but the researchers could not deduce why exactly that happens.
Now before we move forward let's address the elephant in the room. PEOPLE get concussions. PEOPLE experience CTE. PEOPLE need to figure out where we draw the line between acceptable injury risks and unacceptable long-term damage to our bodies. If you're thinking that if women are more susceptible to concussions then they just shouldn't play sports you are looking at this the wrong way. If a woman is impacted more than a man when attempting the same activity, then the answer should never be "well just stop", instead it should be "why are women impacted differently and how should it be addressed".
Thanks to the raised awareness of CTE and concussions in sports, MLS and the NWSL have worked to improve their concussion procedures. Players, staff, and fans are more aware of concussion symptoms and there is a greater effort to get players displaying concussions symptoms out of games. In 2013 Abby Wambach had the misfortune of having a teammate accidentally hit her in the head with a ball traveling approximately 50-60 mph from six yards away. Wambach went down to the ground in pain but stayed in the game for over 4 minutes after she managed to get back to her feet. As you can see in the video below, a medical professional should have been allowed to check on Wambach and then immediately have her removed from the game. Instead the referee clearly signals for the trainer to NOT come onto the field, endangering Wambach's future mental health. Fortunately, the NWSL implemented the US Soccer guidelines to properly address concussion issues in late 2015. However, it doesn't mean that current procedures are flawless nor do they prevent concussions from happening.
The easiest answer to greatly reduce concussions in soccer is to eliminate headers from the sport. While it may be the easiest answer it certainly isn't the one everyone is a fan of. The first step to really address this issue is to tackle it when players are young. A year ago the US Soccer Federation announced multiple safety changes, including prohibiting players 10 and under from headers in games and practices. Also, players 11 to 13 will be allowed to use headers but will have a restricted amount they can do in practices. Every sport has a very limited number of players who go on to play in college and then professionally. Most players 13 and under will never play past Junior High and therefore the restricting of headers during this important time of mental growth. While it's great that children who are still developing are restricted from heading the ball, it unfortunately could contribute to the players not learning proper heading techniques and could potentially leading to INCREASE concussions caused by headers.
The biggest question remains though, how to address this issue in MLS and the NWSL. To be frank, I don't think you'll be able to remove headers from soccer without serious outrage from players and fans alike. I believe informing the players of the long-term effects of concussions should be required every season (and more than once a season), then let the players make some of these tougher choices for themselves. Earlier this month D.C. United veteran Davy Arnaud did exactly that. After a recent concussion he noticed the "dunk, dizzy feeling" didn't just go away. In fact, according to one report it lasted at least 6 months. Arnaud decided his playing days are over and announced his retirement this past March 3rd. Let's face reality on this one. Concussion symptoms shouldn't last 6 months. Who knows how many concussions he's had over such a long career, now he's retiring at the ripe old age of 36 and is clearly already experiencing some of the long-term effects of the concussions.