In response to a class-action lawsuit filed last year against FIFA, U.S. Soccer, and the American Youth Soccer Organization, the United States Soccer Federation has announced a number of new safety policies to address head injuries in the game of soccer. As reported by The New York Times, the new regulations, which will be mandatory for U.S. youth national teams and recommended for other soccer associations beyond U.S. Soccer’s control, include the prohibition of players age 10 and younger from heading the ball. In addition, substitution rules will be modified (the specifics have not yet been announced) to help monitor players suspected of sustaining a head injury in the field of play. The announcement ends the suit filed last year in federal court in California by a group of players and parents concerned with the way soccer leagues monitor head injuries. The plaintiffs sought rule changes and not financial damages.
In this regard, we suppose the plaintiffs should proclaim, “Mission accomplished.”
We here at Abnormal Use fully support safety initiatives in sports. While we understand and support the intent of these new initiatives, we wonder how effective they will be. In regard to the unspecified new substitution rules, we again appreciate the intent. Assuming the new rule allows a temporary substitution while a team monitors a suspected head injury, the rule would theoretically encourage teams to pull the injured player off the field without playing a man down. Makes sense. But why should a head injury be treated differently than any other injury in this regard? Who monitors whether a player has a suspected head injury? What is to keep a player who injured a knee, but can’t leave the field without using one of the team’s three substitutions or forcing the team to play a man down, from saying he also hit his head and, thus, alleviating his team from the predicament? Maybe we are over-thinking this (as usual), but it seems a rule like this could cause more difficulty than good.
The bigger hole with substitution rule (again, assuming it is for a temporary substitution), though, is that it doesn’t address a fundamental principle in all sports – players want to be on the field. Players at all levels, in all sports, often hide or minimize their injuries so they can continue playing. Sure, soccer players are aware of the current substitution rules and don’t want to put their teams at a disadvantage, but what they really want is to stay on the field regardless of whether there is or is not a sub. For this reason, we hope that the new rules have some measure of monitoring for suspected injuries or else they might not have much of an effect.
Prohibiting headers by young players is a noble idea. On the surface, what better way to limit head injuries than keeping kids from purposely striking balls with their heads? The prohibition, of course, would also seem to limit the number of mid-air collisions occurring between players leaping to head balls. This much is good. It ignores the fact, however, that soccer remains a contact sport. A contact sport where players do not wear protective head gear. According to the complaint in this matter, nearly 50,000 high school soccer players sustained concussions in 2010. That number is greater than the combined total of players in baseball, basketball, softball, and wrestling. We assume that only a percentage of those numbers were injuries sustained in the course of a header. Rather than simply forbidding the practice for youth (which will become an important part of the game as they progress through the ranks), why not consider head gear which will aid in all aspects of the game?
Ask the NFL how that has worked out.