In a statement issued today, the largest soccer organization in the world declared there is “no evidence” that ‘heading’ the ball is linked to an increased risk for brain disease.
“To our very best knowledge, there is currently no true evidence of the negative effect of heading or other sub-concussive blows,” claimed FIFA.
“Results from studies on active and former professional football players in relation to brain function are inconclusive,” a spokesman said in a statement.
Even given large governing bodies for high-contact sports, these claims are surprising.
The statements come in response to a British study showing that soccer players potentially face a heightened risk for developing brain disease like chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from repeatedly hitting the ball with their head.
The study, published in the journal Acta Neuropathologica, was admittedly small. The researchers looked at just 14 retired soccer players who had developed dementia after playing soccer from childhood or their early teen years.
Post-mortem exams found signs of CTE in four of the six players who underwent autopsies.
“The findings of our study show a potential link between playing [soccer] and CTE,” lead researcher Helen Ling, from University College London’s Institute of Neurology, said in a statement.
If this was the only study suggesting such a link, perhaps FIFA’s statement would have some merit. But it is not. While it is the only study to find a potential direct link to CTE, there is plenty of evidence that soccer players are at risk for long-term damage to the brain.
A number of studies have examined the effect of repeatedly heading the ball of the brain, and the findings are concerning.
A recently released report suggests changes in the brain from just a single season of soccer can be seen using MRI scans. The amount of changes were also linked to the number of head impacts – including headers – the players experienced in a season.
It has also been repeatedly shown that heading the ball makes the brain more vulnerable to concussions. This is problematic because repeated concussions have been tied to a significantly higher risk of developing CTE.
With this in mind, it is ridiculous to claim there is “no evidence” that soccer players are at an increased risk for CTE, specifically those who head the ball the most. There may not be an explicitly proven link, but FIFA’s statement sounds eerily like those made by the NFL during the period it was trying to downplay the serious risk of CTE in football.
If FIFA wants to protect its athletes of all ages, it needs to recognize the warning signs and take a proactive stance. Otherwise, it is just a matter of time until it has a “CTE crisis” of its own.