With the high risk of brain injuries in football, many young athletes and their parents are looking for safer athletic alternatives. Unfortunately, many of them are choosing soccer. Soccer is a great sport with a long history, but it also carries a similarly high-risk for concussions and long-term brain injury that often gets overlooked.
In many reports, soccer comes second only to football for the highest number of brain injuries experienced every season. Even worse, mounting evidence suggests repeatedly hitting the ball with your head – referred to a “heading the ball” or “headers” – can accumulate and develop into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE is the brain disease found in many deceased athletes. Most notably a high number of former NFL players have been diagnosed with the condition post-mortem. However, it has also been found in a number of soccer players.
So why are the number of youth soccer players surging while fewer parents are letting their children play soccer? Part of the answer is that soccer is often perceived of as a safer sport.
In both practice and competition, football players routinely get into explosive collisions that leave players sprawled out on the grass. Soccer players also get into collisions, but they tend to be less dramatic and athletes tend to quickly get up and rejoin the game – so they can be missed or overlooked.
“People don’t realize how physical soccer is,” goalkeeper Erica Bulzomi, a senior who said she suffered two concussions, told Newsday. “Some of my guy friends who play football, they will say, ‘Oh, soccer is barely even a contact sport, you guys don’t get hit as much.’ But all you have to do is look at the bumps and bruises on any girl that plays soccer, any boy that plays soccer, and you’ll see how physical the game is.”
The perception that soccer is safer is widespread, but experts say the sport can be equally as dangerous. This is especially true when it comes to brain injuries.
“We’ve known this for years, but parents are oblivious,” said Tim McGuine, a sports medicine researcher at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “I hear parents say without batting an eye that they won’t let their kid play football, and I always ask them, ‘But will you let your daughter play soccer?’ ”
Like many sports, soccer has been slow to react to the reality and risks of brain injuries and repeated head collisions. Without the public pressure to change, there is little impetus to make sweeping rule changes that could alter the fabric of the game. Specifically, the potential removal of heading the ball has stirred controversy.
Despite the pushback, the U.S. Soccer Federation, soccer’s national governing body, has banned headers for children under 11. The organization has also limited the number of headers a child can do in practice for athletes between the ages of 11 and 13.
Moves like this are a step in the right direction, but many critics have argued it is not enough to properly address the issue.
Briana Scurry, goalkeeper for the gold-medal winning U.S. Olympic soccer teams in 1996 and 2004, describes the ban as “putting a band-aid on the situation.” Instead, she advocates for concussion regulations and protocols similar to what football has enacted, where players suspected of having a brain injury are immediately removed from play and evaluated. She believes public perception of the sport could hold it back from making the needed changes, however.
“Soccer doesn’t want to be labeled as a dangerous sport,” said Scurry, whose career ended in 2010 because of a concussion. “That’s what the people who are at the higher levels are concerned with.”
When choosing which sport to let a child participate in, it is important for parents to consider all the risks and benefits. If you are concerned about the risk of brain injuries in sports known to be violent like football or hockey, you should know several other sports like soccer carry similar health risks.
The most important way to protect your young athlete’s brain is not to pull them out of sports. Instead, speak with the coaching staff and make sure they are educated about the risks and symptoms of concussions and make it a priority to remove players when they may be injured.