World Cup Again Brings Up Concussion Debate

by Tony Doran, Psy.D.
HeadFirst Concussion Care Program Director

It’s no secret in my family that I’m a die hard sports fanatic. I count the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team’s win over China in 1999 as one of the greatest sporting events in our country’s sporting history – rivaled only by the win of the U.S. Hockey team over the Russians at the 1980 Olympics. Naturally, I was glued to the TV over the past few weeks while our U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team again clinched the World Cup championship last week.

Backtracking to the team’s semifinal game against Germany, analysis stated the U.S. did a great job on offense and defense, although the Germans came out hard with a flurry of shots and dominated the first 20 minutes of the action. Then, iIn the 28th minute, Germany’s Alexandra Popp went to head a ball on a free kick and USWNT’s Morgan Brian was having none of that and went up to meet her. The action happened so fast you could really tell what happened until FOX sports showed the replay. It turned out that Popp’s and Brian’s heads had violently collided.

Jun 30, 2015; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; United States midfielder Morgan Brian (14) and Germany forward Alexandra Popp (18) collide attempting a header during the first half of the semifinals of the FIFA 2015 Women's World Cup at Olympic Stadium. Brian and Popp were injured on the play. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports ORG XMIT: USATSI-230278 ORIG FILE ID:  20150630_ajw_bb5_045.jpg

Jun 30, 2015; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; United States midfielder Morgan Brian (14) and Germany forward Alexandra Popp (18) collide attempting a header during the first half of the semifinals of the FIFA 2015 Women’s World Cup at Olympic Stadium. Brian and Popp were injured on the play. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports ORG XMIT: USATSI-230278 ORIG FILE ID: 20150630_ajw_bb5_045.jpg

We all know the showmanship that sometimes appears in soccer when players grab a shin or a knee and throw themselves to the ground only to be up and running about at full speed moments later. But, when players are truly injured, their teammates are taught at a young age that whomever has the ball should kick it out of bounds so the hurt players can be attended to by medical personnel. The Popp-Brian collision was the first time I can ever remember the referee stopping the play prior to the ball actually going out of bounds.  After slamming heads, both Popp and Brian fell awkwardly to the turf.

Medical personnel from both teams game out and examined both players for 4 minutes and both teams played 10-on-10 for several minutes before both players returned to play the remainder of the game. Although neither player was knocked unconscious, the mechanism of injury was serious enough to have warranted a full 24 hours of observation before they should have been permitted to return to play.

Actions that FIFA can take to help teams and doctors make play safer for the players could include:
– have an impartial doctor on the sidelines, much like the referees who are from countries other than the teams playing, who can help assess injured players and protect the organization from future lawsuits; and
– add a substitute for teams in case a FIFA doctor rules that an injured player can’t return to the game to eliminate some of the pressure to keep playing.

Injuries like the Popp-Brain collision help drive home the point that kids younger than 14 shouldn’t be using their heads in recreational games until they are taught the right techniques and when their bodies have fully developed.

I’ve always said the benefits of sports far outweigh the risks, but that precautions need to be taken seriously. The risk of a head trauma is that athletes returning too quickly to play can suffer a second injury that could prove to be career-ending or, in the worst possibly case, fatal. Clinicians, parents, coaches and league administrators need to continue to evaluate the rules of sports collisions to ensure the safety of our children, the vast majority of whom will need their brains for something other than headers in the World Cup.

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2 thoughts on “World Cup Again Brings Up Concussion Debate

  1. Very unfortunate that with our current level of knowledge on concussion, these players returned to action. Agreed! the benefits of sports outweigh the risks, but we need more precautions in place! I was watching a replay of a Stanley Cup from 1980. Many players still not wearing helmets. I wonder how they are doing today. I’m hoping my favorite helmet-less stars are not having trouble remembering thoughts twenty-years earlier than average. Now I’m thinking of the Villanova football player who had had no reported signs of depression,who died by suicide suddenly. Nobody could imagine a reason. I can now. 15 years of serious football and some unfortunate contact positioning.

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