Is Discussion About Concussions in Youth Soccer Being “Gagged” by Officials at the Highest Level of the Sport?

by Tony Doran, Psy.D.
HeadFirst Concussion Care Program Director
and Ann-Marie Sedor, HeadFirst Concussion Care Marketing

A recent story out of Louisville, Ky., is that US Youth Soccer is trying to “gag” its state officials from having public conversations about concussions in their sport. US Youth Soccer is the largest member of the United States Soccer Federation, the governing body for soccer in the United States, and has 3 million registered players between ages five and 19.

Unfortunately, leaders of US Youth Soccer have declined to discuss why the organization issued a memo encouraging soccer leaders not to talk to the media both generally and specifically concerning upcoming concussion stories. However, a statement on their website says they are not trying to ‘muzzle’ their membership but instead to create one singular communication channel to avoid inaccurate or conflicting information.

The president of the Kentucky Youth Soccer Association President said the request came from the United States Soccer Federation, their parent organization, and was sent out as a precaution because of the pending lawsuit filed in California that seeks only to change playing rules rather than monetary damages.

Soccer officials at the state level aren’t buying it. Oliver Barber, a lawyer who is chairman of the Kentucky Soccer Referee Association and a volunteer coach was quoted as saying “I don’t like US Youth Soccer telling us not to address such an important issue. We have a whole lot more work to do to keep players safe.”

Like many sports today, soccer administrators at all levels of the sport, including youth, high school, college, Olympic and pro, are experiencing pressure from parents, athletes, referees, and the community to address the issue of concussions. Over the past year or so, soccer officials have been struggling with rule changes such as whether or not to let players head the ball under the age of 14. Two of the top proponents of avoiding ball heading at a young age include former U.S. international soccer star and World Cup champion Brandi Chastain and Dr. Robert Cantu, a leading expert on head trauma in sports and a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Boston University School of Medicine.

Girl Heading Soccer Ball - 2

A number of studies have shown that soccer players have developed CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and experience cognitive changes from frequent heading of the ball. The damage occurs, not as a result of a single concussive injury (although these injuries also occur in soccer), but as a number of cumulative hits in which the brain moves. These hits are called subconcussive trauma, and while scientists don’t have a handle on the defined threshold before injury appears, there is clear evidence in their research that heading the ball over time produces structural changes which can be observed in neuroimaging.

As soccer administrators in the United States continue to formulate rule changes to protect our children and protect the integrity of the game, parents can and should continue to be their child’s best advocate with regards to safety.

Parents can:

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Ringers, Stingers, Bell-Ringers

Lem Barney played with the Detroit Lions from 1967-77. (Courtesy Detroit Lions)

Several class action lawsuits recently brought against the NFL by retired players have catapulted the subject of concussions into the headlines. Just this week, Detroit Lions great Lem Barney told the Detroit Free Press that his experiences with the life-altering symptoms of concussions have made him wish he’d never played the game.

“If I had another choice I’d never played the game, at all, in my life,” Barney says. “Never. Never. It would be golf or tennis.” This, from a man who was 1967’s Defensive Rookie of the Year and played in seven pro bowls during his illustrious 10-year Lions career.

Fortunately, the Football Hall of Famer has not suffered as many debilitating symptoms related to brain trauma as numerous former colleagues have experienced. He’s been diagnosed with nerve damage that causes tingling in his fingers, hands and forearms that limits his sleep without medication. But, with several spots on his brain that show the effects of multiple hits to the head, he’s very much committed to crusading against players coming back to their sport too soon after having concussions.

Barney’s insistence on focusing attention on the subject has resulted in his testifying to Congress about the dangers of concussions, speaking out about protecting today’s NFL players and joining 105 other former NFL players in a lawsuit against the organization for their negligence in treating and diagnosing head injuries.

What were once called, in Barney’s words, “ringers, stingers and bell-ringers,” could now change the NFL’s entire approach to concussion awareness. League commissioner Roger Goodell has already gone on record saying the NFL is pioneering research “to make sure we understand all there is about brain injuries and brain disease.” For Lem Barney, that would be just fine.

What do you think about lawsuit against the NFL? Are players like Lem Barney justified in their crusade for legal accountability? Tell us in the comments.