Is Soccer Facing An NFL-Style Concussion Crisis?

The near future of soccer looks set to involve a repeat of the ongoing brain trauma crisis in American football

Seems fine — AFP/Getty Images
May 31, 2016 at 11:45 AM ET

The British newspaper the Daily Telegraph announced a campaign on Monday to force soccer’s governing bodies to launch an investigation into the connection between the sport and degenerative brain disorders, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy, going so far as to compare the sport’s heel-dragging to both the tobacco industry and the NFL.

In 2002, a coroner determined that ex-soccer star Jeff Astle’s death was a result of early-onset Alzheimer’s, but a further examination of his brain some 12 years later determined that his brain was rife with the tau proteins that cause CTE, pegging his condition to his skills as a header. “[T]he doctor explained he said to mum if he hadn’t known he was looking at the brain of a 59-year-old man he would have thought it belonged to an 89-year-old,” Astle’s daughter Dawn told the BBC. “That was the extent of the damage.”

More Report: The NFL Lied About Trying To Rig A CTE Study

The Astle family has spent years demanding that the Football Association invest in studying the issue, but to date—though they promised to conduct a “10-year study”—the FA has failed to act. Following a script that should be familiar to those that have tracked the NFL’s decades-long history of shameless obfuscation and attempts to quash legitimate scientific inquiry, there are always experts around to argue that the science isn’t settled or that the blame for the preponderance of cognitive disorders is owed to shoddy equipment, namely, the heavier leather ball used in the 1960s.

And while heading the ball can increase the risk of concussions and sub-concussive trauma, the idea that this is a problem solely faced by prior generations of soccer players doesn’t really hold up.

“The heavy leather balls, in my opinion, is a massive red herring,” Dr. Michael Grey, a physiologist from the University of Birmingham told the Telegraph. “The issue is the amount of energy imparted on the head by the ball. It is very simple physics.”

“We have no evidence that old footballers had a worse problem than new footballers,” Dr. Willie Stewart, the neuropathologist who examined Astle’s brain added. “That lazy characterization is what has given some sports a way of avoiding having to tackle the issue.”

Frighteningly enough, the preponderance of brain trauma in ex-soccer players may be more rampant than anyone dares to imagine. Anonymous sources told the Telegraph that the known cases—such as the four out of eight living members of the 1966 World Cup-winning team that are dealing with “significant” memory loss—represented the “tip of an iceberg,” while countless others, including some well-known stars, have been hiding the symptoms that would indicate a degenerative condition from the public.

More to the point, “It shouldn’t take 14 years to answer the question: Does participation in football alter your risk of dementia?” Stewart said. “That could be answered in a year or two. Football has to step up and use a fraction of the vast sums of money they have to answer the question.”

You know, unless a wildly profitable, multi-billion dollar industry is scared to death that actual studies will show that playing soccer is far more dangerous than previously assumed and, as is the case with youth participation rates in football, parents will start to steer their kids towards others sports.

Maybe the FA should get NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on the blower. He seems to know how to handle these things.