Concussions: A Humorous Approach

By | March 6, 2016

You’ve probably never heard a Tarheels-Bulldogs matchup lauded about in the history books. In fact, you probably don’t even know who that is. And you shouldn’t. There is nothing too special about the Yale Bulldogs or the University of North Carolina Tarheels when it comes to soccer. However, you may be one of the 36.5 million viewers all over the world who watched a parody shootout worthy of an ESPY.

In 2014, a parody shootout was published depicting the Tarheels and Bulldogs in an amazing production. Shot after shot was blocked. However, it was not goalkeeper Sterling’s crazy luck or superhuman agility that kept his squad in the game. It was his misfortune. Kick after kick, Sterling could do nothing more than block shots with his face. Adding insult to injury, and repeating that a few more times hardly does this man any justice. After numerous blows to the face, Sterling cannot even avoid the ball. Even crawling away from the net, the ball manages to ricochet off the post, perfectly nailing him square in the face, like an expert billiards player performing his most elusive trick shot. The audacity and absurdity is nothing short of hilarious. The video can be seen below:

Source: “Top Soccer Shootout Ever With Scott Sterling – Studio C (Original)” November 14, 2014, Youtube.

Unfortunately, this video may not be all fun and games. Underlying the satire sits a very carefully structured argument pervasive to all sports, perhaps soccer more than most. While head trauma in soccer is not necessarily best characterized by repeated blows to the head of a goalkeeper on penalty kicks, it illustrates a reality that cannot be ignored. For too many generations of athletes, audience and managerial selfishness put a player’s safety at risk for the love of the game. An American football player might be seen stumbling to the sideline after getting knocked straight unconscious after a brutal hit, only to be seen back on the field later that game. Boxers suffering constant head trauma can be seen in present day suffering unimaginable brain damage from their former lives. As a sports society, we have failed to protect children and adults from the harsh reality that head trauma imposes in sports.

Only recently have many professional athletes come forward to share their stories and advocate for safer practices on the field and the sidelines. In soccer, it is no surprise that heading the ball puts a player at greatest risk for head injury. While I’m sure a seasoned player can head the ball just right resulting in little damage, the learning curve to reach that point may not suit a young player so well later in life. And perhaps more importantly, the existence of headers in the game sends hordes of players jumping straight up heads first with everything they’ve got, often resulting in head-to-head contact. Ironically, Zinedine Zidane hated using his head as a child, but later became famous for using his head both to score and fight. If the ball won’t knock you out, your opponent sure will…

Of course, there are two approaches to solve this problem. Or maybe a combination of the two: First, we can change the game. Surely a less popular approach, but then again, while a sport may be rooted in deep and enduring tradition, many of the rules are quite subjective. For instance, if the premise of soccer is to score using your feet, and hands were ruled illegal, why must the head be legal? Second, we can change our approach to caution. We can coach and manage our sport teams such that the highest priority is on the LONG-TERM health of the player. A bad blow to the head should not be forgotten because the athlete claims he/she feels fine. That recognizes only the short-term health of our athletes, who may not know how fine they really are. The satirical video above shows the trainer rush the field with great concern to assess the goalkeeper. Immediately, he pulls out a penlight and waves it side to side to perform a rather routine neurological test to make sure the player’s eyes can follow the light. However, this goalkeeper can do no such thing. Yet, sure enough, we see him back on the field kick after kick. We even see him dragged onto the field, basically against his will. In all honestly, this is funny in the context of the video, and I would be hard-pressed to judge anyone for finding light and humor in this. However, in the context of head trauma in sports today, it tells an all too true story of our approach to the game. We win first, and then we deal with our injuries. Maybe this makes sense when you hurt your elbow or hand. But when you hurt your head, you may be ruining your life.

5 thoughts on “Concussions: A Humorous Approach

  1. Dominic Elzner

    Jed, I really enjoyed this post. With more and more evidence of problems of concussions in sports, this is a subject that cannot be ignored. I know in other leagues and sports, such as the NFL and NBA, there is a concussion protocol to make sure that players do not risk more and more injury. Is there a concussion protocol in soccer? If not, then there definitely should be. However, I do not believe Samantha’s third option of training players how to use their heads and making sure that they follow it by awarding penalties is a good option. There is too much grey area (i.e. what does it mean to “head the ball the wrong way”). Instead, I believe that a very thorough, strict, concussion protocol that holds teams accountable for player safety. There is concussion protocol in other sports, and I feel soccer would benefit from a very strict protocol.

  2. Stephen Kirchner

    Great post, Jed. I really appreciated you bringing up concussions in soccer right now, especially in light of the Brandi Chastain news that Seth mentioned. I think the American public can get so wrapped up in the NFL, with its big concussion news stories, that it is easy to forget the rather real threat that soccer presents to head injuries. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, US hospitals recorded over 24,000 concussions related to soccer in 2009, and that number is only going up as more kids play the sport. A McGill University study suggested that over 60% of college soccer players have a concussion at least once a year. Thats an absurdly high statistic. Furthermore, that same McGill study highlighted the fact that there is protective headwear available for soccer players to help prevent concussions, and yet compared to control groups, no commercially available soccer headwear reduces the risk of concussion. Simply put. we don’t do nearly enough to protect soccer players, and particularly young ones, from concussion. Perhaps teaching children at a younger age to properly head the ball without hurting themselves is one way to improve these numbers, but that involves revamping our entire coaching structure. Is that entirely feasible?
    Measures suggested in football that might carry over include accelerometer readings; more and more high school teams are being encouraged to use accelerometers to measure head movement speeds and jerk in collisions, and using those empirical numbers as a better form of concussion awareness. Too often we let players and coaches ‘decide’ what a concussion is, rather than proving it to them. I think empirical measurement might be one way to improve at least the reporting aspect, and help prevent repeated injury. The fact of the matter is, though, that there are no easy answers when it comes to soccer, precisely because its not as widely publicized. Who knows? Maybe Brandi Chastain’s announcement will get the ball rolling. Maybe it’ll take a Ronaldo or Messi stepping away from the game due to head injury. But until players become more sensitive to their own health, it will be difficult to promote lasting change. Even Petr Cech, the Arsenal goalkeeper who is famous for wearing protective headgear, has said he only wears it because ‘the doctor has forbidden me to take off the helmet’. If a player who has had a traumatic brain injury doesn’t see the point, then how do we get kids to change the way they play? It really is a difficult question.


  3. Seth Johnson

    Hi Jed,
    I definitely side with your second suggestion for preventing and evaluating concussions, as well as a less radical way of educating players—as Samantha suggested—but one that does not include changing the rules of the game. Since soccer is heavily rooted in its history and proud of its few rule changes since inception, I personally would prefer to see as little changed about the game as possible. Maybe it is the old-fashioned sports fan in me, but the implementation of excessive rules and on-the-field procedure seems to draw away from the game for me. Consider the NFL. Although I agree with the implementation of rules against spearing—launching one’s body at an opposing player head first—and agree with penalties for helmet-to-helmet contact, other subjective rules about “making a football move” and leading with the shoulder versus the head places too much impetus in the referee’s hands to control the game rather than letting the players decide it. Similarly, I would not want to see additional rules in soccer that effectively leave it up to someone not playing the game to make definitive calls about whether a player used his or her head appropriately.

    All of this is not to say that I do not support better concussion protocol. In light of recent news that Brandi Chastain—the former U.S. Women’s National Team star—is donating her brain to science when she dies to help increase CTE research and bridge the gender gap for concussion testing, I believe that serious approaches to the identification, treatment and protocol should continue to rise as Chastain advocates. In her release, she even told USA Today, “I never had an official diagnosis of a concussion in my career, but as you grow older, you sometimes say, gosh, am I losing my memory or did I used to forget when I went into a room what I went in there for? Could this be the start of something” (Gibbs, 2016)? With the severity of problems like this for athletes around the world, it is long overdue that we take action even in soccer to prevent further issues. As a result, let’s continue to circulate videos like the one in your post and discuss the severity of concussions in sports—at every level—to ensure that the proper steps are taken for prevention. Leave the game alone, but increase the safety as best we can.

    Gibbs, Lindsay. “The Significance of Brandi Chastain Donating Her Brain To Concussion Research.” Think Progress. March 4, 2016. (accessed on March 7, 2016).

  4. Lopa Rahman

    Hi Jed,

    I really enjoyed this post. It saddens me to see the debilitating long-term impacts of head trauma, and I firmly believe that the long-term health of players should be a priority. As a huge NFL and NHL fan, I often hear about the frequency of head injuries in football and ice hockey. I wasn’t as aware of head injuries in soccer but appreciated the insight the video you shared provided on that. I have also heard of the scenario Samantha discussed in her comment in which players downplay symptoms of head injuries and sometimes even avoid talking to their coaches about them because they want to keep playing. I think this adds to the difficulty of effectively tackling the issue of head trauma in sports but I do believe the two approaches you talked about in your post are a great point of departure.


  5. Samantha Shapiro

    The presence of concussions and head trauma in sports today is a component that fans, players, and coaches alike sometimes prefer to conveniently ignore. Just last week in my Anthropology of Sports class, one of my classmates who is on the football team spoke to our class about his own experience with concussions on the Duke team; he emphasized that while the coaches and training staff are extremely mindful of head trauma and take every single precautionary measure to keep their players healthy, the players themselves are not as willing to be as careful. In other words, because their football careers are so important to them in the moment, players sometimes won’t even tell the coaches if they hurt their heads because they know that they will be taken out of the game (and if the injury is deemed serious enough, perhaps forbidden to play for several games or for the rest of the season). Although they acknowledge that they can experience long-term head trauma, it is just not always worth it to them to risk their playing time and futures in football for the sake of a head injury, many of which they feel are insignificant and not even that painful in the moment. This player’s anecdote highlights that despite how much an athletic program can focus on preventing head trauma, it can not always depend on its actual players to make the problem a priority. For this reason, I propose a third option to the two mentioned in your post: players will undergo extensive, comprehensive training on how to properly use their heads in their respective sports, and if they are seen playing irresponsibly or inaccurately (i.e. a soccer player heads the ball the wrong way), the referee or official will count it as a penalty. Such a strategy places control in the hands of a third party, which hypothetically would not be directly invested in the player as the player him or herself or the coaching staff would be. Players also usually aim to avoid penalties at all costs, so creating a punitive measure as a response to risking head trauma could be the incentive that players need to make their brain health a priority.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *