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.