Headers and Head Injuries

By | April 9, 2016

Our brains are powerful things. They house our memories, our movements, our emotions. Damages to these entities can cause the development of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease later in life (Breslow 2014).

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We have heard connections between playing football and the development of head trauma displayed loudly in the news and in the 2015 movie Concussion. In fact, in 2014 around 5,000 former players sued the NFL over their head injuries (Breslow 2016). What is affecting these players is a disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. CTE was originally associated with boxers but can occur in anyone with repeated concussions or other brain injuries. CTE results in progressive degeneration of the brain eventually resulting in atrophy of the tissue in some areas and enlargement in others (Brain Injury).

But American football players are not the only ones to be affected by this disease. The FA has recently asked FIFA to look into the issue as it regards former and current soccer players. This decision came after Martin Peters, Nobby Stiles and Ray Wilson, 3 players on England’s 1966 World Cup team were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Both Dr. Ian Beasley and the players families suspect their years of playing soccer may be to blame for their current diagnosis. CTE can easily be mistaken for dementia according to Dr. Willie Stewart (Associated Press 2016).

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Head trauma is not an unheard of disease for soccer players. In 2002 Jeff Astle, a striker for England and West Brom died from what was thought to be early onset Alzheimer’s disease. When Astle’s records were re-examined in 2014 a doctor disagreed saying that CTE was to blame. After enquiries by Astle’s family, FIFA put some resources into research on head injuries in 2015. However Jiri Dvorak, FIFA’s chief medical officer, stated that there was no proven correlation between soccer injuries and dementia at the Football Medicine Strategies conference (Associated Press 2016).

It took the NFL over 12 years to finally admit that there is a correlation between playing football and degenerative brain disease such as CTE. Between 2003 and 2009 numerous papers had been published to substantiate the claims that no such link existed (Breslow 2016). This is directly in contrast to data demonstrating that nearly one-third of all retired football players have some type of cognitive problem develop. On top of that players may be up to 35% more likely to develop these problems compared to the general population (Breslow 2014).

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In the US we have watched as the NFL fought tooth and nail to dismiss the idea that their players were risking their brains by playing. I sincerely hope that should the research support it, FIFA will not do the same. Personally, I cannot imagine that the injuries sustained in a tackle are not akin to those of heading a freshly kicked ball with no protective gear, although I will admit I may be wrong. A brain is a precious thing, without it we would not be ourselves. We would not be able to love or to remember or to do all of those little things that make up “us”. To lose parts of ourselves is a scary path, not only for the individual but also for their loved ones.

Works Cited

Associated Press. 2016. “FA wants Fifa to investigate possible dementia link to ex-footballers.” BBC Sport Football, April 9. Accessed April 9, 2016. http://www.bbc.com/sport/football/36005864.

Brain Injury Research Institute. 2016. “What Is CTE?.” Accessed April 9, 2016. http://www.protectthebrain.org/Brain-Injury-Research/What-is-CTE-.aspx.

Breslow, Jason M. 2014. “The NFL’s Concussion Problem Still Has Not Gone Away.” Frontline, September 19. Accessed April 9, 2016. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/the-nfls-concussion-problem-still-has-not-gone-away/.

Breslow, Jason M. 2016. “NFL Acknowledges a Link Between Football, CTE.” Frontline, March 15. Accessed April 9, 2016. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/nfl-acknowledges-a-link-between-football-cte/.



3 thoughts on “Headers and Head Injuries

  1. Edward Thompson

    Hi there, great blog post. Thank you for sharing. Sport concussions or even concussions in general are a scary thing. The outcome can be unpredictable and cause a lot of fear for families. Professional goalkeeper Petr Cech wears protective gear ever since his head injury. The incident happened in 06 when Chelsea FC played Reading, he took a hard hit to the head from the shin of the oncoming forward. I remember watching that game and only wishing he was okay. These kinds of head injuries can occur in any sport and safety precautions should be taken heavily.

  2. Megan Gutter

    I enjoyed reading this post because it covers a super important and relevant topic. I’ve always thought about the problem of head injuries in sports because it seems like such a “no-brainer” that any sort of hard contact between anything and a human head would be damaging, short-term and long-term.

    To address long-term brain traumas like Alzheimer’s and CTE, whether or not there is direct causation from soccer, I think it’s crucial that we start from the bottom by treating short-term brain injuries like concussions with more gravity. I read an article published through USA Today by Martin Rogers about the issue of concussions, their severity, and how FIFA deals with them. Although soccer is a relatively low contact sport, concussions are prevalent as players’ heads can easily come into contact with other’s body parts like knees, elbows, or feet, and of course the ball. According to Rogers, the only step FIFA has made with respect to concussions is a three minute break from play to evaluate a player’s head injury when major contact occurs. However, three minutes is not always a sufficient enough time to evaluate the conditions and players usually feel a lot of pressure to ignore concussions so they keep playing despite the effects concussions have on the brain. Concussions can negatively affect memory and social skills and create disorientation. In addition, women are almost twice as likely to get concussed as men which makes it even more of a danger to them.

    Rogers claims that FIFA hasn’t acted much on concussions because of their tendency to protect themselves and because “it really dispelled the notion that soccer was a non-contact sport.” After some pushing by women soccer players, FIFA has allowed players to wear some protective headgear. Another possible solution is to allow a player with a critical head injury to be substituted without counting towards the substitution limit for a team so as to discourage players from playing after they’ve been concussed. As concussions are often the root of these major brain damages, it is important that we address them and make sure players are protected and treated properly before being allowed to play again.

    Rogers, Martin. “FIFA fails to address concussion problem head on.” USA TODAY, 2015. http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/soccer/2015/06/10/fifa-concussions-evaluation-breaks-substitution/71000800.

  3. Lopa Rahman

    Hi Rachael,

    This is an excellent post. I agree with your sentiment that FIFA should take risks of permanent damage seriously if the idea that soccer can be dangerous for long-term health is proven. For now, I believe serious attention should be focused on conducting meaningful research on the risks presented by soccer in the first place. As you mentioned in your post, there are examples of players who developed Alzheimer’s whose diagnoses have been attributed to soccer by physicians and the players’ families. In order to evaluate the validity of this attribution, I think researchers should conduct longitudinal studies to demonstrate how soccer impacts players over time. A paper titled “Heading and Head Injuries in Soccer” by Kirkendall et al. notes that very little research has been done on determining the mechanisms of head injury in soccer and that for this reason, it is difficult to say conclusively that observed cognitive dysfunctions in soccer players are a result of risks posed by the sport. Longitudinal studies would go a long way in filling this research gap. I highly recommend Kirkendall et al.’s paper as a resource for more information on the limited research that has been done on this topic–the full text is available for free via Duke Libraries.



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