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Experts want ban on heading in youth soccer over brain injury risk

Over the next few weeks, millions of people around the world will be glued to their television sets to watch soccer's premier event, the 2014 FIFA World Cup. While the vast majority of soccer-related coverage will undoubtedly be devoted to these matchups between the world's best, some parties are using it as a forum to discuss a very important health issue that has been definitively linked to the sport.

Somewhat surprisingly, the health issue in question is not foot problems or knee injuries sustained during the course of a game, but rather brain trauma caused by repeated heading of the soccer ball. 

If you don't believe it, consider the following:

  • A joint study by researchers at Harvard University and the University of Munich compared the neuroscans of a few members of a German elite soccer club -- none of whom had any history of concussions -- with those of professional swimmers. Here, the soccer players were found to have altered white matter otherwise consistent with mild traumatic brain injury.
  • The research team at Boston University currently undertaking the groundbreaking study of the brains of former professional football players and hockey players recently examined the brain of a former 29-year-old soccer player who died of ALS. They found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which they believe caused the ALS.

In light of these studies, there is also now a growing call in some circles for the practice of heading the ball to be eliminated altogether from youth soccer, thereby limiting the risk of cumulative head trauma -- particularly for those who go on to play at a higher level.     

Currently, none of the major youth soccer organizations in the county has called for a ban on heading, with some suggesting that taking the practice out of the game might actually result in more head injuries, as children would go out of their way to avoid the ball.

It is worth noting that some safety experts have cited studies showing that the biggest danger presented by heading is the player either falling to the ground due to contact, or running into another player's elbow or head. Accordingly, they suggest a sort of middle ground in youth soccer whereby fouls are assessed to those players who exceed minimum contact while a player is heading the ball.

Given that nearly eight million children currently play soccer here in the U.S., it's important that this issue is addressed sooner than later.

From a legal perspective, it will be interesting to see if more collegiate and/or professional soccer players come forward with evidence of brain injuries and, if so, whether they decide to follow the lead of former NFL players by taking the matter to court.

If you or a loved one suffered a serious brain injury because of the negligence or recklessness of another, consider speaking with an experienced legal professional to learn more about your options for pursuing justice.

Source: The Boston Globe, "Ban heading in youth soccer," Derrick Jackson, May 18, 2014

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