Americans may be thick-headed about many things. But slowly, it seems, our collective consciousness is rising about the risks our favorite pastimes pose to our health. A spate of indicators suggest that, finally, even die-hard fans and resistant organizations are recognizing the brutal havoc that sports like football and even soccer can wreak on the brain, especially in young players.
The U.S. Soccer Federation, for example, has announced that it will recommend that players age 10 and younger be banned from headers and that those ages 11 to 13 be limited in how they make contact between their heads and the soccer ball, the Associated Press has reported. The soccer governing body also has said that medical professionals — who must be present in the group’s development academy matches — and not coaches should make the call as to whether players suspected of suffering a concussion during a game may return to play.
These and other positive steps to better protect young competitors, it should be noted, occurred only because parents and players in San Francisco filed a federal lawsuit against a bevy of soccer organizations. Settling that suit with more protections for aspiring athletes is yet another rebuke to those who denigrate the real and effective role that the civil justice system can play in getting big, all too often intransigent institutions to improve the safeguards of public health and wellness.
Attention has grown steadily to the harm of head trauma in all sports, especially for youngsters whose brains and nervous systems are in the midst of critical growth and development. Girls are at risk when they play soccer, studies have found, and for boys, it’s not just headers but collisions that pose perils.
Americans’ favorite sport — football — has only haltingly come to grips with its epidemic onslaught of head injury-related issues. It took a class-action suit before the NFL responded with a settlement that will cost the league more than $1 billion but also allows it to keep from the public detailed information as to what pro football knew and when about the horrors of head injuries among its legions of now high-paid stars. It’s also unclear how much care the harmed players will require over their lives and whether, even with the sizable sums pledged by the league, the concussion class action suit will be a fair, good deal for them.
Meantime, public sentiment is shifting visibly away from relentless, unquestioning cheering for the sport that tens of millions of us watch and play: A New York Times columnist has asked the tough question whether our affection will fade for football and its bone-jarring violence, as it did with the bare-knuckle and once hugely popular sport of boxing. Hollywood also soon will launch its own surprising salvo at the game with the holiday debut of the movie Concussion.
As for parents, a sensible approach to kids’ safety in sports needn’t take the joy and spirit out of sports. A number of organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American academies of pediatrics and neurology, have launched initiatives and provide resources focused on protecting young athletes’ brain health and, even in football, as the Wall Street Journal points out, fun alternatives are rising, such as increasingly popular flag football leagues.