The World Cup and the End of Soccer Headers

“Use your head!!” yell some parents from the sidelines. Our coach winces at my son’s high kick to bring down the soccer ball – he shouts at my 11 year old son and motions to his head, an instruction for my son to use his head the next time. My son glances at me from across the field. 

What the other parents and my son’s coach don’t know is that my son is not allowed to do headers in soccer. That’s our deal. If he wants to continue playing the game, he’s not to use his head; otherwise, I won’t let him play anymore. You might say if I wasn’t going to let him play the game fully, why did I ever get him into the sport in the first place? Well, prior to letting him start, I was pretty ignorant about the sport and its physical nature. Another one of those things I wish I knew before. . .

Unfortunately, with World Cup 2022 mania sweeping the globe and my household, I can see that headers are still very much a part of the game.  Will disallowing headers ever be possible? Would it “ruin” the sport?  Soccer is a highly physical contact sport and headers are certainly not the only source of major injury, but header rules are perhaps the most straightforward thing to change about the sport to reduce the risks of head injury and long term brain damage. 

Mom, what a buzzkill, right? Seriously, first, no screen time, and now, we can’t even play soccer like we’re supposed to? And, like with the France vs. Argentina final coming up, nobody wants to hear about that now! Surprisingly, I did find some recent research and media commentary suggesting that a ban on headers may be in the future.

Soccer Football – FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 – Quarter Final – England v France – Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor, Qatar – December 10, 2022 England’s Harry Maguire in action with France’s Olivier Giroud REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

What’s the Danger of Headers in Soccer?

First, there is increasing evidence to support my anxiety. Cognitive impairment can result from just a single training session involving the practice of headers. Whether that impairment is just short term or long term is yet unknown (but we could take an educated guess on what the research will likely find). Plus, do any of us knowingly want that impairment even if it’s just for a day? Don’t practice headers before your math test? 

Long term, it’s suspected that soccer players may eventually suffer from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy – a degenerative brain disease) as has been the case with MLS players, Scott Vermillon (confirmed CTE), Bruce Murray (suspected CTE, early dementia in his 50’s), former England international, Jeff Astle (confirmed CTE), and many players in American football. CTE is caused not only by repeated concussions, but it’s also suspected that small, repetitive hits to the head have the same damaging effects.

Will Headers Ever Be Banned from Soccer?

Soccer organizations in England and Scotland have already responded to the growing research on the dangers of headers by putting guidelines on heading practice in adult games. In both the US and England, soccer authorities have delayed the introduction of headers in youth soccer. 

With the World Cup in Qatar going on, I’ve caught a few articles covering soccer that discussed the end of headers, including a New York Times piece projecting that with increasing evidence, it’s just a matter of “when,” and not “if” headers will eventually be banned.

The more studies that come out to show the risks of headers and the more educated parents become on the dangers of letting their kids beat their heads with a high velocity ball, the harder it will be to knowingly endanger the long term health and safety of all the athletes and our kids.  

Resources

A sampling of the media attention to the dangers of headers and the possibility of ending them:

Soccer players with dementia or CTE:

In the US, moms’ organized to delay (or eliminate) the use of headers in youth soccer:

Ruining the sport if we ban headers – the comments at the end of this article highlight the perspective of those who feel the sport should be left alone:

Storelli tries to sell some head gear by pointing out that headers are not the only cause of concussions (although they are the cause of CTE and dementia):

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