What 50 Years of Concussion History in Soccer Should Teach Us
Nov 1, 2021
Soccer concussions may seem like a hot new topic in the headlines, but the effects of brain injuries have been on the radar for 50+ years now. Only now, does the topic get the recognition it deserves. What matters most is that we don’t wait another 50 years to take action to make soccer safer. This post will take a look at the history of concussion research in soccer, and what league organizers and coaches need to do to safeguard our youth.
A Historical Look at Concussion Awareness
In 1969, the late John Arlott alluded to the lack of concussion awareness in The Guardian. When referring to symptoms that many soccer players experienced after hard hits to the head, he said: “It is surprising that we do not hear of instances of brain damage similar to punch-drunkenness in those who went through this constant battering.”
In 1972, WB Matthews published an article in the British Medical Journal that brought now-known concussion effects under the spotlight. He mentioned how concussions in young men who sustained hard blows to the head suffered numerous effects including visual field problems, among others.
In 1973, Professor Bill Johnson, head of the mechanical engineering department at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, presented a paper that brought attention to the physics and impact of heading a soccer ball.
In 1974, the Sunday Times reported that 26 of 55 soccer players who had died from 1951, had suffered head injuries. Nearly two decades later, Johnson ran an experiment to find a correlation between the impact forces generated by the soccer ball and brain injuries. He measured the speed of the ball and the acceleration of the head after the ball made an impact. Johnson noted that one blow to the head might not be damaging, but repeated blows to the head were likely very damaging.
But Johnson wasn’t the only one who was aware of these effects. Let’s not forget the players themselves. Middlesbrough defender Bill Gates admitted that he sometimes suffered from migraines after heading the ball in practice. Other players complained about nausea due to constantly heading a muddy ball on their foreheads.
Others mentioned a feeling of disorientation and brain fog that just wouldn’t seem to lift. And when Chris Chilton, a Hull City forward who passed away in May 2021, underwent diagnostic imaging, the specialist told him had the neck of a 92-year-old man. Clearly, players, doctors, and many others knew that something was up with head impacts in soccer - they weren’t without consequence and potentially life threatening if medical care isn’t received.
Consequences of Ignorance
Unfortunately, the consequences of ignoring soccer concussions mirror that of what’s happened in American Football. It took years for the NFL to acknowledge concerns about brain injuries and CTE, which ultimately, took the lives of many players. This happened in soccer too.
Jeff Astle, who was a prolific ball header, died in 2002 at age 59. When researchers examined his brain in 2014, they posthumously diagnosed him with CTE. The Jeff Astle Foundation has revealed that over 250 former pro soccer players suffer from neurodegenerative diseases, which likely stem from constantly heading the ball. They include the likes of Brazilian star Belini, and American players Patrick Grange and Curtis Baushke.
Soccer has long been seen as less physical when compared to other sports such as football and rugby. As Dr. Ann McKee, director of Boston University’s CTE Center says about these cases: “I think it points out again that this is an equal-opportunity disease”.
Unfortunately, they won’t be the last. Many of their successors will start to show symptoms of a concussion like chronic head injuries, and younger players who are currently active may suffer a similar fate in the future. However, this frightening history of soccer concussions doesn’t have to repeat.
What Needs to Change to Keep Soccer Concussions Minimal
To prevent soccer concussions in the next generation of players, we need to protect them from head impacts and treat head injuries more aggressively. First off, we need to be more proactive and ramp up the preventative measures for concussions.
We’re not doing enough. We - and that means coaches and parents - should encourage more youth players to wear concussion headgear, especially if they’re frequently subjected to head impacts. That includes those who head the ball often and by extension, frequently leap into the air for aerial challenges.
We should also emphasize the importance of technique - ball heading, situational awareness, and so forth - not only for performance but for safety. Skilled soccer players don’t just dazzle spectators, they can more easily avoid habits that may lead to injuries.
Of course, concussion prevention isn’t foolproof - head injuries can still occur. That’s why we also need to take head injuries more seriously. Many of the pro footballers mentioned earlier made frequent complaints about concussion-like symptoms, presumably, for years.
Coaches and parents can take a proactive stance by asking how players feel after heading the ball. And if it comes to light that they feel pain after headers, then they may need medical examination and monitoring. That may mean diagnostic imaging, cognitive assessments, and more. And if a player has actually suffered a concussion, it’s absolutely crucial that coaches, parents, teammates, and the player themselves, get familiar concussion recovery protocols.
As the cliche goes, no stone should be left unturned.
The History of Soccer Concussions Will Inform its Future
Soccer players aren’t immune to concussions, signs, and symptoms along with the history of repeated behavior have shown this. It took us decades to acknowledge that fact, which, unfortunately, has led to a generation of players falling through the cracks and suffering in silence. We can prevent this from happening to the younger generation of players. The research is out there, as well as many solutions for it - we just need to make concussion prevention and management more of a priority.
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