Should FIFA do away with headers following new CTE cases?

Several stories have recently emerged of soccer players suffering from dementia and possibly CTE. Is it time for FIFA to eliminate headers from the game?  

Can you imagine soccer without players heading the ball?

In a game where only goalkeepers can use their hands, heading the ball has come under increased scrutiny this summer after several stories have emerged of players claiming they are potentially suffering from CTE.

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive brain condition caused by repeated blows to the head and concussions, is most often associated with the NFL and hockey. But ex-soccer players, like former US star and Hall of Famer Bruce Murray recently spoke about his bout with dementia that his doctors have attributed to his years on the soccer field.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Murray, who played for the United States at the 1990 World Cup, said, “As a parent, if I knew somebody like me who had done a ton of heading and is now going through this, maybe there’s a cause and effect here.”

Murray, who was diagnosed with at least four concussions, added, “Developing brains have no business heading the ball.”

In 2017, four former soccer players who had advanced forms of dementia were also found to have CTE. More than 250 former pro soccer players have suffered from some form of neurodegenerative disease, including members of England’s 1966 World Cup team who have Alzheimer’s. Former USWNT stars Michelle Akers and Brandi Chastain have said they will donate their brains to science once they die in order for doctors to study CTE in athletes.

Heading the ball was banned in the US for children age 10 and under following a lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation filed in 2014 by a group of parents and players. The rules, which say heading drills can not be performed and the ball should not be intentionally headed during games, went into effect in 2016.

Nonetheless, teenagers can head balls, something that’s a staple of the adult game both for men and women. As the cases of suspected CTE increase, FIFA should study whether headers should be curbed or even done away with altogether.

CTE can only be detected after death. The Concussion Legacy Foundation and the family of Scott Vermillion, a former University of Virginia defender who ended a four-year pro career in 2001 with MLS side DC United — confirmed that he had CTE when he died in 2020 of acute alcohol and prescription drug poisoning at age 44.

“This disease destroys families, and not just football families,” said Scott’s father, Dave Vermillion. “We want others to realize this can happen to anyone who is exposed to repetitive head trauma because we didn’t even consider CTE when my son was struggling. He started withdrawing from his friends and family and we knew there was something going on, but we didn’t know what.”

Vermillion, who started playing soccer when he was just five, began his pro career in 1998 with the Kansas City Wizards. He went on to play four seasons in MLS, taking the field for DC United and the Colorado Rapids. He retired after suffering a serious ankle injury.

“It is time for the global soccer community to have a real conversation about heading, especially in the youth game,” said CLF co-founder and CEO Dr. Chris Nowinski. “A dementia crisis tied to repetitive heading has been discovered among professional soccer players in the United Kingdom, and the same revelation may not be far behind in the United States. We urgently need to investigate how far this crisis extends into amateur soccer and immediately put in place reforms to prevent CTE in the next generation.”

FIFA, the game’s world governing body, has addressed the issue, even instituting concussion protocols during games, but many have said it isn’t enough. Certainly, the banning of headers from soccer would radically change the game. Corner kicks, for example, invite players to head the ball, whether to try and score a goal or for a defender to clear it.

Nonetheless, FIFA really needs to work with individual national federations to address the issue, especially in youth players, before even more players suffer, or even die, from years of heading the ball.


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