For the latter half of last week, one story — other than the crisis in Ukraine — dominated international headlines: brain damage associated with playing soccer.
Judging by the reaction of the mainstream media, the announcement by researchers at Boston University — that Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) had been found in the brain of a deceased soccer player — was shocking.
“In 2012, star soccer player Patrick Grange died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, at the age of 29,” reported Medical Daily on Friday. “His brain was donated to a hospital for analysis, and to the examining doctors’ surprise, what they found were traces in his frontal lobe of (CTE).”
Actually, Dr. Ann McKee and her colleagues in Boston weren’t surprised at all. They found exactly what they expected to find. Four years ago, they reported finding CTE in the brains of three ALS victims, one who had boxed and two who played football.
Back then and again last week, the Boston scientists gave the impression they were breaking new ground. In terms of finding cellular evidence of trauma causing ALS in a specific sport, perhaps so. As for linking brain trauma to ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, absolutely not.
Ten years ago, Italian researchers first linked soccer and ALS. Various studies since have found the rate of ALS among retired elite soccer players to be 6.5-11 times greater than normal. Among retired National Football League players, the incidence of ALS is 4-8 times greater.
Does that mean soccer is more dangerous than football and both are sports not to be played?
Of course not.
But it does mean that the ways these games are played need to be changed.
In a literature review published three weeks ago in the journal Brain Injury, Canadian researcher Dr. Tom Schweizer reported that frequent heading of a soccer ball over the course of years was linked to impaired cognitive abilities.
At Purdue University, ongoing research of high school football players has found that those who routinely use their head as their initial point of contact — even if they never suffer a concussion — end up with impaired memory by mid-season and that difficulty then persists for months. Those who do not use their head as a weapon experience no such memory damage.
The lessons from these various sources?
Regardless of sport, the repeated intentional use of one’s head as an implement to hit ball or opponent is unwise.
Heading should be banned in soccer, certainly at the youth and high school levels.
In football, targeting of an opponent’s head is now illegal and frequently penalized. However, spearing and butt blocking — which have been illegal since the 70s — continue in the game largely unpunished.
Any play that risks head injury, even if self-inflicted, must be flagged.
USA Football, the youth arm of the NFL, is promoting a program called Heads Up Football, which certifies youth and high school coaches to teach proper tackling and blocking. In January, ESPN’s Outside the Lines ran a story claiming that there was no proof that Heads Up Football would be effective in reducing head trauma. That claim, though, seems to fly in the face of what has been learned at Purdue.
John Doherty is a certified athletic trainer and licensed physical therapist. This column reflects solely his opinion. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT