Talk surrounding concussions in sport has been growing all the louder in recent years, as more and more studies and reports are releasing indicating that repeated head trauma in contact sports can result in long-term brain damage. Recent reports indicate heading in soccer could also be far more serious than previously thought – but just how serious can heading be to a player, and what would be the ramifications of removing it from the so-called ‘beautiful game’?
How Serious an Issue is Heading?
Previously, head injuries and long-term brain damage from soccer had purely been linked to rare head clashes from trying to win the ball – head clashes which also more commonly gave rise to other head related injury, such as hearing damage. Soccer players were more likely to make use of a hearing test service than an MRI scan.
But a 2017 study in London, UK found that brain damage was present in four of six dementia-suffering ex-soccer players – and that all six of them showed signs of Alzheimer’s disease. With the average frequency of brain damage discovery in brains sitting at less than 15%, the study linked soccer and brain damage in a way that had only been a source of conjecture before, and opened up further study to the impacts of repeated head-trauma from soccer balls.
Of course, at home the reality of head trauma was already a major conversation. Now-famous forensic pathologist Dr Bennet Omalu signalled the presence of Chronic Traumatic Encelopathy – or CTE – in deceased football players as early as 2005, bringing sports-related concussions to the fore and causing schools and colleges to re-evaluate their approach to games.
What’s the Impact of a Heading Ban?
U.S. Soccer already announced a ban on heading for players under 11 in 2015, paving the way for future bans across the game. Public opinion has been divided over the introduction of a heading ban, with some seeing the practice as instrumental to the game, but others are already calling for the age threshold to be raised to 14, or even 18, in order to prevent injury to growing brains.
A Canadian study examined child soccer players before and after they were banned from heading, and found a counter-intuitive increase in concussions after the ban. The study itself admits that the conclusion did not account for the potential of increased reporting in the wake of increased awareness of concussive injury, making the results ripe for interpretation either way.
A Global Effort?
So should the heading ban be adopted internationally? Prominent international soccer personalities like Wayne Rooney have also come out in support of a heading ban, prioritising safety over an aspect of the game. Pressure groups in countries such as the UK have also come out in support of a ban on heading for children. With documented injury in adults, it seems the only safe way to go is to remove heading altogether, but an argument remains for the relative safety of heading in youth football.