My Turn: Time to ban heading in soccer?


Thursday, December 21, 2017

During the recent high school soccer tournament season, readers saw numerous photos in newspaper sports sections showing players heading the ball. That’s not unusual; such photos dramatically illustrate the intensity of the competition. But seeing these pictures gave me a bit of a jolt; I had thought heading would be banned by now, quite honestly, particularly given our newfound awareness of the brain’s vulnerability to degenerative brain diseases such as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), found in some deceased former professional football players.

I was curious to see what the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, the organization that oversees high school sports, had to say. I found this in the September newsletter: “A recent study out of the University of Colorado indicates that it is not heading that causes head injuries, but rather ‘ROUGH PLAY.’”

Except, well, that might be putting too fine a point on it. The research, according to the university’s news office, shows that heading in high school soccer most certainly does cause injuries: “Contact with another player was the most common way boys and girls sustained concussions … while heading the ball was the most common soccer-specific activity during which about one-third of boys and one-quarter of girls sustained concussions.”

And then, this: “We postulate that banning heading from soccer will have limited effectiveness as a primary prevention mechanism (i.e. in preventing concussion injuries) unless such a ban is combined with concurrent efforts to reduce athlete-athlete contact throughout the game.”

Fair enough. It seems that if heading were banned, head injuries would drop dramatically, because not only would players stop using their noggins to redirect a moving object, they wouldn’t be involved in as many body-jarring blows when two opposing players jump together to head the ball. The collision of players, whether they head the soccer ball or not, isn’t good for the brain, either.

A 2017 British study found CTE in former pro soccer players, and an Irish player not long ago quit the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer “after complaining of repeated headaches from heading the ball and concussions while playing,” according to an Associated Press report.

Here in Massachusetts, it’s right for athletic departments to hold “concussion awareness weeks,” but perhaps the MIAA should be focusing on prevention, not feel-good statements about awareness. (To be fair, there has been talk about headgear, but no mandate.) 

Soccer is a wonderful sport that gets thousands of young people outside and on the green grass, and there is no reason that shouldn’t continue. But, as difficult as it is to raise questions, it’s we — parents, coaches, and players — who will have to force a change with regard to heading, not institutions like the MIAA.

Let’s think more seriously about the future health of these young players; there’s too much at stake to leave our concerns to others.

Jack Farrell lives in Conway