RIO DE JANEIRO — Long before millions of Americans decided that the United States men’s soccer team was so cool that they couldn’t live without tuning in to watch it, the players on the 1999 women’s national team — remember them? — had set the bar for the sport’s popularity.
They were the summer’s sports rock stars: players like Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and, of course, Brandi Chastain, who tore off her shirt after knocking in the final penalty kick to win the 1999 World Cup, then flexed her bare abs and biceps, forcing the world to see what it looked like for a female athlete to roar.
On the backs of a vast television audience whose numbers for soccer were broken only by the United States men’s team on Sunday, those women inspired hordes of girls and boys to pick up a ball and start kicking it and heading it.
And now, several of those women are back.
Chastain and two of her teammates on that 1999 team, Cindy Parlow Cone and Joy Fawcett, have stepped onto a soapbox in the middle of this World Cup. They are trying to get the word out to parents, coaches and governing bodies that players shouldn’t head the ball the until they are in high school, in order to limit the possibility of brain injuries in younger children. In soccer, heading is the leading cause of serious injuries, like concussions.
Those women have teamed up with the Sports Legacy Institute and the Santa Clara Institute of Sports Law and Ethics for a campaign called Parents and Pros for Safer Soccer, which on Wednesday morning will announce guidelines calling for the elimination of heading the ball by players younger than 14.
Right now, many soccer organizations in the United States suggest that coaches start teaching children to head the ball only after those players turn 10. The new rule would give players four more years of a safer sport.
“If we can help curb the amount of potentially risky situations in our sport, why not do that?” Chastain said Tuesday. “I would love for U.S. Soccer to take this on, because it will only help kids stay healthy. Why not protect our kids for as long as we can?”
For Parlow Cone, who retired as a player about 10 years ago partly because of headaches and fatigue caused by her concussions, protecting kids means keeping them from seeing stars.
When she was a player, she long thought that seeing stars when she headed the ball was just a part of the game. She started playing when she was 3, and now remembers seeing those stars when heading the ball at 10 or 11, a galaxy of bright lights appearing before her eyes after an impact. She felt dizzy. Her head hurt. Yet she was too young and naïve to know that those were all symptoms of trauma to her brain.
“Most kids don’t associate those things with a concussion,” said Parlow Cone, who, more than a decade later, is still battling headaches and fatigue from her head injuries on the field. “Nobody’s thinking at that age, wow, how will this affect me later in life?”
For decades, studies have hinted at the link between heading and brain injuries, with those studies now coming at a faster pace. Last year, the journal Radiology published results of study that looked at 39 amateur adult soccer players who played soccer since childhood. That report concluded that heading had caused noticeable changes in the brain and brought “poorer neurocognitive performance.”
But the starkest evidence — the proof that should have rung U.S. Soccer’s alarm bells enough for it to be handing out warning pamphlets at this World Cup — came this year when Patrick Grange, a former soccer player and prolific header, became the first soccer player to receive a diagnosis of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disorder that has been linked to repeated blows to the head. He died at 29, after a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Parents and coaches should take a step back and listen to Chastain when she says, “The bottom line is that hitting your head repeatedly against something is never a good thing.” But neither she nor anyone involved in the 14-and-up campaign wants to scare anyone away from the game.
Dr. Robert Cantu, a founder of the Sports Legacy Institute, an advocacy group that promotes awareness for sports-related concussions, said the new age rule would not eliminate the dangers in the game but would postpone them until an athlete’s body is more prepared to face those dangers.
He pointed out that soccer should just follow the lead of other sports that have already changed their rules to protect their youngest participants. Hockey has done it by delaying body checking until 14. Lacrosse has barred checking to the head or neck area. Now it’s soccer’s turn.
Cantu said that delaying heading until 14 would protect players during some of their most vulnerable years for a brain injury because, from ages 10 to 12, a child’s brain is still forming its cognitive and mood pathways.
He then put the effects of headers on a child’s brain more starkly: “If we were to take a pillow and slam it as hard as we could against a child’s head, again and again, we would be charged with child abuse. But that’s exactly what it’s like when a player is hit in the head with a ball from pretty close.”
Parlow Cone said she wished someone had known about the dangers of heading the ball when she was 8. Whether her symptoms are results of her two severe concussions or the thousands of minor blows to the head she brought on herself while heading the ball, she doesn’t know.
With that in mind, she said, she plans to donate her brain to the Sports Legacy Institute when she dies, to further research and possibly help protect other players. She wonders if scientists will find C.T.E., and cringes just thinking about it.
“Soccer might not be football, but we do know now that brain injuries in soccer is a huge issue, and is a very serious issue,” she said. “I didn’t know that growing up. No one really did. The knowledge just wasn’t out there back then. But now there’s no excuse. We need to do better for our kids.”
Source: U.S. Women’s Soccer Stars Take Lead on Risks of Heading