Soccer’s Biggest Headache

Why isn't anyone at the World Cup talking about concussions?

Javier Soriano / AFP / Getty Images
Javier Soriano / AFP / Getty Images

Here’s what we know about Clint Dempsey’s night during the dramatic 2-1 win by the United States over Ghana: He scored the fifth-fastest goal in World Cup history, just 29 seconds in. Then, with about ten minutes to go in the first half, he took a wayward shin to the face that looked as though it could have broken his nose. Here’s what we don’t know: Was Clint Dempsey concussed?

Dempsey acknowledged afterwards that he couldn’t really breathe through his nose. We don’t know if he was tested for a concussion during the brief time he spent on the sideline after the injury. Cameras caught him telling the bench the same thing during the course of the game. But, with Jozy Altidore already out of the game through the United States with a hamstring injury, Dempsey soldiered on and played the entire exciting match. Neither during the broadcast nor afterwards were any issues related to his injury raised or questions asked.

We don’t know what happened to the American captain because, quite frankly, soccer doesn’t really care about concussions. In a sport where head-to-head collisions are frequent, it is not uncommon for players to return to the field of play after taking a blow to the head and even losing consciousness. It happened during last year’s Premier League season to Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku and to France’s Hugo Lloris, to pick just two stars who also happen to be playing this month.

In recent years, the major flashpoint for concussions has been the National Football League, where for years there was what we know today to be an inadequate concussion policy. Thanks in part to a major lawsuit by retired players, the NFL has been dragged kicking in screaming into developing a policy to better police head injuries and prevent teams and players from rushing recovery time in an effort to get back out onto the field.

Does soccer need such a procedure? Again, we don’t know. But the anecdotes are starting to pile up. There’s the first incidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) to be found in a former soccer player. While CTE can only be conclusively diagnosed posthumously — and has been in an increasing number of former NFL players — a number of the living have also been diagnosed with signs of the disease. Then there’s former U.S. Women’s National Team goalkeeper Briana Scurry, who underwent surgery to relieve migraines stemming from concussions. Or the recent FIFPro study showing that among retired players "mental illness seems to occur among former professional footballers more often than in current players and more often than in other populations. Consequently, mental illness among former professional footballers cannot be underestimated and should be a subject of interest for all stakeholders in football." There’s the case of Eddie Johnson (the British one, not the American one), who is suing the Portland Timbers over allegedly allowing him to practice with concussion-like symptoms. And there’s a study on the disturbingly high number concussions in girls’ youth soccer. The list goes on.

Anecdotes are not proof of a systemic problem. Proof requires research, medical studies, and documentation, and all of those things require money. But in the face of increasingly frequent anecdotes it seems far past time that the soccer world began looking for proof in earnest, rather than just continuing to ignore the existence of the problem. Right now nobody’s looked for proof. Will the same lack of proof be there after people start?

Not everybody has turned a blind eye to the issue. Former Major League Soccer star Taylor Twellman, whose career was cut short in 2010 by head injuries, has founded the ThinkTaylor Foundation. The group’s mission statement is to "create social change in the world of Traumatic Brain Injuries, by generating increased awareness, recognition and education." Twellman was soccer’s representative at President Barack Obama’s recent concussion summit. It must be incredibly lonely work, and Twellman often seems to be the only public voice in soccer remotely concerned with players’ long-term mental health.

So while Clint Dempsey was being tended to on the sideline with one of the biggest American audiences in history watching, perhaps it wasn’t surprising that the analyst calling the game didn’t even briefly address the issue. Except that the analyst was Taylor Twellman. That’s not to pick on Twellman (or at least not to pick on Twellman alone), but it does show just how long the road to dealing with brain injuries in soccer is. Twellman has certainly started the ball rolling. It remains to be seen if there’s anyone willing to keep kicking it — or heading it — along.

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