Parents and Pros for Safer Soccer (PASS) Campaign Hopes to Inspire a National Conversation
on When Purposeful Repetitive Brain Trauma Should be Introduced
Concussion research and advocacy nonprofit Sports Legacy Institute (SLI) and the Santa Clara Institute of Sports Law and Ethics (ISLE) are teaming up on a campaign to educate parents and coaches on the risks of headers in soccer prior to the high school level. The sponsoring organizations believe concussions among youth soccer participants can be dramatically reduced.
Former US Women’s National Team player and ISLE board member Brandi Chastain and former teammates Cindy Parlow Cone and Joy Fawcett are leading the campaign along with SLI medical director and concussion expert Dr. Robert Cantu, to educate parents and coaches that the risks of introducing heading prior to high school have to be weighed against the rewards of more skilled heading among children.
“As a professional, and now a parent and coach, I believe that the benefits of developing heading skills aschildren are not worth the thousands of additional concussions that youth soccer players will suffer. As a parent, I won’t allow my children to head the ball before high school, and as a coach I would prefer my players had focused solely on foot skills as they develop their love of the game. I believe this change will create better and safer soccer,” said Chastain, a two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup champion and two-time gold medalist who is best remembered for scoring the game-winning goal for the US on a penalty kick against China in 1999. She now serves as a volunteer assistant coach for the Santa Clara University women’s team.
Cantu, a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Boston University School of Medicine, has been advocating for changes in all youth sports to eliminate repetitive brain trauma and reduce risk of concussion, and some sports have heeded this call. Notably, USA Hockey raised the age of the introduction of checking in ice-hockey to age 13, and US Lacrosse continues to change its rules and penalties to eliminate all purposeful hits to the head for youth. Current guidelines in soccer, which are not well enforced, recommend introducing headers at age 10.
“Studies show that at least 30% of concussions in soccer are caused by heading a ball or attempting to head a ball and colliding with another player, and evidence is mounting from studies of boxers and football players that the younger one is exposed to repetitive brain trauma, the greater the risk of later life consequences. I have been forced to retire far too many young athletes with post-concussion syndrome due to having suffered multiple concussions prior to high school, and this is a clear opportunity to make soccer safer without hurting the game,” said Cantu.
SLI and ISLE are calling the campaign Parents and Pros for Safer Soccer – PASS – and have created a website, SaferSoccer.org, and a social media hashtag #SaferSoccer. A White Paper with supporting research can be found on the website.
Cindy Parlow Cone, who also won two gold medals and a World Cup as a prolific header before retiring due to post-concussion syndrome, believes postponing headers will create better soccer players. “With good coaching, heading skills can be learned during the high school years. Up until the high school age, the focus should be on coordination, technical skills and spatial awareness. Delaying the teaching of heading skills, while still preparing players for heading by teaching jumping and landing and strengthening the neck, not only will help make the sport safer but also is developmentally appropriate,” said Parlow Cone, who coached the Portland Thorns FC to the first National Women’s Soccer League championship in 2013 and has pledged to donate her brain to SLI upon her death for research.
SLI Founding Executive Director Chris Nowinski will discuss this educational campaign as part of his testimony in a hearing on Wednesday, June 25, before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging, led by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), Chairman, and Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-ME), Ranking Member. The hearing will explore the long-term impact of sports-related traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and its possible relationship to the development of neurological diseases later in life.
“While we wait for more research to clarify the risk, and while we work with soccer governing bodies to educate on the risks of heading before high school or age 14 in age-based leagues, we encourage coaches and parents to consider these risks seriously,” said Chastain. Organizations that support a delay in heading until after age 14 will be listed on SaferSoccer.org. Last month, the Shipley School in Pennsylvania eliminated heading for its middle school teams. “Personally, I would urge all middle schools and under-14 youth soccer leagues to do the same,” says Chastain.
The announcement comes four months after researchers affiliated with the VA-BU-SLI Brain Bank, apartnership between SLI, Boston University School of Medicine and the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, identified the first reported case of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in an American soccer player and a rugby union player. Patrick Grange died of respiratory insufficiency due to motor neuron disease at age 29 after being diagnosed 21 months earlier with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), which has been linked to brain trauma.
CTE is a degenerative brain disease associated with repeated brain trauma, including concussions and multiple subconcussive exposures such as those in contact sports and military combat, and is slowly progressive in most individuals. CTE is characterized by the presence of abnormal deposits of a protein called tau in the form of neurofibrillary tangles and neurites throughout the brain. These tau lesions eventually lead to brain cell death. Currently, CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem.