By Paul Gardner
I was thinking that the sport of soccer had surely, by now, come to understand that head injuries are dangerous. Just that -- a simple understanding that concussions cannot be dismissed lightly, that they must be treated with great seriousness.
MLS, quite definitely, knows about the problems caused by concussions. It has had several players who have had to retire prematurely from the game because of concussion injuries -- and in more than one case there is a strong suggestion that lack of proper treatment has been a contributing factor.
Yes, MLS does know about that because it has seen one of its players, Bryan Namoff, bring a $12 million lawsuit against D.C. United for alleged mistreatment of his concussion injury. The injury finished Namoff’s soccer career.
Clearly, then, MLS knows the serious results that concussion injuries can have on a player’s career. And it has been given stark warning that there may be legal and monetary consequences if such injuries are not given the proper medical attention.
Proper -- and prompt -- attention. The first man called upon to make sure concussions receive medical attention is the referee. It is his job to stop play immediately when he sees players go down with head injuries -- whether from a clash of heads, from head-to-elbow, or head-to-ground contact.
And I have been believing that MLS would get that right. I was wrong. On Sunday, at the end of the first half of the Portland-Colorado game, referee Silviu Petrescu was confronted -- literally, the incident happened right in front of him, he was staring straight at it -- with a serious clash of heads. Two players, one from each team challenged for a high ball. Both players went down, each clutching his head.
Petrescu ignored the clash, allowed play to continue -- and Will Johnson raced forward to score for Portland. As the Portland players raced over to Johnson to celebrate a remarkable goal, both the injured players were still lying on the ground.
Yes, had Petrescu blown his whistle to stop play when the heads clashed -- as I believe he should have done -- there would have been no goal from Johnson. As it happens, that would have made no difference to the result. And -- so far as it appears -- the head-clash injuries were not serious, for both players continued in the game.
It is not surprising that it should be Petrescu involved in this incident -- he is the most permissive of MLS referees, the one most likely to ignore what he evidently considers minor infringements.
He is also rated highly by Peter Walton, the head of the MLS referee group, PRO, who chose him to officiate at last year’s MLS Cup final between the Galaxy and the Dynamo. A respected referee then ... but he got this one badly -- and dangerously -- wrong.
A statement from Walton would be helpful here, letting us know what is MLS policy on head injuries. What does PRO tell referees to do after a clash of heads like this? I would be surprised if the advice is anything other than an instruction to halt play at once. The only alternative would seem to be letting the referee “use his judgment.” Which, given what we now know about the dangers, both overt and hidden, of concussions is obviously not a good idea.
Who was at fault here? If MLS, or PRO, has no spelled-out instructions telling referees to halt play when head injuries occur, then they are responsible if delayed treatment leads to serious problems.
As for Petrescu, he seems to me to have got his decision wrong however you look at it. If there exists an instruction telling referees that they should not play around with head injuries, that play must be stopped at once, he clearly ignored it. If there is no such instruction, then he used his own judgment which, predictably and wrongly, was to ignore the head clash.
In this case, Petrescu got away with one, because a splendid goal was scored, and there were, apparently, no lasting injuries. Though that last point is the tricky one: we still don’t know enough about concussions, which is why we need to be super-cautious and super-quick when it comes to dealing with them.
A simple question for MLS, then: what instructions does it give its referees for dealing with head injuries?