By Randy Vogt
The best World Cup ever? Not if you are concerned about player safety.
Referees have been told for the past decade about the dangers of head injuries. With players on the ground holding their head or with players who appear to be woozy, I stop the game immediately no matter where the ball is on the field, no matter the age group or level of play.
Just as I stop the game whenever I believe a player could be seriously injured, as “Law 5: The Referee” states. The player is then substituted, which is generally not an issue as he or she is replaced while perhaps being evaluated on the touchline.
In the World Cup, we had three instances where players with possible concussions returned to the field before they were properly evaluated, putting themselves in real danger. In the first scenario, Uruguay’s Alvaro Pereira was knocked cold by a knee to the head during a first round game against England. With him lying on his back unresponsive, team trainers tried to slap him awake. After waking, he signaled to his coach that he wanted to play again. He was off the field for less than two minutes. Later, Pereira said that “the lights went out” after he was hit in the head.
In Argentina’s semifinal game against the Netherlands, Javier Mascherano hit heads with a Dutch player. He spent a little more than two minutes on the touchline while play continued before he returned to the game. That’s approximately four minutes before he should have returned if he had received a proper neurological evaluation to determine the extent of his head injury.
In the final, Germany’s Christoph Kramer went down after his head hit the shoulder of an Argentina defender as the ball was tackled away from him. I’m not a doctor but I could see from the TV coverage that he was glassy-eyed as he was walking by the touchline, being attended to by the German trainers. So why was he allowed to return to the field a few minutes later? The return was short-lived, though, as he remained woozy and could no longer continue.
There are huge risks in playing with a head injury, including sudden impact syndrome, which can occur when a player with a concussion sustains another before the first one has healed. The result could be fatal, although that’s rare. Players who return to the field too early or experience repeated concussions could be setting themselves up for a lifetime of headaches, sensitivity to light and sound plus chronic fatigue.
The reason that these players returned to the field so soon is their team was playing short since if they were substituted, they could not return to the game. That’s why I am proposing an addition to Law 5. So in the future, when a player with any injury comes off the field to be evaluated and is not substituted, the opposing team must take a player off the field as well. Until the injured player returns to the field or is substituted. This change would also affect “Law 3: The Number of Players.”
Also with professional games, players with head injuries need to be evaluated by a doctor with no connection to either team, not the team doctor, to determine if the player is healthy enough to return to the game. A translator who speaks the languages of the teams and the doctor would also be provided, if necessary. I am hopeful that with this change in the rules and with a change of a neutral medical professional doing the evaluation, we no longer will be putting soccer players with head injuries back into the game before they are ready.
The NFL recently learned the hard way -- through thousands of players suing the league for concealing what it knew about head injuries -- that players with concussions should not return to the field until they have fully recovered from their injuries.
Even President Barack Obama weighed in on this issue last year, saying he's a football fan but that if he had a son, considering the impact the game has on its players, he would think long and hard before allowing his son to play. He specifically mentioned concussions as a major issue.
(Randy Vogt has officiated over 9,000 games during the past three decades, from professional matches in front of thousands to six-year-olds being cheered on by very enthusiastic parents. In Preventive Officiating, he shares his wisdom gleaned from thousands of games and hundreds of clinics to help referees not only survive but thrive on the soccer field. You can visit the book’s website at www.preventiveofficiating.com)