Maybe it doesn't sound like a big deal, this business of "soccer moms" suing FIFA over concussion injuries. Maybe it is something that the FIFA biggies can laugh off. At any rate, you know that’s what they’ll try to do.
I mean, the very idea, these California moms -- who are they to tell mighty FIFA (and the U.S. Soccer Federation too, they’re included in the lawsuit) how to run their sport?
How serious can they be when they’re not even asking for money -- just quietly stating that, in their opinion, FIFA has not done enough to protect soccer players from the dangers presented by concussions.
Well now. They may be a virtually anonymous group who are being referred to with the silly “soccer moms” tag, they may be a bit naive in daring to take on FIFA, and in not seeking damages ... but they have a point. Indeed, they very much do.
FIFA has not done enough to raise the sport’s concussion awareness level. I have the clear impression that FIFA would like the concussion issue to go away. Until it does so, FIFA will do the minimum, issuing self-congratulatory statements that it evidently hopes will be mistaken for action. Absolutely typical is the FIFA response to the lawsuit, telling us that “FIFA has always assigned a high priority to prevention and treatment of head injuries.” “Always” here means for the past 12 years, when the concussion issue started to look ominous -- though I don’t think FIFA can be singled out for negligence, for no other sport was paying much attention to concussions.
But consider this. FIFA tells us that it has developed “clear recommendations” -- that is, medical recommendations for the assessment and treatment of concussed players. What FIFA has not done is to make any changes to the game itself designed to minimize the frequency of heading.
Referees are now instructed (or so we are told) to stop the game at once if they suspect a head injury, and to call for medical attention.
But just how seriously are these recommendations taken? The soccer mom lawsuit has arrived at the very moment when we have been presented with solid proof that the recommendations are either dodging certain actions, or that they carry no weight at all and are openly ignored by both players and referees.
Exhibit No. 1 here is the frightful assault committed by Germany’s goalkeeper Manuel Neuer on Argentina’s Gonzalo Higuain in the World Cup final, about which I have already written. As a “recommendation,” have players not been told that they cannot jump heavily into another player with knee raised to head level? (And you can wonder why they would need to be told that).
If they have been so warned, then Neuer had no hesitation in ignoring the warning. Have the referees not been “recommended” to take strong punitive action against such violent fouls? If they have, then referee Nicola Rizzoli wasn’t listening, as Neuer’s foul went unpunished -- indeed, Rizzoli somehow managed to give the free kick to Germany.
A scary incident in which neither the player nor the referee showed the slightest sign of awareness that smashing a knee into an opponent’s head contravenes FIFA recommendations. Well, maybe it doesn’t -- because FIFA does not seem to have gotten round to looking at the game itself in an attempt to ban concussion-provoking play.
That, of course, is the most provocative issue. The lawsuit seems to be focused on the possible dangers of heading, in effect calling heading the root of the problem. But is it likely that FIFA will want to acknowledge that it might be necessary -- medically necessary -- to ban heading -- an intrinsic part of the sport -- could be banned?
FIFA will be increasingly vulnerable to concussion lawsuits the longer it continues with its low-key response. It has not done nearly enough. It needs to set aside a substantial grant to fund a serious, independent study of the problem (which will, of course take years to complete).
It must stop relying on the same sort of defense that eventually cost the tobacco industry billions: that there is no incontestable proof that heading (read: smoking) causes concussion (read: lung cancer), and that therefore heading (read: smoking) is just fine.
Perhaps more importantly than anything, FIFA needs to conduct an intense look at the sport itself and to establish exactly what role heading should play in it. There is room for a great deal of change there -- right up to banning heading altogether. The answer, no doubt, would be a compromise -- but it would need to be a compromise that outlaws the Neuer-style knee-to-head fouls.
That, just six weeks ago, Neuer’s foul took place, that the referee ignored it, that FIFA has nothing to say on the matter -- these all point to the same conclusion: That FIFA is not doing nearly enough to combat concussions. And that therefore the soccer moms’ legal case has substance.