MLS Referees and the Concussion Problem

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?
10 comments about "MLS Referees and the Concussion Problem".
  1. Andrew Goldstein, June 25, 2013 at 3:11 p.m.

    Since you like posing "simple questions"'s a simple question for you. What difference would it have made (from a severity of injury perspective) if Petrescu blew the whistle immediately or after the goal (probably no more than 6-7 seconds later)? I'm not trying to downplay the seriousness of concussions. However, once it has has happened. Unless the player is in a position whereas they might take another blow to the head, what difference does it make if the trainer tends to them 10 seconds after the incident....or 20 seconds after the incident?

    I just pose this "simple question" because you have a terrible habit, especially when it comes to refereeing issues, of making things black and white when there are multiple shades of grey. You epitomize the Monday Morning Quarterback. In fact, if a referee ever stopped a game immediately for a head injury, and for arguement's sake, let's say it ended up not being a serious head injury, and it negated an obvious goal scoring would be the first to jump on the other side of the fence to question how a referee could stop play so quickly.

    Without a doubt, referees should err on the side of caution. But let's not mix up possible concussions with seizures or heart ailments where time is clearly of the essence.

  2. Ramon Creager, June 25, 2013 at 3:51 p.m.

    Perhaps the focus should not be necessarily in stopping play immediately, as Andrew points out. But instead, the focus should be in the immediate aftermath. Following the NFL's lead would be a good start: head injuries should require a doctor's OK to return to the field once the injured players have been tended to. Also, I'd ask another simple question: headgear exists; why is it not mandatory? If you leave it to the players, they'll mostly opt for the manly-man route of not using it. (we saw this in the NHL when headgear was mandated, but with current players granfathered in as being allowed to go head-gear-less.) I guess it will take more lawsuits.

  3. Christian Secker, June 25, 2013 at 6:19 p.m.

    Its true that game officials are responsible for the safety of the players and that medical attention should be provided for any injury as soon as possible. While the play should be whistled dead in the event of a serious injury, unless an obvious foul has been committed and there is no advantage to the team that was fouled, the play should continue. As another reader observed, the collision of the players and their heads had already occurred and the injury would already have been sustained. The danger with concussions is serious in all sport that involves deliberate or incidental body contact and protective equipment should be used whenever possible. In the case of concussions, it is generally the subsequent injuries caused by later concussions that cause the most serious long term effects. Proper treatment protocols and return to game processes must be established to protect players from long term debilitating effects that could change their quality of life. These strategies should involve education of referees, trainers, coaches, managers and administrators so that proper protocols are established and enforced at every level of play.

  4. James Froehlich, June 25, 2013 at 7:47 p.m.

    "What's Klinsmann's vision for this team?" June 9.
    Sad old man!!

  5. Gus Keri, June 25, 2013 at 9:22 p.m.

    One more point to add to the above comments, with most of which I agree. If there were a rule to stop the game immediately when a head injury occurs, what would prevent a defender from acting out and falling to the ground holding his head to stop a scoring opportunity for the opponent? There is no way referee can recognize the actual head injury from the faked one. I say wait a few seconds. Life is not in an instantaneous danger. Concussion can wait few seconds.

  6. Doug Andreassen, June 25, 2013 at 10:48 p.m.

    Paul Gardner has it right. The concussion issue has taken front and center stage in our world of sports,rather it be youth or adults. The referees and other sport officials need to be part of the solution instead of ignoring the issue. Concussions are serious injuries and in some cases, career ending if not life threatening. Until we all take part in the efforts to recognize and take action on concussions, we will not be able to educate our communities on the dangers of concussions. The common phrase across the nation has been, "when in doubt, sit them out". This does not require extra training by anyone, using common sense in these predicaments is the answer. If we do not solve it in the pro ranks, we can not solve it in the youth ranks who watch and observe these actions. Lets agree that this issue is critical and the actions are enduring in the name of player safety.

  7. beautiful game, June 26, 2013 at 10:22 a.m.

    Player safety is a primary issue and the ref has the authority to stop for Petrescu et al, MLS players should take advantage of his permissive attitude toward "rough-housing"...repetitive fouls and encroachment are not in Petrescu's rule book.

  8. Millwall America, June 26, 2013 at 12:39 p.m.

    Agreed with the general view that a few extra seconds are not going to matter. I also have to wonder why the delay in posting another column on the USMNT. That earlier column about Klinsmann and the USMNT being "humiliated" in a meaningless friendly with Belgium put a pretty big stake in the ground...then the US won 9 out of 9 points in games that actually matter. Time for PG to acknowledge that.

  9. Bill Anderson, June 27, 2013 at 12:23 a.m.

    Paul, It takes a Big Man to admit when they are wrong. We are all waiting for you...

  10. tom brown, July 1, 2013 at 1:39 a.m.

    Benitez of Dallas Head butted a guy recently on national tv. nothing. no foul. no nothing. Then another guy head butted Lenhart drawing blood. nothing. no foul. The guy was laughing on camera. What is this a secret society? MLS operates by rules it makes up wnenever it feels like. Garber is out of his mind. This is not a lifetime monarchy.

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