Concussion: NFL gets off lightly. What's next for soccer?

By Paul Gardner

Sixteen years ago, in this column, I drew the attention of our soccer bosses to the growing problems surrounding concussion injuries and the inevitability -- should those same bosses not address the issue -- of serious legal complications.

Over these past 16 years, we have learned a good deal more about the dangers of concussion, which has now become a major topic of concern for all sports. In particular, football has come under heavy criticism -- for allowing a level of violence that almost ensures concussion injuries, for hiding the dangers of brain injury while profiting from the sport's violence, and for not taking measures to counter the problem.

Soccer should have been thinking along those lines right from the start. As the only sport, I think, that deliberately allows -- encourages? -- the use of the head to make contact with the ball, how could it ever have expected to escape censure?

Yet my impression, back in 1997, was that soccer wasn’t that concerned. I found it difficult to find a medical expert on the possible problems caused by heading, and the studies that had been done were small and clearly inadequate. FIFA maintained that there was no problem. Complacency hung heavily over the topic.

As the evidence mounted of the serious brain damage that could result from even apparently mild concussions, disquiet and then something approaching panic took hold of football. Deaths -- especially those in high school football -- could not be explained away. Then, inevitably, the legal guys moved in. By 2010, a huge class-action case against the NFL was filed -- it accused the NFL, basically, of failing to do anything to abate the growing concussion problem and of failing to inform its players of the dangers they were facing. The number of ex-players represented in the lawsuit was a staggering 4,500.

As the most serious of the concussion-effects were things like brain damage and suicide, a billion-dollar settlement seemed possible. But the case did not go to court. It has been settled by a mediator. On Thursday we got the figures. The NFL will pay $765 million. Averaged out, that comes to about $170,000 a player. Satisfactory, one would have thought, only to anyone who hasn’t seen a serious medical bill lately.

The NFL has escaped what would no doubt have been a lengthy and revealing lawsuit. It has agreed to establish a $10 million research fund, something it should have done decades ago.

As the settlement has been agreed by both sides, it will presumably be approved by the U.S. District Court judge involved. But it is the almost derisory amount of compensation that jolts.

Soccer, no doubt at last paying careful attention to the NFL’s concussion problems, can afford a wry smile over this one. On a much smaller scale, legal action has arrived on the doorstep of MLS, with the case brought by Bryan Namoff against his former club D.C. United. The case concerns a concussion that Namoff received in 2009 and that he claims was negligently treated by D.C. United. But he is asking for $12 million damages, which looks like a much more realistic figure than the $170,000 payout by the NFL.

Namoff is suing D.C. United, not MLS. This is an odd one, because, under the league’s single-entity structure, it is MLS, not D.C. United, that holds Namoff’s contract, and that pays him. In 2011, MLS did begin to take measures to promote awareness of the seriousness of the concussion problem.

So, for the moment, with the NFL suit not going to trial, and with Namoff’s case still to be heard, the responsibility of leagues and clubs has not been legally defined. There remains another angle of the problem that has yet to receive a full hearing -- that of protective equipment.

At issue are accusations that equipment manufacturers make unproven claims for the effectiveness and safety of their products. A lawsuit against the manufacturer of football helmets is pending -- one that could have a major effect on the sport should it go against the manufacturers.

Soccer’s problems with concussion -- which include the issue of protective headware -- are not going to go away. How can they, when head-butting the ball is written into the rules, thus making ugly and frequently violent head-to-head clashes an integral part of the game?
16 comments about "Concussion: NFL gets off lightly. What's next for soccer?".
  1. Teresa Buffington, August 30, 2013 at 8:19 a.m.

    Concussions can be devastating to the athlete that wants to retire from making 20,000/year in MLS and move on to a new career. After several concussions from heading the ball the ability to concentrate, learn, and retain information is forever changed. The concussion program at Sister Kinney in MN is fabulous. It is scary how long it takes kids to recover after the second and third concussion. There is a kid in HS was an A student. Now he struggles to get B's:(

  2. Teresa Buffington, August 30, 2013 at 8:27 a.m.

    One other comment. Funny how we didn't see a commercial from the attorney reps for NFL "if you've been injured.. call" 170,00 what a joke of a settlement for those involved.

  3. David Mont, August 30, 2013 at 9:53 a.m.

    Well, I'm sure the lawyers got a lot more.

  4. beautiful game, August 30, 2013 at 9:53 a.m.

    The NFL was purposely delinquent in not establishing proper medical protocol for players who suffered head injuries. It placed countless of players in jeopardy in order to deflate the seriousness of the problem. In the end, the injured players got a token settlement while the NFL escapes with a monetary slap on the wrist.

  5. ROBERT BOND, August 30, 2013 at 10:40 a.m.

    My kid got one when his friend goofed into him at scool and he hit his head on a book case. The pendulum swinging far these days, won't miss american football, would worry more about basketball, those floors are hard, but good work-out for keepers.....

  6. David Mont, August 30, 2013 at 11:03 a.m.

    I think all sports should be banned. Athletes keep getting injured.

  7. Allan Lindh, August 30, 2013 at 1:41 p.m.

    Someday heading the ball will be banned. And the Beautiful Game will become more beautiful -- the scrums in front of goal for crosses are the ugliest part. And it means the game is played by large slow clumsy brutes who can barely use their feet at all. And a large fraction of the uncalled fouls occur during those scrums. Pele rarely headed the ball, and Barca would prefer not to -- the beauty comes with the ball on the ground. But in the meantime there will be half-way measures, helmets, rule changes, etc. -- but in the end heading the ball will be removed from the game. And it will be a better, and a safer game, for it.

  8. beautiful game, August 30, 2013 at 3:18 p.m.

    Allan, I beg to differ in part. Heading is part of the beautiful game and the scrum on corners has become a wrestling contest; and for unknown reasons FIFA has remained silent. I would venture to 'speculate' that most soccer head injuries are freak in nature and more-so when players have poor techniques to properly head the ball.

  9. Teresa Buffington, August 30, 2013 at 10:14 p.m.

    Iw Nowozeniuk...LOL..I will tell that one to our neuro intensivist in the neuro ICU. We will all have a good laugh in rounds. Denial ain't just a river in Egypt...Mark Twain

  10. Allan Lindh, August 31, 2013 at 4:04 a.m.

    IW Watching the match between Chelsea and Bayern Munich, noticed that four fine goals were scored with feet, but that much of the match was consumed with ineffectual crosses that led only to elbows, cracked heads, and ugly scrums. Such a beautiful game it would have been had they spent the whole match attacking with imagination and skill on the ground, rather than just sprinting down the line and whacking the hell out of the ball.

  11. Daniel Clifton, August 31, 2013 at 11:10 a.m.

    I think of guys like Taylor Twellman whose career ended prematurely because he played too soon after a concussion. I know there are other players out there who have suffered similar consequences. I really enjoy headed goals. I think it is an integral part of the game. However the effects of constantly heading the ball should be researched, and if the results show a significant negative impact to the health of individuals from repeated heading, then I believe the rules should be changed. I don't know what American Football is going to do. It is a sport that is going to bring about concussions just by the very nature of the way the game is played.

  12. Jackson Waterbury, August 31, 2013 at 12:05 p.m.

    Over 30+ years I have coached several teams starting at U-8 and going up to as high as U-19. With the U-8 up to U-12 teams they could not head the ball if it has not touched the ground or a post or another player, both matches and training. The theory was that this would dissipate the velocity and also improve their reception and first moves with the ball; and, they do not have the neck strength to receive a hard-struck ball. It works. Our teams were always in the top 5-10 of the age groups and to my knowledge nary a concussion. Try it.

  13. Ramon Creager, August 31, 2013 at 1:25 p.m.

    Allan, I second your comments. It will happen, eventually. It is just too dangerous. Almost all the concussions I've witnessed as a player and ref have been collisions between two players where at least one was attempting to head the ball. One of the worst concussions I myself suffered came from trying to head a ball that was perhaps too low to safely head (shoulder height), and so the forward struck my head with his foot using the force he intended to strike the ball. In practice. I hope, like you, that heading will go the way of the dodo, and the game will be better for it.

  14. Ramon Creager, August 31, 2013 at 1:29 p.m.

    Daniel, also I think of guys who were going to do good things, maybe even great things, but whose careers were destroyed by concussion. Another DCU player, Josh Gros, comes to mind. He was a fine talent.

  15. Daniel Clifton, August 31, 2013 at 5 p.m.

    Ramon, I had not heard of Gros, but I remember another DCU player who was a forward and his name escapes me. I remember his career was ended way to early because of concussions. We really don't hear about these guys. It is a horrible price to pay for such a beautiful sport.

  16. Kent James, September 5, 2013 at 12:47 p.m.

    In my opinion, the jury is still out if heading should be banned in soccer. I've played for more than 35 years, and the only concussion I ever had came in high school from an elbow while a player was dribbling (and in contrast to today, even though I couldn't remember the score, I went back into the game an scored the game-winner in OT; yes, time's have changed...). I like the fact that heading adds an extra dimension (and does allow tall players who might not be as quick with their feet to play effectively), and certainly a headed goal is often a wonderful sight. My concern with banning heading would be if it would be as controversial as handling ("but the ball hit my head, ref, I didn't head it!"). I'd like to see what a game would be like with top players who couldn't use their heads. It might be more entertaining (pumping the ball into the "mixer" is not that entertaining), but I'm not sure. I'd like to see it to find out. Of course, if research shows that any heading of the ball does significant brain damage, it should be banned. But my hope is that only concussions cause such damage, and we can limit those sufficiently so that heading can continue as a part of the beautiful game.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications