An MLS player has died and his death is clearly connected with the activity he chose for his career ... playing soccer. What will the sport do about that?
The chances are high that it will do nothing. That is an opinion — my opinion — based on previous experience. For something like a decade now the evidence has been growing stronger and stronger — and more and more distressing - that heading the ball, soccer’s unique activity, is posing a very serious problem.
As such it urgently needs to be treated with great seriousness. And it has not been. Not even close. Yes, yes, there have been words and statements and announcements telling us that the people who run the sport are doing this and that and the other to ... well, to what? To improve the treatment of head injuries is about as far as that goes.
Can you imagine the sly cynicism behind that attitude? It goes like this: “Sorry about the injuries guys, but there’s nothing we can do about them, they’re just a normal part of the game, you’ll have to put up with them. Though we are offering improved diagnosis and treatment these days. That may help. But we need more research.”
So the game goes on exactly as before. No change has been made to the rules of the game - which means the chances of suffering a serious head injury are exactly the same as they were 20 years ago.
Yes, of course I’ve written about this before. And I shall continue to press the point. I may have written somewhere that in cases like this, nothing ever gets done until someone dies. I’ve certainly thought that often enough. As far as MLS goes, that moment has now arrived, with the death of Scott Vermillion.
How difficult, I continue to wonder, is it for someone at the top level of the sport to stand up and say loudly and clearly ..."Yes, we are faced with an ugly crisis. Our sport, as currently played, may be killing people. Perhaps many more than we know about. We must take immediate action to minimize the incidence of heading in soccer. By appropriate rule changes. We can no longer dodge that responsibility. Not to take that action amounts to criminal negligence."
So nothing will be done. Because IFAB holds all the world records for slothfulness and procrastination. But why cannot an important arm of FIFA’s membership — let us say, MLS for instance — let it be known that they feel they have a moral obligation to refuse the IFAB diktat that they must continue using the current rules?
Rules that allow heading, when a mounting body of evidence says that this activity, heading, can cause serious medical problems, even death.
Could Don Garber stand up and make the statement I’ve set out above? I suppose not. Simply not done. But he could deliver a watered-down, less dramatic version, letting the world know — for the first time — that there are real, live, humane, people in soccer who are deeply disturbed both by the problem itself, and by soccer’s lack of any meaningful reaction.
I have suggested, in a previous column, one way in which the per-game number of heading incidents could be substantially reduced. All that is needed is an OK from IFAB and a couple of minor changes in the rules.
Alas, should IFAB ever get around to reading that, even agreeing with it, we can expect at least a 10-year delay before any action is taken. Should you think I exaggerate, consider this: when the first soccer rules were codified in England in 1863, they included the very-Victorian infraction of “ungentlemanly conduct.”
That phrase had slipped out of English usage along with most Victorian habits by the 1930s. Incredibly, the phrase remained in the IFAB rule book until 1997, when it was replaced by “unsporting behavior.” It had taken IFAB 60 years to update its archaic verbiage.
The tragedy of Scott Vermillion must not be ignored or allowed to fade away. It contains the clearest, starkest warning yet for American soccer. There is a lurking problem in the sport that is crying out for attention. Soccer’s response so far has been pathetic. Actually, the clearest moves have been made in this country, with an outright ban on heading in lower age groups.
But the lead in combating this danger has to come from the top. We have to be told that moves are being made at the top level. The pro level, the money-making level. In the USA that means MLS. We’re back to the brick wall of FIFA’s and IFAB’s mulish stubbornness.
Were MLS to announce that it was altering the rule book to cut down the amount of heading in its games, FIFA would promptly suspend the league. That is to say, it would get U.S. Soccer to suspend MLS. If U.S. Soccer refused, then it too would be suspended, and American teams, all of them, would be banned from international competition. A mighty high price to pay — not quite a death sentence, but this is way, way too much power for a governing body to be able to apply unilaterally.
People with that much clout will assuredly become arrogant. And lax about whatever their duties are. That’s where we are, now, with soccer. An arrogant FIFA, and an indolent IFAB.
I remember Scott Vermillion’s name from his playing days — an unusual, pleasing name. But I have no memory of him as a player. Suddenly he is so much more important than a player. Scott Vermillion is a name that now has an urgent claim on everyone with a soccer memory. The sport is in dire need of leadership, of direction. The voice we should be listening to, that should be louder than all the others, comes from the short, tragic life of Scott Vermillion. A voice telling us to drop the arrogance, and to start the hard work of taking a long stern look at ourselves and our sport. Hard work that might help us to save some of today’s young players from the nightmare that crushed Scott Vermillion’s life.
• A diagnosis brings C.T.E. into American pro soccer: Scott Vermillion, a former college star who played four seasons in M.L.S., died in 2020. He is the first American professional soccer player with a public case of C.T.E. By Andrew Keh (New York Times)