The tragedy of Scott Vermillion must not be ignored or allowed to fade away

The early end to Scott Vermillion’s life, the agonies he went through, the wretched suffering of his loved ones, are now all a matter of record.

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."

But the idea that nothing can be done until the rules are changed is already an excuse for inaction. FIFA, through the utterly inept IFAB, is in charge of the rules. Without its say-so things must remain as they are.

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)

9 comments about "The tragedy of Scott Vermillion must not be ignored or allowed to fade away".
  1. cony konstin, July 5, 2022 at 6:16 p.m.

    Powerful article that should be taken seriously. 

  2. Zak Jarrell, July 5, 2022 at 7:43 p.m.

    Topic is real but it can be taken in a different direction to get the needed result.   The physical aspect aside, think about the outcome of reduced heading......control and technical beauty.  I grew up with heading being one of the practices that we had as a 10 year old in the 80's.  I have 4 kids now and had two go through development pre-rule change and two go through after the rule change of reduced heading for children.  I 100% prefer the post rule change.  Children ages 6-12 learned how to bring the ball down with the chest, the knee, the foot....just not the head.  Overnight you saw beautiful touches and control, excellent passing, etc.  It forced control and stopped the uncontrolled heading of the ball plus reduced head to head injuries.   The sad moment occured when my oldest started as a Freshman playing varsity, thinking it would be higher level and fact it was the complete opposite...towering drop kicks by the goalie met by headers, defenders launching the ball at all costs, header to header to header and the main scoring from set pieces and headers.  Not many combinations.

    My recommendation:

    1.  No heading box to box.  This will force control and reduce head to head contact.
    2.  Referee training to move to the NHL pivot from 10-15 years ago where physical contact is punished.  Currently you see more fouls go uncalled, yellow card offences called as normal fouls and red card offences called as yellow cards.   Pivot to letting the technical side shine and show off the beautiful game.
    3.  Drop kicks over midfield not allowed. Force teams to play out of the back and leverage the goalie throw to feet.
    4.  Leave heading to where you can score, top of the penalty box and in.



  3. Kent James replied, July 6, 2022 at 11:12 a.m.

    You make a good point about skill development; heading the ball away is usually much easier than trying to control it.  

    I do think heading adds a dimension to the game that is valuable, but there are things that can be done to reduce the risk.  Heading should be eliminated at the younger ages (I think this is already true).  I think the first step would be to require that goal kicks (and kicks from the goalie) do not travel past midfield.  That would eliminate the instances where the ball has the most momentum, without being that difficult to enforce.  

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, July 6, 2022 at 8:22 p.m.

    Kent there is a lot we can do without changing the rules on heading. The half line is 50 to 65 yards. Then you figure the distance of a diagonal ball. I don't think a half-line rule is practical. I would rather teach players to receive long punt and kicks with the chest or thigh. Also I believe from experience that a glancing header is a useful technique that avoids a lot of impact. From a tactical view point both of these techniques are just as good if not better than heading a long kick back up field. Better choices of technique would work everywhere on the field.

    Please note that the classic finish with the head is an angled strike like a glancing header. So there is reduced force absorbed by the brain.

  5. Mike Lynch, July 5, 2022 at 10:15 p.m.

    Paul, Thank you for continuing to highlight the dangers of heading. Until FIFA and IFAB catch up with the data, coaches can do lots. They can alter their training, they can unilaterally alter some or all of their heading in games with internal rules and tactical adjustments, etc. The modern game is already moving in a direction of less reliance on heading. Coaches can accelerate that movement if they choose to. Waiting on FIFA and IFAB continues to put players in harms way which is a Coaches primary responsibility to protect their players. The game will survive less or no heading. The game will not survive no changes. 

  6. Jerry May, July 5, 2022 at 11:12 p.m.

    Check the below story in the Washington Post.  Am certain the subject of the article is a much more familiar name as is his playing history to Paul.  It is about Bruce Murray a major player for the USMNT in its first appearance in 40 years in WC 1990.  The article states thta Bruce is almost certainly suffering from CTE, although it cannot be diagnosed until an autopsy after death.  Bruce is certain that all the heading he did as a player contributed to his current problems.  I remember seeing Bruce during his youth playing days, and particularly while at Clemson, where he was most frequently the target of balls played into the box.  He was quite good in the air.  He anad his wife are very active in efforts to bring greater awareness to the problem associated with soccer.  One can only hope that as a player more well known than Steve Vermillion will have an impact of the problems associaed with heading in soccer may be better addressed.

  7. Bob Ashpole, July 6, 2022 at 10:03 a.m.

    A large part of the problem is the complexity involved. It isn't just the complexity of the game, but the complexity of our lives. Most amateur athletes are active and play multiple sports. Concussion protocols are a step in the right direction, but how does the coach know the player's history of "knocks"? While I am not convinced that simply heading with modern balls inflated at the lower pressures allowed is a problem by itself, but then I did notice wearing contacts that there was some brief vibration after heading. But then I know how it used to be with leather balls in the rain. That was significantly different. 

    I do suspect that heading is a significant risk for players who have pre-existing injuries. And aside from contact with the ball heading is risky in that it risks physical contact with other players. Ways to minimize that risk of incidental contact can be taught to players. 

    How is the situation complex? In high school I played basketball, football, tennis and swam competitively. Baseball has head injuries. And with brain injuries--every injury is cumulative. In the sense that every head injury increases the risk for further injury. You can't separate out one sport or one movement in a sport as a separate risk. And the amount of risk varies by individual. So you could have a healthy 6 year old with a history that means they shouldn't be heading the ball at all. Or you could have a life long player with no enhanced risk.

    At this point I believe this is a risk that needs to be managed on an individual basis. Making the game safer is always a good idea. That was a high priority with me as a coach. But safety is a responsibility of all participants, as well as club and league officials, and should be everyone's goal.  

  8. R2 Dad, July 6, 2022 at 4:28 p.m.

    Here's a good idea the Teflon Don would never consider: independent 3rd party medical professionals at MLS matches to enforce the removal of a player due to potential concussion. Right now, team physicians won't challenge the wishes of their own team manager and pull players--it's a joke now, really. When was the last time potential concussions resulted in the removal of the player?

  9. Bob Ashpole replied, July 6, 2022 at 8:11 p.m.

    When Taylor Twellman was forced to retire. I hope that college is not as bad as the professional clubs. Pointy football is notorious for exploiting players.

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