Robin van Persie’s diving head goal in the Netherlands’ opening World Cup match against Spain was a thing of unrivaled beauty.
But was it smart?
Earlier this year, scientists at Boston University and the VA Boston Healthcare System announced that the brain of American Patrick Grange, who died of Lou Gherig’s disease at the age of 29, showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Grange, who was proud of his ability to head the ball, was the first footballer named by scientists to have severe brain trauma– a condition usually connected to sports that involve repeated and violent collisions, such as boxing, American football or ice hockey.
While researchers refused to connect Grange’s history of heading the ball directly to his case of C.T.E., the neuropathologist who analyzed his brain was quoted by the New York Times as saying the young athlete had “extensive frontal lobe damage.”
With all those balls bouncing off the heads of world class footballers in Brazil, makes you wonder how many of them have been concussed at one point in their career.
And it’s not just heading the ball that’s cause for concern.
Watch Uruguayan defender Alvaro Pereira take a knee to the head just two weeks ago during a World Cup match with England.
Pereira appeared to have been knocked out briefly and he reported dizziness. But he rejected the guidance of medical staff and returned to the game. That he was allowed to return to play alarmed some, including the International Federation of Professional Footballers, which condemned the decision and urged football governing authority FIFA to investigate concussions and standards for return to play. A few days before, American striker Clint Dempsey was kicked in the face during a match against Ghana. He suffered a broken nose. After being treated, including a bunch of cotton stuffed up his nose, he played on. Ouch! A slow trickle of news headlines, scientific research and growing awareness has ratcheted up pressure on the National Football League and the National Hockey League to do more to prevent or minimize the dangers from repeated head injuries. In February, Major League Baseball announced new limitations on base runners and catchers colliding at home plate, a decision prompted in part by concern over concussions. Check it out:
Some pro footballers, meanwhile, are taking matters into their own hands, like longtime Chelsea goalie Petr Cech, who now wears a soft helmet after getting slammed in the head during a 2006 Premier League match.
Watch the hit at about 0:24.
In 2010, a concussion ended the career of two-time Olympic goalkeeper and Women’s World Cup champion Brianna Scurry, who now campaigns against the dangers for girls, who are estimated to be almost twice as likely as boys to get concussions while playing football.
Her former teammates, meanwhile, have joined a campaign called “Parents and Pros for Safer Soccer,” which is calling for the elimination of ball heading by players younger than 14.
Don’t expect professional football leagues to announce a ban on ball heading anytime soon. But you might begin to see some changes with youth leagues in years to come.