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Soccer's concussion problem

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Yesterday's semifinal once again showed that soccer also has issues with head injuries.

Soccer must do more to protect its players from concussions.
Soccer must do more to protect its players from concussions.
Ronald Martinez

There is plenty of talk about American football and concussions. After all, concussions are attributed to a sharp drop in participation in youth football in the country. SB Nation's Cal blog, California Golden Blogs, questioned if concussions would lead to the end of football. While some doubt that concussions will end football, the concussion question is often at the forefront of the conversation about the future of football.

Soccer is often thought to be the safer alternative to football. While injuries happen, it just doesn't seem that soccer is a sport that lends itself to concussions often. Though, as we've seen in this tournament, head injuries do happen. Clint Dempsey broke his nose in the USA's opener with Ghana, for example. Yesterday, Javier Mascherano appeared to play through a concussion, coming back onto the pitch two minutes after going down with an apparent head injury. FIFA cannot just pretend that head injuries don't happen.

Because not only do they happen, but they may actually occur more often. This study, which surveyed 60 football and 70 soccer players found that 46.2% of soccer players reported having concussion like symptoms, compared to 34.1% of football players.  This study found 29 concussions in ACC college programs over a two year period. Most of the soccer concussions came from contact with an opponent, not so much the heading of the ball (a common thought).

Most sports are implementing concussion protocols. The National Hockey League has a "quiet room" for players to go to. Though, there's questions about if it works. One player who may have suffered a concussion said his back hurt as to not undergo concussion tests. The NFL has cranked up the PR machine to spotlight their concussion protocol. But, not so much that they may have pressured ESPN to not do a documentary on the issue.Even the NBA (who had just nine players get concussions in a season) has a protocol. Though it is criticized as well. These leagues have policies, as flawed as they may be.

Soccer differs from these sports in one major way: substitutions. While a player is being diagnosed, he can be replaced on the field/ice/court. If a soccer player leaves for injury, the team plays down a man, unless one of three substitutions is used. A concussion test takes about twenty minutes to undergo and even then it might not be reliable. As noted here, symptoms can take several days to manifest.

One solution may be to allow teams a temporary sub, so they are not disadvantaged while a player is diagnosed. Though, that solution could open up its own ways of exploitation. There is no simple way for soccer to implement a concussion protocol that would not in some way alter it's laws of the game while remaining fair to the team with a concussed player. However, sports are changing and so to the laws of the game may need to be changed.

Reducing concussions in soccer can be tricky. By its nature, the use of protective helmets would probably be frowned upon. This article says that proper heading techniques should be used, goal posts should be padded and anchored, but does not take a stand on head gear. Though, that article is aimed at youth soccer. While padded goal posts might be added in professional level soccer, most of the suggestions are probably already in place (though I'm not sure how wide spread mouth pieces are in soccer).

Soccer is, by its nature, a minimalist sport. There are few ways to reduce possible concussions without changing the game and a fair concussion protocol will be tricky to implement. However, with the sports world focusing on concussions, soccer must find a way to keep its players safe.