Around the world, soccer is known as the beautiful game. For its devotees, it is a year-round endeavor, even a frame of mind, with its diverse international cast of players from many different backgrounds.
About 100,000 young people on Long Island play the game during the fall and spring seasons. On any weekend, soccer games can be found from peewee level to highly competitive school and college matches. In winter, some youth and adult leagues thrive in indoor facilities.
Amid that joy, though, are risks. Increasingly, medical science suggests that subtle but significant long-term brain injuries from repeated contact with the ball — a maneuver known as “heading” — may be a hidden danger. Rather than ignore the risks, true lovers of the beautiful game must pay attention to these studies and consider how the game should adapt going forward.
One particular study of amateur adult soccer players, from Long Island and the tristate area, shows that those who headed the ball most frequently during a two-year period showed changes in their brain structure similar to mild traumatic brain injury, with a slight but measurable decline in memory. According to the research led by Columbia University expert Dr. Michael L. Lipton, high levels of heading were also associated with a decline in verbal learning performance.
Lipton studied 148 young adult soccer players — with a mean age of 27 and about a quarter female — for brain changes. A related survey examined how often players repeatedly hit the ball with their heads. The group with the highest rate exceeded more than 1,500 headers in two years.
Perhaps most concerning about Lipton’s research is that brain damage from heading in soccer may not be as immediately obvious as a broken nose or concussion suffered in more violent sports like football and boxing. It is more like a silent snow, the damage creeping up over time.
Red flags have been raised here before. A 2016 Newsday survey found that Long Island high school girls soccer trailed only football for the highest number of suspected concussions. Long Island officials who oversee soccer have been rightly concerned for years about head injuries. Local youth soccer leagues recommend that big weekend tournaments have a physician or other medically trained person available for immediate diagnosis of injured players. And if referees or team officials suspect a player has suffered a concussion, the player should be withdrawn immediately from the game. Overall, players under 11 are instructed not to head the ball, and those under 14 to keep heading to a minimum, especially during practices.
But parents, coaches and league officials must insist on more medical research into long-term impacts. If protective headgear reduces the risk of injury, it should be embraced, not shunned. Only with proper precautions can soccer remain the beautiful game for generations to come.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.