Football’s concussion problem will end up in court
UEFA has now become the first of football’s continental confederations to address the sport’s concussion problem. Better late than never, one might say. Late it certainly is, but whether it represents any improvement in the sport’s attitude is questionable.
UEFA is “seeking research proposals to study the risk of heading the ball among youth players in European football”. That statement exposes the limitation of UEFA’s interest only in youth players. Nor does the statement include the word “concussion”.
If you want to be picky, you can separate long-term brain damage from the immediate effects of concussion. But the two, in football, are closely related. Studying one without the other would fail to make the key point that ball-to-head contact is no longer seen as the only problem. Head-to-head and head-to-elbow clashes are now considered to be, at least, of equal importance in causing concussions.
Much more contentious is the fact that UEFA does not intend to take any action to reduce potential concussion injuries. It proposes only to set up studies of the problem, then to report on the results of those studies.
In its statement, UEFA is acknowledging the possibility that football has a concussion problem. From the legal angle, that is a pretty risky position to take – especially when the sport plans no action. In practice, though, I doubt that the admission makes much difference to football’s position, which is already shaky. After all, should football ever try to use the “we weren’t aware” defence, it would be laughed out of court.
I suppose it could really be that UEFA is not interested in concussions. For some years now UEFA’s medical department has been conducting a seasonal “Injury Report”. The 2015-16 report – based on reports from clubs such as Arsenal, Barcelona, Juventus and Borussia Dortmund – is a thorough 34-page document that used the word “concussion” just once.
The implication is that concussions don’t happen too often and are not a serious injury problem. Yet head clashes, often ugly, are to be seen in virtually every professional game.
UEFA’s claim that there have been “several studies in recent years looking at various aspects of the effects of heading” is somewhat ingenuous. There have been a lot of studies, most of them inconclusive, but many suggesting that heading, or more particularly, head clashes, are a problem. UEFA is on much firmer ground when it implies that these studies – many of them small and evidently conducted by researchers not familiar with the sport – do not provide the reliable evidence necessary for a definitive judgment.
UEFA now plans to assemble that evidence, which will probably take at least a year – and that is where UEFA’s problem lies. What happens during those 12 months while the research is proceeding? While millions of youngsters continue to head the ball as though no safety questions have been raised?
Failure to take precautions can obviously have dire consequences – both medical and legal.
UEFA has already admitted there might be a problem, but it is evidently reluctant to take the next step: that of minimising the exposure of youth players to heading and head clashes.
Things have proceeded more quickly in the USA – possibly because lawyers are notoriously busy here. A catch-all lawsuit filed in 2014 by a group of youth players and parents accused US Soccer and FIFA of failing to properly monitor and treat head injuries. The case was thrown out on a technicality – over whether FIFA had any standing in the case – but the message, that the sport was not taking head injuries seriously, was heard.
To its immense credit, US Soccer made a decisive move, and in 2015 it announced a ban on heading for boys and girls of 11 years and younger. Which is exactly the sort of move that UEFA has failed to make. The US Soccer diktat can be seen, of course, as a direct flouting of the FIFA, or IFAB, rules of the sport. Does UEFA fear a reaction from FIFA? Realistically,
By not taking action FIFA is inviting the very thing it normally tries to avoid: legal intervention
there is little likelihood of FIFA insisting that UEFA abandon a ruling designed to safeguard young players from serious injury.
But why only young players when professionals may be even more at risk? A number of harrowing accounts of the serious symptoms suffered by concussion victims have been published. They bring a vivid reality to the agonies, and they do not make for easy reading.
Yet the sport’s supreme authorities cannot bring themselves to tackle the problem. It seems that a deep fear exists that conceding any validity to the concussion dangers might lead to the elimination of heading from the sport.
The fear is understandable. Yet by not taking action FIFA is inviting the very thing it normally tries to avoid: legal intervention.
Sports in general regard their own disciplinary codes as adequate for most problems, and the courts are fine with that. But that convenient arrangement will not hold if football fails to acknowledge the higher human reality that is spelled out in UEFA’s statement which explains a need to “determine whether heading has any effect on the structure and function of youth players’ brains”.
Player’s brains. That is what we’re dealing with, and that is why football must act, why it must put the human factor before its own rules. The rules can be changed. Repairing damaged brains is not so straightforward.
Danger...Robbie Brady of the Republic of Ireland lies injured after a clash of heads against Georgia
harm...youngsters risk serious injury