Foot­ball’s con­cus­sion prob­lem will end up in court

World Soccer - - The World -

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

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