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Is soccer safe for kids? Amid concussion fears, a parent searches for answers

October 25, 2014 at 10:54 AM EDT
Youth soccer has become one of the leading causes of concussions for kids in America, sending an estimated 10,000 kids to the E.R. every year. NewsHour Weekend correspondent William Brangham, whose three kids all play soccer, weighs the risks and the benefits of the sport. Brangham also reports on the fledgling movement led by a prominent neurosurgeon and World Cup champion Brandi Chastain advocating taking headers out of youth soccer.

Editor’s note: This is segment was updated on Feb. 28, 2015.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Dr. Richard Flyer has been my family’s pediatrician for thirteen years, and to be totally honest: I love the guy. I admire him and I trust him. But three years ago — when my son, Jack was ten — Flyer said something that floored us. He told Jack he wanted him to stop playing soccer, completely.

Flyer argued that the dozens and dozens of kids he’d seen with serious, sometimes life-altering concussions – some of them from heading the ball — had convinced him that soccer itself was not safe.

DR. RICHARD FLYER: We need to look at these sports realistically and say, “Are they really something we want our children to do?” Do we want to, in the name of sport, put a child’s brain in harm’s way?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Flyer’s warning got me and my wife Tory to take a long, uncomfortable look at whether the sport our three kids love is safe. The benefits they get out of the game? Those are obvious, but are they worth the risks of serious injury? For the last few years, we’ve been struggling with a dilemma that’s facing really millions of parents across the country.

TORY BRANGHAM: I just feel really confused and worried and just unsure what we’re supposed to do now.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: It’s important to say that we became a soccer family partly by design. Our three kids are Jack, who’s 13, Gavin is 11, and Ally is nine. When they were little, they all tried a lot of different sports, but when it came time to officially join a team, we really steered them to soccer, which we thought was a ‘safe’ sport, compared to something like football.

NFL ANNOUNCER: Lot of Dolphins sidelined today, including Donald Brown out with a concussion.

TORY BRANGHAM: I think I knew enough and this is now ten years ago to know that football wasn’t really an option for our kids.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Because it wasn’t safe.

TORY BRANGHAM: Because it was considered unsafe.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Then in 2008, that idea was driven home by an awful tragedy in our town. A 16 year-old football player at Montclair high school, Ryne Dougherty, died from a brain hemorrhage he got tackling during a game.

Three weeks before — he’d had another hard hit and a concussion. The whole town was really shaken up by his death. Did we console ourselves, thinking, well, that couldn’t happen to our kids? I don’t know. Maybe. But we kept signing the kids up — and they were playing – and loving – soccer.

ALLY BRANGHAM: I really like playing– how there are positions, cause there’s, like, a special thing that you have to do when you’re doing it so you feel like you’re an important part of it.

GAVIN BRANGHAM: You get to move around a lot, and you have to be a good team, not just composed of good players.

JACK BRANGHAM: Soccer is just the best sport there is. Period.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: That said, I can’t pretend that Dr. Flyer’s warnings weren’t always somewhere in the back of our minds. In 2012, one of jack’s soccer mates, a boy named nick graham, went up for a header, fell to the ground, and suffered such a severe concussion that his headaches and dizziness didn’t get better for months. Nick left the team and hasn’t played since.

Within the last year, at least three of his teammates have suffered concussions. Did that make us think about taking jack or any of our kids out of soccer? Honestly, no. Seeing them learn the value of hard work and dedication, how to handle the successes and the failures, it all seemed worth it to us.

TORY BRANGHAM: In this day and age, there’s so many warnings — parental warnings. It’s not safe to walk to school, it’s not safe to drink that drink, it’s not safe to look at that screen. There’s so many “No’s.” And quite frankly some of the things in life that are the most fun and are most rewarding have some risk involved.

And I’m not encouraging my kids to skydive or to cliff jump. What I’m saying is soccer is fun and it’s thrilling and it’s exciting.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And it gives them so much.

TORY BRANGHAM: And it gives them a lot of pleasure. So I wasn’t prepared to take that away from them.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But then, during the 2014 world cup, which we loved, but also where we saw some of those really brutal blows to the head, I read this story about a movement to take heading out of kid’s soccer because of concern over concussions.

I raised this question with a friend who’s spent his entire life around the game. Declan Carney was born in Ireland. He manages my son Jack’s team and our sons have played together for several years.

DECLAN CARNEY: There’s no question that concussions need to be dealt with and need to be taken very seriously whenever they happen.

But if soccer, heading a soccer ball was actually a real danger of some sort of brain injury, I think it would’ve exhibited itself somewhere in medical history in Europe or in South America or in Asia, where people play soccer pretty much all their life and have done for the last 80, 100 years.

And I don’t think the science says it’s there.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: I checked, and Declan is right: there aren’t any large-scale, long term studies connecting soccer to brain injury among the millions of soccer players in Europe or South America or Asia.

But that article I read cited one small American study showing that adult amateur soccer players who headed the ball a lot – between about 900 and 1,500 times a year — showed abnormalities in their brains — represented here by the red and yellow sections. These are effects similar to what you’d see in concussions

But many of these players said they hadn’t had concussions. The suggestion being that brain trauma might be occurring from a lot of heading without obvious symptoms. Keep in mind, 900 to 1500 headers is far more than any kid I know ever heads the ball, even with regular practice.

But that article also quoted this man — Dr. Robert Cantu — he’s a neurosurgeon, co-directs a brain study center at Boston University, and is one of the nation’s top experts on youth concussions.

Cantu acknowledges the science connecting soccer with brain injury is limited. He’s in fact called for much more research, but even so he thinks it’s better to be safe than sorry and not allow young kids to head the ball.

DR. ROBERT CANTU: If you took heading out of soccer, it wouldn’t be behind football in the incidence of concussion. It wouldn’t even be in the high-risk group. It would be in a low-risk group.

Cantu told me that heading the ball as well as the collisions and hard falls to the ground that often accompany them are problematic for kids because unlike adult brains kid’s brains are still developing.

DR. ROBERT CANTU: The young brain is largely not myelinated. Myelin is the coating of nerve fibers that connect nerve cells, similar to coating on a telephone wire, it helps transmission but it also gives strength. And so when you violently shake the young brain, you have a much greater chance to disrupt nerve fibers and their connections than you do an adult brain.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And there’s this: a kid’s head sits on a less developed neck and torso than an adult’s. So the same blow might cause more damage to a kid than a grownup.

DR. ROBERT CANTU: So, you’ve got a bobble head doll effect with our youngsters, so that the very minimal impact is now gonna set their brain in much more motion than it would an adult brain with a strong neck.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Cantu says strengthening kid’s neck muscles can help, but those soccer helmets and headgear don’t really offer much protection, so he says there’s only one thing left to do.

DR. ROBERT CANTU: Take the most injurious activity for head injury out of it, but let the rest of the sport go on. And that’s playing soccer without heading.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Some others who know far more about the game than I do are listening to Cantu. One of whom you might recognize. Brandi Chastain’s dramatic penalty shot against China won the 1999 World Cup for the U.S. She also helped win gold for the U.S at two different Olympics.

She now lives in northern California with her husband and her 8 year-old son Jaden. She coaches his team, and helps coach a Division 1 team at Santa Clara University. She, along with several of her former teammates from the U.S. National team, have joined forces with Dr. Cantu’s organization.

BRANDI CHASTAIN: We don’t need to have heading in youth soccer, 14 and under.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The interesting thing is just a few years ago Chastain was on NBC saying that heading was safe for kids, as long as they were trained correctly.

BRANDI CHASTAIN: [NBC News clip] It’s a part of the game, it’s an important part, and it’s a beautiful part of the game.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: At the time, were saying, “I think that it can be taught to kids, and it should stay in the game for kids.” Now you think differently. I wonder what was it in particular that changed your mind?

BRANDI CHASTAIN: I think it was hearing the information that Dr. Cantu was putting out. The more I started hearing about it, and the more research that has come out, I just thought, you know, I have to protect them, and this doesn’t need to exist at this young age.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Chastain admitted that so far — their campaign really hasn’t taken off. Just a handful of programs have removed heading. She says the lead really has to come from the top, from the international governing body of soccer, FIFA and the U.S. Soccer Federation.

Those organizations are currently being sued by a group of soccer parents in California who say the groups haven’t done enough to protect kids from head injury.

We reached out to FIFA and to the U.S. Soccer Federation for comment. While neither would go on the record, citing the litigation, they both said that player safety is a priority. And the Federation indicated heading and concussions are among the topics regularly reviewed by its policy makers.

Back in New Jersey, the soccer season goes on. We see a fair amount of heading, especially in my older son’s games. The boys take hard ones, soft ones. They score goals with them.

Our soccer club, Montclair United, says it’s very concerned about concussions and trains our coaches thoroughly but they say they don’t make the rules, and so heading remains a part of our game.

And quite frankly, there’s a lot of doubt on a lot of people’s minds that heading is a problem at all.

DECLAN CARNEY: I have a 13 year old son that I wanna protect as much as anybody wants to protect their son. But I will let my son head a ball because I see no evidence whatsoever that there is a danger for anybody in youth soccer playing, heading a ball.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But then our pediatrician, Dr. Flyer says taking heading out doesn’t go far enough in his opinion. He says what he’s sees in his own patients is evidence enough that the sport isn’t safe for kids.

DR. RICHARD FLYER: We had this 30-year experiment. The results are coming in. It’s not safe for children to do this. It’s a contact sport. That and, you know, that’s also a euphemism. It’s a brain-injuring sport. And if I don’t get this information across, even the risk of upsetting people, I’ve failed.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So where does all this leave us? My wife and kids and I still get up every Saturday and Sunday and get ready for another long weekend of soccer.

But full disclosure: after all the interviews I’ve done tory and I recently told our kids not to head the ball anymore. So far, it’s not been an issue in their games or with their coaches.

Even so, when we go out there and cheer them on… our pediatrician’s voice is still in the back of our minds.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Do you feel like we’re doing the right thing by letting them play?

TORY BRANGHAM: We are sort of punting the ball down the field and avoiding a decision. Which in and of itself is a decision. Our decision is that we’ve let our kids continue to play soccer.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And are you okay with that?

TORY BRANGHAM: Well, you know, I sort of just sit there secretly hoping at the end of every game that they walk off the field in one piece. I just want them to be whole.