U.S. Soccer makes right call in proposing youth ban on heading

U.S. Soccer makes right call in proposing youth ban on heading

If it's up to the United States Soccer Federation, heading in youth soccer games under the age of 10 will soon be a thing of the past, and those up to the age of 13 would eschew headers in practice.

That's what U.S. Soccer will recommend to the country's youth soccer programs like the behemoth U.S. Youth Soccer and the American Youth Soccer Association organizations – although it has no jurisdiction to enforce such rules uniformly – as well as its own Development Academy leagues and youth national team programs.

The federation also announced new concussion protocols for the Development Academy and youth national teams on Monday. They will allow a player who is suspected of having a concussion to be substituted and, if cleared, brought back into the game without costing his team any of its limited subs.

In August 2014, a group of former youth soccer players and parents brought a suit against U.S. Soccer and FIFA, alleging that neither had done enough to mitigate the risk of concussions or injury from headers. A federal judge in California dismissed the suit in July. She did allow the plaintiffs to amend their suit against U.S. Soccer, but not FIFA, by providing more evidence.

However, in a joint statement released on Monday, U.S. Soccer and the plaintiffs said this action had now been resolved.

"We filed this litigation in effort to focus the attention of U.S. Soccer and its youth member organizations on the issue of concussions in youth soccer," said Steve Berman, lead counsel for the plaintiffs. "With the development of the youth concussion initiative by U.S. Soccer and its youth members, we feel we have accomplished our primary goal and, therefore, do not see any need to continue the pursuit of the litigation."

"In constructing the concussion component, U.S. Soccer sought input from its medical science committee which includes experts in the field of concussion diagnosis and management, as well as from its technical advisors, and worked with its youth members to develop a true consensus-based program," said Dan Flynn, U.S. Soccer's CEO and secretary general. "We are pleased that the plaintiffs and their counsel recognize the steps we have taken and look forward to sharing the benefits of the youth concussion initiative with players, coaches, officials and parents."

Will a heading ban prevent the U.S. from producing another aerial threat like Abby Wambach? (Getty Images)
Will a heading ban prevent the U.S. from producing another aerial threat like Abby Wambach? (Getty Images)

While the announcements of these new rules and recommendations coincide with the end of the suit, they aren't direct results of it. U.S. Soccer has gone to considerable lengths to stay with the times – or even ahead of them – when it has come to preventing traumatic brain injury. It already conducted baseline testing on all the players in its national team programs and the Development Academy and has for years engaged experts.

These initiatives nevertheless address a real problem. While concussions are common in soccer, sub-concussive blows from heading, which can be just as harmful in the long run, are believed to be even more prevalent – if harder to diagnose and prevent.

Recently, The Guardian cited a study from Purdue University that found heading of goal kicks and hard shots as damaging as helmet-to-helmet impact in football or the punches landed by boxers. "The percentages of 100g hits was effectively the same between women's college soccer and American Football, which really surprised us," Eric Nauman, director of the Human Injury Research and Regenerative Technologies Laboratory at Purdue, told the English newspaper. "And while American football players tend to take more hits overall in a given practice session and game, the college soccer players were getting hit every day and so it evened out."

U.S. Soccer deserves praise for being proactive in its attempt to solve an odious issue, taking drastic measures to help end the concussion epidemic in youth sports. There will be skeptics aplenty who will argue that heading is as much a part of soccer as full-body contact is of football, or body checking of ice hockey. But then the federation probably also has the advantage that soccer isn't as deeply entrenched in American culture, making it easier to tinker without upsetting the traditionalists.

To some, perhaps overlooking the bigger picture, the biggest concern will probably be the effect on the long-term development of the American player if entire generations don't start heading the ball regularly until age 14. Whatever health risks are avoided for the large masses could be questioned when a much smaller but more visible pool of players pushing into the national teams is judged to be deficient in the aerial game.

Curbing heading in youth soccer will probably prove controversial. And whatever issues American soccer might face in a decade or so might be blamed on it.

But today, given the enormous stakes of a significant health risk to millions of American children, it was the right thing to do.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.