As I have been arguing for a while, soccer has its own problem with concussions. Having played The Beautiful Game (which most of the world knows as football), I cannot imagine that heading the ball — especially after a long punt — does not cause the brain to rock inside the skull. I had at least one concussion that I can recall, and I wonder about all the thousands of routine headers all through high school and my first year of college.
Bellini, bleeding from a head would. (Probably from a head-to-head collision, not from just heading the ball). Photo: UH/Folhapress
Now, it turns out that one of the game’s greats — Bellini of Brazil — suffered brain damage, no doubt from headers, according to researchers at Boston University. Bellini, who was Brazil’s captain in the 1958 World Cup, died recently, and his brain was examined by researchers affiliated with BU’s extensive investigation of concussions caused by sports. According to today’s Times, Bellini did not have Alzheimers but instead suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which is caused by concussions.
At the time, his death was attributed to complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. But researchers now say he had an advanced case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., which is caused by repeated blows to the head and has symptoms similar to those of Alzheimer’s.
Here’s the take-away from the Times:
Also note, as one of the Times comments does, that so far, investigators have been able to conduct autopsies on the brains of three former soccer players and found CTE in all three. So, it seems likely that CTE is common among soccer players, not rare.
Are helmets the answer? I don’t know. Maybe. But I’d like to see a simple rules change. Don’t head those balls; trap them, then kick ’em!
If you read only one article about Brazil as the country starts to host the World Cup, here is the one to read. It is written by one of my star former B.U. students, Matt Negrin (who would be my first choice in a pick-up game that involved reporting, initiative, imagination, and writing).
Matt is an intrepid explorer, as this piece amply demonstrates. (“Not killed” is a recurring theme. . .). He is also a graceful, often playful, writer. In this piece about play, I enjoyed his many references to the games of his own childhood (from the Sims to adult-driven, trophies-for-everyone American soccer). At
The beautiful game Getty
the same time, he’s deadly serious about the life he is seeing in the favelas, and he brings a measure of respect and gravitas to people who don’t have much of either.
This piece is part of a bigger project Matt is working on — a book about the insanity of soccer fans worldwide. He has made stops in Asia and Europe (that I know of), and he is naturally in Brazil now for the Copa.
His work makes me happy to read, and it makes me optimistic about the future of storytelling.
[BTW, Matt’s Brazil piece was published (if that’s still the right word), by SB Nation. (They did a beautiful job on it, but I personally would like to see a much blacker typeface; if you are going to go long, you can’t ask people to read that faint gray type all day. Sheesh.) If you think “sports writing” is all about who won a game or about how some young millionaire’s groin feels, this is the piece for you. SB Nation (short for Sports Blog Nation) is part of the growing Vox Media online empire, and I hope they are making gobs of money. H/t to Glenn Stout for acquiring Matt’s piece.]
Today’s Times carries in the print edition an incremental piece about the cranial dangers of heading the ball in soccer.
The researchers found, according to data they presented at aRadiological Society of North America meeting last month, that the players who had headed the ball more than about 1,100 times in the previous 12 months showed significant loss of white matter in parts of their brains involved with memory, attention and the processing of visual information, compared with players who had headed the ball fewer times. (White matter is the brain’s communication wiring, the axons and other structures that relay messages between neurons.)
Next, I’d like to see a study that teases apart the difference between heading a ball that has traveled 60-70 yards versus one that has just popped up from a nearby kick or missed trap.
At the end of a piece is a paragraph that I would nominate for keeping, just so we can look back it years from now and shake our heads (gently, of course):
“No one is suggesting that heading should be outlawed,” she concludes. But science and common sense both indicate that “it’s almost certainly not a good idea to practice heading over and over and over.”
No one is suggesting that heading should be outlawed? Not true. I am.
[As so often happens, I found this image online and cannot figure out who deserves the photo credit. If you took it, let me know.]