How Bad Are Head Injuries in Soccer?

Hull City's Nikica Jelavic (L) and Newcastle United's Daryl Janmaat clash heads as they challenge for the ball during their English Premier League soccer match on January 31, 2015. Ow. (Andrew Yates / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Jim Hamblin flags a new study out this morning showing that American football players ages 8 to 13 who haven’t had any concussion symptoms nevertheless show changes in their brains associated with traumatic brain injury. It’s yet another sign that people are souring on the sport, whose National Football League has been getting a lot of scrutiny from our readers lately, namely over traumatic brain injuries.

But what the sport that most of the world calls football—soccer? How bad are those head injuries? (Readers have previously tackled rugby.) Innes, a reader of Jim’s piece, flags “a more worrying report today about the effects of football on the brain”:

There is no doubt that American football and rugby as contact sports have more head knocks, concussions, and long-term health effects. But even soccer has been linked to premature deaths due to players repeatedly heading the ball. Today the University of Stirling released a study that showed even a short practice round of heading the ball led to immediate short-term memory degradation. The U.S. has already taken the lead by banning heading in the children’s game. [CB note: The ban last year successfully stopped a class-action lawsuit involving concussions.] Hopefully the U.K. will follow. However, if this effect can be measured in a relatively soft, non-contact sport like soccer, imagine how much worse it is in American football.

Innes continues in a followup:

There are two relatively modern (well, my era) Scottish insults: Ba’ Heid and the more recent Heid the Ba’. “Ball Head” either meant someone bald but more often someone with air between their ears, preferably both bald and stupid. “Head the ball” was a play of words on that, but it was informed by the folk knowledge that footballers who headed a football rather than play it off their feet were stupid.

One time I headed a very high ball rather than try to control it. I heard a crunch from my neck. I’ve had worse head knocks in real life—car-crashes and fighting. I also have read various science studies over the decades about how head knocks have long-term effects, especially on children—not just long-term effects like dementia, but immediate increased aggression. This latest study kind of proves that, and it is disgraceful that the sports bodies have ignored the overwhelming evidence and left it to universities to prove it.

I hate to make a sick pun on such a serious subject, but it’s a “no-brainer” that children’s brains should not be knocked against the inside of their skulls in the name of sport.

Just last month, another study on youth soccer—from the Nationwide Children's Hospital and Ohio State University College of Medicine—revealed that the annual rate of concussions and “closed head injuries” per 10,000 participants increased by nearly 1,600 percent from 1990 to 2014. For more on the head-injury risks in soccer, check out the 2014 New Yorker piece “The Cost of the Header.”

This biggest danger in going up for a header is not the ball, of course, but other heads—which, unlike American football and rugby, don’t have any protective gear:

Do you have anything to add over the risks of playing soccer? Or do you think such risks are overblown—or just plain worth it? Send us a note and we’ll continue the discussion: Update from a reader, who snarks:

I think that all American children should be bubble-wrapped until age 18. (Except bubble wrap might have harmful chemicals that would cause brain damage.)

Another reader, Elise, is more earnest:

As a 6th grade teacher I vote for Ultimate (aka Ultimate Frisbee) as my favorite sport to teach, watch, or play. It is fast, action packed, and full of opportunities for an athlete to stretch themselves. It is not a contact sport, and players rarely get hit in the head. Almost anyone can play, but it requires much practice to be really good. Ultimate is self refereed, requiring a level of maturity and fair play from its players that most sports delegate to an outside authority. This is called The Spirit of the Game, and it is what makes the game great. For your readers who are looking for a new sport to love, check out Ultimate!

Here’s one more reader, who brings us back to soccer and conveys the somber story of his son:

He is 21 now, and was 14 when he suffered his first concussion. Let me tell you about what he’s dealt with:

1. He was diagnosed with a grade 3 concussion after a GK, in an U-16 USSF Academy away game, punched him in the back of the head. He was unconscious for 3-10 minuets (not one person could tell me the real time).

2. He was home schooled the 2nd half of his freshman year and 1st half of sophomore year in H.S. because of headaches, dizziness, bad memory, mood swings, numbness in extremities, and fainting. He slept for 11-15 hours a day, and couldn’t keep solid foods down.

3. The doctors cleared him to practice (no heading) after a year and was cleared to play in a game 6 months later. He returned to school for the second half of sophomore year and started playing with the team again. First game back and in the first half he was tackled from behind while attempting a cross. The player sweeped his legs from under him and he landed head first on the turf. He was airlifted to the nearest trauma hospital. He suffered his second grade 3 concussion and didn’t return to school until his senior year.

4. He has not played competitive soccer since. He is a completely different person. He still has the same symptoms he suffered earlier every day. He is very sensitive to light, headaches all the time, can't sleep more than 4 hours, has short term memory loss, no memory of older events, mood swings, depression, blackouts and short term amnesia.

This is long, because it needed to be. Nobody from USSF followed up, USSF is helping with any rehab, no medical staff at the 1st game and I was told about his injury hours later only after I called the manager of the team. He was off and acting weird in the car when I picked him up from the airport. His teammate told me he was punched and he looked concerned, because he was talking to us like it was a tournament 2 years ago.

Head injuries in any sport is bad, but to everyone that thinks soccer is safe … it’s not!