Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


BRAIN TRAUMA DRAMA

President Obama jumped into the growing debate over concussions in gridiron football, saying in an interview with the New Republic that if he had a son he would think twice before allowing him to play the sport.  The remarks were released days after his second inauguration and days before the Super Bowl.

Thousands of former National Football League players have sued the league, alleging it took steps to conceal links between contact and brain trauma.

“I’m a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I’d have to think long and hard before I let him play football,” the President said.  He added that gridiron football fans “have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence.  In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.”

Obama expressed greater concern for college players than those in the NFL.

“NFL players have a union; they’re grown men, they can make some of these decisions on their own, and most of them are well-compensated for the violence they do to their bodies,” he said.  “You read some of these stories about college players who undergo some of these same problems with concussions and so forth and then have nothing to fall back on.  That’s something that I’d like to see the NCAA think about.”  [January 27]

Comment:  Perhaps the President would have encouraged his fictional son to play soccer.  (Real-life daughters Malia and Sasha do.)  It wouldn’t mark the first time that soccer has been presented in America as the reasonable alternative to gridiron football.

The first proved to be soccer’s near-undoing.

It was late in the turn of the century–the 19th century–and the gridiron game, the sport of the Muscular Christian, was in the ascendant on the college campuses of America.  The new football, however, had a problem with its image:  by 1905, another 18 young men were killed playing this sport.  According to “Soccer Stories:  Anecdotes, Oddities, Lore and Amazing Feats”:   … An appalled President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to ban the gridiron game, thus prompting its backers to scramble and create what would become the National Collegiate Athletic Association.  In this atmosphere soccer was being viewed in a better light, and it began to be promoted in some quarters as the safer alternative for America’s young men.  But that campaign only helped paint the kicking game as a benign exercise for physical education  classes rather than a sport to be taken seriously.  Already damned as an ethnic pastime, soccer became regarded in the United States as a game for those not tough enough for the manful, masculine, and manly game of gridiron football.

The second time,  in the 1970s, with football eclipsing baseball as America’s national pastime, the American youth soccer boom was well underway–and confounding soccer’s critics across the country, including Sports Illustrated senior editor John Underwood.  Here, in his 1979 book, “The Death of An American Game,” Underwood ponders the future of sports in the U.S. with a friend identified only as “B”.  To B., gridiron football’s violence will prove to be its undoing, and soccer is poised to take full advantage:

“Don’t be gulled by those of us who believe football will survive no matter what.  Football people have a colossal mental block on that point.  Some of us don’t even understand soccer, and what we see of it we can’t imagine anybody preferring it to American football.  But … there’s a whole generation of kids out there who see things we don’t see.  Eight-, ten-, and 12-year-olds, flocking to the soccer fields.  Kids who found organized football at that level a drag, and soccer fast and fun and skillful–and physical, too, without being brutal.

          “I’ve got one myself who’s into it now, and I go and watch and I’m bewildered.  But he’s not.  He’s having fun.  He loves it.  And he can play it without having to listen to some knee-jerk facsimile of a Lombardi tell him to bury his tiny little helmeted head in somebody’s groin so we can all get a trophy and be number one.

          “Suburban kids are fleeing organized football.  Check it out, you’ll see.  If we don’t curb the injuries, do something about the trend, it may be irreversible.  Football may well become a game for the lower classes.  A ghetto game for young gladiators desperate to get a leg up and willing to sacrifice their bodies to do it.  It would be a terrible tragedy, but it would be our own doing.  Our legacy.

          B. paused.  In the diffused shore light, I could see only his outline.  I imagined that his face was a somber as his voice, which was grim as mourning weeds.

          “The injuries, the brutality, the dubious pro influence, the swarming lawyers–and soccer, too.  Do you know the statistics on the growth of soccer in this country?” he said with sudden intensity.  “Ten years ago, this guy, the founder of the American Youth Soccer [Organization], walks into a sporting goods store in Inglewood, California, to buy a soccer ball  The owner tries to sell him a volleyball.  He didn’t know the difference.  Do you know that last year that same store sold a million dollars’ worth of soccer equipment?  It’s time we got to know our enemies.”

          “You forgot one,” I said.

          “Who’s that?”

          “The toughest one of them all.  Your most implacable foe.”

          “Who?”

          “Mom.  Every kid football player’s mother.  She has always fought the game, always distrusted it.  She never understood football in the first place.  She doesn’t know a first down from a first inning.  But it always scared hell out of her, the prospect of baby boy getting his head cracked.  Now when she reads the casualty lists, and remembers the sad examples on television and at the little-league park, she is liable to become relentless.  Soccer gave her an alternative, clean and practically injury free.  It’s her kind of alternative.”

          “The hand that rocks the cradle,” B. said.

          “Something like that.  Don’t underestimate the power of maternal enmity.”

          B. promised he wouldn’t.

Will soccer now take further advantage of the violence of football, on the backs of players who have, at worst, been driven in retirement to suicide because of repeated blows to the head on the gridiron?

Public perception of soccer in this country places it among basketball and volleyball on the team-sport danger scale.  Among its detractors, soccer–to its everlasting shame, they claim–takes about as much guts to play as golf or tennis.  To the contrary, of course, with its torn knees, head injuries and broken bones, it probably ranks behind only gridiron football and ice hockey as a contact sport.

Soccer has its own head injury issues to deal with.  Before Underwood’s book, there was English international striker Jeff Astle.  A playing career spent heading heavy, water-logged leather balls in the 1960s led to his death in 2002 at age 59.  The West Bromwich Albion striker scored 137 goals in 292 games–many of them with his head.  The coroner determined the cause of Astle’s death as a buildup of protein in blood vessels in the brain, a condition exacerbated in his younger days by heading.  The damage was at the front of the brain, similar to that of a boxer.  With the ruling, the death was officially attributed to “industrial disease.”

While Underwood was completing his book, there was Alan Mayer, a U.S. international goalkeeper who sustained seven concussions while playing for the NASL’s Baltimore Comets, San Diego Jaws, Las Vegas Quicksilver, San Diego Sockers and California Surf.  He ended his career wearing a hockey-style helmet rarely seen in soccer.

Now there’s Taylor Twellman, another U.S. international who’s probably as well known presently as a commentator for ESPN as for winning two Major League Soccer scoring titles while with the New England Revolution.  Twellman, whose father Tim played against Mayer in the NASL, scored 101 goals in 174 matches, but his career was cut short at age 30 in 2010 because of a series of concussions, and he has now made the study and prevention of brain injuries in sports his personal cause.

It’s hard to imagine soccer outlawing headers.  It’s hard to imagine all 22 players wearing a version of Alan Mayer’s crash helmet.  But soccer–especially here in America–needs to get ahead of this issue.  Globally, there are thousands and thousands of future head injuries to be prevented.  If that can be done, here and abroad, soccer in this country will continue to be seen, to an even greater degree, as the safe and sane version of this contact sport known as football.

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