Banning headers: Why a decision in California matters to your sports club.

They are banning headers! The world has gone mad! Those Americans, they are always suing someone.

These have been the three prevailing themes since it was announced in November 2015 that the United States Soccer Federation would ban headers for 10 year-old and under players plus place restrictions on heading for 11-13 year-olds. The announcement has come out of a lawsuit (which had multiple defendants, including Fifa) filed some time ago but had hit roadblocks. Until now.

Whilst ‘banning headers’ grabs the headlines the key elements of the lawsuit are actually around concussion assessment in junior sport, return to play protocols and ongoing care. Two cases in North America, that of 17 year-old Canadian rugby union player Rowan Stringer and high football player Zack Lystedt, 13, have been the catalyst for change in recent years in Canada and the USA respectively. Stringer’s death and Lystedt’s permanent disability (he spent two years in hospital after the initial injury in 2006) should be the drivers for nations, including Australia and New Zealand, which don’t legislate around this to do so – particularly at a junior and sub-elite level where the greater volume of sports occurs.

CANADA AND THE USA – LEADING THE WAY

The resultant recommendations following the death of Stringer focus on compulsory awareness sessions for parents/junior participants, sharing of information between organisations and consistent return to play protocols.

The legislation in Stringer’s home state of Ontario, which reflects commonly accepted international guidelines, is close to adoption represents a solid base for other countries to start from.

Similar measures are further advanced in the USA with Washington State in 2009 the first to pass  which has since been implemented in similar forms across the country. Essentially the law prohibits youth athletes suspected of sustaining a concussion from returning to play or practice without a licensed health-care provider’s approval. The Lystedt Law has many key points, including requirements for sporting bodies to adhere to the legislation or they risk not been able to access public facilities for which to play their sport.

In the case of Lystedt’s injury he was sent back on after sustaining a head injury and then collapsed upon leaving the match venue. Stringer wasn’t so lucky, a lack of follow-up adherence to return to play protocols and other factors saw Simpson play twice after sustaining a head injury. The 17 year-old died officially from second impact syndrome.

NOVEMBER’S DECISION

Whilst poking fun at ‘ignorant Americans’ and their soccer mums is an easy target it’s worth noting where you are reading this that no legislation likely exists to legally support any possible action you may wish to take in the future.

It may surprise you to know, if you didn’t already that the Australian state of New South Wales is the third-most litigious jursidiction in the world. With the USA states of Texas and California (where the initial lawsuit against the USSF originated) the top two so it is a throw-away line to assume Americans and their alleged propensity to sue means this is an issue only for the USA. It could easily happen in Australia or elsewhere. Given volunteers make up the vast majority of committees of grassroots sports, exposure of these volunteers to possible legal action should have a high priority.

Even if you think legislation on this sort of thing is too much of a nanny state move think about the financial impacts concussion has on ongoing health costs in your community. New Zealand’s Accident Compensation Corporation paid out around $1.55 million in a two-year period to 2013 on concussion related sporting incidents. Better education may not have helped in every scenario and the financial burden on public funds is not that much when you consider it helps people return to work etc in some cases but the $1.55 million figure doesn’t measure all of on-going support that may be needed down the track from health needs which may not have been readily apparent when the money was granted.

CONCUSSION AND YOUR SPORTS CLUB

In the absence of legislation in Australia, New Zealand and other nations the appetite for change and development of community knowledge falls to the governing bodies of each sport but in response to the USSF move in November other national footballing bodies (including the FA, FFA and NZF) have ruled out implementing similar strategies about banning headers. Many national federations don’t, or rarely, coach headers in their development sides in the younger age groups as it doesn’t fit with the accepted football curriculum around skill development however the details on the impact of concussion don’t just relate to heading so it’s a bit simplistic to say ‘our kids don’t do headers therefore concussion isn’t a problem.’ That reasoning assumes concussions in football would only come from headers which isn’t always the case. For instance a sharp blow to the shoulder could result in a concussion which might not be immediately apparent.

Whilst the coaching system might be in place and especially adhered to for academy/development junior players to not coach /undertake headers at a younger age group the real issue is around making information available to everyone. Including parents and those connected with ‘regular’ junior teams from early primary school to high school age. The sheer volume of games for regular kids played on any weekend far outweighs those that play in youth development team/squads. Hence the availability of that information to parents of participants is important.

Searching on the FA, FFA and NZF websites I was unable to *easily find the ‘return to play’ protocols for junior football – a key plank of Rowan’s Law. If community education is an important part of building knowledge this would be a starting point.

I more or less agree that law suits will likely occur in places like Australia, New Zealand and the UK however it can’t be ruled out hence ensuring minimum standards are in place is the best deterrent. It reduces legal exposure for volunteers, makes the standards more widely aware and makes all parties responsible for ensuring RTP aspects are carried out properly where appropriate.

In September last year I attended a workshop which provided details of concussion in sport and speaking to one of the fellow participants during one of the breaks they stated concussion, and related head/neck injuries, was the aspect of their role which worried them the most. The person in question was involved in elite level sport but works with junior teams. It’s noteworthy that someone in such a role feels this way and I’d be willing to think it’s the same for many parents.

The ‘she’ll be right attitude’ won’t cut it anymore. Law suits are unlikely but community knowledge and standards need to raise. Appropriate legislation at a federal level and better information at the grassroots is the best place to start

*Advanced searches found the guidelines for the FFA and the FA but the prominence of these documents/pages are not that high on the websites which they should be.

NB: Those looking for further details can look at Headsafe’s website. People based in Australia can attend their courses but others can use the resources such as their app.

Disclosure: I attended two Headsafe workshops in September on 2015 (one free and one extended course which I paid for) in both a professional and personal interest capacity. I have no financial interest in Headsafe. I find their resources very useful and think more people should know about them.

This piece first appeared on From the sideline of sport

@hamishneal

About Hamish Neal

Born in Lower Hutt New Zealand Hamish is forever wedded to all things All Black, All Whites, Tall Blacks and more. Writing more nowadays in his 'spare time' (what is that anyway?) but still with a passion for broadcasting. Has worked in various sports development roles in England, Northern Ireland and Australia.

Comments

  1. Thoughtful piece thanks Hamish. Yep, I have no problems with the banning of the header at junior levels. There has been sufficient biomechanics done to show the significant force to the head of meeting a well struck ball. Contesting for headers also significantly increases the likelihood of head clashes and elbow/head clashes. They are wise to protect the welfare of their junior players (and in doing so limiting their own future liability). That said, as a player over the years the most head knocks I have had is playing as a keeper. Putting your hands above your head or out in front to take the ball makes you surprisingly vulnerable to opponents. Which is why refs need to be particularly vigilant (perhaps more so) in protecting keepers.

  2. Very interesting – thanks Hamish.

  3. G’day Hamish, great article and quite timely when you look at the highlighted awareness of the effects of concussion and the change in attitudes to same, especially with the high profile of cases from the US.

    It’s only just recently that the AFL brought in an in game concussion policy, whereby a player who is suspected of having concussion can be replaced for 20 minutes while they undergo an assessment. Once the 20 minutes is finished, the medical personnel then determine whether or not the player returns to the field or is unable to take further action that day.

    This sort of thinking and action is a long way from the “rough and tough” days of the 80’s, where “men were men.” It was also relatively common for players to get concussed and still go back on the field, even though they had no recollection of the day’s events.

    Most famous of these would be John Platten and the 1989 VFL Grand Final. He apparently was concussed during the first quarter and has no recollection of the game. He also had a reputation for fearless play, and received quite a number of concussions during his career,(approximately 40), to the point where he is now experiencing memory loss, headaches, migraines and neck pain.

    As someone who has been involved in coaching junior sports for approximately 20 years, I’ve definitely noticed the change for the better in the cultural attitudes to certain aspects of the game, namely the safety side.

    For example, during pre-season training, if the forecast temperature is over 36 degrees Celsius, training is cancelled due to the danger of heatstroke.

    Player welfare on match day is more of a priority, with nominated officials from both sides having to do a visual inspection of the grounds, access for ambulance, padding on posts to be satisfactory before any matches can be played.

    Sadly it seems as though this type of situation always has to occur as a response to a serious incident, rather than being a proactive measure.

    Good article and keep it up.

    Cheers.

  4. Thanks folks,
    Dave, you make a really good point about the goalkeepers. Despite extra officials in one of the W-League semi-finals on the weekend a decent foul on the Canberra keeper Lydia Williams was missed. Williams didn’t suffer a head injury or anything but similar aspect.
    Djlitsa, thanks for reading
    Spooky, You make really good points abut the changes in elite sport. But I’m still stunned Sam Burgess returned to play in 2014 NRL GF.
    The heatstroke factor is probably another big issue in this regard. I recall this story from NFL pre-season in 2001 when Korey Stringer died http://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/02/sports/pro-football-heat-kills-a-pro-football-player-nfl-orders-a-training-review.html
    Cultural attitudes will always be the hardest to change but legislating the key aspects perhaps makes people think twice about taking an needless risk.
    The matchday aspects seems to be well covered as you mentioned but a key element is return to play. If a player is concussed but their parents weren’t at the game and they say have a school game a few days later the flow of information from club to school etc needs to be standardised. .

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