Protective Headgear for Soccer Players: An Overview
Since the International Federation of Association Football, or FIFA, soccer's Zurich-based world governing body, began to allow the practice, thousands of American soccer players have worn protective headgear in youth league play, high school and college competition, and professional play. Such headgear gained international visibility during the 2003 Women's World Cup and the 2004 Athens Olympics (Longman, 2004). In the United States itself, the United States Soccer Federation, National Collegiate Athletic Association, and National Federation of State High School Associations all now permit the use of protective headgear in soccer (Delaney, 2008). But these developments did not occur without controversy.
The U.S. Soccer Federation, which permits protective headgear but does not endorse it, fears that wide use of the gear would undermine the assertion that soccer is a safe alternative to football. When soccer officials voice doubts like this, similarities to the failed arguments once made against bicycle helmets, automobile seat belts, and even soccer shin guards may give them a familiar sound (Longman, 2004). According to Jeff Skeen, founder of one soccer headgear company, "Soccer officials are trying to thwart the evolution of headgear in soccer because they think it will scare soccer moms away from the sign-up table" (Longman, 2004, p. 1). "And they also think [headgear use] could be viewed as an admission that heading the ball itself is dangerous," Skeen added (Longman, 2004, p. 1).
Anson Dorrance, who has coached the women's team at the University of North Carolina to 19 national championships, has noted that compulsory use of shin guards did not change the nature of soccer, as many feared it would. It is Dorrance's prediction that headgear will not change soccer's nature either (Longman, 2004). Steve Ryan, commissioner of the Major Indoor Soccer League (which has approved the use of headgear), agreed. "I remember when baseball players didn't wear batting helmets," he said. "You see some resistance in soccer, which is natural. But I expect, over time, you will see [protective headgear use] broadly accepted" (Longman, 2004, p. 1)
Adding to the controversy is the fact that some headgear manufacturers pay professional players the equivalent of $50-$100 per game to endorse their products and furthermore have paid some state soccer associations $4,000-$10,000 for endorsements (Longman, 2004). This arrangement makes company claims of injury reduction suspect, according to the U.S. Soccer Federation (U.S. Soccer Federation, 2005). But several independent studies have shown that head injuries, particularly concussions, have become a significant issue in soccer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that doctors treat more than 200,000 children annually for soccer-related injuries including concussions (Francois, 2006). A recent independent study by Scott Delaney of Canada's McGill University, published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, found that the rate of head injuries among soccer players was similar to the rate among football players (Francois, 2006).
While concussions are significant potential sports injuries that the U.S. Soccer Federation takes seriously (U.S. Soccer Federation Statement on Head Injuries, 2005), there is disagreement about whether heading the ball can cause concussions or long-term brain impairment. Studies have presented contradictory results, and the matter remains disputed as the soccer federation undertakes a longterm examination of head injuries (Longman, 2004). For example, a survey of college-age players (athletes 18 to 22 years old) conducted by Boden et al (cited in Kirkendall & Garrett, 2001). demonstrated that a team can anticipate having one player each season sustain a concussion. However, concussions reported for Boden and colleagues' survey were largely due to game situations not involving purposeful heading of the ball. …