Cool or Drool: Soccer’s CTE Problem

Dan Bisno, Columnist

Ha sido sólo un susto” — It was only a scare. Fernando Torres tweeted those words following the traumatic header that could have cost him his career, not to mention his life.

While the collision lasted only a fraction of a second, the aftermath was a peculiar blend of emotions. Immediately after the 32-year-old striker fell to the ground, more than half of the players on both teams rushed to his assistance. Torres was unconscious. Players began prying open his mouth to ensure he didn’t choke on his tongue and asphyxiate.

Meanwhile, other players looked stunned. Perhaps the most unanticipated reaction was the tears. Almost every grown man on the field was weeping as if someone had died. Many medics and players couldn’t even look at Torres, whose neck had contorted in mid-air. Perhaps this is the sports landscape to get used to in 2017 following developments in concussion research.

Torres was diagnosed with a “traumatic brain injury” at the hospital, yet miraculously discharged a day later and told to take 48 hours off of physical activity. What kind of concussion protocol is this? Especially considering all we know about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease found in athletes who have sustained repeated brain trauma, letting Torres back on the field following a quick MRI is naive.

CTE plagued boxers for decades. The frequent head hits and concussions were known to cause brain damage. Memory loss, early-onset dementia and poor balance are just a few of the many symptoms that afflict patients. Until recently, CTE was thought to be a only boxing disease. However, since 2002 many American football players have been diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, and it is beginning to gain attention in other sports.

While soccer may not expose players to the same risk of CTE as sports like football, a study published less than a month ago found that four of six post-mortem evaluations of former professional soccer players were consistent with signs of CTE. Furthermore, all six had developed Alzheimer’s disease. Especially considering how recently this study was published, La Liga should be re-evaluating their sub-par concussion protocols.

Following this study, the American Youth Soccer Organization banned headers for youth players ages 10 and under. The scientific community acknowledges that those with the highest risk of CTE are those who accumulate many head hits over their career, most of which do not result in a concussion. Many youth soccer players report hundreds of head hits per year.

These facts should start conversations about the necessity of headers in soccer. Full disclosure: This is a tough topic, and I do not necessarily condone the removal of headers from professional soccer. But do we want millions of children practicing headers during regular practices? While we should cherish tradition, there must be a point in which we learn from the scientific research about the risks of these practices.

Players are praised for their resilience when faced with roadblocks, whether those be injuries, sickness or concussions. While Michael Jordan playing through the flu in his famous 1997 flu game probably had zero impact on his long-term health, Bo Jackson’s decision to run through the pain of a hip dislocation ultimately ended his football career and led to a hip replacement. Jackson has even remarked that he would have never played football if he had known about CTE.

Torres is a veteran. In fact, he’s Spain’s golden boy, and the third-highest goal scorer in his country’s history. Despite a slump in his play after his 2016 return to Atlético Madrid, where he started his career, Torres is back on his game. This is not the time in a player’s career to be the hero that plays through the concussion that leads to decades of misery from CTE. Players must learn to exhibit patience through these injuries, and more importantly leagues must enforce it.

Through all of the bleak discoveries in CTE research, a new hope may have been found. The National Institute of Health has introduced a new approach to concussion protocol testing, whereby blood samples are taken within six hours of contact. Levels of tau in the blood, a protein whose aggregation is associated with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, may be a better determinant of the brain damage sustained by an athlete. Researchers have found an algorithm that relates tau protein concentration to the minimum rest time a player should take.

Ultimately, better concussion protocols may help FIFA in the long run. Already, the NFL has paid millions to former players who suffered brain damage during their playing days. To save itself from that liability and protect its players, FIFA must adapt to the demands of other contact sports and take CTE more seriously. While we admire Torres for his determination to return to the field, this story and many more like it earn a drool for the trivial treatment of concussions in soccer.