US Youth Soccer, which has 3 million players and is the nation’s largest youth sports organization, has asked its state officials not to talk to the news media about concussions in the sport.
The directive, in an April 24 email, was provided to The Courier-Journal by Louisville soccer officials who said the subject of concussions among young players needs more public discussion, not less.
“I don’t like US Youth Soccer telling us not to address such an important issue,” said Oliver Barber, a lawyer who is chairman of the Kentucky Soccer Referee Association and a volunteer coach. “We have a whole lot more work to do to keep players safe.”
Kenyon Meyer, whose children, 10 and 12, play soccer and who coaches the Assumption High School team, which had nine concussions last year, also said the sport needs more discussion on the prevention of head injuries and when injured athletes should return to play.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates there were 10,436 emergency room visits each year from 2001-2009 from soccer-related traumatic brain injuries among those ages 19 and younger. A class-action lawsuit filed last August on behalf of soccer parents and former collegiate players asserts that nearly 50,000 high school soccer players sustained concussions in 2010 — more players than in baseball, basketball, softball and wrestling combined.
John Sutter, chairman of US Soccer, declined in a phone interview to explain why he sent out the memo encouraging soccer leaders not to talk to the media generally and specifically to HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel,” which the email says is working on a story about concussions in young players, especially girls.
But Tim Turney, president of the Kentucky Youth Soccer Association, which has 38,970 members, said the request came from the parent U.S. Soccer Federation and was sent out as a precaution because of the pending lawsuit. Neil Buethe, a spokesman for that group, said it would have no comment because of the litigation. He said affiliates were advised to seek their own legal advice.
Plaintiffs in the suit, filed in federal court in Oakland, Calif., do not seek monetary damages but instead changes to the sport’s rules, such as limiting headers for children and altering substitution rules in international soccer. The suit names as defendants FIFA — Federation Internationale de Football Association — as well as U.S. adult and youth soccer groups.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Steve Berman of Seattle, said in an email that “it’s astounding to me that US Youth Soccer would try to stifle public debate and discourse on such an important issue.”
The suit says there is an “epidemic of concussion injuries in soccer at all levels around the world, including in the United States, from youth to professionals, from elite players to children playing for the first time, women and men, girls and boys.”
US Youth Soccer’s requested gag order comes during a heated debate over how soccer should be played by children.
Led by former U.S. international team star Brandi Chastain, a group called Parents and Pros for Safer Soccer is calling for changes including banning heading the ball by players under age 14.
The group’s medical director, Dr. Robert Cantu, a leading expert on head trauma in sports and a clinical professor of neurosurgery at Boston University School of Medicine, acknowledges the science connecting soccer with brain injuries is limited. But he says it is better to be safe and not allow children to repeatedly head the ball. In an interview, he said children’s brains are particularly vulnerable, and that they should be trained how to do headers using beach balls and softer soccer balls.
The email from US Youth Soccer says that HBO’s “Real Sports” is working with Cantu and other advocates on a segment the group fears will be an unfair “set up piece.” An HBO spokesman said it doesn’t comment on stories in development.
The memo “strongly encourages” soccer officials to decline other media requests for “interviews, information, access or permission to film” until “protocols are developed and new recommendations made.”
Sutter said the protocols will “hopefully be out in relatively short order,” but Barber said they have “been in the works forever.”
Michael Hayes, president of the Louisville Soccer Alliance and a coach in its under-11 league, forwarded the email to the newspaper at Barber’s request and said he was surprised the national group requested the gag order.
Frank Peabody, director of youth soccer at Mockingbird Valley Soccer Club, where he is also executive director, said he was not alarmed by the request because “the internal conversation on safety is being had.”
Hayes said Kentucky is ahead of the curve on youth soccer safety, in part thanks to Barber’s efforts. Players who show signs of concussions in Kentucky Youth Soccer state tournaments must obtain written permission from a doctor, licensed trainer or physician’s assistant before returning to play.
Other schools go beyond that; Louisville’s Collegiate School makes soccer players see a specified neurologist, who must approve their return to academics and the field, usually after five days to a month, said Valerie Baker, athletic director for K-8.
“We want students to know that their well-being and healing is the most important thing,” she said.
Assumption also requires the consent of a neurologist before a player with a concussion can play again, Meyer said. “It is out of the coaches’ hands.”
Barber, an assistant coach at the school, also has implemented neck strengthening exercises that he says reduce the risk of head injuries and which he hopes are adopted statewide.
Meyer, who played NCAA soccer at Notre Dame, says that as a “soccer purist” he opposes banning headers by children, but he said they should be minimized in practice.
Highland Youth Recreation, a non-competitive league, encourages its coaches not to teach headers and doesn’t do header drills, director Leslie Gross said. If older players are trying to do them, they are taught the correct way, she said.
Reporter Andrew Wolfson can be reached at (502) 582-7189