As incurable sports addicts, Jill and I had similar reactions when we learned our only child would be a daughter: We've been spared "the football decision."
To play, or not to play? As medical science continues to explore football's inevitable head traumas, and as media headline not only that progress but also lives ruined and ended by concussions, parents ponder whether to allow their children to play the game that dominates America's sporting landscape.
Barack Obama and Brett Favre have opined. Kurt Warner and Troy Aikman, too.
Barring an evolution of girls/women's football, we won't face that question with our toddler.
But now comes another dilemma for parents, of boys and girls alike: Should we allow children to head a soccer ball before high school?
Not to be dismissed as alarmist or politically correct, the question was raised during this summer's World Cup, the sport's global showcase, an event that enthralled Americans like never before and showed a disturbing lack of head-trauma protocol.
Parents and Pros for Safer Soccer (PASS) is a campaign with heavyweight backing, a joint venture of the Sports Legacy Institute and the Institute of Sports Law and Ethics. Prominent neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Cantu, who has advised NFL, NHL, NBA and NASCAR teams, co-founded the Sports Legacy Institute, and his allies are substantial.
Cindy Parlow Cone, Joy Fawcett and Brandi Chastain, teammates on the U.S. team that famously won the 1999 Women's World Cup, are leading the effort to remove heading from soccer until high school.
"As a professional, and now a parent and coach, I believe that the benefits of developing heading skills as children are not worth the thousands of additional concussions that youth soccer players will suffer," Chastain, a volunteer assistant coach at Santa Clara University, said in a press release. "As a parent, I won't allow my children to head the ball before high school, and as a coach I would prefer my players had focused solely on foot skills as they develop their love of the game. I believe this change will create better and safer soccer."
Less than three weeks after that release, Germany defeated Argentina in the World Cup final, the enduring image Germany's Mario Gotze scoring the match's lone goal. Close behind: the sight of Gotze teammate Chrisoph Kramer wobbling around the field after his head collided with a shoulder of Argentina's Ezequiel Garay.
Clearly distressed, Kramer received precious little medical attention because of high-level soccer's substitution rules — teams are permitted three per match, and once a player is removed, he's done for the day. Only when he fell to the turf about 15 minutes later was Kramer carted off and replaced.
Although PASS' focus is youth soccer, the World Cup incident reinforced the point: A sport that many consider benign, especially compared to football, can be hazardous.
And while sprained ankles, pulled muscles and even torn knee ligaments heal, concussions are far more problematic, particularly for young people. A first incident, diagnosed or not, leaves them more vulnerable to repeat episodes.
According to the Sports Legacy Institute, at least 30 percent of soccer concussions occur when heading a ball, or colliding with an opponent while attempting to head.
"I have been forced to retire far too many young athletes with post-concussion syndrome due to having suffered multiple concussions prior to high school," Cantu said in the news release.
A "white paper" posted on PASS' website, safersoccer.org, says high school athletes are more able than younger players to recognize and report possible symptoms from heading, and that stronger necks help them reduce the head acceleration caused from the ball's impact.
Painstakingly footnoted, the paper also cites studies that found more headers coincided with worse attention, visual memory and verbal memory in professionals, and slower cognitive function in high school players.
The New York Times and other national media have focused on Patrick Grange, a former college soccer player at Illinois-Chicago and New Mexico whose brain showed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative condition linked to repeated concussions. He died at age 29 of Lou Gehrig's disease.
That is one case, of course, and no one is suggesting that we encase ourselves, or our kids, in bubble wrap. Life itself is hazardous to your health.
Moreover, as the United States basks after a whiff of World Cup success, many will see PASS' proposal as a threat to player development.
But listen to Parlow Cone, her retirement hastened by concussions, her post-soccer life marred by headaches and fatigue: "Up until the high school age, the focus should be on coordination, technical skills and spatial awareness. Delaying the teaching of heading skills, while still preparing players for heading by teaching jumping and landing and strengthening the neck, not only will help make the sport safer but also is developmentally appropriate."
Last spring, the White House hosted a day-long summit on concussions in youth sports, and Obama was introduced by Tori Bellucci, an all-star soccer player from a nearby high school. She turned down a scholarship to play for Towson University in suburban Baltimore after she sustained a fifth concussion.
"It changes the way you think and feel," Bellucci told the Washington Post's Chelsea Janes. "I was just like really sad, really kind of desperate type of feeling. I couldn't do anything because of my head, so I would just be in my room with the shades drawn. I was like, 'I don't want to live like this anymore.'"
Anecdotal, yes, but Cantu's paper concludes "the scientific evidence paints a clear picture that heading a soccer ball will result in more concussions and repeated subconcussive brain trauma, which can have long-term neurological consequences in both adoloscents and adults. Younger players are both more likely to suffer a concussion and have more long-term symptoms than older players."
Words to ponder and a subject to monitor for parents and athletes of all ages.Copyright © 2015, CT Now