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FIFA and Youth Soccer Organizations Sued Over Handling of Head Injuries

A group of parents and former soccer players filed a class-action lawsuit Wednesday against FIFA and other youth soccer organizations over their alleged mishandling of concussions and head trauma.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in California, names U.S. Soccer, U.S. Youth Soccer, the American Youth Soccer Organization, U.S. Club Soccer, and the California Youth Soccer Association as defendants. It alleges that each organization "has failed to adopt rules that specially address the issues of brain injuries and/or the risk of brain injury caused by repetitive heading by players under the age of 17."

The plaintiffs note that youths are more susceptible to head injuries due to not being as physiologically developed as adults. According to the suit, 13-year-old soccer players could be heading the ball upwards of 1,000 times per year, while high school players could "easily exceed 1,800 headers per year."

"If defendants truly intended to protect youth players, the Laws of the Game would prohibit headers or limit the number of headers youth participants could take," the suit reads.

The plaintiffs further allege that U.S. Youth Soccer and the American Youth Soccer Organization have failed to incorporate up-to-date guidelines into their respective concussion policies. U.S. Youth Soccer's playing rules as of Sept. 1., 2013, "do not mention concussions, concussion protocols, or concussion-related playing rules," the suit states, while the American Youth Soccer Organization had failed to adopt any consensus concussion guidelines before 2009.

Instead of seeking financial gain, the plaintiffs want an injunction requiring each organization named in the suit to implement return-to-play guidelines for concussed athletes, a systemwide implementation of guidelines "for the screening and detection of head injuries," allowing temporary substitutions for players suspected of a concussion to undergo medical evaluation, and medical monitoring for current and former players believed to have suffered a concussion while playing soccer.

Michael Kaplen, a professor at the George Washington University Law School who specializes in issues involving traumatic brain injuries, expressed skepticism about the suit's chances of success in an interview with Ben Strauss of The New York Times.

"These rules need to be changed to protect the children, but I don't think they're going to be successful in this particular route to do it," said Kaplen. "I don't think the court is empowered to provide this injunction because none of the plaintiffs have alleged a specific injury. The case they are trying to make is about medical issues they might have in the future."

The Research Behind Headers and Concussions

A study presented in November 2011 at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America found soccer players who often head the ball to have brain abnormalities similar to those found in patients with traumatic brain injuries. In his 2012 book, "Concussions and Our Kids," Dr. Robert Cantu recommended that youth-athletes under the age of 14 should not head soccer balls.

"The negligence is remarkable, given that FIFA actively promotes its activities to children," said Steve Berman, the plaintiffs' lawyer, in a statement. "Yet no rule limits headers in children's soccer, and children are often taught to head the ball from the age of three."

In the suit filed Wednesday, the plaintiffs drew attention to the Bryn Mawr, Pa.-based Shipley School, a private school that will begin prohibiting its middle school players from heading the ball this upcoming season. In a letter to parents, the head of school, Steven S. Plitch, wrote, "While we hope the risk of long-term consequences for soccer players who play only in middle or high school is low, the risk appears to be correlated with career length and cumulative exposure."

According to a report released last fall by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, high school girls sustained 6.7 concussions per 10,000 athletic exposures—defined as one instance of a player participating in practice or a competition—while playing soccer. That was the highest rate of any female sport. Boys, meanwhile, suffered 4.2 concussions per 10,000 athletic exposures while playing soccer, the fourth-highest rate among all male sports (trailing only football, lacrosse, and wrestling, respectively).

These injuries aren't all necessarily attributable to headers, however. A number of the concussions sustained during soccer likely involve player-to-player contact (such as one player's head colliding with another's knee) or a player whose head strikes the ground forcefully.

In a March 2012 editorial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, New York-based pediatrician Dr. Ann R. Punnosse urged caution when attempting to conclusively link soccer headers with brain injuries. "Until researchers proceed with better studies that determine exactly how heading affects the brain, whether the practice might pose a risk to children remains an open question," Punnosse wrote.

One thing is clear: FIFA and the other youth soccer organizations named in this particular suit could have a serious battle on their hands. The same law firm handling this case is the one responsible for the class-action suit against the NCAA for alleged mishandling of concussions, which the two sides recently agreed to settle for a cool $70-plus million.

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