Our lives are filled with risk. Just being alive is risky. And that gets me immediately to the point: humans don’t choose to accept the risk of coming into existence, but for those next eighteen years, those of us who look out for them are morally bound to mitigate risk on their behalf.
Part of this involves the notion of consent: adults can consent to things that others not in their right minds—drunkards and children, for example—cannot. Hence the release forms parents must sign noting that they understand their child may die playing on the school’s respective sports team. We sign on their behalf because, how could a child possibly know what’s best for him or herself? Adults don’t even know this as we’re quite poor at assessing risk in our own lives, which explains why most of us fear flying more than driving despite its being considerably safer. We are free to act irrationally. But children depend on us for some paternalistic rationality.
Given this, we can properly address the latest issue in youth sports: whether youth soccer players should be allowed to head the ball. If there truly is a moral imperative involved—i.e. if adults who oversee these games are morally obligated to prohibit headers in youth soccer—then the implementation will be easy. We don’t want to be immoral, especially when the immorality results in harming children.
Currently, two heavy hitters have taken on this project. First, providing the science behind the issue, the Sports Legacy Institute (SLI)—this is the group that has brought the dangers of football concussions to the forefront of sporting consciousness. And the second, the Institute of Sports Law and Ethics (ISLE), led by board member Brandi Chastain, who may be most responsible for popularizing women’s soccer in the United States.
SLI’s leading physician, Dr. Robert Cantu, explains the increased and unnecessary risk of younger players heading the ball in soccer. With weaker neck muscles and young brains still in critical stages of development, it makes them especially susceptible to the trauma of concussions. Thirty percent of concussions in soccer result from players attempting to head the ball, either by contact with the ball or in collisions with the heads of other players also attempting to head the ball. As Cantu explains, “The younger one is exposed to repetitive brain trauma, the greater the risk of later life consequences. 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.”
Some have suggested keeping heading in the youth soccer game and having players wear a padded helmet or headband. Though this doesn’t solve the real problem of high impact collisions. Instead, the headband is more like placing padding on the outside of a box containing delicate wine glasses and then tossing the box against the wall: the box may remain unscathed but the glassware—what we really care about—ends up destroyed. When a skull collides with another object, be it a soccer ball punted from the goalie or another skull, much of the trauma results from the brain’s momentum sending it crashing into the interior of the skull.
So we return to our notions of consent and moral duty, and also a bit of good news amidst the heaviness of neuroscience and morality. Given what we now know, we cannot expect a 12-year old child to consent to heading a soccer ball. And since adults have a moral duty to prevent harm to children when easily feasible, we recognize that the initiative proposed by SLI and ISLE is not just in the best interests of children, but one of moral necessity. To fail to do this would be to act immorally.
And here’s the added benefit resulting from this proposal: it could actually result in better soccer players. For those not steeped in soccer fundamentals, one of the most important skills a player can develop is the “first touch.” When you watch World Cup-level soccer, you repeatedly see passes sent from across the field and the ball seems to almost stick to the receiving player’s body before he goes on to make his next move. At younger levels, very often the ball bounces off the player’s foot, thigh, or chest causing them to lose any strategic advantage or, more often, forfeit the ball to a defender. It’s a very difficult skill to acquire and one that takes years of practice. If we prohibit headers in youth soccer, this leaves more opportunity for players to control the ball with another part of their body—countless opportunities to better hone their first touch.
Chastain champions this view, commenting, ”The benefits of developing heading skills as children are not worth the thousands of additional concussions that youth soccer players will suffer…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.” And it’s important to remember here that headers in youth soccer games means headers in training: repeatedly performing this exact task we’re seeking to avoid. Very often, when we make something safer it results in a diminished experience for those involved. But in this case, it’s just the opposite.
This all provides an example of two ways in which adults can act on behalf of children—two ways in which it can be “good” to do something. First, by eliminating headers, it is good in that it makes the youth players better at soccer by improving their first-touch. It’s a good move, strategically. Secondly, and more importantly, it is a good move in the sense that it’s the right, ethical thing to do. It’s good, morally. And so it goes beyond being a matter of taste—one person likes youth soccer with lots of headers and another prefers a more controlled 1-touch game. It becomes a moral imperative. In a sport with winners and losers and even some ties, this is a rare win-win situation.