Several current and former soccer players have filed a class action against soccer’s worldwide governing body—the Fèdèration Internationale de Football Association (FIFA)—and affiliated soccer organizations in the U.S. The players allege that these groups have failed to adopt effective policies to evaluate and manage concussions, which are a common occurrence at all levels of the game.
They also claim that a lack of effective policies poses a greater danger to women and children players, who are more vulnerable to traumatic and long-lasting brain injury.
U.S. Youth Soccer and American Youth Soccer—leagues responsible for over 3 million child and adolescent soccer players in the U.S.—have allegedly failed to incorporate up-to-date guidelines into their concussion policies. FIFA actively promotes its activities to children; the FIFA video game is the best-selling sports video game in the world and the second best-selling in the U.S. Yet no rule limits headers in children’s soccer, and children are often taught to head the ball from the age of 3. A dedicated youth player might sustain 1,000 headers per year, a high school player 1,800 headers.
Hagens Berman recently pioneered a separate class action and settlement that will reform concussion policies across the NCAA. The case against FIFA could mean similar changes to soccer in this country and around the world.
Though not a contact sport, soccer sees an unfortunate share of concussions. Many concussions result from heading the ball and collisions when two players go for a “header.” Studies show a higher rate of brain injury in soccer players, including memory and attention problems, that do not occur in similar athletes without head injuries. Girls’ soccer claims the third-highest rate of concussions in popular high school sports. Medical groups warn that immediate return to play after a concussion can aggravate the injury and impede recovery. Yet while American football, lacrosse, and hockey have updated their concussion practices, soccer has largely held back.
The medical community called for change over a decade ago. In 2002, an international conference on concussions issued the Vienna Protocol, which set forth simple, best-practice guidelines: 1) Players suffering from a concussion should not return to same-day play; 2) Return to play should follow a day-by-day (stepwise) process of rest and evaluation, generally lasting one week; 3) Players should undergo baseline testing before injury; and 4) Players should be evaluated by a medical professional after injury. The National Athletic Trainers’ Association and American College of Sports Medicine have adopted similar standards.
The players bringing suit claim that despite participating in and even hosting these conferences, FIFA has failed to enact the policies and rules needed to protect soccer players. FIFA’s guidelines appear to suggest that players self-diagnose brain injuries, and they leave it to the referee (not a doctor) to determine if the player is too injured to continue. The players allege that “returning a player to play before fully recovered negligently puts him or her at risk of a permanent brain injury.”
Concern over soccer concussions mounted during the 2014 World Cup, where multiple players returned to play after violent hits to the head. In the final match, Germany’s Christoph Kramer crashed into the shoulder of an opposing player and appeared to pass out. He returned to play, only to be assisted off the field fifteen minutes later in a stupor. Under NFL rules, passing out requires immediate removal from the game. Such spectacles have drawn widespread criticism of FIFA from players, commentators, and even members of Congress.
The players cite FIFA’s marketing and policy materials, which tout a commitment to player safety. In the past, FIFA has implemented policies to address health threats including cardiac arrest and performance-enhancing drugs. Concussions, the players say, deserve the same attention.
The lawsuit seeks to require FIFA and its U.S. affiliates to implement up-to-date guidelines for detection of head injuries and for return to play after a concussion. The suit also calls for regulation of heading by players under 17 years old and a rule change to permit substitution of players for medical evaluation purposes. Currently, FIFA rules generally allow only three substitutions per game with no clear provision for head injuries. If an athlete bleeds, even from a scrape, removal is required, but no similar rule exists for concussions. FIFA provides no guidance on substitutions in youth games in the U.S.
In addition, the lawsuit seeks medical monitoring for soccer players who received head injuries in the past. The lawsuit does not seek monetary damages to compensate for athletes’ injuries, but injured athletes could still pursue awards individually.
In 2013, FIFA reported $1.386 billion in revenue. The 2014 World Cup brought FIFA $1.2 billion from US broadcasters alone.