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With a Retired Soccer Pro’s Admission of Memory Loss, Heading Takes Another Hit

29 Nov, 2017

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

The issue of heading in soccer, which divided the sports world not too long ago, just took another hit. And it’s a hard one.

Retired English soccer star Alan Shearer has noted publicly that even at the age of 47, his memory has deteriorated, and that he worries about premature dementia. Many of his colleagues, he says, already have it, some to the point of not being able to find their homes or recognize loved ones.

And Shearer, it might be noted, is having tests to determine how heading the ball has affected his brain. He blames professional sports for sweeping the issue under the carpet.

“Nowhere near enough research has been done,” Shearer told The Daily Mirror. “The authorities have been very reluctant to find out any answers. Football must look after old players with dementia and put an end to this sense that once you are done playing, you can be put on the scrapheap. It’s a tough game, it’s a brilliant game, but we have to make sure it’s not a killer game.”

The idea of brain injury manifesting before the age of 50 reinforces a position taken by sports nearly two years ago. Near the end of 2015, the U.S. Soccer Federation announced a player safety campaign to eliminate heading for children 10 and under, and to limit the amount of heading in practice for children ages of 11 to 13. The settlement affected all levels of play from U-18 down, starting December 2015.

High time, says Shearer, who can point to any number of players now suffering from dementia at various levels. The problem, he adds, is that officials are trying to classify dementia as age-related rather than a result of repeated head strikes.

“When you play football as a professional you expect in later life you are going to have problems with your knees, your ankles, or you back, like I have. But never did I think playing football could be linked to having a brain disease. That is why the research has to be done.”

While there are plenty of players who are championing the drive to eliminate heading in the children’s version of the sport (the USA’s Brandi Chastain among them), the restrictions have also become a source of contention, according to an article in The Baltimore Sun, since they have provoked criticism from some coaches, administrators and parents, who say they hinder kids' skill development by unnecessarily removing an integral part of the game.

"I have a 10-year-old son who can head the ball better than most college players and has been able to for a couple of years, but he can't now because of the new rule," said Natalie Powell, president of the Catonsville Youth Soccer League. "I'm curious how this will impact him when he is finally allowed to once again."

But, say soccer coaches, it’s definitely a skill that can be learned later, and does not need to be practiced repetitively. They also claim that not heading balls in games on a routine basis won’t be stopping players from being considered for athletic scholarships to college.

In youth soccer and football, organizers are trying to institute new safety measures without diluting the essence of the sports. But the efforts have encountered pushback in both sports, and have given rise to denigrating those who oppose head contact, and who call fears of concussion simply ‘the mommy factor.’

Of course, a recent factor has contributed to the case against football: autopsy results from the brain of star football athlete Aaron Hernandez, who hanged himself in his prison cell at the age of 27 after killing a man.

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