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We need to keep researching the effects of heading the ball


We’re a few years away from having a serious discussion about the effects of heading the ball. But that discussion’s coming, and the sooner, the better. It’s impossible to persist in the illusion soccer will dodge that scrutiny when you read stories like today’s at The New York Times.

Anne B. Sereno, a neurobiology professor in Houston, looked at cognitive function in high school girls soccer players. She and her colleagues took her iPads and their tests to one school’s varsity soccer practices. They noted how many times players were heading the ball, had them do some basic cognitive testing after sessions, and compared their results to non-soccer playing high school girls.

There’s already evidence suggesting repeated heading of the ball causes “subtle structural changes in certain parts of the brain” (that sounds like brain damage, to me). And as Sereno notes, “female soccer players are second only to football players in the number of concussions” incurred each year. The group she focused on may be particularly susceptible to the negatives of heading the ball.

What’d she find? Relying on an assessment called the anti-point test (which involves selecting cued boxes in a small matrix, as adapted for the iPad), Sereno collected some worrisome data:

It turned out, that the soccer players were not as adept at the anti-point test. As a group, their responses were slightly but significantly slower, suggesting some degree of cognitive impairment.

What is more, the more times a girl had headed the ball in the immediately preceding practice, the worse her scores were on the anti-point test.

Wondering whether the effects might, potentially, be cumulative, the researchers then re-ran their analysis, using information about how many years each soccer player had participated in the sport and also how many hours per week she currently practiced.

They found that the more years a girl had played, the slower she tended to be on the anti-point test.

Similarly, the more hours per week a girl played, the worse she performed on the anti-point test.

The Times piece stresses: We can’t base conclusions on these results. The study was too small in size and scope.

However, it’s a reason to continue. Or more readily, it’s part of a mandate. Heading the ball seems to have negative neurological consequences. We have to find out the extent of those consequences.

We also can learn from how this issue has unfolded in other sports. Football has been embarrassingly slow acknowledging their problems. They’ve only recently become proactive, and across the country, there’s still incredible reticence in acknowledging full contact football is not be a good idea for young children.

Boxing, as an industry, has never adapted to landscape that’s become less tolerant of a “the players know the risks” justification. It’s a logic you could use to justify the way soccer’s currently played.

Sports always evolve. Heading has not always been a part of soccer, though it has been for a long time. If there isn’t a way to sustainably head the ball, the sport needs to know.

We’re pretty far from that point. We don’t even have the data to justify broad conclusions, and once we do, that data may be better used to find solutions than indict the entire sport.

But we need to keep an open mind. And we need to keep pursuing this.

“Overweight” Costa comes to Mourinho’s defense

Diego Costa, Chelsea FC
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Diego Costa says he and his Chelsea teammates are to blame for Chelsea’s horrid start to the 2015-16 Premier League season.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Speaking Thursday, during a bit of downtime over the current international break (Costa was left out of Vicente del Bosque’s squad for Spain’s final two EURO 2016 qualifiers this week), Costa placed the majority of blame at the feet of the entire team, but went on to most harshly critique himself for coming into the season unfocused and “overweight.”

Costa, on his lack of fitness and form to begin the season — quotes from the Guardian:

“We know we’re not in the form we were supposed to be at the beginning of the season. We need to blame the players because we came back from holiday very confident, thinking we could go back into how it was last season, and then realized the team was already in a bad situation.

“I’m going to be very honest: maybe a few weeks ago, five or six weeks ago, I was not on top of my game. At least physically. We talk within the players and we know that, maybe at the beginning, we were not 100 percent as we were supposed to be when we got here. I got injured at the end of last season and then I went on holiday. Maybe I got out of my diet and, when I came back, I was not the way I was supposed to be. I was a little bit overweight. That affected my game. You can be selfish and blame it on the manager but I’m not going to do that. I’m responsible 100%, and so are the other guys.

Given that Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said on Thursday he doesn’t quite know what’s wrong with the defending Premier League champions, hearing someone — anyone — speak up and explain the club’s worst start to a season in 37 years will surely be a welcome sound to any Blues supporter’s ears.

[ MORE: Liverpool appoint Klopp as manager | Allardyce to Sunderland? ]

Costa, who is eligible to return from suspension next weekend when Aston Villa visit Stamford Bridge, has scored just one goal in league play this season (six appearances) after scoring 20 in 26 games last season.

Sam Allardyce to open talks with Sunderland

Sam Allardyce, West Ham United FC
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Now that Liverpool have selected and named their new manager, it appears Sunderland are finally ready to move forward with their own managerial search. (That’s clearly a joke, because it implies Liverpool and Sunderland ever duke it out for the same managerial candidate.)

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Anyway, the Black Cats will have to hire someone to replace the recently-departed Dick Advocaat at some point. We all knew that, despite the fact he’s probably earned a shot at that level, Bob Bradley was never really going to be considered for the job. With that in mind, if you’re not going to endear yourself to the entire United States of America with this hire, you might as well go for the best unemployed manager who’ll actually consider your approach.

That’s what Sunderland chairman Ellis Short appears to have done, as it was reported Thursday that despite an initial reluctance from Sam Allardyce — let’s be honest, he actually was holding out hope for the Liverpool job — the 60-year-old most recently in charge of West Ham United was willing and ready to enter into negotiations with the northeastern club.

One of the major sticking points during Sunderland’s courting of Allardyce is expected to be his demand for autonomy in the transfer market as well as a sizable transfer budget to sign his own players during the January window.

[ MORE: Advocaat: Sunderland squad too thin, chairman to blame ]

Allardyce seems like the no. 1 guy you’d like to bring in to steady a capsized ship — cough Sunderland cough — in any situation. Not only does he have a successful track record in the Premier League, but he’s the kind of no-nonsense leader a club like Sunderland so desperately needs as they find themselves in yet another relegation battle just eight games into the new season.

Short hopes to have Allardyce signed, sealed and delivered when the Premier League returns to action next weekend. In that event, Allardyce’s first game in charge of Sunderland would be a trip to West Bromwich Albion. His first home fixture? Home to Tyne-Wear derby rivals Newcastle United, a club whose boisterous fanbase still holds a great deal of disdain for Big Sam. Sometimes the football gods really are looking out for us.