Former player Taylor Twellman describes FIFA’s treatment of the concussion issue as ‘barbaric.’Gail Oskin / Getty Images
Twellman speaks from bitter experience. A former MLS and national team player, he was forced out of the game at 30 by the effects of multiple concussions — injuries that he claims need not have prevented him from continuing as a player had they been handled properly at the time. Instead, he felt he was pushed back into playing too soon and ended up compounding the effects. He still suffers from debilitating headaches, vertigo and extreme sensitivity to light (even from cellphones) and can’t work out for fear of raising his heartbeat to a dangerous level.
As well as his announcing work, which began before he officially retired, Twellman has channeled his energies into a foundation, Think Taylor, that as well as educational work has advocated for an agreed protocol for handling concussions — a protocol adopted by MLS in 2011. The protocol places a neuropsychologist with every team and institutes mandatory cognitive testing before players are allowed to return from head injuries. A dedicated nine-person league committee continues to review best practices. In this MLS is ahead of the game’s global governing body.
Twellman argues that it’s important to have an independent protocol in place that sometimes removes players from games for their own good. He and FIFPro, the international players’ union, advocate third-party medical examination on the field, independent of the team doctors, and he was unimpressed, if unsurprised, by FIFA’s treatment of the issue during the World Cup.
“‘Barbaric’ was one word I used. I mean FIFA actually had independent medical advisers at each game — but for heat. Are you kidding me? They should be seeing the same TV feeds we’re seeing and be in communication with the assistant referees to step in and examine a player and remove them if need be. We already stop the game for head injuries, but when have you ever seen a referee tell a player he can’t continue? And then you look at their protocols, which are from the ’80s or something, and it’s like, ‘You can’t operate a motor vehicle for 24 hours.’ It’s pathetic.”
For Twellman, it’s a stance that hasn’t always made him popular among his peers. After hearing a previous comment from him on the subject, the women’s world record goal scorer and U.S. player Abby Wambach was dismissive, saying, “There’s obviously some risks that you take playing anything or doing anything, and that’s what we all assume when we step on the pitch.”
To which he countered, “Yes, but when you step on that pitch, don’t you want to know the exact risks you’re taking? And are you in any position to assess the risks of playing on after a head injury?”
Twellman, a former New England Revolution forward, is deeply skeptical about the NFL’s commitment to anything more than figuring out a dollar amount that will make the issue go away. As he put it, “You just watch this year and see how many players have concussions that miraculously clear up within six days, in time for the next game. They say they’re addressing it, but …”
He is in no doubt about the deadly severity of the issue. For a time, he was a neighbor of Junior Seau, the former NFL player whose experience with head injuries led him to shoot himself in the heart so that his brain could be studied. Twellman too has said he will donate his brain to medical study after his death.
For now, though, Twellman, the grandson of an Major League Baseball union man, has found himself fighting for a cause of his own. “You’ll never eliminate concussions,” he said. In fact, I’ve no doubt the [reporting of] incidents of concussion will rise as we get better at recognizing them. But part of being an athlete is having a support group around you that is well-educated and well-informed.” Twellman doesn’t add, although he might, that part of being an athlete is knowing what game you are playing.