A group of parents and players have sued several soccer organizations including the sport's international governing body FIFA, saying they have failed to do enough to prevent concussions among children.
The lawsuit, filed on Wednesday in a San Francisco federal court says soccer’s worldwide governing body — the Fédération Internationale de Football Association — U.S. Youth Soccer and the American Youth Soccer Organization have not done enough to reduce preventable injuries from repetitive ball heading.
The two youth organizations account for 3 million children and adolescents who play soccer in the United States.
The risks of head injuries in sports has been a recurring concern in the U.S. Last month the National Collegiate Athletic Association agreed to settle a head injury lawsuit by toughening return-to-play rules for players who receive head blows and creating a $70 million fund for testing for thousands of current and former athletes to undergo testing to determine whether they suffered brain trauma.
The National Hockey League and the National Football League have faced similar lawsuits.
The risks of concussion in soccer came to the fore in July during the World Cup final when Christoph Kramer, the German defender who moments earlier had been dazed in a clash with Argentina player Ezequiel Garay, needed to be subbed out. This was only the highest-profile of a number of head injuries during the World Cup, including a knee to the head for Gonzalo Higuaín from Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer in the same game.
"For many families soccer is seen as a terrific alternative to football," the lawsuit said. "Parents are often relieved when their children choose soccer. However, soccer ranks among the top sports in the number of concussions per game."
Steve Berman, a Seattle lawyer who helped negotiate the NCAA settlement, also represents the soccer parents and players who filed the lawsuit Wednesday. The plaintiffs include Rachel Mehr, a onetime youth club soccer player, parents of children who have played in youth leagues and Kira Akka-Seidel, a former club player at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
The lawsuit alleges that these groups have failed to adopt effective policies to evaluate and manage concussions, a common occurrence at all levels of the game, according a release posted on Berman’s website. It also alleges 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.
The soccer lawsuit does not demand monetary damages, but it does demand that soccer's governing bodies alter safety rules including limiting headers for players 17 years old and younger.
"Younger players are typically not provided professional medical supervision, either during practices or at matches," the lawsuit said. The lawsuit seeks to institute a medical monitoring program, as well as attorneys’ fees.
"We believe it is imperative we force these organizations to put a stop to hazardous practices that put players at unnecessary risk," said Berman.
The lawsuit also wants FIFA to allow for temporary medical substitutions of players that don't count toward the maximum three replacements allowed in most FIFA-sponsored matches. 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.
FIFA medical committee chairman Michel D'Hooghe said Wednesday he had no knowledge of the case. "However, FIFA has faced other lawsuits before and has won them," he told The Associated Press in Monaco ahead of the Champions League draw.
In a statement, the AYSO said its "highest priority is creating a safe and nurturing environment where kids can play and have fun," adding that it requires any player exhibiting signs of a concussion immediately be removed for the remainder of the day.
Neil Buethe, a spokesman for the Chicago-based U.S. Soccer Federation, declined to comment on the allegations in the complaint, according to Bloomberg.
Difficult to diagnose
Concussion, an injury usually caused by an impact in which the brain is jarred or shaken to the point that the fluid surrounding the brain doesn’t cushion it effectively against the inside of the skull, can be difficult to diagnose and track, since its effects can range from immediate unconsciousness and visible disorientation to subtler symptoms.
Properly diagnosed and with proper recovery time (which can take up to a few weeks), most such injuries can be overcome.
Among children and adolescents from birth to the age of 19, hospital emergency departments treat more than 173,000 recreation- and sports-related traumatic brain injuries each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Professional sports leagues have updated their concussion policies to minimize risk, and between 2009 and 2014, U.S. states moved to do so for school sports, too.
The case is Rachel Mehr et al. vs. Federation Internationale de Football Association a/k/a/ FIFA et al., in U.S. District Court, Northern District of California No. 14-3879.
Al Jazeera and wire services