Soccer parents, coaches, lawmakers: Use your heads
It had been only two weeks since his injury nearly devastated two families and an entire valley community. Two weeks since enthusiasm was reduced to stunned silence and time stood still for what seemed like hours but in actuality was 15 seconds.Two weeks after his head-on collision with Colorado Rocky Mountain School’s Chris Sellers, Aspen sweeper Henry Cote finally made his home-field return Thursday against Paonia.The headaches and dizziness have been reduced to mere afterthoughts; the pregame jitters dissipated following the first header in his 10 minutes of action last Tuesday in Vail. Cote – the very definition of youthful resiliency – challenged Eagles defenders and battled for loose balls.His performance drew cheers from the crowd that lined the sidelines and even garnered a reaction or two from the Aspen bench. When Cote, leading with his head, went to clear a ball, one teammate exclaimed, “I can’t believe he just did that.”Maybe they were impressed by his brashness and confidence, or his level of competitive energy after a hiatus from the field. Perhaps they were surprised – even shocked – Cote decided to take the field without protection. Cote’s injury not only sent shock waves throughout the valley, but also resonated as far away as San Diego. For Jeff Skeen, CEO of the fledgling soccer headgear company Full90, Cote’s story evoked a painful past and current frustrations.Skeen watched his daughter Lauren, a former standout at San Diego’s Torrey Pines High School until 2002, suffer two serious concussions before the age of 15. On the afternoon of Jan. 11, 2002, Skeen, running late to his daughter’s game, was locking his car when an ambulance flew by him, heading for the field. “I sprinted toward the field and when I saw a blond girl on the ground, I was convinced it was my daughter,” Skeen said. “It wasn’t my daughter, and that was a poignant moment. I had instant relief, but also the guilt that someone else’s kid was going through this. I called my business partner the next day and told him we needed to address this issue.”Skeen quit his job as CEO of the marketing firm Affinity Development Corp. in 2002. Using his experience designing sports headgear for companies like Giro, Bell and Boeri, Skeen decided to pursue the cause.”I am like the MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving] equivalent of a soccer parent against concussions,” he said. He isn’t interested in money and has even hinted that he will donate the company’s profits to charity. He routinely donates his product to youth soccer associations throughout the country. Following word of Cote’s injuries, Skeen contacted Cote’s father, Bo, and sent him two of Full90’s padded headbands.Cote said that, in talking with Skiers head coach Grant Sutherland, the two decided the headgear was meant primarily as a confidence booster and would not protect him from another concussion. Sutherland said he had spoken to a reputable neurologist who reaffirmed such sentiments.Bo Cote – watching his son take the field for the first time since he was taken off on a stretcher in Carbondale – decided to let his son have the final say.”I don’t want to go through anything like that again,” Bo said. “But I don’t have the final say whether he wears it or not.”The reaction is alarmingly typical. Parents, players, coaches, even lawmakers remain naïve about the dangers of soccer – even though its concussion rates are comparable to those in football and hockey, according to a 1999-2000 study conducted by McGill University in Montreal.As detrimental as concussions are to a player’s health, the reckless spread of misinformation and outright lies by soccer’s governing body is proving to be just as dangerous.Parents and coaches continue to ignore the sport’s potential dangers, despite the fact that in the first meeting between Aspen and CRMS Sept. 15, four players were forced to leave the field because of injuries; only one left on his feet. The same parents who insist their children wear seat belts and strap on helmets before taking on Highlands’ steeps are falling short in their duty of care. It may not be their fault entirely, however. The U.S. Soccer Federation has undergone a campaign of spin-doctoring that would make a politician blush. The resulting perception gap has successfully blurred the line between perception and reality. So what is the reality? Concussions caused by head-to-head, head-to-ground and head-to-post collisions are pandemic. Last year alone, the National Electric Injury Surveillance System, a company that counts and categorizes emergency room visits, found that 88,000 visits last year were coded as soccer concussions.Dr. J. Scott Delaney’s McGill University study found that more than 60 percent of college-level soccer players reported symptoms of a concussion (headache, nausea, dizziness, amnesia, light-sensitivity, and others). Those athletes who do suffer a concussion are four to six times more likely to suffer a second, according to the study. Because the brain has not completely healed, second concussions are often more severe than the first. Skeen spent $2 million to compile a group of the nation’s leading neurosurgeons and to test Full90’s product in top-flight facilities throughout the country. The results are eye-opening.A ball headed at 30 mph produces 11 G’s of force, while two players colliding head-on at an average speed of three meters per second produces closer to 150 G’s. A concussion occurs at 80 G’s of force.Full90 headgear cut down the force of impact by more than 50 percent; thus reducing collisions from concussive to sub-concussive levels. The headgear does not change the game, either. Ball rebound rates off a player wearing Full90 and one going without it are the same. Despite the overwhelming evidence at their fingertips, the USSF continues to relay a reckless message. On Jan. 28, it issued a statement claiming the committee, “finds no evidence that wearing that sort of headgear is beneficial to players … this headgear does not tangibly improve safety for players.” One of many problems concerning USSF’s statement is it did not consider any of Skeen’s published reports. It continues to remain oblivious despite last month’s British Journal of Sports Medicine report that unequivocally concludes headgear greatly reduces the probability of injury. The USSF chose instead to rely on data collected from the results of heading the ball, not head-to-head collisions. Using such narrowed information to denounce Full90 as ineffective is akin to claiming a parachute doesn’t work after testing it while jumping off a curb, Skeen said. “If they stopped to think about what they’re saying, they have to see how ridiculous they sound,” Skeen said.The reasons why the USSF has been reluctant to back Full90 are apparent. Such a claim could affect sponsorships with companies like Nike and Adidas. Soccer participation is also at an all-time high, with an estimated 19 million Americans participating in 2001, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association. An admission that headgear is beneficial may change people’s perceptions concerning the safety of soccer. There is clearly a lot at stake. The Fédtion Internationale de Football Association did lay the groundwork, including Full90 in its 2005 Rules of the Game. Full90 is now legal on every soccer field in the country, and has been worn by players in World Cup, the Olympics, and in Major League Soccer. Skeen, a self-proclaimed “pit bull on a pork chop,” has succeeded in forcing the USSF to retract two misleading paragraphs from its January statement. You may be surprised, but Skeen isn’t pushing for mandates. He isn’t concocting a get-rich-quick scheme to outfit the entire country in Full90. He isn’t vying for high-profile clients like Mia Hamm or David Beckham.”If David Beckham gets a few concussions and begs me for one, I’ll charge him $29.95,” Skeen said with a laugh. His only hope is that people know the truth. With all the facts, they will be more equipped to make an educated decision.Skeen doesn’t want uninformed people to suffer like him and his daughter. Just two weeks ago, Lauren, now a senior at the University of Colorado, Boulder, suffered a headache so wrenching that she lost vision in her right eye and was rushed to the hospital. Doctors said it was the result of lingering post-concussion syndrome. It has been three and a half years since Lauren last took the field. It was March 17, 2002, and Lauren’s Torrey Pines team was competing in the state championship. Just before the game, a referee deemed Lauren’s head guard illegal and forced her to take it off. She collided with another player head-on six minutes later, and her life has never been the same since.The truth is in the numbers; the truth is in the stories. Lauren’s high school teammate Heather Young suffered a concussion Jan. 11, 2002, and has worn Full90 religiously ever since. She earned a full scholarship to play at Ohio State University. Just two weeks ago, while participating without protective gear in a practice deemed noncontact, she collided head-on with a player while both had their heads turned while going for the ball. She forfeited her scholarship one week later, and continues to have trouble concentrating on her schoolwork. Maybe these are special cases that are in no way representative of the norm. Maybe Full90 will not protect players in the most devastating of collisions. Maybe the peer pressure coupled with being the only player on the field wearing Full90 causes some athletes to shy away from the concept. If Henry, his parents, his coaches, and countless others in his situation knew the truth, there is little doubt he would be wearing protection.”I feel sorry for him,” Skeen said of Cote. “If he suffers another concussion – and the percentages say he will – his life will be dramatically different. If he knows the facts and is confident enough to take that chance, then I wish him the best.”It is obvious that the perceived risks of soccer seem minimal in comparison to football and hockey; a headache isn’t interpreted as a serious injury as often as a sprained ankle. But the country’s soccer participants and those closest to them should be cognizant of all the risks rather than be blindsided by reality.It is time that lawmakers, parents and coaches use their brains to protect their children’s. Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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