SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Youth soccer players and their parents claim in a federal class action that the Fédération Internationale de Football Association
and U.S. soccer leagues fail to protect young players from head injuries by encouraging them to return to the field after they suffer concussions.
"FIFA and U.S. soccer and various youth soccer organizations are failing to adhere to a long-recognized international consensus on concussions in soccer," attorney Derek Howard with Minami Tamaki in San Francisco said in an interview Wednesday.
"Instead of changing the rules to make sure they are kept current with the medical evidence of how much danger these children, adolescents and teens are in, they have kept the rules the same. We are asking for injunctive relief and one of the things we're asking for is to stop rules which are hazardous to the players' health and are continuing to be implemented."
Howard, who has coached soccer for two decades, said he has seen "numerous episodes of players who have suffered concussive injuries and they've been allowed to return to the match. That's just got to stop. We're asking for the recognized medical protocol, that once a player suffers a blow to the head, that that player should not be allowed to return to any soccer match for at least 24 hours."
At least 30 percent of concussions in soccer are caused by "headers," when a player hits the ball with his or her head. This maneuver is legal and encouraged by the world governing body for football and U.S. soccer leagues, the complaint says.
In the 14 years since plaintiff Kira Akka-Seidel has been playing youth, she says, she has seen friends and fellow teammates return to the field after being hit in the head.
"Talking with them after the game, they've had intense headaches and confusion, and they can't focus in school. It's been brushed under the rug and not given the proper care," Akka-Seidel said in an interview. "This summer, watching the Word Cup, I was outraged after watching three players get knocked out cold, clearly suffering a concussion, and placed right back on the field. If that's happening on the global scale, what example does that set for younger players?"
She added, "Every time concussions go undetected and players are let back on the field after suffering a blow to the head, we're gambling with life. We're born with one brain and I don't think any title or trophy is worth risking that."
Akka-Seidell, 19, attends the University of Santa Cruz and played for its women's club team in 2013. She has also played for Mill Valley Soccer Club, which is connected to both US Club Soccer and the US Youth Soccer Association and the Tiburon Peninsula Soccer Club, which is affiliated with the California Youth Soccer Association.
The complaint claims that FIFA has done little more than pay lip service to concussion concerns.
"Despite FIFA's pronouncements to the contrary, it has not taken appropriate actions in regards to protecting the safety of players at any level, including in the United States," the lawsuit states.
"One commentator has called FIFA's approach to concussion management 'barbaric.' There is an epidemic of concussion injuries in soccer at all levels around the world, including in the United States, from youth to professionals, from elite players to children playing for the first time, women and men, girls and boys. FIFA presides over this epidemic, and is one of its primary causes. By this lawsuit, plaintiffs seek to require FIFA to become part of the cure."
The lawsuit cites extensive medical research that children's brains take longer to recover from blows to the head, as they have yet to develop the amount of myelin coating that protects an adult brain.
Studies also show that in high school soccer, the girls' concussion rate was 68 percent higher than the rate for boys, and that girls took longer to recover.
The plaintiffs say FIFA's "Laws of the Game," which are enforced by U.S. youth soccer leagues, do not allow a team to take a potentially concussed player out of the game for evaluation.
"As a result, teams leave in concussed players who are placed at risk for aggravating brain injuries that would resolve, had they been evaluated and removed from the game. FIFA's failure in this regard has caused leagues lower in the hierarchy either to limit substitution or to not emphasize in their Laws of the Game the mandate to substitute for concussion evaluation," the complaint states.
The players and their parents seek an injunction requiring FIFA, The United States Soccer Federation, US Youth Soccer Organization, US Club Soccer and California Youth Soccer Association to enforce proper concussion management practices and rules that allow players to be taken out of a game and medically evaluated without penalty.
They also seek a limit on headers by players under 17.
They are represented by Derek Howard and Jack Lee with Minami Tamaki in San Francisco, and Steve Berman with Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro in Seattle.