The United States Soccer Federation released new guidelines banning the practice of heading a soccer ball by children under the age of 10. The new guidelines also prohibit children between the ages of 11 and 13 from heading soccer balls in practice, but permit it in games.
The guidelines are part of a resolution reached in the Mehr class action concussion lawsuit that began in August of 2014. The case involved a group of parents and players who filed a class action suit in a United States District Court in California charging FIFA, the U.S. Soccer Federation and the American Youth Soccer Organization with negligence in handling head injuries of its participants. A judge ruled earlier that the claims against FIFA had no standing, but that the case against U.S. Soccer could continue.
The class action suit sought only rules changes, not financial damages.
The new U.S. Soccer guidelines were announced in a joint press release with the plaintiffs, and bring the litigation to a close.
The issue of head injuries in youth sports has taken on an increased urgency in recent years with the high-profile lawsuits brought against the National Football League (NFL) and the National Hockey League (NHL). A report by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council of The National Academies concluded that youth sports, such as field hockey, wrestling, women’s lacrosse and soccer, provide as much, if not more, danger of concussion as football and ice hockey.
In addition, a 2012 study reported by the Head Case Co. determined that while soccer has fewer concussions per year than football, the severity of concussions is significantly higher.
As part of the settlement, the U.S. Soccer Federation also agreed to modify substitution rules in games to allow players who may have suffered a concussion to be evaluated without penalty. The guidelines also call for more education for players, parents, coaches and referees, and for more uniform practices for handling youth concussions. While the U.S. Soccer Federation guidelines will be mandatory for their youth teams and academies, they represent only recommendations for other youth soccer programs and leagues across the country.
Steve Berman, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said, “This is a tremendous victory that will affect millions of young soccer players across the country.” He added, “We believe this decision sends a strong message to coaches and lays down paramount regulations to finally bring safety management to soccer.”
While this matter has been resolved for the U.S. Soccer Federation, the hot-button topic of head injuries in youth sports will likely continue to generate intense debate and no shortage of litigation.