U.S. soccer moms missed on their first shot at forcing the sport’s international governing body to change the rules to protect youths from concussion-related injuries.
U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton in Oakland, California, said Wednesday she had “grave concerns” about “inconsistencies, contradictions and a lack of clarity” in the complaint against FIFA, soccer’s global governing federation, and five U.S. organizing bodies. She said she may allow the lawyers to try again with an amended complaint.
Parents and players who filed the case sought a ban on heading the ball for those under the age of 14 and restrictions for participants under 17. They also asked for medical personnel at every game and practice, as well as a rule requiring players who suffer concussions to show a doctor’s order before they are allowed back on the field.
The National Football League, National Hockey League and National Collegiate Athletic Association also have been sued for allegedly not doing enough to address head injuries.
More than 240 million people play soccer, according to the complaint against FIFA. Eight million people play in U.S. youth leagues.
“Soccer ranks among the top sports in the number of concussions per game,” with women sustaining injuries at a rate greater than men, according to the complaint.
Researchers have found that heading a soccer ball to score or pass is linked over time to brain injuries that can affect memory in amateur adult players. Almost a third of soccer-related concussions are caused by heading the ball or attempting to and colliding with another player, an object or the ground, according to the complaint.
FIFA lawyer Chris Boehning said during a three-hour hearing Wednesday that the international governing body couldn’t change the rules of the game even if it wanted to because they are set by the International Football Association Board. While FIFA controls four of the board’s eight seats, six votes are required for any rule changes, Boehning said.
Steve Berman, a lawyer for the soccer parents, said that was irrelevant. “The point of the case is that the entire world looks to FIFA for guidance on soccer,” he said.
Russell Sauer, a lawyer for the United Soccer Federation, argued that governing bodies shouldn’t be blamed for injuries to participants in inherently risky sports.
If they were, football would have to ban tackles and boxing would have to eliminate punches to the head, he said.
“So what’s next?” he asked. “Do we need to reduce the speed of running in soccer? Do we need to eliminate kicking?”
Sauer disputed the lawsuit’s claim of an epidemic of head injuries in soccer. He noted a recent study which found that male soccer players suffer only .19 concussions per 1,000 games or practices. For females, it’s .33 percent, according to the study.
Even playing several times a week all year long, a player could expect to play for 10 or 15 years before having a concussion, Sauer said.
Berman, who is also suing the NCAA over head injuries, told the judge he will file a revised complaint to address her concerns.
In the initial complaint, parents asked for a rule requiring children to undergo a neurological exam before they’re allowed to start playing soccer. They also sought concussion-management protocols and a stepwise return-to-play guidelines for players who suffer head injuries.
The NFL last month won final court approval of a $765 million settlement of ex-player head-injury claims, overriding criticism that the money still falls short and the deal terms are unfair. A federal judge in Chicago in April declined to approve the NCAA’s $75 million settlement over student players’ concussions after a plaintiffs’ lawyer questioned the adequacy of the agreement.
The case is Mehr v. Federation Internationale de Football Association, 14-cv-3879, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).