Open Letter to Youth Soccer Refs and Coaches
November 25th, 2017
Richard J. Fern, President of San Francisco Soccer Referee Association;
and Head Coaches of San Francisco Youth Soccer Clubs and Organizations.
My wife and I are both journalists. We cover sports and other topics for many publications, including The New York Times. We are writing to express concern about player safety in San Francisco youth soccer. Our personal concern dates to September 2017, when our daughter, who plays goal keeper, got kicked powerfully in the head by opposing players during games on two consecutive weekends. Both kicks to the head came as our daughter was trying to control the ball inside the penalty box. (In both cases, eyewitness believed that she was touching the ball). Both kicks to the head were powerful enough to require our daughter’s removal from a game. Neither resulted in any consequence to the offending player or team: no red card, no yellow card, no foul, no nothing; neither offensive player was told, by any adult, “Hey, we’re out here to have fun and play safe. It’s really not okay to kick people in the head.”
For days after the second kick, our daughter suffered headache, nausea, and sensitivity to light—common concussion symptoms. When our daughter was examined at a San Francisco Kaiser Permanente hospital, our pediatrician said that she sees many head injuries among San Francisco youth soccer players and strongly recommended steering our child into a different sport.
Our point is not to question a referee’s judgment in this particular case. Our point is that our local soccer culture is permissive of unsafe play. We know that referees do not make rules, but we also know that the rules of soccer grant a great deal of discretion to referees. For example, FIFA’s current laws require that a direct free kick be awarded any time a player “charges” or “tackles or challenges” an opponent “in a manner considered by the referee to be careless, reckless or using excessive force.” Carelessness is defined as showing “lack of attention or consideration” or acting “without precaution.” Recklessness is defined as acting “with disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, an opponent.” Use of excessive force is defined to include anything that “endangers the safety of an opponent.”
In the case of our daughter, both referees could have concluded that a player who kicks a goalie in the head has displayed carelessness, recklessness, lack of consideration, or use of excessive force. Neither referee made any call at all. That sends a message to players and coaches: referees will not make calls in favor of safe play. When in doubt, be aggressive and don’t worry about hurting other players. It’s not just a goalie issue, either. In all our collective years of watching local games from the sidelines, during which we have all seen a lot of rough play, the disciplining of players has been rare. Studies of soccer head injuries show that most are suffered by field players, not goalies.
Girls youth soccer, as you have doubtless heard, has the highest concussion rate in all of youth sports—higher than boys’ football. And while it’s great that coaches and referees are now trained to recognize concussions, that training only prevents the extreme legal liability arising from dreaded “second-touch” concussions—those in which a second impact closely follows a first, causing profound brain damage or death. Concussion diagnosis does nothing to prevent the everyday sub-concussive bangs and knocks that correlate most strongly with later cognitive decline and mood disorders. Bans on headers are likewise good news—but, again, headers are involved in only 15-25% of soccer head injuries. The overwhelming majority come from player-to-player contact in situations having nothing to do with headers.
Players under the age of fourteen are especially vulnerable, as their brains are still forming. Robert Cantu, one of the leading researchers in the field, described the risk of youth concussions to me like this: “Think of it as a question of whether your child will reach his or her cognitive or emotional potential—whether or not they will become the person they would otherwise have become.” Youth football has already seen immense class-action lawsuits and cratering participation due to parental concerns. It would be a shame to see the same happen in youth soccer.
We are not asking for rule changes. We also appreciate your dedication to the sport; our children love it and we want them to keep playing. What we are asking for is your help in rededicating our local culture of soccer to player safety. We look forward to hearing your suggestions about the best ways to make that happen.
Elizabeth Weil, Daniel Duane, and the undersigned parents: