SAN JOSE, Calif. — The retired soccer player Brandi Chastain remains best known for scoring the winning shootout goal in the 1999 World Cup final against China and for the jersey-shedding celebration that followed.
Now 47, a mother and a coach, Chastain hopes her latest move will do more for soccer than that. She has agreed to donate her brain to researchers at Boston University, pioneers in the study of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease.
CTE, believed to be caused by subconcussive blows to the head, is a hot topic in sports like boxing and football. But CTE has also been found in several male soccer players, and researchers believe that heading the ball is a primary culprit.
No female athletes have been found to have had CTE — it has been found in the brains of women with histories of head trauma — but the sample size has been small. Researchers at Boston University have examined 307 brains, most of which belonged to athletes. Only seven of them were women’s.
But with soccer’s worldwide popularity and its growth among girls inspired by the likes of the United States’ women’s national soccer team, researchers are eager to learn more. For now, CTE can be reliably diagnosed only with a brain examination after death.
Chastain is the second national team member to decide to donate her brain, after Cindy Parlow Cone. Both women, and several others from the 1999 team, have argued against heading in youth soccer. In November, U.S. Soccer announced stricter standards for players under 14, although Chastain and others believe that they did not go far enough.
Chastain spoke about her decision to donate her brain in San Jose, where she was born and raised. She also spends much of her time there coaching her 9-year-old son’s team; assisting on the varsity team at Bellarmine, a private high school; and assisting her husband, Jerry Smith, the longtime head coach of the Santa Clara University women’s team. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.
Q: Why donate your brain for study?
A: If there’s any information to be gleaned off the study of someone like myself, who has played soccer for 40 years, it feels like my responsibility — but not in a burdensome way. People talk about what the ’99 group did for women’s soccer. They say, “Oh, you left a legacy for the next generation.’’ This would be a more substantial legacy — something that could protect and save some kids, and to enhance and lift up soccer in a way that it hasn’t before. That was the impetus for saying yes. If we can learn something, we should. And I won’t need it.
Q: Did you tell your son?
A: My son and I had the conversation this morning. I said, “I just want to let you know that we’re going to donate my brain to science.’’ And he goes: “That’s weird, Mom. Why would you do that?’’ And I could see he was thinking like, “Won’t you need it?’’ I said: “This is a long time from now, Jaden. You don’t have to worry about it.’’ And he goes, “All right,’’ and went back to what he was doing. But I explained to him that if you cut a tree in half and look at the rings, it will tell you the story. If there are irregularities, scientists can say, “Oh, this happened,’’ and they can tell when it happened because of the rings. I explained to him that if there is a way when they dissect my brain that they can say, “OK, at the age of 9, we see this,’’ maybe they haven’t had that information before. That would be really helpful, I’d think. It made it easier to say yes.
Q: You estimated that there were “probably a half-dozen times’’ in your career that you shook off likely concussions from heading the ball. Have you experienced symptoms that concern you?
A: There are definitely days when I turn a corner and I’m like, “Why did I come into this room?’’ I have definitely, from time to time, thought, “Hmmm, I wonder if this is connected to the past 40 years of playing sports.’’ Soccer wasn’t the only thing I played. It’s crossed my mind. I do wonder about the ramifications over the next 20 years when I should be fully functioning and still doing things I like or want to do. I try not to get hung up on those things, because it doesn’t really matter at this point. You just don’t know.
Q: Have you had this conversation with other national team members?
A: I haven’t had conversations with present players. I’ve had conversations with Cindy Parlow, Kristine Lilly, Mia. I don’t really think it’s a topic of conversation at this level. I think Abby Wambach — I’m trying to get her to come onboard because I think she will be an interesting brain study, decades from now, as the player who scored 75 goals with her head and probably put her head into places, like Michelle Akers, where they probably didn’t belong. How many times did she hit her head on the ground after being run over by somebody?
A lot of us have kids now, so I think the conversation today is much different than it would be 15 years ago. That’s part of it. If I don’t want my son doing it, I can’t be coaching somebody else’s son to do it. My teams, my young team, U-10 Santa Clara Sporting, will not be heading the ball. And if it means giving up a goal, that’s OK. Or we don’t score one, no problem.
Q: Do you see a day when heading becomes an illegal move in soccer because of safety concerns?
A: Right now, I would say no. I don’t see it leaving the adult soccer world anytime soon. But at least I feel that’s an environment where the decision making is better — you’re more experienced; you should be able to read situations better than you can if you’re 11 or you’re 8. Crossing and heading is a fun part of the game. I never shied away from a ball in the air; I never shied away from a cross. I would dive to head a ball. And I enjoyed it. But I didn’t know that heading the ball could potentially cause a problem, so I go back and forth. Even my high school guys, they’re big, strong kids. We don’t practice it, but we scored a goal on Saturday by heading the ball.
Q: You see this as a youth issue more than a professional soccer issue.
A: The top 1 percent will go on to be elite players. The rest of them will go on to have lives doing something else. You don’t ever want to look back on a kid and say that their life was adversely changed by playing sports — and soccer specifically. I don’t want that. I don’t want that for them; I don’t want that for soccer.
I love playing sports. Injuries and accidents are somewhat inherent in sports. But if you can protect your kids, you should. That’s your responsibility as a coach.
Q: Why is this important to you as a woman?
A: The women who play at the professional level and the elite level, even these young kids, they give as much as the guys. I open the newspaper and read about someone from the Yankees making $325 million over 10 years. It’s mind-boggling. But the women and the girls that I represent, they are doing it for nothing. We do it because we love it. It doesn’t mean our involvement and what we put into it isn’t the same. And there’s nobody saying, “What’s it doing to them?’’