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Measure calls for soccer helmets

Value of headgear is much debated

Like football and hockey players, soccer players would have to don helmets on the field to protect their heads, under a new legislative proposal.

The measure, scheduled for a hearing today on Beacon Hill, would cover peewee leagues to college teams.

No other states appear to have passed a similar law, Massachusetts lawmakers and physicians said. The proposal marks the first time this debate, which has long roiled the youth soccer world, has spilled into the state's political arena.

With strong evidence of long-term neurological damage among a portion of veteran soccer players, some soccer officials, parents, and physicians around the nation have recently been pushing for more safety measures for young players, including an outright ban on heading, an integral part of the world's most popular sport.

The measure up for discussion before the Joint Committee on Public Health was initially a heading ban, but was rewritten at the last minute to the helmet requirement.

Now, each league decides whether to require helmets, and most don't, according to soccer officials and physicians. The professional New England Revolution would not be affected by the state proposal.

Physicians say requiring headgear for youth soccer players is not unreasonable because collisions between players, and player crashes into goal posts, are the most frequent causes of soccer head injuries.

''There's pretty good evidence that growing brains are more susceptible to injury," said Dr. Lyle J. Micheli, director of sports medicine at Children's Hospital, Boston. ''It might make sense for kids under 14."

But some soccer coaches, trainers, and parents say the Beacon Hill measure and other efforts are misguided and unnecessary meddling by politicians.

Allison Canale, 44, of Rutland, who has been involved with soccer for 12 years as a coach and parent, said children don't have enough collisions to warrant helmets.

''It's a contact sport from the hips down," she said, adding that her young players probably would feel hampered on the field by headgear. ''It's already difficult for me to get the boys to wear the ankle guards."

Moreover, soccer helmets ''will look silly," said Stephen DeFranc, Weymouth High School's athletic trainer. ''It'll look like football."

And don't get youth soccer players started on the subject.

''It's really just something extra that you don't really need," said Ben Bratt, 13, of Winchester, who plays for two soccer teams in his town. ''I think it would just be kind of annoying."

His mother, Amy Sterling-Bratt, has cringed from the sidelines at on-field smash-ups, but on this topic she concurred with her son.

''I've seen some pretty nasty head collisions on the field," she said. ''I can't imagine that helmets are going to make a difference."

Representative Deborah D. Blumer, a Framingham Democrat and the bill's sponsor, said she thinks the helmet requirement is unlikely to pass because lawmakers dislike a measure based on disputed research. But she believes lawmakers might go for another part of the bill that would set up a legislative commission on sports injuries.

The group, which includes physicians, lawmakers, and sporting officials, would advise lawmakers on sports safety legislation, including measures on soccer helmets.

''My own feeling is that whatever we can do to protect their heads is a good idea," said Blumer, adding that she proposed the measure at the urging of a Framingham constituent who advocates for people with head injuries.

A 1997 study done by Northwestern University's medical school found that 2 percent to 3 percent of soccer injuries are to the head, the same rate as in football.

A 1992 Norwegian study found that 35 percent of active soccer players in that country had abnormal brain scans, and another study in that country of retired professional players found a third of them had brain atrophy, or a shrinking of brain tissue that results in behavioral and cognitive problems. The study concluded that the damage probably was a result of repeated heading.

''Long-term studies of soccer players have shown a decreased level of cognitive function," said Micheli of Children's Hospital. ''But it's not clear if it's from headers, or concussions from collisions. That's the $64,000 question."

But in 2000, after reviewing studies, the American Academy of Pediatrics concluded there was not enough evidence to recommend that youth players wear headgear.

Although professional, college, and high school soccer leagues have never considered the use or helmets or widespread bans on heading, the issue has been hotly debated at the youth level.

Some youth soccer leagues prohibit heading, although the practice is rare, soccer officials said.

National bodies such as the American Youth Soccer Organization, among the largest amateur groups in the nation, have come close to passing bans.

Paul Wetzel, spokesman for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, an organization that coordinates and regulates sports programs for 360 public and private high schools in the state, said the organization has not seen a need to implement a helmet rule.

Ben Miller, director of sports medicine at Northeastern University, said banning headers altogether would be better than forcing players to wear helmets.

He doesn't think players would agree to wear the helmets.

Still, Miller said, ''It's hard to envision right now. It just seems kind of odd in the sense of having a helmet on a soccer player."

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