Experts Say Soccer Leagues Need Independent Doctors

Jul 9, 2018

The FIFA men’s World Cup has been a been a tournament full of surprises and upsets. But it’s also been a example of how not to handle concussions, according to experts. And the problems started well before the latest World Cup. 

Lee Igel of New York University’s Tisch Institute for Sports Management, Media, and Business has coauthored an opinion piece in Forbes calling on FIFA to do better when it comes to treating concussions and preventing long-term brain damage.

Soccer isn’t the first sport we think of when it comes to head trauma, but it turns out soccer players sustain a surprising number of concussions.

“Headers are part of the sport,” Igel told Living Lab Radio. “Also, concussions come into play not only when people hit the ball but when… they're just running around trying to catch up with the ball and knock into each other.”

Igel cited an example from before the World Cup started this year. It was a league final match in which a player from Morocco sustained a concussion.

“Players all around him grabbed water bottles started squirting in the face... and getting him to come to,” Igel said. “By the time the medical staff got out there…they started slapping him in the face trying to get him to come to.”

Suffice it to say just say that’s not current medical protocol.

The player was supposed to stay off the field for six days, but five days later he was playing in the next match.

Why didn’t the team doctor insist on keeping the player out longer?

“His coach said ‘this guy's a warrior,’” Igel said. “He wanted to go out there and the team physician said…I felt pressured to put the player out there including from the player himself.”

Because of the pressure of high-stakes matches, more rules are unlikely to work. Instead, Igel and his collaborator, Arthur Caplan of New York University, have proposed introducing independent physicians who would advise the team doctor.

“Mostly… to act as a check on the team physician who might feel compromised,” Igel said. “But also to help defray some of the pressure and maybe some of the blame that might go around the team physician.”