Round Two: Two other dangerous sports that don’t make the headlines

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

Last week’s Round 2 column on “player safety” in sports elicited an interesting response from a reader that had me doing a deeper dive on the subject.

It read, in part: “Included in the lack of safety should be soccer and track/cross country. I hate to see soccer players smash heads! I also hate to see runners collapse after sprinting to a finish in 90 plus degree weather with no squad present.”

I respect the level of commitment it takes to play any sport. They all present their own unique set of challenges, and to become proficient at any of them requires skill, dedication and a whole lot of hard work.

They also present their own set of unique dangers.

During my days covering high school sports for the Record-Courier, I spent a lot of time at track and cross country meets and was amazed at how well-conditioned the athletes were — and was horrified at how many of them, despite their advanced level of conditioning, collapsed soon after crossing the finish line and vomited, sometimes all over themselves.

And I was even more aghast that many of them lay still on the ground for several minutes, unattended, after collapsing and puking. In any “team” sport, an athlete in that situation would have been descended upon immediately by training and medical personnel. But for some reason, in track and cross country, many of these athletes were basically left to fend for themselves.

This isn’t to say that every track/cross country athlete at every school at every meet I covered was left to suffer on their own. I’m just saying that from my experience as a sports writer, it happened way too often to be considered safe for an athlete. And many of these instances came on days when I was broiling in the heat just standing there, let alone exerting myself to the point of physical exhaustion like the runners.

Other writers told me of high school track and cross country meets they covered where athletes soiled themselves — while running. I never bore witness to that myself, but after seeing runners stagger, stumble and even crawl to the finish line before collapsing in a heap, I wasn’t surprised.

Then there were the occasions when I had to wait several minutes — sometimes even 15 or 20 — following a race before an athlete I wanted to interview had recovered enough to talk. And by recovered, I mean able to sit up and think clearly long enough to speak for a minute or two.

I felt then — and I still feel this way now — that allowing high school athletes to compete in four events in track meets is excessive, particularly if distance events are part of the equation. Three sounds like it would be plenty, and it would be prudent to limit distance runners to either the mile or the two-mile at any given meet among their three events.

Those measures would certainly help curb injuries notorious in track and cross country such as ankle sprains and strains, stress fractures, knee injuries, hamstring strains, tendinitis, shin splints, and plantar fasciitis, let alone dehydration and heat exhaustion on hot days.

And then there’s soccer. Among the wealth of information I ran across in my research, I discovered a particularly interesting article from 2018 by Dr. Rajpal Brar, DPT,  titled “Soccer’s Concussion Epidemic.” In it, Brar, a professed soccer fan, details the dangers of his favorite sport and how they get short shrift because football injuries grab all the headlines.

I found the entire article to be enlightening, but a few passages in particular caught my attention.

The first: “Research is showing that other than football, high school and college soccer players are most at-risk to suffer concussions. Nearly 18% of all soccer injuries are concussions — a number that has put soccer into the ‘high risk’ category, along with football, hockey, boxing and rugby.”

He spells it out right there: Soccer is a high-risk concussion sport.

Another passage from Brar’s article: “There’s emerging research showing that heading the ball can cause ‘sub-concussive’ impacts that lead to short-term changes in the brain, with long-term effects still being studied.”

And then there’s this: “Youth concussion/MTBI [mild traumatic brain injury] rates in soccer are on the rise, with a large-scale study showing a 110% increase over the past 25 years. Additionally, as I said in the opening line, the rate of soccer concussion/MTBI injuries in high school and college players is second only to football.

“That rate is even higher in women’s soccer, where concussion rates outpace American football and are nearly three times that of men’s soccer. Women’s soccer has the highest concussion rate of any women’s sport, it’s not even close.”

And finally, this: “Soccer is a contact sport that comes with a real risk of concussion/MTBI.”

All of this is startling, but it also demonstrates that, like football, soccer is going to need to make some serious changes to its equipment and rules to protect players and make the sport safer. Whether that means initiating the use of protective headgear as standard equipment, or whether that means having a targeting-like rule in soccer where heading the ball is illegal and grounds for ejection from a game, something needs to be done. A 110% increase in concussions in youth soccer is unacceptable, as is women’s soccer having higher concussion rates than football.

Will soccer make the necessary safety changes to curb concussions? Well, it took lawsuits and a rash of suicides before the NFL finally decided to do something about it. The sport is now safer than it’s ever been in that regard.

My guess is that soccer, like football before it, will have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century before it will commit itself to reducing concussions.

Which is a lot better than dragging players into CAT scans and MRI machines to see if their brains still function properly.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.