Brain Trauma on the Soccer Pitch


Soccer players are not immune to traumatic brain injuries, according to the results of an autopsy of a young soccer player.  A 29-year-old former soccer player was discovered to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), proving that violent sports such as football and boxing are not the only sports to have athletes experiencing traumatic brain injuries.

Patrick Grange, a late member of the Chicago Fire, died in April 2012 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, at the age of 29.  Grange was widely recognized as the player who headed the ball frequently, and his parents Mike and Michelle recalled their son was, at 3, even eager to head the ball into the net.  He also fell victim to concussions a few times, even receiving 17 stitches at one point due to a head-on collision playing a game in college.

Dr. Anne McKee of Boston University performed the exam on Grange, noting that the young man had extensive front lobal damage.  While she did not say that it was Grange’s soccer playing that caused the damage, she did make it clear that Grange was an active header of the ball and that he did develop ALS.  She cautioned against making any further connections between the two.

It seems as though traumatic brain injury has made its way onto the soccer pitch, as Grange is one of the first, if not the very first, soccer player to demonstrate such extensive trauma to his brain.  Grange’s autopsy, coupled with the autopsy of baseball player Ryan Freel last year, has shown that cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy have grown beyond the NFL, as previously thought.  Thus far, there have been 50 NFL players autopsied, and all cases have demonstrated varying degrees of chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Symptoms of CTE can include depression, impulse control disorders and eventually progressive dementia.  The condition has also been found in several hockey players.  The late rugby player Barry Taylor, who died at 77, played competitive rugby for 19 years and had been known as a hard charger on the field.  His son, Steven, notes that evidence of brain trauma became quite significant in his father.  At one point, his father was not even sure of his own name.  When he was autopsied, it was found that Taylor’s brain was extremely shriveled, leading medical professionals to a stage 4 CTE diagnosis.  Stage 4 is the most serious level of the disease.

Psychology professor Dr. Erin Bigler was unsurprised at the diagnosis of CTE in a soccer player.  He says that younger players should avoid heading the ball on a regular basis, as the brain does not reach full development until the age of 25 and serious injury could result.  Recent studies by the journals Radiology and Brain Injury have suggested a link between constant heading of the ball and impaired cognitive function.

It could prove difficult to convince soccer players to quit heading the ball, as the maneuver is considered by many to be an essential component of the sport.  However, as evidence of brain trauma has made its way to the soccer pitch, many soccer coaches may be reconsidering how to coach their players against literally using their heads.

By Christina St-Jean


The Wire

New York Times

Bleacher Report

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