Let us go back to the final of the 2014 World Cup. Germany was matched against Argentina, a clash between two frontrunners of international soccer. After just 17 minutes, German midfielder Christoph Kramer was concussed after being violently struck in the head by the shoulder of a defender. There was no malice, no brutish intent behind it. Yet Kramer immediately collapsed to the ground, as if he were a stone dropped into a pond.
This past weekend, an eerily similar incident occurred in the English Premier League clash between Arsenal and Chelsea. Attacking a floating ball near the Arsenal goal, Chelsea’s Marcos Alonso ran with blistering pace to head the ball in hopes to reach the back of the net. But in his leaping movement, his outstretched left arm and elbow struck the jawline of Arsenal defender Hector Bellerin. And just as Kramer collapsed, Bellerin was knocked out upon impact, falling to the ground only to roll around looking dazed.
If you watch any NFL game today, you will see that after any severe hit, the players are now taken off the field and examined. There is a system, a procedure and protocol for handling concussions. None exists in the field of professional soccer.
Both Kramer and Bellerin were allowed to continue to play. Kramer was eventually taken off and replaced, but this happened 15 minutes after his concussion. Talking with the press after the match, he recalled that shortly after the hit he approached the referee with one question: “Is this the final?” He also admitted that he had little to no recollection of the first half. And in the case with Bellerin, footage of his injury is simply disturbing. These raise the question: how were these players allowed to stay on the field and not even be examined?
It goes without saying that concussions are a terrible injury that can have haunting implications for a player’s future. But maybe players aren’t aware of the specific dangers that they could face as symptoms of multiple concussions. That would explain why players are so driven, similar to Hector Bellerin, to “brush it off.” A more sinister explanation would be the effects of the concussion itself. If Kramer were in such a state that he could not remember that he was playing in the most important game of his life, perhaps he was in no state to realize that he was concussed.
The teammates of these injured players are also culpable in these situations. Teammates more likely to see firsthand the symptoms of concussions in their teammate and can step in at any time to inform the referee, the coach or the player him or herself. But this doesn’t happen. In fact, in the case of Bellerin, his teammates helped him back up only moments after he was knocked out.
Once diagnosed, the culture around concussion recovery is another treacherous aspect of these injuries. The first time a player may suffer a concussion, he or she will be itching to return to play as soon as they are “cleared.” Not only will they simply want to play again, but their teammates and coaches will also pressure a return to play.. There is someone around every corner waiting to tell the player, in some shape or form, to rush back to the sport after a concussion. And meanwhile, no one is there to warn a player of the potential brain damage they may sustain after repeated concussions, nor the increased likelihood that after their first injury they are now more likely to suffer another.
Where is the accountability? Within professional soccer there is a systematic and nefarious lack of consciousness surrounding concussions. Players can and will return to play after suffering a concussion and put their mental health on the line for a mere game. Short term results, long term loss. It is a scourge to modern soccer. Years from now, fans and players alike will recall this tragedy. “How was it possible,” they will ask, “that even with extensive medical knowledge of concussions, they allowed players to suffer repeated brain trauma?”