Pressed into action by a pending lawsuit against the organization, U.S. Soccer has announced a groundbreaking ban on headers at the youth level, which will change gameplay and practices for all players under 13. The changes are part of a series of initiatives designed to improve the game's safety while protecting young players from the ill-effects of concussions.
Once implemented, all children 10 and younger will be banned from heading the ball during any official U.S. Soccer soccer activity. That includes both practices and matches.
Players 11 to 13, meanwhile, will be able use headers during gameplay, but their use of headers during practice will be tightly controlled to maximize safety.
"In constructing the concussion component, U.S. Soccer sought input from its medical science committee which includes experts in the field of concussion diagnosis and management, as well as from its technical advisors, and worked with its youth members to develop a true consensus-based program," said U.S. Soccer CEO Dan Flynn, in a statement.
The new concussions-focused reforms were motivated in part by a class-action filed against U.S. Soccer, which sought no financial reparations -- only changes to the rulebook that would protect future soccer players from undue injury. The original filing of that lawsuit reported that almost 50,000 high school soccer players have suffered concussions since 2010, a figure that surpasses high school baseball, basketball, wrestling and soccer combined.
In exchange for announcing the new rules changes, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit have agreed to drop the case.
"We filed this litigation in effort to focus the attention of U.S. Soccer and its youth member organizations on the issue of concussions in youth soccer," said lead counsel Steve Berman in a joint statement released by U.S. Soccer. "With the development of the youth concussion initiative by U.S. Soccer and its youth members, we feel we have accomplished our primary goal and, therefore, do not see any need to continue the pursuit of the litigation."
The elimination of headers is only one facet of the changes the United States Soccer Federation is implementing. The organization also announced plans to launch a concussion awareness and education initiative among youth players, parents, coaches and referees, and it will install a uniform protocol for assessing and managing concussions, as well as clearing players to return to the field.
Despite the significant change this represents for youth soccer in America, the consensus among some of U.S. Soccer's biggest stars has been overwhelmingly positive. Former U.S. national team striker Taylor Twellman, now an analyst, has long been a proponent of reforms to curb headers at the youth level. His own career was ended prematurely but a series of concussions, and he continues to suffer the symptoms of those injuries.
— Taylor Twellman (@TaylorTwellman) November 9, 2015
Former U.S. women's star Julie Foudy has previously advocated for changes to youth soccer. She told ThePostGame in June that it simply doesn't make sense for young players to be taking headers in games.
"I think at a younger age, taking heading out of the equation is smart," Foudy said. "Eight, 10, 12 years old -- you don't need to be launching balls and taking contact with your head."
Women's stars Brandi Chastain and Cindy Parlow have also campaigned for headers to be banned among players under 14.
No problem with it. We evolve, we learn, we change. https://t.co/atJTW8G1eb
— Alexi Lalas (@AlexiLalas) November 10, 2015
Fans on social media have complained that U.S. Soccer's actions will make it a laughingstock of the rest of the world, which doesn't have such strict measures in place to govern headers and concussion management.
But this isn't a case of being fearful or overreacting out of emotion. The data is there to show the high risk between heading the ball and suffering concussions at a young age. As veterans like Chastain and Foudy have pointed out, many young players don't employ the proper form to hit a ball with their head, which only increases their risk of a head injury.
In those cases, heading a ball with improper form is a pointless exercise -- it doesn't help players improve, but it does put their future cognitive health at risk. The class-action lawsuit was very effective in moving things along, but it only accelerated what the public is increasingly coming to understand: There's just no reason to risk brain injuries in a children's game.
-- Follow Jonathan Crowl on Twitter @jonathancrowl.