Since February, when a New York Times article linked heading soccer balls to the possibility of brain injury, the media—eager for a new angle on the 2014 World Cup—has fixated on the dangers of headers. The Boston Globe, Slate, and Fox Newshave all warned of that heading the ball might cause serious damage to players’ brains.
Scientific studies have shown that rates of concussions and head injury in soccer are comparable to football, ice hockey, lacrosse, and rugby. But news stories that focus on the danger of heading have it all wrong. It’s not the ball that soccer players should be worried about—it’s everything else. Player-to-player, player-to-ground, and player-to-goalpost collisions are soccer’s biggest dangers, explains Robert Cantu, a professor at Boston University who has researched the issue. An opponent’s head, foot, or elbow is much more dangerous than a one-pound soccer ball. It’s true that “the single most risky activity in soccer is heading the ball,” Cantu says—but that’s because contact with other players, the goalposts, or the ground is so much more likely when a player goes up for a header.