Concussion lawsuit seeks rule changes in soccer, expert weighs in

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - JULY 13: Christoph Kramer of Germany receives treatment as referee Nicola Rizzoli looks on during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Final match between Germany and Argentina at Maracana on July 13, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

In an article released today in the New York Times, Concussion Lawsuit Seeks to Force Rules Changes in Soccer, a group of soccer parents and players filed a class-action lawsuit against FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, over its handling of concussions. This suit also names a number of American soccer organizations, including U.S. Soccer and the American Youth Soccer Organization, charging that all have been negligent in monitoring and treating head injuries.

Plaintiffs in the case include Rachel Mehr, a former youth club soccer player, several parents on behalf of their children in youth soccer leagues and Kira Akka-Seidel, a former club player at the University of California, Santa Cruz. According to the filing, nearly 50,000 high school soccer players suffered concussions in 2010 — more than in baseball, basketball, softball and wrestling combined.

This is the latest in a series of lawsuits regarding the alleged negligence of evaluating, managing and treating concussion. This suit is the first to do so without seeking financial damages, rather looking to institute changes in the rules, regulations and play of soccer.

Last month, the United States emerged as a leading contender in the World Cup. During that time, we witnessed aggressive play resulting in injuries. While injuries in sports are common, the evaluation and the safe return to play of players according to FIFA soccer rules has lagged in evolution compared to other national and international sports.

The filing reads:

“There is an epidemic of concussion injuries in soccer at all levels around the world, including in the United States, from youth to professionals, from elite players to children playing for the first time, women and men, girls and boys. FIFA presides over this epidemic, and is one of its primary causes.”

The suit seeks an injunction that would change the way soccer is played at all levels. Children under 17 would be limited in how many times they are allowed to head the ball. The suit also seeks to require professional and other advanced leagues — which are currently limited to three substitutions per game — to allow temporary substitutions while a player is examined for a head injury. Medical testing would also be available for soccer players who competed as long ago as 2002 and are now suffering from the effects of concussions.

A FIFA spokesman said the organization had no comment because it was unaware of the suit as of late Wednesday morning.

According to legal experts, the crux of the case could be a matter of jurisdiction. While FIFA is based in Zurich, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Steve Berman, contends the organization is vulnerable to an American suit because many American leagues are affiliated with FIFA and its Laws of the Game are cited by nearly every soccer organization. FIFA posts guidelines about preventing and treating concussions, but it does not have rules regulating treating them.

“There are going to be questions about standing, jurisdiction and venue and if these are the right plaintiffs and the right defendants,” said Gabe Feldman, the director of the Tulane Law School Sports Law program. “Parents and children who are playing soccer are playing by the rules set forth for the most part by FIFA. Whether that leads to legal liability is another question.” 

“Every U.S. organization follows the Laws of the Game,” said Berman, who also represents players in a concussion suit against the NCAA. “If FIFA made the Laws of the Game different, they would be different at every level.”

Others, though, are skeptical of the case’s chances.

“These rules need to be changed to protect the children, but I don’t think they’re going to be successful in this particular route to do it,” said Michael Kaplen, a professor at the George Washington University law school who specializes in traumatic brain injury issues. “I don’t think the court is empowered to provide this injunction because none of the plaintiffs have alleged a specific injury. The case they are trying to make is about medical issues they might have in the future.”

The recent World Cup in Brazil featured several high-profile and controversial incidents involving head injuries, which Berman said helped galvanize this case. In a semifinal match, Argentina’s Javier Mascherano banged his head against a Dutch player and was on the sideline for just two minutes before returning to action (medical research suggests six or seven minutes are necessary to provide a full neurological exam). Christoph Kramer of Germany sustained a blow to the head in the final against Argentina, and was allowed to continue playing for about 15 more minutes in a dazed state before he was helped off the field.

FIFA and the other defendants have 60 days to respond to the filed complaint, after which a judge will decide if the case may go forward.

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