Brain Trauma in Soccer

Our very first Freakonomics Radio podcast focused on brain trauma among NFL players, and its link to chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Researchers now believe they’ve identified the first case of C.T.E. in a soccer player; from The New York Times:

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head, has been found posthumously in the brain of a 29-year-old former soccer player, the strongest indication yet that the condition is not limited to athletes who played violent collision sports like football and boxing.

The researchers at Boston University who have diagnosed scores of cases of C.T.E. said Patrick Grange of Albuquerque represents the first named case of C.T.E. in a soccer player. On a four-point scale of severity, his was considered Stage 2.

C.T.E. is no longer just a concern for boxers and football players:

C.T.E. is believed to be caused by repetitive hits to the head — even subconcussive ones barely noted. Once considered unique to boxers, it has been diagnosed over the past decade in dozens of deceased football players and several hockey players. In December, it was found for the first time in a baseball player. Symptoms can include depression, memory loss, impulse control disorders and, eventually, progressive dementia, scientists said.

Boston University researchers also found a severe case of C.T.E. in a 77-year-old former rugby player from Australia named Barry Taylor, who was known by his nickname, Tizza. A hard-charging sort, he played competitive rugby for 19 years, including 235 games for Manly Rugby Union, an Australian professional team near Sydney.

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CTE has been linked to ALS ("Lou Gehrig's disease"), which makes me wonder whether Lou Gehrig had it.


"Grange sustained a few memorable concussions, his parents said — falling hard as a toddler, being knocked unconscious in a high school game and once receiving 17 stitches in his head after an on-field collision in college."

Smells to me like a case of correlation vs. causation. Parents say, as quoted above, that the player had concussions, which are probably the cause of his CTE, not all that head-butting of a soccer ball.

Mike Lade

What information would one need to delineate between CTE and a different diagnosis?

Correlation does NOT equal causation. What about all the "hard chargers" in (pick a sport) that are asymptomatic?

It's not as easy as it seems.


Shane L

Well these are sad situations and I don't want to make light of them. I am reminded, though, of author Bill Bryson's amusing description of first attempting to head a football:

"I had watched soccer on television and thought I had a fair idea if what was required, so when one of them lofted a ball in my direction, I decided to flick it casually into the net with my head, the way I had seen Kevin Keegan do it on TV. I thought that it would be like heading a beachball-that there would be a gentle, airy ponk sound and that the ball would lightly leave my brow and drift in a pleasing arc into the net. But of course it was like heading a bowling ball. I have never felt anything so startling not like I expected it to feel. I walked around for four hours on wobbly legs with a big red circle and the word "MITRE" imprinted on my forehead and vowed never again to do anything so foolish and painful."

I played soccer in school for years but dreaded heading and never got the hang of it! Getting hit in the head unexpectedly can be very shocking and induce quite a headache; even worse taking a ball to the ear on a frosty morning.


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Maybe the coaches who think that six year olds need to learn this "critical skill" should be teaching it with beachballs. Underinflated ones, even. Then when they can do it properly, without closing their eyes or scrunching their necks, or sending it off in a random direction, they can move up to Nerf balls and eventually—in most cases, probably ten years later—to the real thing.

Ann Forrester

My husband was a professional soccer player in the 50's and 60's, in England, and also, of course, played during his school days. He has been diagnosed with medium brain shrinkage which is affecting his short term memory. We have since learned of another player of his era who has recently passed away with Alzheimers. Has any research been undertaken on those men who have been diagnosed with brain diseases into their soccer playing history?