It used to be “as American as apple pie and baseball.”
If we’re honest, I think our reddest, whitest, and bluest sport for a couple of decades now has been football. It’s certainly the best-attended of the high school fare. We won’t lie – we’re already looking forward to Friday nights, the roar of the crowd, the rush at kickoff, and the sweet taste of victory for our Comets, Phoenix, Dukes, and Falcons teams.
It came as no surprise this week when the Ohio High School Athletic Association released new rules for helping players avoid injuries on the gridiron. Reporter Valerie Urbanik, a sports fan among sports fans, was intrigued by the ways the varsity sports organization planned to protect players.
She was also a bit confused.
Concussions are, of course, serious business with long-term effects.
But Urbanik contested that soccer is far and away the sport with the most injuries: shin splints, broken legs, sprained ankles, and a ton of scar tissue to show for it.
Her gut feeling proved wrong when we consulted numbers published in the Journal of Athletic Training, which showed football topping the list of high school sports injuries. But soccer didn’t lag far behind and analysts from The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Ohio State University noted boys soccer and girls basketball generated a high number of head, face, and neck injuries.
According to U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission numbers released in 2009, cycling is king of head injuries, resulting in 85,389 hospital emergency room treatments that year. Football was second at 46,948 followed by baseball and softball (38,394), basketball (34,692), water sports (28,716), powered recreational vehicles (26,606), and soccer (24,184).
Urbanik argued that soccer is America’s up-and-coming sport. And it’s not just because of World Cup fever (congratulations, women’s Team USA!). Youth soccer is growing in popularity so fast that within a generation we might rival Europe’s love for the game.
So it seems now would be the time, if ever, to move the focus of preventive health in high school sports to that arena as well.
High school athletes account for an estimated two million injuries, 500,000 doctor visits, and 30,000 hospitalizations each year, according to the Stop Sports Injuries advocacy group.
Soccer is a full-contact sport, no doubt about it. But what can be done?
We’re not about to suggest helmets to protect skulls when going up for a header. Mouth guards may help minimize concussions, though, and with minimal impact on players.
Requiring heavier, tougher shin guards to prevent serious orthopedic injury also makes sense. We might also suggest toughening up the regulations on slide-tackling at the high school level. Shin guards don’t lend any protection to the ankles, so cleats can turn vicious during those attacks.
Goalies could also be afforded a bit more protection. They’re vulnerable. Urbanik has broken a goalkeeper’s nose before (she didn’t mean it, we promise) and has seen them take vicious gashes when forwards fly into the box.
Urbanik has suffered multiple concussions playing competitive soccer and suffers migraines even today, which is why the topic is so near to her heart: “I’ve felt the effects myself,” she said. “When I play now, I try not to head the ball and I don’t go for it quite as hard.”