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The World Cup and Concussions: Allowing Medical Evidence to Keep Soccer Players Safe

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In the wake of the terrible decision to allow Uruguayan footballer Alvaro Pereria to continue playing after being knocked out by a knee to his head, a chorus is growing to empower independent doctors to determine whether a player is fit to return to the game.

Much happened after I wrote about this on Friday. Many heaped criticism on FIFA for allowing Uruguay to overrule the advice of its team doctor, including ESPN commentator former player Taylor Twellman and the Guardian’s Owen Gibson.

Players signal to the bench for medical attention for a player motionless on the ground.

FIFA needs to rely on independent medical assessments to protect players from concussions. What happens at the World Cup sets an example for millions of kids and amateur players around the world. Photo: Flickr user Albumen.

The players union FIFpro issued a statement calling on FIFA to consider changing substitution rules to allow for proper medical evaluation. Importantly, the union also recognized that independent and impartial medical experts must be given the authority to protect players. What happened with Pereria illustrates that a diagnosis from a team doctor is not enough.

Uruguay’s Dr. Alberto Pan came on the field to evaluate Pereria and, less than a minute later, signaled for a substitution. He was then overruled when Pereria strongly objected. Then, after the game, the diagnosis changed. Writing for ESPN, Gabriele Marcotti describes it this way:

Pan submitted a statement after the match in which he confirmed for the record that he had completed a full neurological examination of Pereira and determined that the player was able to continue…

To avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, it seems only logical that these ought to be the folks who determine when a player in Pereira’s condition gets the all-clear to return to the pitch, not the team doctor. And if it means allowing an extra, temporary substitution, so be it.

 This approach has been tried in the National Football League, and anecdotal evidence suggests that teams are deferring to the independent doctors that are now present at all games to diagnose medical risks.

You can’t protect players the next day. You have to do it in the moment. And even when the stakes are not as high, players, coaches, and team doctors are not up to that task.

Posted in: Science and Democracy Tags: , , ,

About the author: Michael Halpern is an expert on political interference in science and solutions to reduce suppression, manipulation, and distortion of government science. See Michael's full bio.

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