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Cases of CTE in soccer players raise questions about ball-heading safety

English football star Jimmy Fryatt was known for his ability to head the ball, and proof of his prowess may be in the damage he caused to his brain.

Still physically fit in his late 70s, Fryatt played tennis but couldn’t keep score or remember which side of the net he was supposed to be on. He lived in Las Vegas for almost 50 years but started getting lost while biking around the neighborhood.

“I had to put a tracker on him,” his wife, Valerie, said this week. “I was calling him and saying, ‘Stop. I’m coming to get you.'”

A North American Football League champion who played 18 years in Britain, Fryatt is one of four former professional football players newly diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The Concussion Legacy Foundation announced on Tuesday that England pro and Oregon State coach Jimmy Conway, Scottish and Seattle NASL midfielder Jimmy Gabriel and NCAA champion Franny Pantuosco were also found to be afflicted. of the degenerative brain disease that has been linked to concussions in athletes, combat veterans and others who have suffered repeated head injuries.

These are the first diagnoses among those who played in the NASL, a forerunner of MLS as America’s top professional soccer league that captured attention with high profile signings – including Pele – before folding in 1985.

Valerie Fryatt said her husband had multiple concussions diagnosed, but ETC researchers believe the condition may also be caused by repeated sub-concussive blows to the head.
In football, this means directing the ball.

“Jimmy was a prolific header of the ball. He was very good at it,” Valerie Fryatt said. “A lot of players from that era said he was the best header they had ever seen.”

The new diagnoses come as soccer officials gather in Chicago for a head injury summit, a conference co-hosted by US Soccer and America’s top men’s and women’s professional leagues that promises “two days of presentations and panel discussions.” facilitated by health professionals, stakeholders and researchers”. “

But ETC researchers and families of those affected by the disease say the agenda, guest list – and even the name – belie the desire to only appear to be dealing with brain damage, which which is part of a trend among sports leagues to downplay the long-term effects of concussions and delay measures that could prevent them.

FILE – In this Nov. 9, 2017 photo, Ann McKee, director of Boston University’s Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy Research Center for Degenerative Brain Diseases, or CTE, speaks to an audience on the campus of the school.

“In rugby and hockey and, of course, always in football, we are so familiar with this,” said Dr Ann McKee, director of the Boston University CTE Center – the brain bank that led the research on the disease that can cause memory loss, violent mood swings, depression and other cognitive difficulties.

“I’m sorry, I have a jaded view of these peaks,” she said. “I think a lot of it is a PR stunt production to make people think they’re taking the injury and the condition seriously.”

A U.S. football spokesperson listed as a media contact during a statement from the summit did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A Major League Soccer spokeswoman has forwarded an agenda, which lists panels led by, among others, scientists, football officials and unnamed current and former players.

But no Boston CTE Center researchers were invited to speak at the summit, even though McKee and Robert Cantu are two of the most published, prolific — and outspoken — in the field.

“What happens with these big sports groups is that they often bring in a list full of people who downplay the long-term effects,” McKee said. “And they go away saying, ‘Here we held a summit. We have reviewed the evidence. It’s not very solid and scientists are undecided. So it’s kind of a done deal that they have nothing to do with it.”

Even the title was a problem for Concussion Legacy Foundation co-founder Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player turned professional wrestler turned Ph.D. who has been a leader in educating professional athletes and amateurs on the dangers of concussions.

“‘Head injury’ is what you say when you don’t take it seriously,” Nowinski said. “Calling it ‘head injury’ when you’re actually talking about ‘brain injury’ is a tactic the NFL was using.”

Boston University researchers have diagnosed more than 100 American football players with CTE; it has also been found in boxers, rugby players, professional wrestlers, and the military. Cases among American soccer players have been less common, but researchers expect the number to increase now as those who started playing the growing sport as they reached old age.

FILE - Miami Fusion's Tyrone Marshall (15) assists Kansas City Wizards' Scott Vermillion after the two collided as they went up for a header in the first half of a football game on August 29, 1999 in Kansas City, Mo.

FILE – Miami Fusion’s Tyrone Marshall (15) assists Kansas City Wizards’ Scott Vermillion after the two collided as they went up for a header in the first half of a football game on August 29, 1999 in Kansas City, Mo.

Last year, Scott Vermillion was announced as the first former MLS player to be diagnosed with CTE. His father, David Vermillion, said he would have made it his “first priority” to attend the summit if he had been invited.

Instead, he goes on a family vacation.

“They won’t have people there who have dealt with it firsthand,” Vermillion said. “People like that with all that knowledge, which can help make things safer for athletes, won’t be there.”

CTE can only be diagnosed posthumously. Vermillion, Fryatt and Conway passed away in 2020. Gabriel and Pantuosco passed away in 2021.

McKee said the families of CTE victims are often the best source of information on how to recognize brain damage, which can take years to develop and cause problematic behaviors like alcohol abuse or swings. violent mood.

“They are human beings. It is the people who played football, who made the owners rich, who caused the fans to have all the fun, who are really responsible for the popularity of football today,” he said. said McKee. “And yet when they get into trouble, when they start to develop problematic behaviors, when their families start to hurt, when they start to hurt, no one pays attention, including those highs.”

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