It could, ironically, be an incident that didn’t produce a concussion at all that finally changes the discourse around concussions in soccer.
Just six minutes into Sunday’s Arsenal-Wolverhampton Wanderers match, Gunners defender David Luiz and Wolves striker Raúl Jiménez had a violent collision of their heads on a corner, knocking Jiménez unconscious and severely dazing Luiz.
Jiménez, who needed supplemental oxygen on the field, suffered a fractured skull and immediately underwent surgery. He is stable and remains in the hospital for observation. It’s unclear if he also suffered a concussion.
But even though Jiménez seems to have gotten the worse of the clash, the treatment for Luiz sparked instant outrage. After laying on the ground for several minutes, the 33-year-old Brazilian defender’s head was bandaged and he went back into the game. He continued to bleed profusely, soaking his bandaging, and he was taken out of the game at halftime. Not because of the knock to his head, but because of the gash. He required seven stitches.
It was the blood that caused a stir, even though it gave no indication about whether or not he had a concussion.
Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta told the BBC that the clash of heads had “shocked” him but that doctors found that it was “just a cut.”
“The doctor did all the tests and protocols to make sure the player was safe to continue,” he said.
The club added that Luiz never lost consciousness and passed all of the concussion protocols. Club doctor Gary O’Driscoll is reportedly one of the United Kingdom’s leading authorities on concussions.
In the end, Luiz was only taken out of the game because he couldn’t head the ball comfortably any longer.
The 40 minutes that he remained in the match have drawn widespread condemnation, riding a wave of new awareness about concussions that has been long in coming to soccer. The English players’ union has begun advocating for a reduction of heading during practice as links between a soccer career and increased rates of dementia and Alzheimer’s are being established.
Headway, which advocates for better protocols for brain injuries in sports, released a searing statement repeating its request for a rule change: an added, temporary substitution for potentially concussed players.
“Only last week we strongly criticised (sic) the International Football Association Board (IFAB) for its continued procrastination in introducing concussion substitutes into the sport,” Luke Griggs of Headway said in the statement. “Too often in football, we see players returning to the pitch having undergone a concussion assessment – only to be withdrawn a few minutes later when it is clear that they are not fit to continue.
“The concussion protocol clearly states that ‘Anyone with a suspected concussion must be immediately removed from play,’ while the sport continues to promote an ‘If in doubt, sit it out’ approach to head injuries,” Griggs continued. “Time and time again we are seeing this rhetoric not being borne out by actions on the pitch. Something is not right. This cannot be allowed to continue. How many warnings does football need?”
Even before Sunday’s game and the ensuing outrage, IFAB appeared to be on the verge of allowing temporary concussion subs on a trial basis, to begin as early as January.
A temporary substitution would help to address the problem of a flawed and rushed concussion protocol. Disparate rules between competitions and uneven application within them makes the whole thing confusing. “This is the most important thing because with head injuries you have to be careful,” Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola said. “I don’t know the protocols. Some of them say you have to be nearly out, some of them say no – so it should be clear.”
“When there is a blow to the head there should be a substitution whether the player can continue or not,” echoed City goalkeeper Ederson, himself the victim of a bad kick to the head a few seasons ago. “You might be feeling OK at the time, but after the game you feel the consequences.”
Ryan Mason, a former Tottenham Hotspur player whose career was ended by a skull fracture in 2018, spoke of his frustration that his own incident, or indeed Ederson’s, hadn’t changed the narrative about the problem. “What is going to take for people to start realizing this is something really, really serious?” he told TalkSport. “I’ll be honest, I was shocked David Luiz was allowed to play on. That protocol that is currently in place is not enough; it’s not enough just to have two or three minutes. It’s not enough.”
This time around, the groundswell for meaningful change to the way concussions are treated is such that the status quo feels untenable. Perhaps it was the blood-soaked bandage, or the obvious swelling in Luiz’s face. And whether he was actually concussed or not, this may be the head collision that finally changes something.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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