As two of the faces of United States and international soccer, retired forward Abby Wambach and current midfielder Megan Rapinoe have used their platforms to act as leaders for various social issues, such as LGBT and women’s rights.
But now, following in the steps of another former U.S. women’s national team star, Brandi Chastain, Wambach and Rapinoe have plans to make a difference in an entirely different way.
In an interview with The Lantern before the two spoke at Ohio State for an event sponsored by OUAB, Wambach disclosed that she has made arrangements to have her brain donated for concussion research. Rapinoe later revealed the same during the event.
“I think it’s amazing. I’m going to do the same myself,” Wambach said of Chastain’s pledge to donate. “Actually, I’m going to be doing a piece with her in order to get the word out, and I think that will be so important not just for the next generation, but to learn more.”
Wambach later added that the piece with Chastain is set to be a podcast.
Chastain, known for her game-winning penalty kick and ensuing celebration in the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final, announced her intentions in early March, becoming one of the most prominent female athletes to do so.
The 35-year-old Wambach, the all-time leading goal scorer in international soccer, could prove especially valuable in the research due to her propensity to use her head on the pitch. Of her 184 goals in international play, 77 were deposited using her head.
“I think there will be valuable research and information that will be studied, and we will understand more about the heading and the heading process as it pertains to the game,” Wambach said.
During the OUAB event, Rapinoe acknowledged that she’s unsure how much information could be gathered from her brain, as she does not use her head to the extent of Wambach. Even so, she said she felt it necessary to contribute to the burgeoning research on concussions.
Boston University, where Chastain plans to donate her brain, is the lead researcher on the field of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a postmortem degenerative brain disease that is suspected to be linked to concussions and repeated blows to the head.
However, only seven of the 307 brains studied by Boston University belonged to a female, according to The New York Times, which adds salience to the commitments of the three U.S. soccer players.
CTE, initially linked to boxing, is now commonly associated with football, as the first large-scale findings on the disease came after Dr. Bennet Omalu published a paper in 2005 on former NFL center Mike Webster.
Since the initial report, the list of NFL players diagnosed with CTE continues to grow. An October study from the Department of Veteran Affairs and Boston University found the disease in 87 of the 91 brains of former NFL players that were examined.
Despite the repeated linkage to football, research on the disease and the impacts of head trauma is developing beyond gridiron, namely to soccer.
Boston University discovered CTE in the brain of a deceased 29-year-old soccer player in 2014, the first named player to have traces of it.
A 2013 study from Yeshiva University found abnormalities in the brains of soccer players who frequently head the ball that are similar to patients who have sustained concussions. The study noted a single header is not enough to result in traumatic brain injuries, but the lead author, Dr. Michael Lipton, wrote that “repetitive heading could set off a cascade of responses that leads to degeneration of brain cells over time.”
As a preventive measure in young players, the U.S. Soccer Federation put forth new safety guidelines in November, banning headers for players under 10 years old, while limiting it in practice for those aged 11 to 13.
Wambach said she fully supports safety measures to protect youth players, but she is advocating that there are better ways to go about it than simply banning headers altogether.
“We want to make sure that when those 10-year-olds get to that 11-year-old age, the 11- to (13-year-olds) get to the next level, we want to make sure those kids are prepared,” she said. “You don’t want to send somebody out and not know how to do it, how to properly head a ball. I think that actually makes it more dangerous.
“If you can do it technically sound, you’re less likely to incur a concussion. In fact, most concussions come from elbow-to-elbow or head-to-head contact, and that’s something that’s a little not talked about.”
She said that because of this belief, she is working with the federation to instill new programs to teach proper technique when heading the ball.
“I’m setting up a protocol with U.S. Soccer at this point to create a business in and around some of these clubs with soft balls to properly teach how to technically head a soccer ball, how to attack a soccer ball, to not be afraid of heading a soccer ball, because I don’t foresee soccer ever losing heading as part of its game,” Wambach said.
Soccer might not be a sport noted for its spine-tingling collisions or overtly physical nature. But Wambach said that is precisely why she thinks research into the effects of the sport could prove invaluable to future generations.
“We’re different from the NFL,” she said. “Heading a ball is different than getting struck in the head by a linebacker that’s 300 pounds trying to literally rip your head off, so I’m excited to see what those results are.”
Nick Clarkson contributed to this story.