Abby Wambach Got Hit in the Head and Stayed on the Field. For Shame.

The stadium scene.
April 25 2013 5:27 AM

Get Your Head Out of the Game

Abby Wambach got hit in the head and stayed on the field. For shame.

United States's forward Abby Wambach fights for the ball with midfielder Mizuho Sakaguchi and defender Saki Kumagai during the final of the women's football competition of the London 2012 Olympic Games.
U.S. forward Abby Wambach heads the ball during the women's soccer final of the London Olympic Games on Aug. 9, 2012.

Photo by Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images

Update, April 25, 2 p.m.: On Thursday, the Western New York Flash announced that Abby Wambach would not play in Saturday's game. In a press release, the team explained that "Wambach will be sidelined for precautionary measures after being listed as day-to-day with a head injury."

Stefan Fatsis Stefan Fatsis

Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic, a regular guest on NPR's All Things Considered, and a panelist on Slate's sports podcast Hang Up and Listen. Email him at sfatsis9@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

*****

On Saturday night, in the 90th minute of a game between the Washington Spirit and the Western New York Flash, Abby Wambach took a ferocious ball to the head. The Flash striker, and the biggest star in the latest incarnation of a women’s pro soccer league, wasn’t trying to score. She was struck by a line-drive clearance by a teammate just a few yards away.

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Wambach toppled like a tree and rolled into the fetal position, grabbing her head. One of the game’s broadcasters chuckled, noting that “these last couple minutes have been a bit chaotic.” The referee, Kari Seitz, a veteran of four women’s World Cups and three Olympics, raised her right palm to stop the Flash’s trainer from coming onto the field. After half a minute, Wambach stood and took a few tentative steps. Play resumed. The Flash moved the ball downfield and, in a last-second attempt to break a 1-1 tie, Wambach tried to score off of a corner kick. Using her head.

At the final whistle, Wambach dropped to her knees. Spirit goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris waved for help. “I could tell she was pretty dazed,” Harris said afterward. “I said, ‘Are you all right?’ She was mumbling. That’s not a good sign.”

Wambach was escorted to the bench. A trainer kneeled in front of her for several minutes. He helped her stand and, with his hand on the small of her back, they walked slowly across the field and back and sat down again. When they left, Wambach didn’t lift her head to acknowledge the fans shouting her name.

For every step forward in recognizing and treating brain injuries in sports, the jock culture takes a step backward. The episode involving Wambach was as disturbing as any in the padded and helmeted NFL, and the message it sent to the 4,569 fans who filled the suburban soccer complex—maybe a third of them girls, including my 10-year-old daughter—was worse. Why? Because Wambach is her sport’s meal ticket. Because young athletes, including those who witnessed her collapse in a lifeless heap, want to be like her. Because she is a woman.

Wambach is women’s soccer’s reigning world player of the year, an award conferred by the sport’s international governing body, FIFA. She is just four goals from breaking first-generation icon Mia Hamm’s (male or female) record of 158 goals in international competition. Hope Solo and Alex Morgan might be the national team players that soccer bros objectify, but the 32-year-old Wambach is the tall, tough one leaping for balls in the box, the leader shouting at teammates and calling out opponents, as well as the go-to postgame interview. I’ve been to a lot of women’s soccer games, and Wambach jerseys and “Abby! Abby!” autograph requests rule the crowd. After Saturday’s game, as Wambach sat with head bowed on the bench a few feet away, a group of girls slightly older than my daughter repeatedly called her name. When Abby left, the girls left, too.

So what Wambach does on the field matters. If she stays in a game after sustaining a blow to the head from a ball traveling 50 or 60 mph, is she demonstrating, as Washington Post soccer writer Steven Goff put it after the game, why she is “[r]enowned as much for her determination and courage as for her scoring feats”? Or is she just being foolish and encouraging young female athletes to follow her example?

It’s not a stretch to say that Wambach and everyone else on the field at the Maryland SoccerPlex—teammates, opponents, referee, coaches, trainers—were reckless with the health of a player. Not a single person appeared willing to do what medicine and common sense have shown to be the sensible thing in similar situations: bench an athlete who has suffered a blow to the head—meaning the brain—that may have compromised her physical condition. Whether the ball ultimately did or did not concuss Wambach is beside the point. She needed to be examined. What if she had been cold-cocked again a minute later?

I described the scene to neurosurgeon Robert Cantu, the co-director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at Boston University and co-author of the new book Concussions and Our Kids. Cantu said it was “absurd” that Wambach wasn’t yanked off the field. “Athletes have to know the symptoms and be willing to pull themselves out when they have them,” he said. Cantu has worked on concussion policies with leagues from the NFL to Major League Lacrosse. Of the women’s soccer league, he said, “If this is any example, they are in the dark ages with their approach.”