Hooray, U.S. Soccer Finally Admits That Abby Wambach’s Concussion Was Mishandled

The stadium scene.
May 2 2013 3:04 PM

Coming to Their Senses

U.S. Soccer finally admits that Abby Wambach’s concussion was mishandled.

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Once home, Wambach was monitored daily by medical professionals, Buethe said. She continued to show concussion symptoms until that Wednesday, April 24, when her scores on a baseline concussion test matched those from two years ago, when she was tested by the soccer federation.* After that, Wambach was allowed to begin the federation’s return-to-play protocol, which requires a week of gradual increases in training with no symptoms. On Tuesday she was medically cleared to return to game action. Wambach suited up on Wednesday night, playing every minute and scoring a goal in a 2-1 win over New Jersey’s Sky Blue FC.

As part of its review, U.S. Soccer brought in Ruben Echemendia, a neuropsychologist and concussion researcher who works with the U.S. national teams and has consulted with other sports leagues and clubs. Buethe said that Echemendia concluded that the Flash and league did follow proper post-injury protocols.

But Wambach’s care was botched terribly on the field, and the team, player, and coach compounded that with a series of misleading, illogical, and uninformed statements or nonstatements: refusing to say that Wambach had a concussion; asserting that she was symptom-free when she wasn’t; saying that she was kept out of a game last week as a “precaution” when it fact she hadn’t been cleared medically; and, my personal favorite, appearing to blame the National Football League for the very existence of return-to-play guidelines. (“She’ll tell you right now that she’s fine but there are certain procedures [to follow] … and it’s come of late through what’s happened in the NFL,” the Flash’s coach said.)

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But good for the league for doing the right thing in explaining what happened, what didn’t, and what should. “This is for us now a case study,” Buethe said. “We’re going to break it down and explain how it should happen going forward. We’re going to use it as a learning experience.”

Externally, the league can try to emphasize to its fans the importance of recognizing and treating concussions. Michael Sokolove’s 2008 book Warrior Girls argues that, when it comes to staying on the field or returning to play after an injury, female athletes can be tougher than male ones: more willing to play through pain, more worried about letting down their teammates. One way to convey the message that it’s possible to be tough and smart and safe all at once is through athletes like Wambach.

Before Wednesday’s game, U.S. women’s national team coach Tom Sermanni called Wambach “a great ambassador for women’s football.” No one can force her to demonstrate that by becoming a spokeswoman for a cause. But on a day when she returned to the field following a scary injury—one that many other female soccer players have suffered themselves— all the reigning world player of the year had to say on Twitter was that she was “So happy about those 3 points!!”—the three points the Flash received in the standings for winning.

Wambach should be happy about a lot more—that her brain wasn’t injured more severely, that she was able to recover quickly—and she should tell her fans why.

Correction, May 2, 2013: This piece originally misstated the dates of Abby Wambach’s head injury and concussion test. They occurred on April 20 and 24 respectively, not March 20 and 24.

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.