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Cancer in Soccer Players? What About Football Players?

Loyal readers of this space know we typically focus on medical errors, communication, and risk management issues. Today, we are going off script to touch on a different issue that should be important to all of us: kids and sports. Most all of us have children, grandchildren, or nephews and nieces -- and we are all former kids ourselves! Moreover, I wanted to share this piece with this audience because many of you are medical professionals, or researchers, opinion leaders, etc. You are very intelligent and well-connected people who could spread this column and the questions it contains.

Recently, there has been a spate of news stories suggesting that soccer players -- goalies in particular - are coming down with cancer and the apparent culprit is the artificial fields filled with rubberized pellets that resemble soil. The stories/theories state that goalies are most susceptible to cancer because they frequently dive for the ball and come into contact most often with the artificial turf and its rubberized pellets. A quick Google search yielded many articles and blog posts on this subject, with one article even suggesting that the rubberized pellets contain carcinogens.

My son, Will, age 11, has played soccer since he was five years old, and the last three years exclusively as a goalie. Will plays on a select soccer team -- they have a fall season, indoor winter season, and spring season. Soccer is a part of our lives for about eight months out of the year. The outdoor games are almost always on grass fields, while the indoor games are played on the artificial fields with the rubberized pellets. I help coach Will, and always warm him up before games...and when we come home from an indoor game, both Will and I have to shake the black rubber pellets out of our shoes.

Now, Will plays in a competitive league. Eleven year old soccer players look like...real soccer players. They pass the ball a lot, run plays, and shoot a lot. In a given game, Will typically defends 20 to 40 shots, and will dive or slide into the ground 15 to 20 times per game.

So, is soccer placing my wonderful and handsome son at risk of cancer? I dunno...but I have questions. My hope in writing and sharing this e-newsletter/blog is that others will consider these thoughtful questions and share them with colleagues and friends, especially colleagues who study public health and/or conduct cancer research. Hopefully these questions will add to the growing discussion over this issue.

Here are my questions:

  • Has anyone studied the cancer rates of high school and college football players and compared to the cancer rates of soccer players? Many high school and college football programs use the same artificial turf with rubberized pellets. Moreover, think about offensive and defense lineman...a starting lineman can expect to participate in 30 to 50 plays per game, and on EVERY play their hands literally sink into those rubberized pellets when they are in their stance before the ball is snapped. And on almost every play offensive and defensive lineman tumble to the ground and roll around. Often, you see lineman with various cuts and bloody scrapes on their arms. Moreover, I bet the lineman have to empty lots of pellets from their shoes after games and practices! Indeed, I have to believe that offensive and defensive lineman come into contact with the artificial turf more than the average soccer goalie. Also, what about running backs? A high quality running back can expect to touch the ball 20 to 30 times per game, and on almost every play they will be tackled and driven into the turf, and, like lineman, the arms of running often have numerous scrapes.
  • If we are not seeing comparable rates of cancer in offensive and defensive lineman and running backs, is there something else about the game of soccer that might be causing cancer? Could there be an issue with the soccer balls? Goalies are the only player on the field that is supposed to touch the ball with their hands. However, most goalies wear special, could there be an issue with the gloves worn by goalies? Is there a problem with the shin guards the players are required to wear? Is there something else?

As a parent and coach, I am concerned and I have questions. Again, I hope that readers of this space will share and spread this message. We all have kids or know kids who play sports, and many of you have important connections in the cancer research community -- please spread this e-newsletter/blog post far and wide. Thank you!

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