This is some super cool news. Remember retired soccer player Brandi Chastain??? If you thought her winning shootout goal in the 1999 World Cup final against China and the jersey-shedding celebration that followed was super awesome, here is some news that will make you admire her more.
According to the New York Times, Chastain has “agreed to donate her brain to the Concussion Legacy Foundation and researchers at Boston University, pioneers in the study of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease.
C.T.E., believed to be caused by blows to the head, is a hot topic in sports like boxing and football. But C.T.E. has also been found in several male soccer players, and researchers believe that heading the ball is a primary culprit.
No female athletes have been found to have had C.T.E. — it has been found in the brains of women with histories of head trauma — but the sample size has been small. Researchers at Boston University have examined 307 brains, most of which belonged to athletes. Only seven of them were women’s.
But with soccer’s worldwide popularity and its growth among girls inspired by the likes of the United States’ women’s national team, researchers are eager to learn more. For now, C.T.E. can be reliably diagnosed only through a brain examination after death.
Chastain is the second national team member to decide to donate her brain, after Cindy Parlow Cone. Both women, and several others from the 1999 team, have argued against heading in youth soccer. In November, U.S. Soccer announced stricter standards for players under 14, although Chastain and others believe that they did not go far enough.
Chastain spoke about her decision to donate her brain in San Jose, where she was born and raised. She also spends much of her time there coaching her 9-year-old son’s team; assisting on the varsity team at Bellarmine, a private high school; and assisting her husband, Jerry Smith, the longtime head coach of the Santa Clara University women’s team. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.
Why donate your brain for study?
A. If there’s any information to be gleaned off the study of someone like myself, who has played soccer for 40 years, it feels like my responsibility — but not in a burdensome way. People talk about what the ’99 group did for women’s soccer. They say, “Oh, you left a legacy for the next generation.” This would be a more substantial legacy — something that could protect and save some kids, and to enhance and lift up soccer in a way that it hasn’t before. That was the impetus for saying yes. If we can learn something, we should. And I won’t need it.
Did you tell your son?
A. My son and I had the conversation this morning. I said, “I just want to let you know that we’re going to donate my brain to science.” And he goes: “That’s weird, Mom. Why would you do that?” And I could see he was thinking like, “Won’t you need it?” I said: “This is a long time from now, Jaden. You don’t have to worry about it.” And he goes, “All right,” and went back to what he was doing. But I explained to him that if you cut a tree in half and look at the rings, it will tell you the story. If there are irregularities, scientists can say, “Oh, this happened,” and they can tell when it happened because of the rings. I explained to him that if there is a way when they dissect my brain that they can say, “O.K., at the age of 9, we see this,” maybe they haven’t had that information before. That would be really helpful, I’d think. It made it easier to say yes.
You estimated that there were “probably a half-dozen times” in your career that you shook off likely concussions from heading the ball. Have you experienced symptoms that concern you?
A. There are definitely days when I turn a corner and I’m like, “Why did I come into this room?” I have definitely, from time to time, thought, “Hmm, I wonder if this is connected to the past 40 years of playing sports.” Soccer wasn’t the only thing I played. It’s crossed my mind. I do wonder about the ramifications over the next 20 years when I should be fully functioning and still doing things I like or want to do. I try not to get hung up on those things, because it doesn’t really matter at this point. You just don’t know.
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