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Parents Blog

Susan Boyd blogs on every Monday.  A dedicated mother and wife, Susan offers a truly unique perspective into the world of a "Soccer Mom". 


A Line in the Turf

Susan Boyd

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s a time to reflect not only on ways to battle, cure and survive breast cancer, but all types of cancer. Therefore, when NBC News did an investigative report on the possible carcinogenic effects of the black filler pellets (called crumb rubber) used in artificial turf fields, it highlighted the paucity of study on the subject. Despite amazing advancements in the detection and treatment of cancers, we actually know far too little about the direct causes. Scientists understand that it’s a complicated formula involving genetics, environmental factors, age, gender, diet, exercise, length of exposure to possible cancer agents, and lifestyle. Isolating which factors are most significant for any given cancer can prove not only daunting but confusing. Since prevention will depend on discovering the antecedents of a particular cancer, the medical community searches for answers. Right now we are better informed on treatments, which have come a long way, and some promising flags for early detection for such cancers as breast, colon, skin and blood. But we still don’t know how to actually prevent cancers from happening.

In NBC’s report, it looked at the possible link between crumb rubber pellets made from shredded tires and blood related cancers, in particular non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The original concern came from Amy Griffin, the associate head women’s soccer coach at the University of Washington. She was never aware of any players with lymphoma, but suddenly 10 years ago several soccer players she knew, and in particular goalkeepers, were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL). It was brought to light vividly when she accompanied one player to her chemotherapy and the nurse said, “Don’t tell me you guys are goalkeepers. You’re the fourth goalkeeper I’ve hooked up this week.” From that point forward, Griffin began to collect data on any youth players with cancer that she was aware of. Her list now stands at 38 players, 34 of whom are goalkeepers. As the mother of a goalkeeper, that fact naturally piqued my interest.

Before we throw the field out with the pellets, it’s important to know that scientists are divided on how harmful the crumbs are and if there is actually any discernable link between them and cancer in youth players. Since the formula for creating rubber tires varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, collecting data is difficult when dozens of brands mix together in the pellets. There are known carcinogens in tires such as arsenic, lead, benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, but authorities argue that with the vulcanization of the tires the chemicals become inert. Even the EPA has said that their studies show no harmful effects from the pellets. Yet under direct sunlight, the rubber can be 10 to 20 degrees hotter releasing gases which lead to a concern of breathing in harmful vapors. Add that red flag to getting the pellets rubbed into open cuts and abrasions and ingesting them unintentionally, and you make the case for further scientific investigation.

I began my professional life as a scientist, so I know firsthand the seriousness and difficulty of creating reliable studies. It’s hard to isolate a factor in an environment where so many factors meet. What is the genetic history of these players? Are athletes just more prone to blood diseases given the way exercise oxygenates the blood? Which, if any, of the chemicals in recycled tires could be linked to the development of cancer? Why are goalkeepers more susceptible than field players? What about football players who spend huge portions of a game lying face down on the turf? What other conditions do these players share, for example, drinking from the same type of plastic water bottle or wearing the same keeper gloves or living close to a freeway? What length and level of exposure might lead to cancer – just once or twice or long-term intense? Then these results need to be replicated in studies by other groups to be verified as true and reliable. Finally, the results must be compared to the general population. Is there a significant difference between soccer players getting NHL and other young people getting it? These are just a few of the difficulties in ascertaining a connection between crumb rubber and cancer.

Right now there are over 11,000 turf fields in America, most of which use crumb rubber. In addition, many playgrounds employ crumb rubber around swings and slides to cushion falls. Even environmentalists are reluctant to give up on the pellets because they are seen as a win-win solution. Landfills are no longer clogged with tires that can’t biodegrade and millions of kids experience fewer injuries on playing surfaces. There are alternatives fillers such as coconut fiber and cork, but these are products which are more expensive and scarce. Nevertheless, New York City no longer builds turf fields in its parks and Los Angeles is approaching a similar ban. The issue becomes does the injury buffering of crumb rubber outweigh the possible cancers? All this concern may actually be moot, as several organizations and studies suggest. A 2006 analysis in Norway concluded that inhalation would not cause “acute harmful effects” and that oral exposure would not increase health risks. Still, the study also suggested that more investigation was appropriate. Short-term studies aren’t nearly as strong as long-term studies, which can explore effects on the developing neurological and physical conditions of young players. Unfortunately by the time such studies are complete most youth players today will be married with kids of their own.


According to St. Jude’s Hospital, nine kids out of a million under age 15 develop NHL each year. There are 81 million kids under 18 in the United States, so that translates to approximately 730 new cases per year. That’s a really small percentage. Of course if your child develops the disease, it’s 100 percent, which is why anecdotal evidence is so powerfully alarming. National five-year survival rates are over 66 percent and increasing every year. To put this all in perspective, 650 children 12 and under were killed in car accidents in 2011, and we still drive to those soccer games on turf fields. All the same we should push for more study. It’s important to discover what correlations might exist between crumb rubber and cancer, not only so we can prevent particular cancers, but so we can also develop ideas on how to unlock other cancer-environmental connections. The names Amy Griffin is collecting make an interesting and significant data base to begin the investigation. Scientists need to broaden that list with names from football (boys are three times more likely to develop NHL than girls), track and other turf field sports. They need to collect data on familial histories, diet, lifestyles and other factors. They will need to compare with the general population to see if there are statistically significant differences. All in all, it will be a long process, but any inquiry will definitely promote research’s goal of early detection and prevention of all cancers.

Childhood cancer strikes terror in any parent’s heart, so hearing a national news organization report that soccer players may be at greater risk due to their playing surface can give us pause. However, given all the data, we need to avoid an alarmist approach. While a risk may exist, consider these facts. The number of general sports injuries far outpace any NHL cases. So taking the overall incidence of sports harm to youth players, NHL has a small, albeit emotional, impact. As a parent, and a parent of a goalkeeper at that, I wouldn’t hesitate to have my kids, grandkids, neighbors, and friends play on a turf field, but I would also ask for more research, while calmly paying attention to possible warning signs of trends or symptoms. Since any cancer can appear in any child at any time, it’s not a bad idea to look out for signs of fatigue, easy bruising, swollen lymph nodes, coughing or trouble breathing, fever, night sweats, and/or weight loss. While these symptoms can indicate cancer, they can also indicate any other number of serious health issues, so following up with a physician would never be a bad idea. Childhood has lots of intrinsic dangers, and as parents we need to measure how much we will restrict our kids’ activities based on risks. In this case, I would recommend “Play on!”

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Hard Hitting

Susan Boyd

The tackle made national news. Michigan quarterback Shane Morris caught a Minnesota defender’s helmet under his chin and went down flat. He didn’t move for several seconds, and when he got up he was wobbly and unable to hold himself up. Yet he stayed on the field one more play before he was pulled. Even more troubling, a few plays later there he was taking the snap. The question on every news report: How did this happen? The coach said he doesn’t wear a headset, saw Morris wave him off, and thought his stumbling was due to an earlier ankle sprain. Michigan’s athletic director blamed it on poor communication and confusion on the sidelines. Yet, everyone saw the hit, saw the aftermath, and saw Morris stagger. It was broadcast on the jumbo screen more than once, and more importantly Morris’ teammates knew how the hit had affected him. So it’s natural that many viewers and sportscasters express cynicism towards the excuses offered by staff and administrators.

In the aftermath of the national hue and cry, Michigan instituted a new policy. Instead of having a neurologist just on the sidelines, they will now have one up in the command booth. I’m not sure how a doctor two hundred feet above the field will be able to do the nuanced assessment necessary to determine if a player should be examined or not. Nevertheless it’s an acknowledgement of how serious playing an injured athlete can be. It also brings home the point that has eluded too many NCAA Division I football programs: this is only a game and the emphasis should be on the “student” part of student-athlete.

When college players began demanding to be paid a salary based on the huge profits NCAA and the colleges were making, they were reacting to an evolution in amateur sports that has gone from absolutely no endorsements, no profits, no big budgets to exactly the opposite. They felt they deserved a piece of that financial pie since it was rolled out on their backs. The unfortunate fact is that we are witnessing the reason coaches are less willing to protect their players when they feel the injury isn’t severe enough. They are under pressure to win because winning creates a deeper revenue stream and winning insures their job. It’s probably no coincidence that Michigan is at the bottom of the Big Ten conference with an 0-2 conference record and an overall 2-4 record, so the coach’s job is in jeopardy along with the program’s prestige. So sticking with a quarterback who may not be great or healthy but is better than the alternatives becomes the coach’s best option to secure a win. The players, seeing this push to preserve and grow profits, understand that they may end up with a career-ending injury in the drive for money. So they want to share in the windfalls because it may be their only chance. It becomes a vicious cycle. Schools want to protect their financial bounty, in doing so they ask young players to take risks that could eliminate them from the pros, so players want money up front and leave themselves vulnerable to serious injury, which could endanger a winning season. We see the same scenario in the pros where bonuses are based on things like consecutive games played and tough hits placing those athletes in at risk situations. The big difference is that pro players are usually over 21 and have signed monetary contracts while college players are usually still in their teens and may or may not even have a scholarship.

When Shane Morris waved off the coaches, indicating that he felt he was fine to play, he was probably motivated by two things: first, he felt he was the one who needed to lead his team even though they were down 30-7 when he got his bell rung and second, players are taught to tough it out if they want to remain starters. Coaches make it clear that mental toughness is as important as physical toughness. So injured players tend to override pain with mental fortitude and fight through the damage. The Monday following the Morris incident, Today Show viewers were asked to weigh in on the question “Who should decide if a player can continue in a game?” The results showed 64 percent said “the coach” but surprisingly 36 percent said “the player.” Letting an injured player decide if he or she is able to return to the game is like asking a drunk driver if he or she can operate a motor vehicle. Judgment is impaired by a number of factors. Finding out how much pain a player is in or whether or not they have limited movement is part of the assessment. But the decision should be solely up to a trainer or doctor, not a coach and not a player. If the medical personnel clear a player then it becomes the coach’s along with the player’s decision.

Luckily on this point, soccer and other less attended sports at NCAA schools have an advantage. There aren’t huge sums of money riding on wins. Certainly prestige is important to play for, and water polo, soccer, and lacrosse teams to name just a few of the scores of underrepresented college sports regularly play for honor and glory. However, the coaches can err to the side of safety without sacrificing any monetary benefit a win would have for the school. The plain facts are that the big business of college football and men’s basketball have laid the ground for ignoring the overall safety of those players. Several plays before his concussion, Morris got clipped on his ankle, suffering a high sprain. He spent the entire rest of the game hobbling, wincing every time he was hit. In fact, several commentators argued that he got his head battered because he could not get out of the way fast enough due to his ankle injury, and watching the play I could see a case for that. That he was still in the game after injuring his ankle so severely begs the question — how bad does an injury need to be to sideline a youth player (and I consider college players still youth)? Fans have a role in this process because we stand by our alma maters and our local colleges with a fierceness of competitive spirit that encourages athletic programs to get wins at any cost just to preserve their honor. My graduate alma mater is the University of Oregon, which has a national football reputation. My husband is a bigger fan than I am even though he never attended the school. I know how much a loss devastates him. Multiply that disfavor by a million, and you have the makings of serious pressure on the school to succeed. I really admired Chip Kelly for pulling key players off the field due to either injury or discipline even in significant games. Of course, it’s easier to do that if you keep winning, which he did due to a deep bench. Other schools aren’t so fortunate and really rely on the starters to get them through the four quarters.

Within the culture of toughing it out and winning at any price, we have to attend to the youth players and their safety. You’re not an over-protective parent when it comes to injuries that can ultimately limited an athlete’s playing life, not to mention their off-field life. It’s our job as parents to be vigilant over our kids’ health. Michigan has lots of good football in its future and hopefully Shane Morris will be a part of that success, but he can’t be if he is too beat up to continue. Despite battles for ranking, conference or league dominance, and championship contests in the end it’s got to be about the players and their safety. They can possess drive, pride, and skills that make them want to over-stretch, so it’s the job of parents, coaches, and administrators to protect their bodies and minds while giving them the wisdom to make the proper decisions once they evolve into adults. 

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Perspectives of Opposing teams

Sam Snow

As the Monty Python skit used to say, and now for something completely different.

A Tale of Two Benches on Play-Off Day

by Roy Patton

Beautiful pass, lovely curved ball, you beat two defenders,

sweeper and all

Kick him, harass him, get in his face, they’re making you run all

over the place

 Fantastic turn, your man was real tight. That’s the best move I’ve

seen all night

Chop him, trip him, somehow stop him. Don’t look at me, just

get on top of him

Great first touch, superb control. Keep it up, you’re on a roll.

Stand on his foot, tug on his shirt. Remember I showed you all

kinds of dirt

Wonderful dribble, great turn of speed. That’s the soccer that

U.S.A. needs

Get fired up! Be really intense. Hammer that ball out over the


Congratulations, you played a great game. Let’s come out next

year and do the same

We won! We won! I’m 11-0. There’s not much about soccer that

I don’t know

You are more than a coach. You’re also a friend and that’s why

we hate to see this season end

Coach, it’s over. Here is my gear. I’ll probably play football or

baseball next year

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Game Plan

Susan Boyd

Back in the day, when the boys were first starting in soccer, Smash Mouth released the song “All Star,” whose chorus announced:  “Hey now, you’re an All Star, get your game on, go play.” Even though the song was actually about rock musicians, the beat and the chorus fed right into the pre-teen boys’ sense of “go get-em.” We’d crank the car radio up with the bass on high so that the steel doors shook, and we’d sing at the top of our lungs bouncing to the beat. By the time we hit the field parking lot, the boys were ready to take on any opponent — pumped up and ready to strut their stuff. I doubt the ritual had any real effect on wins and losses, but it sure was fun to watch the cars around us as they stared at the Rockmobile and the cavorting inhabitants.

Silly traditions like that make the game so much more fun and an experience rather than just an event. Any time I hear that song, I’m transported to the Toyota Sienna (which we still own) and the joy of a great fall day stretching out in front of us that included soccer matches, raking leaves, and upsetting the neighbors as the car woofers assaulted the air around us. I know I’m always going on about the game being fun, but because these years last such a short time, it’s important to pack in as many memories and joy as we can. Too soon soccer can become a business with goals that aren’t made on the field.  Stressing out over state, regional and national championships, making the high school varsity team, getting recruited by a college, even moving on to pro quickly overrides the fun part of any youth sport. 

I want to encourage all parents to create a game plan for those Saturday outings rather than just getting to the match on time and then heading home. Use soccer as the backdrop for family memories. For example, just down the road from our club’s fields was a farm stand. Every October they would dress it up for Halloween, complete with a corn maze, pumpkin patch, fun animal rides, and caramel apple making. We’d plan on going after one weekend’s matches and just have a blast doing all the activities. When I look at the pictures from those outings I have to laugh because there will be Robbie riding a camel in his soccer uniform and Bryce triumphantly emerging from the maze, his arms in a victory pose revealing his team jersey logo. Those pictures document not only the boys’ growth, but the evolution of their uniforms.  

The 50’s-themed drive-in in the next community north of us would close for the winter, so we’d always make one last pilgrimage after a soccer game. We all got chocolate shakes — the really thick kind made with four scoops of ice cream — cheeseburgers, fries, and one order of cheese curds (it is Wisconsin, after all). That evening, mixed with all the grass and dirt stains on their uniforms, I’d have to pre-treat the splotches of chocolate shake. Occasionally the stains wouldn’t all come out, so as they ran on the field there would be a subtle reminder of last weekend’s adventure.

Getting to indoor soccer in the winter was an adventure in itself due to slippery roads, blizzards, and the long distances to the facilities. We could go by freeway, but that wasn’t as fun as taking the back roads where we could see plenty of wildlife. We’d play animal bingo with some pretty unusual choices like turkeys, donkeys, and foxes. But someone always managed to win before we got to the facilities. The route also included a “Hobbit House” that someone built long before the Peter Jackson trilogies. It was a bit of a distance off the road so everyone had to stay alert to locate it. With a shout of “Hobbit” we’d all peer out the window and “oooh” and “aaahh” over the architecture that was really detailed and charming with a thatched roof and partially constructed into a hillside. We talked about maybe going up to the door one day to ask for a closer look, but we all chickened out every time we passed.

Traveling to tournaments, we tried to find some ways to make it even more of an adventure. When going to St. Louis, we took a longer route through Illinois so we could go to Metropolis, the home of Superman. There’s a giant statue and a great little park where we had lunch and a collectibles shop that was dark, musty, chaotic, and the perfect spot for young boys to explore. I can’t remember what they bought, but they had $5 each and spent nearly an hour sorting through comic books, action figures, weapons, and toys before settling on their “find.” Locating off-beat destinations became a family obsession with each person trying to outdo the other with the bizarre and the entertaining. We have seen chickens playing tic-tac-toe, a wildlife park dedicated to small exotic animals (like a capybara) where petting and/or holding was encouraged – including the snakes and reptiles. We visited, but did not sit in, the world’s biggest rocking chair, and let odd creatures scale our arms and hair at an insect zoo. Today, with the internet so detailed, finding these little treasures is less time-consuming, but fun to research nonetheless. It’s also a great geography lesson that the kids learn as they look along a route for something fun to do.

Making a “game plan” helps include every family member in the occasion. It can be difficult when you have two, three, even four kids spread out across your area each with his or her own match. Yet that’s what makes a plan so important and special. It’s a way to gather, share the various plays of each game, and focus on something for the family to do together rather than only the dispersal of the members across different soccer fields. You can plan a hike, go fishing, fly kites, picnic along a river, canoe, take in a movie, go to a trampoline park, and even paint some pottery. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination. You don’t have to break the budget either as there are terrific fun activities that cost nothing or nearly nothing. We once spent an afternoon hitting two buckets of golf balls at a local driving range. All we had to pay for were the balls, which were $5 a bucket, clubs were provided for free. Since the boys took forever to line up their shots, the buckets lasted over two hours. Again the photos of that outing show the boys dressed in their soccer uniforms.

I’m not suggesting that every game has to be the portal to an extraordinary day. Certainly, we have lots of things we need to take care of at home that don’t allow for extended excursions every weekend. But you can still make some special memories with a favorite song or track of songs going to and from the field, playing car games, stopping on the way home for an ice cream or fruit from a roadside stand, bringing signs to the game, or spraying the kids with silly string as they exit the field. It’s really easy to add a bit of pizzazz to the routine. For a Halloween game, the players all sported orange hair thanks to a mom who brought a spray can of hair color. Few if any of us remember who won, but we all remember the hair. Washable tattoos can be fun — although some parents may object so check first. But lining up to receive your “warrior” tattoo before a match can be a lasting memory and a Kodak moment.

Soccer matches should be fun unto themselves, but spicing them up a bit gives them the added pleasure of being a singular memory occasion. I have four kids with a big gap between the first two and the second duo, so I learned from experience how fleeting the time is when they welcome magic. All too quickly they get jaded, hanging out with cool friends who couldn’t be bothered riding a llama. Seize that magical time with both hands and enjoy it while it lasts. You’ll have lots of joyful, memory-filled experiences all through their lives, but that really young age, when life is so wondrous and unfathomable doesn’t last long. Creating memories during that time might seem overwhelming with all the day-to-day demands of just getting homework done, laundry finished, carpool run, sports and hobby schedules, and sleep. So piggy-backing some adventure on the things you already have to do, like going to a game, can make those minutes blossom into a special memory and maybe even a series of photos with your kids in uniform.

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