It was last Sunday, the first soccer game of the season. A ball came floating through the air — and one 9-year-old on the other team headed it away.

The kids on our team shouted: "Head ball! Head ball!"

Play stopped. Both teams just stood there, until someone asked, "Why?"

Clearly the news hasn't spread.

Who had asked? The ref.


He'd better get up to speed. For kids, a century-old tradition — heading — is now against the rules. Last November, the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) banned heading for kids under 11, and severely limited it for kids under 14. At last weekend's practices, kids couldn't head the ball even one time.

Both of us have played and coached, and love, the world's most popular game. We would never have believed this possible. The news, and its effect, is beginning to sink in.

Was the ban in response to a lawsuit? Sure. Is it controversial? Absolutely.

And to us, courageous.

Faced with mounting evidence of the damage heading does to kids, USSF moved in sharp contrast to the disgraceful behavior by the NFL and NCAA. They also acted unilaterally, despite disdain from the rest of the world. FIFA — soccer's international governing body — has announced it won't follow the U.S. move. Does heading hurt kids? "There is no true evidence," FIFA says.

Soccer and global politics often go together. In 1969, it contributed a lot to the brief but savage war between El Salvador and Honduras. They called it the "Football War."

But why controversy over heading if the evidence of brain damage is clear? For those who don't play, here are two reasons.

First, heading is exciting. In a sport accused of having too many low scores, fans love seeing players go up high and use their skulls to drill a ball into the goal.

Second, if Americans are the only ones with this rule, how can we win? As one angry tweeter wrote the day USSF announced the ban, "Another reason why we will NEVER be dominant in soccer."

That's most likely true. Abby Wambach, the most prolific goal-scorer in the history of women's soccer, scored close to half her goals with her head. At La Masia, FC Barcelona's world-famous training academy that has produced superstars like Lionel Messi, they recruit players as young as 8. At 12, the kids live on the campus where they can practice seven days a week. How can our national teams win if, by that age, our players have never headed a ball?

But the evidence MRI scans have uncovered of the danger to soccer-playing kids is compelling. This is particularly true for girls, 48 percent of the 3 million kids who are registered to play organized U.S. youth soccer (the total number of kids playing soccer nationwide, in leagues or independently, is probably double that). In one study, American girls' soccer finished second only to football as a concussion-producer.

Dr. Robert Cantu, a neurosurgery professor at the Boston University School of Medicine, points to a reason. "Our youngsters have big heads on very weak necks. That combination sets up the brain for greater injury," he says.

Still, we've talked to coaches who think the ban goes too far. They say you can't avoid all of the dangerous collisions that happen on the field, even though many of those collisions occur when competing for a head ball.

They also worry that to ban heading means not teaching it. They argue that could lead to a higher risk of injury when nobody knows how to head properly. And there is a "right" way to head: Eyes open. Mouth closed. Hit with your forehead, at the hairline. That's the advice coaches have given for decades. If kids don't know that, won't the injury rate go up?

Here's the problem. Heading a ball the "right" way doesn't prevent the kind of issues neurologists have found in soccer players. Studies show a clear association between repeated heading with abnormalities in white matter brain tissue and poorer cognitive performance — the more heading, the more likely the damage. As one New York University researcher points out, that's partly because the real damage from heading — the subconcussive kind — comes not in a game. It's from practice.

Like pianists learning scales, endless repetition brings results. The repeated heading during practices makes players good.

Here's how one of us — Bob — taught his soccer team of 10-year-olds to head. He did it the way he'd been taught, walking them over to the brick wall at their elementary school.

"Okay," Bob would say. "Let's get a hundred in a row." From five feet away, they'd send their soccer ball over and over into the wall. Bang bang bang bang bang.

Meanwhile, Eric remembers how his high-school coach taught heading. Everyone lined up. The coach had a JUGS machine that hurled the ball 50 feet in the air. Players would nerve themselves under the falling ball. Eric would count teammates in line, hoping he wasn't left with the stiff, plastic-coated Brine ball. It didn't matter what part of your head you used; that ball made you dizzy. And if the coach wasn't satisfied, another ball was on its way.

Cantu puts it this way: "If we were to take a pillow and slam it as hard as we could against a child's head, again and again, we would be charged with child abuse. But that's exactly what it's like when a player is hit in the head with a ball from pretty close."

Cindy Parlo, the American National Team star, who had to retire because of the effects of her concussions, wishes her coaches knew more. "The knowledge just wasn't out there back then. But now there's no excuse."

That's true. Even heading a ball right at the hairline makes your kid's brain slosh around and against the skull. A hundred in a row? Safe? Maybe with beachballs.

So to American coaches, we say: Take the ban seriously, during training, even if players want to resist. Then you will never have to learn what the parents and coaches of American soccer player Patrick Grange found. He loved to practice heading.

He began at age 3. At 29, he died of ALS, a disease researchers now believe was triggered by brain trauma. In fact, when pathologists examined Grange's brain, they found "extensive frontal lobe damage." That's exactly where he would have contacted the ball — the safe way.

To parents, we say: Pay attention at practice. If coaches can't resist telling your kid to go over to the brick wall for their hundred in a row, we hope you tell them they can't sacrifice your kid's brain to burnish their win-loss record. As others have pointed out, we don't question the pitch count designed to protect our baseball-playing children's arms. Shouldn't we be as protective about their brains?

The point is, we should all applaud this partnership of neurology and common sense. And not just in the U.S.

Why, after all, is it that of the 209 countries that belong to FIFA, not a single country has followed America's lead?

We doubt it's due to the hostility much of the world feels toward the U.S. The most powerful FIFA countries include our staunchest allies. Could it be because the world knows that despite the success of our women's teams, we are not a global superpower on the soccer field? What right do we have to mess up their beautiful game?

But look, rest of the world: Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Here, we're right. But when it comes to soccer, America can't just put boots on the ground. We need other ways to inspire and persuade — what those in foreign policy circles might call "smart power." And the rest of the world should listen.

For in contrast to the NFL or NCAA, to ignore the developing tools of modern medicine creates a great global injustice. Around the world, 265 million people play competitive soccer — 10 times the American total. A lot more just play for fun. We've both seen them on Brazilian beaches, heading to each other. We've seen them in English parks alone, trying to keep the ball aloft. We've seen them playing on crowded streets in Beijing.

You might say they are hurting themselves.

But in this case, if the adults running world soccer associations refuse to follow the pioneering U.S. lead, kids around the world will be victims, and grown-ups will deserve blame. FIFA countries should do the right thing.

After all, no matter how thrilling fans find a header, it is more important to use your head than score with it. A ban on heading for kids under 11 will hardly change this beautiful game. But it will protect the beautiful children who play it.

As long as refs know the rules.

This piece was updated on April 22, 2016 at 10:05 a.m.

Lehrman and Schnure, former White House aides, co-teach speechwriting at American University, write often under their own name and played their soccer at Tufts and Hobart, respectively.