Portland Timbers legend Jimmy Conway, an influential figure in Portland soccer history, died in 2020 at age 73 after battling trauma-induced dementia. Now, three years later, a Boston University study released Tuesday diagnosed Conway and three other deceased former NASL players with the brain disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE is a degenerative brain disease found in some former athletes with a history of repeated concussions or other traumatic brain injuries. The study was conducted by a research team in Boston led by Dr. Ann McKee, who examined Conway’s brain post-mortem — currently the only way to diagnose the disease.
I attended multiple soccer camps run by Jimmy Conway when I was a kid. My dad knew Conway from soccer coaching circles, and he’d bring Conway to Salem to coach up us kids. Good fellow, very talented, and I think his camps are one of the reason my high school team finished in the top four in state my senior year.
I have no problem believing Jimmy played in a way that would lead to CTE. Toughness and aggressiveness are prized in English (and Irish) soccer. Conway would have been brought up in that style and in an era that was more brutal than today. Unlike hockey, boxing, or American football where repeated pounding is an inherent part of the game, I doubt soccer carries the same threat level. (Almost 92% of American football player brains studied for CTE showed CTE in the study I saw. I would be stunned if we find CTE at that level in soccer players.)
To be clear, I fully believe one can play in a way that makes one susceptible to CTE (Conway is proof), but I’ve yet to see studies that show soccer is nearly so dangerous. (Quote from a related article: “Jimmy was a prolific header of the ball. He was very skilled at that,” Valerie Fryatt said. “A lot of players from that era said he was the best header of the ball they’d ever seen.”)
Right now, lack of causal studies make it difficult to advocate for extreme change to the sport. In Oregon, youth soccer players through age 11 are not allowed to head the ball. From 12 through age 14, heading practice is significantly restricted. These are changes from the last 10 years as the concern about CTE and concussions have grown; there were no restrictions when I was a kid. These seem reasonable steps given how much we don’t know.
Soccer players may not like it any more than hockey players did, but mandating a protective headgear, specifically designed to reduce impact and head trauma, may be a reasonable compromise.
Of course if medical studies conclude that CTE is caused by headers, then it’s not an outrageous thought that headers should be banned from the game. Turn them into something like a hand-ball foul. It’s not great, and it definitely changes the nature of the game, but player safety with something like CTE has to be prioritized.
I do wonder, if Jimmy Conway were here to reflect on his storied career and his later life, what he’d say. I’m not sure he could have been the player he was without playing the way he played. One wants to think that had he known, he would have opted not to pay the price…but part of me thinks he would have paid it anyway to be who he was. But perhaps all that means is that players need to be saved from themselves.