While sports leagues around the world claim that player safety is a top priority, everyone knows that these leagues are more than willing to risk an athlete’s health for the payday offered by big television contracts. That type of reckless endangerment in American soccer was seen on Saturday afternoon in Houston.
Major League Soccer and the National Women’s Soccer League have fought hard to gain relevance in the American sporting landscape. This means getting television deals with national broadcasters to air their games to a mass audience. But American soccer leagues have yet to reach the point where these channels want to air them in prime-time. Instead, many of these broadcasts end up on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.
In many parts of the country, playing a game on a Saturday afternoon is not much of a problem, especially early and late in the season when the weather cools in the northern parts of the country. But in southern cities such as Orlando, Atlanta, Houston, and Los Angeles, any afternoon games during the season can cause dangerous situations for athletes.
Orlando alone sees more than its fair share of its afternoon games. Orlando City plays six home games this season at 5 p.m. or earlier, while the Orlando Pride play eight games at 5 p.m. or earlier. This is far too many mid-afternoon games in a city where, even in the spring and fall, mid-day temperatures can run into the 90s.
On Saturday, the Houston Dash welcomed the Seattle Reign for a battle at BBVA Compass Stadium, nicknamed “the Oven.” Temperatures for the 3 p.m. game were around 92 degrees with a heat index of 102 degrees.
Despite a pair of hydration breaks, one in each half, the heat was too much for one Dash defender. As the final whistle blew, Rachel Daly staggered toward the sideline before falling to the ground.
Seeing that she was not moving, players from both teams came to her aid, as did the Dash training staff. After examining her, Daly was carried off the field and taken to a local hospital, suffering from heat exhaustion. She was given IV fluids and was released from the hospital later in the day.
Following the incident, the NWSL released the following statement:
First and foremost, we want to wish Rachel Daly a quick recovery, as well as other players who may have been impacted by the heat during today’s match between the Houston Dash and Seattle Reign. The safety of our players is always our top priority and due to the high temperature today in Houston, we implemented water breaks to provide additional opportunities to help the players stay hydrated. Prior to the season, we also worked with the Dash on scheduling any nationally televised afternoon games earlier in the year in an attempt to avoid the summer heat that unfortunately we experienced today. We will immediately review these measures to prevent this situation from occurring in the future.
While this was a rare incident, it could be more prevalent. Playing a game like soccer requires a great deal of running, which can be problematic in high temperatures. It’s not surprising that temperatures in southern cities around the United States get into the 90s and sometimes even higher. Playing in such temperatures can be fatal, even to the finely tuned athletes participating in these games.
To make matters worse, soccer is very much a global game. So, while athletes that grew up in warmer parts of the world know how to properly hydrate in these conditions, incidents like Saturday can occur with players coming from colder climates like in Europe.
As to who are scheduling these games, it appears the clubs have the health interest of the players and fans in mind. Teams like Orlando City, Atlanta United, and the Houston Dynamo schedule their non-nationally televised games after 7 p.m., when the temperatures have gone down. But, wanting to highlight certain southern-based teams to a national television audience, MLS and the NWSL often schedule games in these cities in the middle of the afternoon when the temperature is at its peak.
It’s obvious that scheduling games in the middle of the afternoon in southern states during the summer is dangerous to the health of the athletes. It’s incredible that it took this long for an athlete to collapse on the field due to the heat. Luckily, Daly appears to have escaped the incident with no additional problems. But heat exhaustion has the potential to be fatal so these leagues need to start putting player safety ahead of profits before it’s too late.