Football, Heading and Brain Injury: Time for Government Intervention

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In 2017, a greater awareness has emerged of the potential links between heading a football and dementia.


Part 1: Previous Cases of Dementia in Former Footballers


This section outlines some previous examples of dementia in former players.  For example, members of the Aston Villa, 1957 FA Cup, winning side may have died as a result of brain injuries from heading footballs.  Danny Blanchflower, who captained Tottenham died after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in 1993 (aged 67).  Spurs players Dave Mackay, Peter Baker and Ron Henry also suffered from dementia.  Members of the England World Cup Winning Team have dementia.  Former footballer, Ian St John, has highlighted neurological problems among former 1960's Liverpool players Ron Yeats, Tommy Smith and Geoff Strong


A coroner ruled Jeff Astle, the former England footballer renowned for his heading ability died from dementia caused by repeatedly heading the ball.  Astle died of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).  This is a disease caused by impacts to the head which produced symptoms, similar to dementia, including memory loss.  It is a form of dementia that occurs when the frontal lobes of the brain begin to shrink and could be responsible for 10%-15% of dementia cases.  Other significant cases of dementia, in former footballers, include John McNamee, the former Newcastle United central defender and Billy McNeil, the former Celtic central defender.  There is also the case of the former Cambridge defender Chris Turner who died of dementia which was attributed to heading footballs.


A former women’s American soccer player is highly aware of the possible links between playing football and dementia.  The former American soccer player Brandi Chastain has agreed to donate her brain to medical science when she dies.  In the UK, former Blackburn strikers Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton are leading calls for more research into heading footballs and dementia.

To conclude this section, further research is needed to build upon the examples of dementia which have been identified.


Part 2: A Model to Show Greater Public Awareness of Dementia and Sports


In 2014, the former England test cricketer, Ed Smith, wrote an article on the possible links between American football and brain damage.  From this article, a model of ‘awareness of sporting risk’ and dementia can be developed.  The model argues that, first, there was an awareness of the links between boxing and dementia; going back to 1928.  More recently, there has been an awareness that participation in American football, rugby and soccer can lead to dementia.


With the death of the batsman Philip Hughes concern over risk could reach cricket.  A solution might be that any ball bowled over shoulder height is counted as a wide with one run added to the batting team’s run total.  The batsman cannot be out, from such a delivery, except by means of a run-out.


Part 3: The Number of Times a Player can Head a Football during a Career


If a player makes 10 headers, per game, with 50 games per season, including competitive pre-season friendlies, then that is 500 headers per season.  If there is a 20 year long career (500*20) then that is 10,000 career headers in total.


Part 4:  Issues for Football to address


The football industry needs to consider whether some footballers are at greater risk of dementia.  The central positions such as central defenders and centre forwards could be at greater risk.  Another issue is whether older footballs were more dangerous and whether newer footballs are safer.  However, as newer footballs are more aerodynamic and the players can kick the ball harder now due to greater athleticism, then the speed of the ball and force of impact can be greater.


There are possible solutions such as using 5 a-side rules.  That is, a free kick could be awarded, to the opposing team, if the football is clearly kicked above shoulder height.  Yellow and red cards could be used to deter heading.  Also the goal posts could be changed to accommodate a game without heading; a new goal dimension of 1.5 metres, for the height, and 12 metres for the width could be appropriate.


Part 5:  Issues for the Government to Address


The government has to intervene because the football industry, like other industries, has failed to regulate itself fully.  There is, generally, a failure of voluntary regulation.  The mad cow disease saga is an example of an industry failing to regulate itself.  This example demonstrates that earlier government intervention was needed to address concerns over safety.  Until recently the football industry has, generally, overlooked the risk to the brain from heading the ball.  This inaction provides a justification for state intervention. 


Part 6:  The Aim of Possible Research


Government research on dementia is needed to understand the extent to which dementia is caused by sports; and how far dementia can be attributed to other causes.  The government needs to try and separate (1) the extent of dementia caused by brain injury from (2) the dementia caused by other factors such as diet and lifestyle (vascular dementia).  Prion disease (CJD), related to mad cow disease, could also be examined as a cause of dementia in the population.  A Royal Commission examining these wide ranging concerns is a relevant method of investigation.




Nevertheless, a fully funded research programme is needed; to bring together evidence from around the world into the effects of impacts on the brain.  

Video:  Football, Heading and Brain Injury: Time for Government Intervention 

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