New research into heading a football has identified “significant” changes in brain function from routine heading practice. The study from the University of Stirling is the first to detect direct changes after players are exposed to everyday head impacts, as opposed to clinical brain injuries like concussion. The findings come after concerns that players’ brains are damaged by repeated head impacts.
The former England and West Brom striker Jeff Astle died in 2002 at the age of 59, suffering from early onset dementia which a coroner found was caused by heading footballs and he gave the cause of death as “industrial disease”.
A subsequent re-examination of Astle’s brain found he was suffering from the neuro-degenerative disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). CTE can only be established following death and has been found in the brains of deceased American footballers, boxers and rugby players. CTE is known to lead to dementia.
Research scientists at University College London conducted post-mortem examinations on the brains of 5 professional football players and one amateur who had played for 26 years and who had all suffered from dementia. They found evidence of CTE in all 6 players.
It is not perhaps surprising that damaging effects of heading have been found, the question is what can be done about it. What can the authorities do to protect players and children in particular?
Duty of care is clearly established by the law in respect of participants in sport. In most contact sports a certain level of risk is to be expected but where an inherent risk of injury has been identified a sports body must, by law, take measures to ensure the risk is reduced. If this duty of care is not adhered to organisations may find themselves liable for injuries sustained by players who suffer as a result of this lack of action.
Many campaigners are calling for the Footballers Association (FA) to place more focus on the dangers of heading the ball. The European football body, UEFA, has promised to undertake a research project which would count the number of times children head the ball in training sessions but clearly much more needs to be done to prevent serious injuries occurring.
In the USA significant pro-active measures have been taken by the National Football League (NFL) including the investment of $60 million in improving helmets for American Football players and a further $40 million in neuroscience funding. This follows the approval (in 2015) by a US judge of a class action settlement between the NFL and former American Football players who suffered the effects of repeated head trauma. As a result the NFL paid out $1 billion in brain injury compensation and launched new initiatives to improve safety of players.
Clearly more needs to be done in the UK to avoid similar compensation claims being brought. It remains to be seen what measures UK Sport will take to reduce the risk of head injuries from heading the ball, particularly amongst younger players.
Sports-related injury claims can sometimes be difficult to pursue. However if you have been injured during a contact sport as a result of another party’s negligence and you believe that their conduct has breached the standard expected of players you may be able to make a claim.