Football Clubs Need to Protect Players from Dementia - or Face Paying Compensation

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A year ago, the FA commissioned FIELD Study concluded that footballers have a threefold risk of dying from Dementia. Since then, there has been little action taken to limit how footballers head the ball. The only measure taken by the FA so far has been to ban under 12’s from heading balls in training. A leading lawyer now warns clubs need to do more to protect players or risk compensation claims.


The FIELD Study​


In 2017, the FA commissioned an independent research study which investigated the incidence of degenerative neurocognitive disease in ex-professional footballers. NHS records of 7,676 Scottish men were assessed, all of whom previously played football professionally.


The former footballers’ records were socio-demographically matched against a 3:1 control sample for comparison. The study found that whilst 3% of the control sample had died from Dementia, the figure was a much higher 11% amongst the ex-footballers. Which incredibly, means it’s safer to play online than gambling with your health on the pitch.


Limitations of the research​


Although the FIELD Study was well-conducted and its findings were undoubtedly of concern to those in the game, research in this area still has a way to go.


The researchers did not investigate the reasons behind the results, including any correlation between the frequent heading of the ball. All footballers in the study were born before 1977, and it is unclear whether the results apply to young people in the game today. It is also worth noting that, despite the risk of neurodegenerative disease being over three times higher amongst footballers, fewer than 2% of those in the study died from such causes.


In addition, it is unclear whether the results apply solely to those playing at a professional level. Could there also be a risk for those playing at an amateur level or just for fun?


Alan Shearer: Dementia, Football and Me​


Prior to the FIELD Study, former footballer Alan Shearer took part in a BBC documentary entitled Alan Shearer: Dementia, Football and Me. The documentary followed Shearer in his quest to examine whether repeatedly heading footballs might cause CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy).


CTE is commonly referred to as ‘boxer’s brain’ because it can be caused by repeated blows to the head.


Shearer met with the families of ex-professional footballers who had either been diagnosed with Dementia or posthumously diagnosed with CTE. Interestingly, all the affected ex-footballers had either played as centre-halves or centre forwards – positions that involve frequent heading of the ball.






A lawyer’s perspective​


Ipek Tugcu is a mentor at brain injury charity Headway and solicitor at Bolt Burden Kemp. A year on from the FIELD Study, she has expressed disappointment at how little has changed in this time. Tugcu has questioned why governing bodies are yet to act on the ‘indisputable’ findings of the research. She suggests limitations should be placed on header training as the main issue because this requires players to repeatedly head balls for hours, or even days, at a time.


An industrial disease?​


Such is the prevalence of Dementia amongst retired players; some are now questioning whether it should be classed as an industrial disease. This is a matter which is currently being investigated by the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council.


Alan Jarvis was a former Welsh international football player who developed Alzheimer’s and died recently aged 76. The coroner ruled that he was killed by an industrial disease resulting from years of heading balls. This was the second time a former footballer’s death has been recorded as an industrial disease. The first was that of former England striker Jeff Astle who passed away in 2002.


Forcing clubs to take action or face compensation​


Tugcu argues that identifying Dementia as an industrial disease would force football clubs to take action or risk paying compensation. If such changes came into place, clubs would legally have to protect players and limit the risks. Failure to do so adequately could result in legal action against them.


A precedent can be found in American Football. In the US, the NFL has established a brain injury compensation fund worth £770 million. The fund is available to support retired American football players and their families who have been affected by CTE and medical conditions linked to head trauma.


Are today’s footballers at greater risk?​


The FIELD Study involved footballers born pre-1977 because neurodegenerative diseases typically affect people later in life. This does, however, make it difficult to tell whether young players today are affected to a lesser or greater extent than those in the study.


Interestingly, however, a recent study from the University of Leeds lends weight to the argument that modern footballers could be at greater risk. The study revealed that the speed of a football has a greater effect on damage caused than the material it is made from or its weight. Modern, faster balls could present more of a problem than the old leather balls used by footballers of the past.


What is the FA doing to tackle the issue?​


Following the results of the FIELD Study, the FA created a Medical and Football Advisory group. The group was independently chaired and included Dr. Carol Routledge, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK. Upon the group’s recommendations, the FA has re-issued guidelines on best-practice advice for coaching and concussion management.


The guidelines advise strict limitations on heading in children’s football training. They also insist on a high degree of caution regarding concussion – ‘if in doubt, sit them out.’ Finally, they advocate greater awareness of known risk factors for Dementia amongst players.


What happens next?​


The FA has been keen to point out that the FIELD Study also found that footballers were more likely to live beyond age 70. They are also less likely to die from other conditions such as heart disease and lung cancer. This indicates that whilst players might be alarmed by the links between the sport and Dementia, there are still many ways in which the game promotes good health.


Both the FA and Alzheimer’s Research UK call for further research to explore the link between football and neurodegenerative disease.​
 
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