Scientists at University College London have called for ‘urgent’ research, stating that years of heading the ball can cause the same type of progressive damage as suffered by heavyweight prizefighters.
Researchers conducted post-mortem examinations of the brains of five professional players, and one “committed” amateur, who had played for an average of 26 years and who had all suffered from dementia. They found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which can be caused by repeated blows to the head and is a condition known to lead to dementia.
The results of this research ought to reinforce many campaigners’ calls for the Football Association (FA) to place more focus on the dangers of heading the ball.
Indeed, duty of care is clearly established by the law when it comes to participants injured in sports. In most contact sports a certain level of risk may be anticipated, but where an inherent risk of injury has been identified, a sports body and team must, by law, take measures to see that this hazard in minimised. If this duty of care to players is neglected, organisations may find themselves liable for any health care that is required by players who suffer as a result of lack of action.
Ex-Scotland international, Ian St John has recently spoken out on behalf of retired football players who have suffered brain injuries as a result of heading the ball.
In most contact sports a certain level of risk may be anticipated, but where an inherent risk of injury has been identified, a sports body and team must, by law, take measures to see that this hazard in minimised.
Talking to BBC Radio 5 Live, St John recounted the extensive training players endured using “big, heavy” balls in the 1950s and 60s. Reflecting on the injuries sustained by many other former players as a result of heading the ball, he said: "If someone needs special care as a result of their career and their career was football, then football should pay for that."
In recent years, awareness of the long term effects head trauma can have on a person’s health has seen changes in some sports – including how children play sports at school.
Whereas today’s games are played with considerably lighter balls than in the 50s and 60s there is an argument for this allowing the ball to reach a greater speed, which in turn may cause similar trauma.
England 1966 legends Nobby Stiles, Ray Wilson and Martin Peters have Alzheimer’s, thought to be linked to heading heavy leather footballs. Recently, former Liverpool football star, Chris Nicholl revealed the high price he played for repeatedly heading the ball, telling the Daily Mail, “I know I'm brain damaged from heading footballs. I used to head 100 balls almost every day. It’s definitely affected my memory.”
Former England and West Brom striker Jeff Astle died in 2002 at the age of 59, suffering from early on-set dementia which a coroner found was caused by heading footballs and gave the cause of death as “industrial disease”.
We have seen how this call for financial support of injured players has also led to improvements in future players’ safety in sport. In 2015 a US judge approved 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 to afflicted players, and has launched new initiatives in attempts to improve the safety of players.
Steve Hill is a principal lawyer, specialising in personal injury at Slater and Gordon in Manchester.
For further information about financial compensation following a serious injury or for a free consultation to discuss a serious injury, call our No Win No Fee personal injury solicitors on freephone 0800 916 9046 or contact us online.