So now we know. Revealed last week, the results of a landmark study into the relationship between football and brain damage confirmed what many in and outside the game have long suspected: former professionals are significantly more likely to suffer from dementia and other serious neurological diseases in their later years. Three-and-a-half times more likely, to be precise. The research project, conducted over nearly two years by the University of Glasgow’s Brain Injury Group also discovered a five-fold increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s, a four-fold increase in motor neurone disease and a two-fold increase in Parkinson’s. What football – those who play, coach and govern the sport – decides to do with this crucial information remains to be seen but recent history suggests any real progress in the field of player safety will be made at a glacial pace.
Dawn Astle spent time on the night of her 34th birthday alone with her father, who had just died after choking during a family dinner. Frantic efforts by relatives and paramedics had failed to save Jeff, the former West Brom and England legend who, at 54, had first begun to show symptoms of the brain damage that would eventually lead to his death. Diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, his descent into utter helplessness was swift and before his death five years later he was incontinent, barely able to feed himself and had no idea who he or anyone around him was. In Michael Calvin’s book State of Play, Dawn tells the author that as her father’s body lay in repose she swore an oath on his behalf. “If football has done this to you, Dad,” she said. “I promise you I’ll make sure the whole world knows and I’ll get justice for you.”
That was in January 2002 and at the initial inquest the coroner, Andrew Haigh, found football had indeed done this to Jeff. Due in no small part to his daughter’s tireless campaigning in the intervening years, it has been well documented that he died from “an industrial disease” brought on by the repeated trauma of heading the ball. Called on to give a response, the Football Association and Professional Footballers’ Association announced a 10-year study into the relationship between football and brain diseases which was later shelved. Calvin writes that Dawn later found herself in the position of having to respond to the PFA chief executive, Gordon Taylor. “My mother’s got dementia,” he said. “And she’s never headed a ball.”
It would be another 12 years before an examination of Jeff’s brain proved he had suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative disease also suffered by Chris Sutton’s father, Mike, a former professional with Norwich City and one of an alarming number of former professional footballers who suffer – or have died – from the illness. Happy at times to play the contrarian in his work as a football pundit, there is nothing pantomime about the fury felt by Chris at the neglect of football’s governors and the PFA when the awful plight of his dad is brought up. “The PFA – led by Gordon Taylor – had a duty of care to their members,” he said last week. “They let them down and, in my opinion, their chief executive has blood on his hands.” Changing his tune in a reverse-ferret that was better 17 years late than never, the chief executive in question agreed it was “incumbent on football globally to come together to address this issue in a comprehensive and united manner”.
Sutton, it should be noted, was quick to add that he is not interested in removing heading from the game, but pointed out that if he had been forewarned about the potential dangers of doing so, he might have devoted less time in training to a skill few were better at. “There is already a ban on kids heading footballs in the United States,” he said. “Maybe it is time to bring that to these shores. A Premier League centre back will head the ball hundreds of times a week in training sessions. Do we limit that, too? I’m not saying we ban heading in football but at least this study now gives every youngster a choice. Any kids in academies, you now know the dangers.”
So, over to you football. Now that you have learned how dangerous you can be, what will you do about it? As recently as 2017 Fifa was clinging to the fact that, because there was no absolute causal link between heading footballs and degenerative brain diseases, there could be “no true evidence” of any connection. Given the lip service administrators and many coaching and medical staff appear to grudgingly pay players suffering from short-term brain traumas such as concussions, the smart money would have to go on the collective football head being buried in the sand.
Four years after Germany’s Christoph Kramer, dazed and confused after a collision with an opponent, interrupted the 2014 World Cup final to ask the referee if he was playing in a World Cup final, viewers watching Morocco take on Iran at Russia 2018 were treated to the grisly spectacle of Nordin Amrabat being slapped around the chops by medical staff eager to get him back into action after he’d been knocked out following a clash of heads. Their efforts were unsuccessful, but Amrabat was back on the pitch within five days wearing a protective skull cap he discarded early in the game.
These are just two of many, many high-profile examples of football playing fast and loose with player welfare as far as concussions are concerned and one doesn’t have to travel as far afield as Brazil or Russia to witness similar borderline-criminal neglect. If so little concern is shown to those with obvious head trauma out on the field of play, what possible hope is there for those whose symptoms may not become apparent until long after the final whistle has blown?
The Guardian Sport