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New research finds link between heading footballs and brain injuries

University College London scientists have called for ‘urgent’ research as study finds that years of heading footballs can lead to increased risk of dementia in later life.

Researchers have found evidence linking the repeated heading of footballs to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition know to cause dementia. The link was found after conducting post-mortem examinations on the brains of five professional footballers and one amateur player – all of whom had suffered from dementia and all had played football for an average of 26 years.

The research findings is expected to strengthen the calls of many campaigners who want the Football Association (The FA) to put more resources and focus into the dangers of heading the ball.

football header

There is a clearly established duty of care when it comes to players injured during sporting activity. When participating in contact sports, a certain level of risk is to be expected, but if an inherent risk has been identified then a sports body/team/organisation has a duty of care to take measures to minimise the risk. If this duty of care is neglected then they could be found liable for any treatment, rehabilitation or health care for players who suffer an injury or health condition as a result.

Ex-Liverpool player and Scotland international Ian St John has recently been speaking out on behalf of ex-players who have suffered brain injuries as a result of heading the ball.

Speaking to the BBC this week, St John said there is a clear link between brain injuries and heading footballs and revealed that six of his former teammates – from a group of 16 – now have Alzheimer’s. He said:

“For people of my vintage, I would say all the facts that we have got, stand up. And I don’t know why the FA and the PFA have covered this up for years.

“I talked about it to the PFA a couple of years ago, and their answer was: ‘Well, women get dementia, so therefore it’s not an industrial injury’. Which is a load of nonsense isn’t it?

“I don’t know about today’s light ball, but in our era, heading that heavy ball day in and day out – not just at matches but training as well – the lads know at this stage of their lives we’re either dying or have dementia.

“The footballs that we’ve been heading for years are causing this, but they’re [the FA] in denial about it.

“How many goalkeepers have got dementia over the years? If they did a survey, it would be interesting if the answer was none, which means that the goalkeeper – the only guy on the field who is not heading the ball on the field – is OK.”

Former England striker Kevin Davies joined the calls for more research to be done into the subject, saying:

“I’m well renowned for heading the ball and we used to get all the stats back – during the game it can be between 25 and 40 times.

“When you start to look at the numbers in terms of professional players, the amount of contact they have with the ball – if you look at my career, 800 career games, and then you take into training, the numbers start to stack up and it could be anywhere between 10,000 and 50,000 times that you’re heading the ball.

“The ball has changed a lot, the training methods have changed a lot now.

“[Previously] you’d see some sessions where you were hurling balls at defenders and it was a bit scary at the time – I think that has changed a lot and the style of football has changed a lot but there needs to be more research with the new footballs.”

As awareness of the long term effects that head trauma can have on a person’s health has increased, there have been changes in some sports – particularly how children play sports at school. Also, today’s footballs are considerably lighter and more streamlined that the heavy balls used in the 60’s and 70’s, although there is an argument that today’s lighter balls are able to travel at much greater speeds which may be just as dangerous.

Nobby Stiles, Martin Peters and Ray Wilson – all legends from England’s 1966 World Cup winning squad – all suffer from Alzheimer’s, which former Liverpool player Chris Nicholl recently revealed to the Daily Mail the high price he has paid for repeatedly heading the ball during his playing days: “I know I’m brain damaged from heading footballs. I used to head 100 balls almost every day.  It’s definitely affected my memory.”

Jeff Astle – West Brom striker – is another high profile case. Astle died at the age of 59 in 2002 while suffering from early on-set dementia which a coroner ruled was caused by heading footballs, ultimately giving the cause of death as industrial disease.