The BBC documentary ‘Alan Shearer: Dementia, Football and Me’ proved a fascinating and though-provoking programme about the possible link between brain damage and football players repeatedly heading a ball throughout their careers.
In the documentary, Shearer spoke at length to the daughter of former West Brom star Jeff Astle, who died in 2002 of a degenerative brain disease, aged just 59. At the inquest into his death, the coroner said Astle had suffered from dementia, brought on by the repeated heading of a football.
Fifteen years on, Shearer investigated what the Football Association (FA), and the Football Players’ Association (PFA) had done to support further medical research since that date, and appeared disappointed to find we appear no closer to a definitive answer over the risk involved.
Shearer asked as many times in the documentary whether the matter of a potential link between heading footballs and brain injuries had been “swept under the carpet”.
Independent research showed footballers had suffered degenerative brain disease
Scottish neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart, a man who supported Astle’s family (who established the Jeff Astle Foundation) in conducting research, also featured on the programme.
He agreed to examine Astle’s brain in post-mortem in 2014, and found him to have died from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive, degenerative brain disease found in individuals with a history of head injury, often as a result of multiple concussions.
Unfortunately, as was explained in the documentary, CTE is something that can only be diagnosed after death by post-mortem neuropathological analysis, and the number of footballers’ brains to have been examined is still minimal.
Earlier this year the findings of more research, funded at The University College London (UCL) by The Drake Foundation, a not for profit organisation committed to improving the understanding of concussion injuries in sport based on scientific research and insight, were revealed.
That research saw CTE found in four out of six former footballers’ when post-mortems were carried out (in the general population, there is a mere 12 per cent incidence of CTE.) The Drake Foundation has now pledged to commit a further £1m to research.
Other major sports have led the way in research and introducing changes
Pressure certainly now appears to be building on the FA and PFA to do more. In other sports, and other countries, positive examples are being set.
The catalyst for change in worldwide sport of course came in 2013, when the NFL reached a $765 million settlement agreement for former players over concussion-related brain injuries, agreeing to compensate victims, pay for medical exams and underwrite research.
It set the wheels in motion for all other sports to reassess their duty to player welfare at all ages.
Sports are now doing much more to protect players who suffer concussion, especially at professional levels.
The RFU (Rugby Union) has also introduced incremental contact rugby for six to 13-year-olds in 2015, and over a three-year period trialled a new exercise programme in schools and age-grade rugby which led to a reduction of overall injuries by 72 per cent, and the number of concussions by 59 per cent for players who completed the exercises at least three times a week.
Almost 1,000 clubs and coaches signed up to the ‘Activate’ programme, developed in conjunction with the University of Bath, following the extensive trial involving 40 schools and more than 2,500 14-18-year-olds.
The US Soccer Federation has stopped children under 10 from heading the ball, and the merits of a similar step in the UK is also being debated.
Shearer’s conclusion with regard to the FA and PFA’s involvement in this matter was that ‘Nowhere near enough research has been done so far,’ saying ‘there is enough money in football to fund research.”
He certainly seemed disappointed when PFA chief executive, Gordon Taylor admitted it had no idea how many of its 50,000 members had dementia, and confirmed that its last research around such injuries, back in 2001, was never brought to a conclusion.
Parliamentary inquiry a possibility as Jeff Astle Foundation demands more is done
The Jeff Astle Foundation has now called for a parliamentary inquiry into the Football Association, claiming it has ignored warnings over links between heading a ball and dementia.
One question which was not answered in the documentary was whether any recommendations were made by the coroner back in 2002 for further research to be carried out to protect other lives, something we commonly see at inquests in the modern day.
Shearer himself said “Nobody in football seems to want to know the scale of the problem, if indeed there is one’, and therein lies the key question which needs answering – is there a problem?
Football has certainly changed since Astle’s days of playing, when old leather footballs gained significantly in weight when they became wet. Has the modern ball done enough to lessen the impact? We don’t yet know.
There is certainly much more care and consideration about head injuries and the protection of players in the modern game.
So, with the commitment from the relevant bodies, and the required funding, can accurate data be collected to conclusively say whether former footballers do suffer disproportionately to others with neurodegenerative disease?
‘It’s about time we had a more definitive answer’, Shearer concluded.
That is a statement nobody can disagree with.
Picture Credit: Hull Daily Mail