Is heading footballs dangerous?

January 02, 2018

- Grant Whittington

Across the globe, football authorities are constantly innovating in a bid to enhance and improve the game as a spectacle. The only issue is that many of these changes are superficial at best with other, more serious, concerns left unattended.

Take the suggestion that heading footballs over a sustained period can trigger serious mental health conditions such as Dementia. This notion has gathered pace ever since an investigation into Jeff Astle’s death took place in 2002, which revealed that the former West Bromwich Albion and England striker had succumbed to a degenerative brain injury.

The coroner went on to say that the repeated, minor traumas caused by heading footballs were a contributing factor to Astle’s death, sparking initial calls for players to be protected from this apparent risk.

Still, little has changed to this day and the physical risks associated with heading footballs remain largely unchanged. We’ll address this further in this post, and assess what can be done to negate this threat.

What do we know so far?
It has been 15 years since the verdict at Jeff Astle’s inquest, so it’s fitting that we recently saw one of the most comprehensive ever studies conducted into the rate of dementia and degenerative brain disease among retired players.

This in-depth study involved post-mortem examinations in six former players who suffered with dementia, which is a rare research method that provides the best possible means of establishing a correlation between repeatedly heading a football and incurring neurological diseases in later life.

The findings seemed to support the coroner’s report from the Astle inquest, revealing that all of the subjects had experienced a tear in a brain membrane that was consistent with numerous chronic, repetitive impacts (such as heading a football). Beyond this, it was revealed that all four of the six men had suffered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a genetic disorder that is pertinent to athletes and particularly footballers.

In fact, there is a mere 12% incidence of CTE in general population, but as this sample study showed the rate in former athletes is far higher. Interestingly, this and similar studies have suggested that those who are required to head the ball more often (namely strikers and central defenders) were likely to be at a far greater risk than their colleagues.

A recent BBC documentary cast further light on this, while also interviewing the latest generation of players to seek out their opinions. Former England captain Alan Shearer is one that have shared his concerns about developing a degenerative brain condition in later life, after the repeated heading of balls in practice and during competitive matches.

Dr. Don Williams has also entered the discussion recently, suggesting that children who are learning the game should also beware of heading the ball. Dr. Williams argues that children may be particularly vulnerable as their skills are still developing, so the frequent heading of footballs from a young age could have an incremental impact over time.

Looking ahead – How should the football authorities tackle this Issue?
While the research conducted to date has been detailed and seems to point towards consistent findings, it’s fair to surmise that the FA has been slow to implement changes. The same can be said for their international equivalents, as despite the evolutions that have taken place in the game during the last two decades, there are no precautions in place for players heading a ball.

To put this into context, a modern football kicked at full power has the potential to hit a player’s head with an estimated 175lb of force. This is quite incredible, as this type of blow by itself would be enough to induce concussion and other types of head injury.

Some will point to the fact that modern balls have evolved, with the common consensus being that they are now considerably lighter than before. There is evidence to suggest otherwise though, vintage leather footballs appeared far more cumbersome than today’s precision-engineered alternatives however, on average they were 40 grams lighter in dry conditions.

It was only when leather balls became wet did they become significantly heavier, so in this respect, the powers-that-be may have exacerbated rather than helped the situation over the years.

With this in mind, the question that remains is what should be done going forward?
Even if we accept that bodies such as the FA have not done enough to tackle the issue in the past, there are ample other organisations who can look to take the lead and drive change within the sport.

Take the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), for example, which has made numerous recommendations to help protect its current and future members. Most recently, it called upon the game’s authorities to ban children under the age of 10 from heading balls, following guidelines that have already been implemented in the United States.

As we have already touched upon, evidence suggests that children are particularly vulnerable to head injury as their skulls are still developing, so this measure would at least help to protect younger players for a brief period of time.

The PFA have already been behind calls to introduce protective headgear, just as they have done in America’s National Football League (NFL). This move has been opposed by traditionalists, but it’s hard to argue with a measure that would protect professional players and all but eliminate the risks associated with heading footballs.

While the type of protective helmets used in the NFL may be a little too cumbersome for the helter-skelter pace of top flight football, there are alternative options available. If you look at Arsenal goalkeeper Peter Cech, for example, he has worn protective headgear ever since a clash with Noel Hunt in 2006 left him with a fractured skull. This type of head wear, or at least a possible variation, would enable players to perform while also providing them with added protection when heading the ball.

This is an interesting space to watch in the future, but there is no doubt that the game must change to accept its reality and protect those who play it.


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