Recently, a study by the Brain Injury Group at the University of Glasgow discovered an alarming link between footballers heading the ball and dementia. They discovered that former professional footballers are three-and-ahalf times more likely to suffer from dementia and other serious neurological diseases. Although the study did not look into whether it was from heading the older, heavier leather footballs from back in the day, it’s still a worrying statistic. So much so that the Scottish FA have been looking into putting a ban on children heading balls. Although protecting the health and wellbeing of our young people is important, I hate to say that this all feels like overkill.
When playing football as a young person, especially when you’re a kid, heading the ball is part of the fun: seeing how high you can jump, winning an aerial challenge against someone a foot taller than you. Taking that away arguably takes away a big part of the game. Not only that, but realistically the amount of young people that head the ball is miniscule in comparison to the professionals who train every day and play once a week. How much damage is heading the ball once a week really going to do? Let’s say young people will be ok and there’s no permanent damage. What happens if they go pro and they’re training every day and playing at least once a week? I see the point. But, there are long-term risks associated with every job, be it physical or mental. After all, how else would injury lawyers earn a living? We’re not trying to prevent the risks in other professions, although it’s easier in the case of football as we can stop people heading the ball at a young age. It seems the real damage doesn’t start until the professional level, so it’s unclear how much good the heading ban will actually do.
As I’ve already mentioned, the study didn’t determine whether the neurological conditions were a result of the heftier, leather balls used up until the 1960s. The study was carried out on those players who were born between 1900 and 1976, thus many of the more recently retired footballers won’t have been considered. This again calls into question whether heading itself or specifically heading the older ball is the true cause of the problems. The FA, who funded the research, have said they will be setting up a task force to examine the details more thoroughly. The FA have also said that there isn’t enough evidence to change any aspect of the game. Is a ban really necessary? The jury is still out on that one. The evidence, to me, suggests no,t but obviously I am not a neuroscientist, so understandably my judgement may be off.
According to Marc Bullingham (the FA’s chief executive), the number of aerial challenges has decreased dramatically over the years, mainly down to a shift towards possession-based football and smaller pitches. A more reasonable question that has been raised surrounds concussion substitutes, asking the International Football Association to introduce a concussion substitute into games if a player needs to be assessed for a head injury during the match. Teams should not have to suffer with one less player if they have used all their substitutions when a player gets a head knock and can’t continue with the match. Or worse, players should not feel they have to continue playing in a match after a bad head knock.
On a cheerier note, the study was in football’s favour when it came to other long-term diseases. Footballers were less likely to die of heart disease and some cancers, and on average lived three-and-a-quarter years longer. But, if the study is right and they’re more likely to suffer from dementia, a longer life span is perhaps not the thing to balance the scales. Even the Director of Research of Alzheimer’s UK, Dr Carol Routeledge, spoke in football’s favour, saying that the benefits of playing football outweigh the disadvantages, and that there are a number of factors influencing the likelihood of suffering from neurological diseases such as dementia. These include genes, lifestyle, and general health, and that the best way to keep the heart and brain healthy is physical exercise. So, if there’s anyone we should listen to on the matter, it would be her.
Her point holds up too; after the results of the study were published, there wasn’t a rush of footballers stopping playing because of the risks associated. It’s what they love to do, and the risks associated with suffering from dementia are vastly outweighed by the sheer joy that comes from playing the game. Everything we do in our lives has some sort of risk associated with it. So head the ball if you want, or don’t – I think it’s a personal choice.
Besides, life is too short to stop doing what you love out of fear of something that may or may not happen.