• George Mackenzie

The Heads Up

New research shows that professional footballers are three and a half times more likely to die from dementia than those in the general public. Many former footballers have given their opinions on the topic, regarding bans for junior footballers under the age of 14. The ban is already in place in the United States for children aged 11 and under.

Should it be brought to the UK? Is there enough evidence to show there’s a connection between heading the ball and brain illnesses?

‘Until somebody can prove there is no risk to the young, we must assume the risk is there,’ said Dr. Willie Stewart who led the study which compared deaths of over 7600 ex-players to 23 000 in the general population.

But heading is a massive part of the modern game. 186 headers were scored in the Premier League last season. But is it so important in junior football? Studies show there are only around 1.5 headers per game in youth football so can it be lost for those up to the age of 14? Scotland is set to follow in the United States’ footprints, becoming the first European nation to impose the ban, but for them it will include everyone under the age of 11. Another suggestion is to make footballs lighter to decrease the damage without losing a key part of the game. Training involving heading would be completed for no more than 30 minutes every week (and with the lighter balls) and there would be no headers during matches.

The England FA has shown it has no plans to change the policy and that heading is safe.

‘There was no evidence to suggest that heading in youth football would put players at more risk than at other stages in a professional footballer’s career,’ the FA said. But if the risk is taken, what could be the effects? Dementia, depression and memory loss have all been linked to the heading of footballs and many former players, including former West Bromwich Albion forward Jeff Astle, have died due to these illnesses.

Jeff Astle died on January 19, 2002, aged 59. The cause of his death was a degenerative brain disease, which doctors found was caused by repeated heading of footballs. It was confirmed later that year that he had died from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a disease previously linked with boxers. Danny Blanchflower, former Tottenham Hotspur captain and UEFA Cup winner, died of Alzheimer’s disease in December 1993 and his death was recorded as death by industrial industry, in reference to his playing days between 1951 and 1964.

The reason it’s so harmful is the weight of the ball and the speed it is going at. Scientists have calculated that footballs can strike players’ heads at speeds up to 128km/h. With the ball weighing half a kilogram, the ball can cause bruising on the inside back of the skull, from the brain bouncing against it. A single header or match is unlikely to cause problems but regular practice of headers can lead to serious problems.

As of the 24th February, the English, Scottish and Northern Ireland FA have issued a report to state that primary school children are banned from heading the ball during training. They can still use their head during matches but now no practice of headers is allowed.

Is the risk worth taking? Should heading be banned in games in England? Should a compromise be made?

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