The inquest into the death of England and West Bromwich Albion footballer Jeff Astle ruled he died from brain trauma caused by the repeatedly heading leather footballs. That verdict was pronounced 12 years ago and the FA has still failed to publish promised research into the possibility that there are many more former players suffering from the affects of dementia, Alzheimer’s, or other brain related injury.
The reason as to why the FA has yet to produce any report into this possible danger is hardly difficult to discern. Any admission that generations of ex-players have or may develop serious health concerns simply because they were unfortunate enough to play sport potentially opens the game’s governing body in England to liability for compensation.
No doubt the FA has been keeping abreast of events in the United States where the National Football League (NFL) has been involved in several potential multimillion-dollar lawsuits with players and their families over brain injuries occurring on the field of play. Last year the NFL and over 4,000 former players agreed to a settlement totalling $760 million. Although it should be noted that the judge in that case has denied approval of the settlement as she is concerned with a lack of documentation regarding the fairness of the final monetary figure, and whether the players involved would be diagnosed and paid properly based on their claims.
Just in getting this particular case to the stage where settlement can even be considered has been a long and grinding road for the claimants. Perhaps inevitably there have been causalities along the way. Two-time Super Bowl winner David Duerson, who killed himself at the age of 50 in 2011, stated that his brain was to be donated to the medical research facility in Boston investigating chronic traumatic encephalopathy believed to be brought on by constant collisions. While former San Diego Chargers line-backer Junior Seau ended his life in the same manner a year later at the age of 43, less than three years after playing his final game in the NFL.
Brain autopsies on retired National Football League (NFL) players have previously shown levels of damage that are higher than those in the general population. Further studies are on-going in various universities across the United States. Some studies even question as whether players suffering from three concussions would have to quit the sport entirely.
Though the end may be in sight for the NFL and many of its claimants in the above case there are other associations also under fire. Last year, the family of Frostburg State University football player, Derek Sheely, who died after a practice, filed a brain injury lawsuit alleging wrongful death with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
Back to soccer, (apologies to my European readers) and Dr Michael Lipton has been carrying out a study with adult amateur footballers in the United States investigating how heading impacts on the brain. His initial findings suggest heading a ball more than a 1,000 times a year could cause traumatic brain injury. A more in-depth review of Dr Lipton’s findings can be found here.
Of course football on both sides of the Atlantic is not the only sport associated with the long term consequences of head injuries. 10 former National Hockey League (NHL) players filed a lawsuit alleging that the league engaged in fraud and negligence by not doing more to address and prevent head injuries. While Barry O’Driscoll, the former medical adviser to the International Rugby Board, has warned of the dangers in the film Head Games: The Global Concussion Crisis. Last November saw the Rugby Football Union set up a working group to research the link between multiple concussion and dementia.
Unsurprisingly, the Astle family has renewed its calls for a study to be undertaken by the FA via its ‘Justice for Jeff’ campaign. Though FA chairman, Greg Dyke, has promised a commission will be set up to investigate head injuries within the game, there is an argument that it is too little too late. All we can all hope for, as fans of the game, is that our current sporting heroes – and those that are still to be raised atop that particular pedestal – are not afflicted with the same illnesses as Jeff Astle and others like him.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the writer and this article does not constitute legal advice.