Recent studies have provided compelling proof that heading a football causes immediate and significant changes in the brain. The results of the studies are not surprising. What is surprising is that it has taken so long to finally sit up and take notice of the inherent dangers involved in sports such as football.
It has already been proven beyond any doubt that any impact to the head can potentially cause some kind of trauma to the brain. Motorbike riders, construction site workers and all others who are at higher risk of any type of injury to the brain are legally required to wear some type of protective gear to minimize brain injury. Unfortunately, the injury that players risk when heading a football repeatedly during their playing years, has remained a largely unspoken topic till recently.
The Turning Point
The death of former striker Jeff Astle from early onset dementia in 2002 was the turning point. According to the coroner’s report, Astle died from head injuries caused by recurring head impacts from repeatedly heading footballs during many games. The official cause of death was recorded as ‘industrial disease’. During a re-evaluation of Astle’s brain it was found he was suffering from a neuro-degenerative brain disease that can only be identified post mortem. This condition is often found in deceased American rugby players, boxers and footballers.
The report that the death was due to football heading injuries sparked off a major campaign led by Astle’s daughter demanding that more research be done into this matter.
Subsequently, several studies were conducted to derive at a more definitive conclusion as to whether the brain reacted instantly to heading a football and the period of time that the effects lasted.
In one study that was carried out, nineteen footballers were asked to head twenty balls fired from a machine designed to replicate the power and speed of a ball in play. The players’ brain function and memory were recorded before the heading sessions. They were tested first immediately after the experiment and then again at 24-hour, 48-hour and 2-week intervals.
The experiment showed that there was increased inhibition in the brain activity after just one session of heading. There was also a 41% to 67% decrease in memory test performance. On average, these effects normalised within 24 hours.
Determining The Long Term Effects On The Brain
Although the studies did not show evidence of any permanent or long term changes, most experts agree that the temporary changes can still have an impact on brain health, especially since football heading is not an isolated incidence. Players often head the ball several times in one game. Every time they head the ball, some damage is done. When this is done over several games, there can be substantial damage to the brain.
Several other experiments have been conducted to ascertain the impact of heading on the brain. Researchers are satisfied that all studies show conclusive proof of the risks related to recurring impact from heading a football. Following these findings, authorities are exploring new approaches for better and more effective detection, monitoring and prevention of brain injuries in all contact sports.
Efforts are also being made to ensure that all players are aware of what happens to their brain each time they head a ball and the short and long term consequences this can have.
Of course, the big question that still remains unanswered is ‘Now what”? Jeff Astle’s daughter Dawn suggested to the The Mail on Sunday she would not be surprised if the studies proved the damaging effects of heading. But what she was more interested in knowing was what were the authorities going to do about it now and what measures were they going to put in place to protect their players? That remains to be seen.
While there are no legal provisions in place for this specific type of injury, some players as such are holding their clubs responsible for keeping them ‘adequately protected from head injuries’. Canadian rugby player Jamie Cudmore has initiated legal action against his club after he suffered serious injuries during his playing career. Is there anything from stopping football players from doing the same? Clubs are responsible for their players’ safety and football players could be entitled to be compensated for their injuries in the event that their clubs fail to put proper safeguards in place.