Alarming studies have revealed that professional footballers are around three and a half times more likely to die of dementia than the general population. It is understood that at least 500 former players are suffering from the disease, and a number of names such as David Beckham have joined the list of those who believe more has to be done to protect and support former and current players. We spoke with Keith Parry, Deputy Head of Sport and Event Management at Bournemouth University to hear his thoughts on just how serious this issue is and why dementia needs to recognised as an industrial disease in football.
Sputnik: Studies are unveiling some truly horrific statistics regarding the links between football and dementia. Just how serious a problem is this?
Parry: Potentially it could be an incredibly serious problem. We're seeing the impacts and the effects that it's having on the older generation, particularly the 1966 World Cup winning heroes. But we've got to think that it takes a long time for these impacts to be seen.
Sputnik: There are still many who believe that former footballers have passed away from dementia, like the 66 World Cup winning team you mentioned there or who suffer from it now, as a result of the weight of footballs that were used during the 60's and 70's. However, studies have found that most players actually fail a pitchside concussion test after just 20 headers of a modern football. So is this evidence that footballers today are not immune to the dangers of this disease?
Parry: Very much so. The weights of the balls are incredibly similar. There's no real difference in the ball, but the one fact I guess that's talked about a lot is that the older ball got heavier, it picked up water, and so it was heavier to head. But contrary to that, the modern ball moves a lot faster. And it's a lot lighter when it's not wet. So it's kicked in the air a lot more. So people are heading it more often. And because it's moving faster, there's still going to be the same impact, still the same force going through the head. So it's not just the older players, we will see this in younger players as well because of the frequency of the ball traveling in the air, and because of the speed it's happening. We've also got to remember, it's not just the contact from the ball, it's also two players going up for a head around and colliding and banging heads, or even play going up for a head or coming down and landing awkwardly. It doesn't always have to be from the impact of the ball hitting their head or from someone else's head. It can be landing on the ground and the jarring as you fall and your head goes back and forth. So yeah, there's many concerns for the modern player, not just for the older players that you mentioned.
Sputnik: What more can be done to protect football players from the risk of dementia? And is it being taken seriously enough?
Parry: I think we're starting to wake up to how serious an issue this could be. There's a lot of talk around the professional players and limiting the number of headers; there's a recent campaign that's called for no more than 20 headers in one training session, and then a gap of 48 hours between any sessions with headings. So we can certainly limit the number of headers that have been done in training. But that's at the adult level. And I think it's important we don't forget about the juniors and all the young people who are playing football, that where they're still growing, their brains are still forming, that's where the real damage could be done. And so I think we really need to extend the bans that we've seen for juniors at the moment in Scotland, Northern Ireland. England, it's a recommendation from the Football Associations, but it's up to the age of 12. There's no heading in training, but they're still allowed to head in matches. We need to see that taken a lot further. So we need to talk about up to 18 where we're seeing no heading in training and discouraged from matches as well. You have to think 18 is the age where we don't let people smoke, or the age where we do let people decide where they want to smoke and whether they want to drink. So for any other public health issue where we're worried about these harmful effects, we're limiting it and stopping young people doing it. So now is probably the time where we start to look at it from a football perspective as well.
Sputnik: There's been calls for dementia to be recognised as an industrial disease in football. Would you agree with this?
Parry: I would, yes. And we're starting to see that the PFA in particular have classified it as so. And I think it was important that Jeff Astle was the first where that was the case. It was recorded as being an industrial disease that he died from. He died from CTE, he was a person who was recognised for that. So we need to see this as being part and parcel of playing the professional game. And often I think with professional footballers, we forget that these are players that are human beings that are involved here. Yes, we buy and sell them and they're commodities to an extent, but these are still people. And so we do need to consider the impact on their health. Yes, we'll enjoy them playing for 10 years or so and it'll be great while they're there, but down the line, the impact that it's having on them is certainly something to take into consideration. And in many other industries or most other industries, we would be taking precautions.
Sputnik: There is an increasingly large body of evidence which has identified that small repetitive collisions of the brain and inside the skull can cause this disease. Is this ringing alarm bells for many contact sports in general?
Parry: That's an interesting question. It should be ringing alarm bells because as you say, it's not necessarily just that big blow. It's the repeated sub-concussive injuries. So it's not the one where someone who is clearly concussed and is taken out of the game. It can be lots and lots of smaller ones. I think in many sports for a long time, we've seen a culture of denial. We saw that in the NFL, we've seen it in rugby union in the UK, and until recently, we saw it in football as well. So other sports don't want to accept that that's the case because they don't want to change their sport. They don't want to be seen to be blamed for the injuries. We're hoping. And we're starting to see that certainly ex-players and their families are talking about the impact. And we've seen that there is a human cost to this. But still we have people in sport who were reluctant to change. And in the US, it took big court cases, and the families of players and the players themselves taking the sports to court, the NFL, the NHL, hockey and American football, in particular. It's football or soccer as they would call it in the US. They bought in this ban on youth heading earlier than the UK. But again, that was only in response to a civil court case brought against the governing body because of the worry about the injuries with youth players. So sports are taking it seriously when they're forced to, I think it's probably fair to say.
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