Could footballers make industrial disease claims?
09 November, 2016
A recent study by the University of Stirling, published in EBioMedicine, found that heading a football can affect memory and brain function for 24 hours. The researchers found that after heading a ball 20 times there were ‘small but significant’ changes to brain function, resulting in memory performance being reduced by between 41% and 67% in the 24 hours following. The study’s authors therefore concluded that it would be best to avoid heading footballs in the 24 hours before events requiring concentration, such as exams. The study was done using a machine to simulate the pace and power of a corner kick and to fire the footballers at a group of volunteers. Each volunteer was asked to head the ball 20 times, with their memory and brain function being tested both before and afterwards. Whilst the study has indeed proven a link in the short term effects of heading a football both on short-term memory and brain function, the study has not yet extended to the long-term implications of repeated games of football on brain health.
There have been suggestions for many years now that footballers have an increased chance of developing Alzheimer’s later in life as a result of heading footballs. This could therefore be linked with the findings of this study, although we won’t see whether this is the case for several years as studies can be lengthy, especially when looking at long-term implications. However, there is already evidence suggesting that it is indeed the case that footballers are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s later in life. Jeff Astle, who played for England in the late 1960s, died aged 59 in 2002 from a degenerative brain disease initially diagnosed as Alzheimer’s. However, an inquest into his death in 2002 found that repeated heading of the heavy leather footballs used in the 1960s had caused trauma to his brain. This led to the coroner’s verdict of death by industrial disease. A further examination of his preserved brain by a doctor in 2014 found that he had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that is usually found in boxers. Following this discovery, his family started a campaign named Justice for Jeff in 2014, followed in April 2015 by the Jeff Astle Foundation, which ‘aims to raise awareness of brain injury in all forms of sport’.
Three members of the England 1966 World Cup squad have since developed Alzheimer’s, but Mr Astle’s family argue that the figure is actually much higher. They say they are aware of at least 250 players who have suffered from degenerative brain disease but their families don’t want it to be public knowledge. At least 95% of these have Alzheimer’s, with the others having various other types of brain diseases. The Jeff Astle Foundation have long campaigned for an investigation by the Football Association (FA) into any links between football and brain disease. In May this year that wish was granted, with the FA saying they would lead a study into the matter. For many this may be too late, but hopefully such a study should help future footballers be aware of any dangers surrounding the sport.
The fact that the coroner described Jeff Astle’s death as industrial disease is significant, as it suggests that something should be done to prevent this from happening to other players, or there will be a significant amount of families in the future (in addition to those now) who will want to claim for industrial disease on behalf of family members who have suffered from degenerative brain disease as a result of playing football. However, it has been 14 years since the coroner found this to be the cause of death for Mr Astle, and only now are the FA opening a study after years of campaigning from his family and others in the sport. In those 14 years significant developments could have been brought about to prevent this from happening to other footballers, but instead the issue has largely been brushed under the carpet. Hopefully this study will lead to further investigations to determine the risks, and to help further generations of footballers.
In an interview with the BBC in April, Jeff’s daughter Dawn Astle said that ‘I hope … that there isn’t a link with the modern day ball but I would be very, very surprised if the safety implications aren’t the same’. Unfortunately, this recent study by the University of Stirling appears to confirm her fears, although further studies will determine how damaging footballs can be in the long-term. It also suggests that even with changes to how footballs are made there is little change in the effects on brain function. It is very much entrenched in football to head the ball and this is unlikely to change any time soon. This unfortunately means that degenerative brain diseases in footballers are likely to be seen for many years to come.
A spokesperson for First4lawyers said ‘Industrial disease is caused by either repetitive action or exposure to something that damages your health. Therefore it could argued that professional footballers whose continued heading of the ball at face value could be deemed to be an industrial disease. It is doubtful whether we will see high profile players making such claims and no doubt the FA will introduce more safety measures to protect them in the future. However surely the wider concern to society should be the impact for amateur and recreational footballers who are subjecting themselves to this damage and will not be considered by the FA.’