Can headers cause dementia?

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Dylan Tuck
Sports Editor / Social Media Editor

Football isn’t a game that takes changes very well; just look at the recent addition of Video Assistant Referees (*sigh*) as an example of an industry doing its damnedest not to bend for fear of breaking as new technology reshapes the sport forever. It even seems hard to inform an unfortunately rather large minority of supporters that it is both down-right disgusting and shameful to still display racist behaviour at matches, or vocalising the belief that women don’t have an equal place among men in the sport. There’s even conceptual debates that split generations: the older, more cynical ex-professionals, your Graeme Sounness’ and Roy Keanes’ of the football world screaming at one another in neon-clad Sky Sports studio: “you’ve got to want the ball”, “you’ve got to give your all”, “passion, passion, passion”, and every other overwashed cliche under the sun that suggests football is about motivation and player desire, as opposed to the more considered, 4D chess battle of managerial brains that football has manifested into over the past two decades or so. Put short, change and football isn’t exactly a perfect marriage.

But change will come sooner or later–and after recent events, it may be closer than many think. After a recent study from the University of Glasgow found that ex-professionals are more than three and a half times more likely to get dementia through the act of heading, many footballing associations are beginning to consider changes, but this comes a little late. In 2002, former England international, Jeff Astle, developed dementia and died at just 59. After looking into his death, it was found that his previous experience as a footballer heading heavy leather footballs regularly had contributed to trauma to his brain. The issue is that, as FA Chairman Greg Clarke noted, “the whole game must recognise this is only the start of our understanding and there are many questions that still need to be answered.” Granted, this research is groundbreaking and equally concerning, but surely the many questions that Clarke alluded to all meet at one colliding point: is it not now time to consider the banning of headers in football?

Let’s put it into context for a minute. If a player goes down with a leg break or an ankle fracture, players are horrified and in shock, both at the horror of such an injury to a fellow professional, and also in the reminder that this is a possibility to any player of the game. But would you remove tackling from the game, in the knowledge that, in making football a non-contact sport, you are ensuring safety to players health and well-being? The short answer is no, and that would never happen. The real change should come in coaching players to tackle properly, to prepare them for what they should avoid, so as to not injure a fellow professional. Football doesn’t need to be a non-contact sport, not because the game shouldn’t change, but because injury is (unfortunately) part and parcel of any sport.

Yet, repeated head trauma is more than just an injury. With a muscle tear, a broken bone, or even a fracture, there’s more chance you’ll come back and recover to full fitness than have your career ended –unless it is a very serious (and admittedly rare) incident. Yet, you can’t train a player to head a ball without using their head, thus resulting in potential for later head trauma. With head trauma, players are endangering their health for after they conclude their playing career, giving themselves the potential to have an illness that is far more difficult to recover from than a month on the sidelines.

As such, it is imperative that football all over the world at least takes into consideration the end of heading a ball. It’s obviously too big an ask to wish for football to completely ban this overnight –it starts from the ground up before it can impact the real professional side of the games, but progress is being made, protecting children and young professionals learning to play without the need to physically use their heads. The Scottish Football Association have already come forward to say they are considering banning heading for under-12s, while the Premier League is also considering the same procedure for academy players. Such proposals would be a small but significant step in the right direction.

The day that heading is fazed out –and I have no doubts that it shall arrive sooner rather than later –the traditional football fan will display outrage, claiming that “the game’s gone, it’s dead”. Sure, taking heading out of football would be a shame for the spectacle of the sport, but sometimes (no, all the time), the health and safety of another human being in the long-term is more important than appeasing tradition. One day, heading a football will be viewed the same as playing with a ball made from a pig’s bladder, on pitches that look like ditches, and getting sent off for a harsh tackle was a total rarity. Change is coming.