Jack Anderson: Why the FAI should follow our neighbours’ lead on kids heading

Last week, in a joint announcement by the English, Scottish, and Irish Football Associations, guidelines were published mandating that there should be no heading of footballs in training for children of primary school age.
Jack Anderson: Why the FAI should follow our neighbours’ lead on kids heading
A young girl heads the ball during the Futsal-Cup 2019 in Wuppertal, Germany. It is thought children’s brains are much more susceptible to concussion than those of adults.

Last week, in a joint announcement by the English, Scottish, and Irish Football Associations, guidelines were published mandating that there should be no heading of footballs in training for children of primary school age. Furthermore, from age 11 to 18, the guidelines provide for a slow, incremental introduction of heading technique.

FAI interim deputy CEO Niall Quinn has already said that the FAI have been in touch with the various football authorities in the UK and Uefa on this issue. Moreover, under the FAI’s 2015 Player Development Plan, children in Ireland play with footballs which are weighted dependent on their age.

Should, however, the FAI, follow its neighbours in full, and adopt the heading ban for children?

Yes, they should — and here’s why.

The move by the FA in England to introduce guidelines restricting headers by children can be traced back in part to England’s 2-1 loss to Uruguay at the 2014 World Cup, during which Uruguay’s Álvaro Pereira took an accidental knee in the head from Raheem Sterling.

What followed was part farce, and near negligence.

As Perieira lay on the ground, trainers tried to slap him awake. As he came to, he immediately remonstrated with his trainers because, like most players, he wanted to

return to play. Unlike most sports then and now, he was, within three minutes of sustaining the concussive blow, allowed to return, playing out the last 30 minutes of the game.

That incident, and later others involving Argentina’s Javier Mascherano, who cracked heads with a Dutch player in the semi-final, and a blow to the head of Germany’s Christoph Kramer in the 2014 World Cup final, put the spotlight on faults in Fifa’s concussion protocols at the time, since overhauled.

The month after the 2014 World Cup, Fifa was named as a party to a class-action lawsuit in the US federal courts filed by a group of parents and players. The action claimed that Fifa and various soccer authorities within the US had been negligent in the treatment of cumulative head injuries.

As evidence, the plaintiffs highlighted research suggesting that high school soccer players in the US annually sustained more concussions than participants in baseball, basketball, softball, and wrestling combined.

Unlike similar class-action litigation brought in the US against the NFL in ice hockey and in the NCAA in college sports, the claim was not for compensation; the claimants simply wanted rule changes.

In 2015, a settlement was reached between the parties and the US soccer authorities in which a series of guidelines, very similar to those announced last week, were put in place in youth soccer across the United States.

In the UK, the issue of chronic injury arising out of the heading of footballs has long been associated with the story of former West Brom striker Jeff Astle, a noted header of the then-heavy (especially when wet) leather ball and who was a member of England’s 1970 World Cup squad.

On his premature death, aged 59, from a neurodegenerative disease, the coroner recorded a verdict of death by industrial disease, suggesting a causal link between Astle’s suffering and repeated headers in training and in games.

A determined campaign by the Astle family, and anecdotal evidence surrounding the prevalence of various neurogenerative diseases in professional footballers who played in the 1960s and 70s — including members of the 1966 World Cup winning team — placed even greater media scrutiny on football’s regulatory response.

In 2017, a research group at the University of Glasgow, led by consultant neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart, and supported by the FA and PFA, examined NHS Scotland data to compare the causes of death of 7,676 former male professional football players, born between 1900 and 1976, against just over 23,000 people drawn from the general population.

The results were stark: the former professional footballers were three and a half times more likely to suffer from dementia and other serious neurological diseases; there was a five-fold increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s; a four-fold increase in motor neurone disease; and a two-fold increase in Parkinson’s.

The Stewart Report stopped short of concluding that there was a direct, causal link between the results and the heading of footballs. Nevertheless, the results were sufficiently conclusive to ensure that in upholding their duty of care towards all those who play football and noting that children’s brains are much more susceptible to concussion than those of adults, the various FAs in the UK took the decision to restrict heading in pre-teen football.

Given the legal and medical responses outlined above and taking into account Niall Quinn’s recent comments and the FAI’s progressive history on this; it seems inevitable that the FAI will follow suit.

It must be remembered though that any protocols on concussion are only as effective as they are enforced. The most basic but effective advice to any coach of a young team remains — if in doubt, sit them out.

Moreover, the FA’s guidelines do not ban heading outright and this is because if the technique is not taught at some point in a player’s development, then evident problems will arise at the adult level. This is similar to rugby wherein the teaching of correct tackling technique (as opposed to banning tackling outright at underage level) is an important, preventative measure in mitigating the risk of injury.

Finally, one issue that was slightly overlooked in the Stewart study was that it also found that the former footballers were less likely to die of other common health problems (heart disease andcertain cancers) and lived on average three and a quarter years longer than the general population.

For many then, and even those who work in the area of neurodegenerative disease, the benefits of playing sport continue to outweigh the associated risks. As one expert stated on release of the Stewart Report: “A healthy heart is the best was to keep the brain healthy”, meaning that played safely, a game of ball with your mates is still one of the best tonics for your mental and physical well-being.

Jack Anderson is Professor of Sports Law at the University of Melbourne.

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