Football must take dementia seriously – leader comment

Billy McNeill (right) skippered the Celtic team managed by Jock Stein (also pictured) to 1967 European Cup
Billy McNeill (right) skippered the Celtic team managed by Jock Stein (also pictured) to 1967 European Cup
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Major new study by Glasgow University finds former footballers are three-and-a-half times more likely to die of dementia.

Football is a special game. With estimates of up to four billion fans, many would argue it is the most special game in the world. And it is one that is particularly special in Scotland, with attendances the highest in Europe per head of population. Therefore it is – with all its breathtaking skill and cynical fouls, shameful hatreds and moments of the highest nobility – a game we should all care about.

Now a major new study by Glasgow University academics has found evidence that should concern all those who love the “beautiful game”, to quote Pele.

The researchers discovered that footballers born between 1900 and 1976 were three-and-a-half times more likely to die of a neurodegenerative disease than the general population.

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.

READ MORE: Ex footballers five times more likely to die from Alzheimer’s disease, finds Scottish study

The scientists were rightly cautious about making a direct link between heading the ball and dementia – a correlation between the two does not actually prove causation.

But it is probably fair to say that this adds weight to the idea that heading the ball is bad for the brain – as many people believe following the deaths of high-profile former footballers like Lisbon Lions Billy McNeill and Stevie Chalmers and West Brom star Jeff Astle.

It may be that the heavier balls of the past were to blame and lighter, modern ones do not pose the same threat. It could be that the addition of protective headgear, perhaps something like a rugby scrumcap, would reduce the risk significantly.

We know need to urgently find out, to investigate just how dangerous or otherwise repeatedly headling the ball is, and then have a global conversation about whether this is an acceptable risk.

Football has changed dramatically over the years and we shouldn’t close our minds to the question: does it need to do so again? On one hand, removing heading from football would be a literal ‘game-changer’, an idea many would regard with horror. On the other hand, might the new game be as good or even better? After all, “head tennis” is rarely used as a term for a thrilling passage of play.

Most contact sports come with intrinsic risks, but the slow decline and death caused by dementia seems a particularly cruel one. It has to be taken seriously. And we need to care as much for the footballers as we do for the game itself.