Leader comment: Football link to dementia must be fully investigated

IT is almost 20 years since Billy McPhail, supported by his wife Ophelia, lost a legal case in which the former Celtic footballer had attempted to establish that heading a heavy football had contributed to his development of dementia.

Former Celtic player Billy McPhail, who lost a claim for disability benefit in 1998. Mr McPhail had argued that repeated heading a heavy football had contributed to the development of dementia.

It was a test case, but other footballers who believed they had also suffered from the same cause and effect were given no encouragement to pursue the matter when Mr McPhail’s claim that he was entitled to disability payments was rejected by an Industrial Tribunal and then by the Social Security Commissioner of Scotland.

Since then, there has been an uncomfortable number of reports of footballers suffering from dementia in later life. The obituary pages of a newspaper represent no more than anecdotal evidence, but the amount of tributes to former football players which make reference to suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease is impossible to ignore.

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Three years ago, there was a breakthrough of sorts when former England internationalist Jeff Astle – a classic exponent of heading a football – was confirmed as the first British footballer known to have died as a result of the practice. However, this case remains the exception.

Of course, it can be argued that footballers are no different to anyone else, and rising numbers of dementia cases nationally will be reflected in all walks of life. But still, the suspicion lingers that there is or was a direct connection in football; what is required is statistical evidence, and it is surprising that such information has not been presented before now.

However, a study conducted by University College London now appears to have demonstrated the connection. Researchers believe they have evidence of a possible link between playing football and developing dementia, with results indicating but not yet proving that football players do show greater incidence of abnormal protein in the brain – which contributes to dementia – than the rest of the general population.

This is by no means a conclusive report, but it is evidence enough to merit more extensive examination of the issue, both for the sake of those who have dementia, and for current players who do not know what risk they are at. Although the modern ball is lighter and more forgiving than the type used by previous generations, the cumulative effect of two decades of ball thudding forehead are not yet known.

Football clubs and associations will be concerned about this development, fearing compensation claims from past players or their families, but on this front, what will be will be. Other sporting authorities also have reason for concern, such as rugby where blows to the head are not uncommon.

Further investigation must be embarked upon to get to the bottom of a matter which has touched many in football, and has caused distress to bereaved families who have been convinced – rightly or wrongly – that sustained heading of a football can have tragic consequences. The question of a direct link must be settled, one way or the other.