In April 1977, I scored two headed goals for APIA Leichhardt in a 2-1 victory over Sydney Croatia at Lambert Park, Leichhardt. If, however I was now a budding 8 year old footballer in the APIA junior ranks, the likelihood of my scoring two headers ten or twelve years down the track, would be considerably less.
APIA Leichhardt, a Sydney National Premier League club with a celebrated history in Australian football, has announced that they are going to ban heading at training for all players up to the age of twelve. Football Federation Australia have been conducting their own review into the perceived danger of heading a ball and will hand down its’ findings soon, which may have ramifications for all junior players. APIA’s move follows similar restrictions, recently introduced by the English, Scottish and Northern Ireland Football Associations.
The study on which the UK Associations based their decision, published by the New England (USA) Journal of Medicine, was carried out on behalf of Glasgow University, using a number of male Scottish professional footballers born between 1900 – 1976. The study investigated the incidence of neurodegenerative illness in former footballers when compared to non footballers of the same period. The results did show that the former professional players were three times more likely to suffer brain illness such as dementia and Alzheimers, than their non playing counterparts. The study also noted however that ;
- Former professional footballers were less likely to die from heart disease and cancers and had a lower “all cause” mortality rate than their non footballing counterparts, reflecting their general better health.
- Participants in elite sports competition enjoyed lifelong health benefits and were less likely to suffer lung damage, obesity and resultant cardio vascular issues. Former professional footballer’s life expectancy up to the age of 70, was nearly three years longer than that of non players.
- Mortality rates of participants where neurodegenerative disease was the primary cause, did not differ significantly between goalkeepers and outfield players – interesting.
- There was NO EVIDENCE in the study linking heading the ball to neurodegenerative disease
No evidence but despite this, the United Kingdom Football Associations (except Wales) and the United States Youth Soccer Association have now been joined by APIA Leichhardt in restricting young player’s development of heading – one of the most important skills in the game.
The study appears to have ignored the fact, that prior to the mid 1960’s, a football was a vastly different animal to the current ball. I have no doubt that prior to the phasing out of the old brown laced leather footballs, the continual heading of the waterlogged “brown bricks” as they were known, in European winters on sodden pitches could have caused long term neurological damage. However, the modern, lighter synthetic waterproofed balls bear no resemblance to the lead weight spheres of my grandfather’s era.
I am not in favour of the move to curtail heading at training for young players. To eliminate the development of this important skill in a player’s formative years will hamper, possibly irreparably, a player’s all-round footballing ability. This may be the first step towards the total eradication of heading from football and God help us, we might all end up playing Futsal !
The Glasgow University research did find that the former Scottish professional players were three times more likely in later life to suffer from dementia, Alzheimers and Parkinson’s disease, however the study stopped short of stating that this was caused by heading a ball. I have played the game for many years and though not a robust player, I have probably banged my head playing football, ten times during my career. Is it possible that if I was to develop brain disease that these head traumas had provoked the illness, rather than my heading the ball? Was I already predisposed to brain disease before embarking on my football career ?
Participants of the Glasgow University study were all born in 1976 or earlier. If it was possible to compare the brain health of players born before 1950, when heavy leaden footballs were the norm, with those born between 1950 – 1976, the latter of whom would have had the benefit of playing with lighter, waterproofed balls, the study might have produced interesting and definitive results. It was not in fact until the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico City that the first fully synthetic layered footballs became prominent.
The death of former English international footballer Jeff Astle from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (“CTE”) in 2002 sparked investigation into the effect of head traumas on footballers. Astle was a prodigious header of the ball and the coroner at the inquest into his death stated that heading heavy, often rain-sodden leather footballs had contributed to his death. The consultant neuro – pathologist also told the inquest that Astle’s brain condition was likely to have been exacerbated by heading heavy leather footballs.
I have no argument with that opinion, however we no longer play with rain sodden leather footballs. If APIA Leichhardt have made this radical decision to ban coaching of a critical skill, based on the football environment as it was 60 years ago, this is hard to justify. Only those who have headed a heavy wet leather ball can appreciate the difference from heading a football in 2020.
Another factor further reducing the possibility of brain damage is that heading as a skill is also becoming less prevalent in football today. The preferred playing philosophy now is to keep the ball on the ground and I would not be surprised if the incidence of heading the ball during a game had reduced by 50% from that of 30 years ago.
I believe that banning heading is an over reaction. We no longer head waterlogged leather footballs and from my experience, up until the age of twelve, young players head the ball infrequently both at training and on match days. If a youngster is taught the correct heading technique, I don’t believe that the consistent heading of a football will create any greater long term health risk than a serious knee injury, a shoulder injury or a back problem. Remember that the study on which APIA Leichhardt may have based their decision did not find any evidence that heading was directly linked to neurodegenerative disease. Football like most sports can be dangerous and lead to short and long term injury. It’s a risk that all of us take when participating, an occupational hazard.
The study that has prompted football authorities to ban heading at training, was based on the impact of the heading of a different type of football, in different conditions in a different era. The deliberate use of the head to propel the ball is unique to football and has been an integral part of the game for one hundred and fifty years. Any attempts to extend the recent heading ban at training and possibly eradicate heading from football, would dilute the beauty of “The Beautiful Game”.
By all means continue the studies into Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, particularly in fierce contact sports such as Boxing, Rugby League, Union or American Football. In the case of our football however, where medical research has concluded that there is no evidence linking heading a ball to neurodegenerative disease and that engagement in sport promotes better health and well being, I say that if the game ain’t really broke, let’s not try to fix it.