The legacy of Jeff Astle's death may take some time to bear fruit
There may be changes off the field in dementia research after Jeff Astle’s tragic death from heading a ball repeatedly, but changes on it are likely to be painfully slow
- Jeff Astle’s family were told in 2014 that key dementia research hadn’t happened
- Dr Willie Stewart found that the disease is far more prevalent in footballers
- However, FIFPRO’s chief medical officer feels evidence of a link is inconclusive
- Change appears to be afoot but on the football field, nothing has happened yet
Sam Peters is the Mail on Sunday reporter who first uncovered football’s dementia scandal.
It is seven years since I visited the tiny former pit village of Netherseal in South Derbyshire to tell Jeff Astle’s family potentially life-saving research into reported links between head injuries and dementia had not happened.
I’ll never forget the visceral reaction combining anger, despair and betrayal which greeted the unwelcome news that promises of research made to them after a coroner found Jeff died in 2002 from ‘industrial disease’ had effectively been a PR stunt designed to buy time and delay the revelation of truth.
‘After the inquest the FA promised research but what they’ve actually done is swept this under a carpet for 12 long years,’ Jeff’s wife Laraine said in 2014. ‘Where are the answers they promised? Where is the research they said they’d carry out?’
A coroner found former footballer Jeff Astle had died in 2002 from ‘industrial disease’
In 2015, a year after the Astles discovered their betrayal, on a hopeful spring day at the Hawthorns, then FA chairman Greg Dyke apologised formally for his organisation’s abject failure.
On the official launch day of the Jeff Astle Foundation, no less, Dyke vowed research would be prioritised and properly funded to get to the bottom of things. End the debate for good. Does football cause dementia?
Last year that study, led by the irrepressible Dr Willie Stewart, found it irrefutably does. A three and a half times higher incidence of dementia was found in a cohort of more than 7,000 former Scottish professional footballers. It was breath-taking, if unsurprising, finding.
Last week the revelation Sir Bobby Charlton, perhaps the most idolised of England’s 1966 World Cup winning team, became the fifth official dementia victim from a team of 11 decimated by the cruel disease. It is, by anybody’s measure, more than an unhappy coincidence.
Seven years ago, few thought the Mail on Sunday’s concussion campaign – which began investigating rugby union but soon found its way to football and other contact sports – was worthy of news. Now, following the latest high-profile revelations, the UK media is beginning to sit up and take note. More promises are being made, tasks forces set up. On the surface, change is afoot.
But on the football field at least, absolutely nothing has changed.
This week Dr Vincent Gouttebarge, chief medical officer at FIFPRO, the very organisation which claims to represent professional footballers around the globe, urged caution regarding any possible rule changes.
‘As long as we do not have the scientific evidence to change things in a legitimate way then there is no reason to change,’ Gouttebarge said.
‘We need to have more robust evidence in order to make a decision. I don’t think we have the scientific evidence with this study that there is a causal relationship between heading the ball, concussion and dementia.’
The institutional resistance, driven by a hardcore of well-funded, ultra-conservative sports doctors, is a huge barrier to change. Professional sport has built up a small army of medics and scientific experts ready and willing to tell them precisely what it wants to hear. Nothing to see here, move along.
Dr Willie Stewart found footballers were three-and-a-half times more likely to get dementia
All medics know proving an absolute causal link between an action on a sports field and brain disfunction occurring many years later is close to impossible. It was precisely the same defence tobacco companies used to deny a ‘causal link’ between smoking a cigarette and dying from lung cancer.
But eventually the balance of probability became overwhelming. That is happening with contact sports, specifically football, and dementia now. It feels as if a tipping point has been reached. But what will happen next?
Finally, after decades of resistance, the winds of change certainly appear to be blowing. The groundswell of support for a public inquiry is growing and calls for more research, rule changes and improved side-line assessments are welcome, if criminally overdue. On Friday night the headline grabbing call by the PFA for a reduction in heading during training added to a steady list of announcements made last week.
But a word of caution amidst the excitement. Ask yourself: why now? The announcement last week of a PFA dementia task force on the eve of the Daily Mail launching their campaign calling for an investigation into dementia in football looked to be taken from precisely the same PR play book deployed back in 2002; feed them a bone and they’ll go away.
Meanwhile, Friday’s call for a reduction in heading should be treated with the utmost scepticism. It sounds good on paper and makes perfect sense, but how precisely will it be policed and will any club allow itself to be dictated to? Imagine PFA monitors at Tottenham Hotspur’s training ground telling Jose Mourhino to cease a defence session because his players had reached their quota of headers for the day. History has shown that making an announcement is a long way from delivering it, while many are made simply to divert attention.
The £200,000 additional PFA funding promised on Monday night to an unwitting Dr Stewart – who re-examined Astle’s brain in 2014 and found evidence of the same CTE found in deceased ex American Footballers – appeared just another cynical attempt to keep the wolf from the door.
Alan Shearer spoke to Jeff Astle’s daughter Dawn (pictured) for a documentary on dementia
The wolf, in this case, being litigation and compensation. What of that? It appears the courts is the only place this can possibly end up for several sports in the UK, not just football. The law of this land demands employers endeavour to provide their employees with the safest work environment possible.
If, as many of us believe, sport’s governing bodies have knowingly and systematically underplayed the long-term risks associated with head injuries, there will be a very significant case to answer.
‘When you’ve got precedent of a tsunami [the NFL pay out] coming your way the best thing to do is to build your defence properly so you can withstand the tsunami,’ the FA’s former head of medicine Dr Ian Beasley told the Mail on Sunday in 2014.
‘Because it could come our way there is absolutely no doubt in my mind about that.’
Six years later, the FA’s defences remain as leaky as ever. Football has not made one scintilla of real change since Jeff Astle died almost two decades ago. Thousands of families have suffered without any support from those who profited from their bravery and skill.
Talk of banning headers for children and restricting training for professionals is all well and good and could help ensure another generation of former players does not suffer in the same way.
But the truth is, for so many, the damage has already been done.
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