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Author Topic: A central defender's nightmare  (Read 1172 times)

Offline dave.woodhall

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A central defender's nightmare
« on: December 11, 2020, 11:18:43 AM »
Playing rugby can cause brain damage, or so it has been alleged recently. I went to a rugby playing school and have disliked the thugs’ game ever since, even though it was (is?) supposedly played by gentlemen. I am at low risk of brain damage from the game though, as I preferred to take the cross-country running option whenever possible. A number of the lads who inhabited the scrums used to wear skull caps, but I think it was to prevent their ears being ripped off rather than as insurance against brain damage. What fun!

Anyhow, each to his own and I don’t want to start an argument about the relative merits of two very different types of football. The threatened legal action against the rugby authorities by 42-year old Steve Thompson and seven other former players who have been diagnosed with early signs of dementia and claim that repeated blows to the head are the cause might at last start to galvanise the rugby authorities into taking the matter seriously.

A letter of claim, amounting to millions of pounds in damages, will shortly be sent to the governing bodies for English and Welsh rugby and World Rugby, and a group class action could follow. It is the first legal move of its kind in world rugby and, if successful, could force changes to the way the game is played. Lawyers for the group suggest another eighty former players between the ages of 25 and 55 are showing symptoms and have serious concerns.

The news has, I am sure, got many of us thinking about heading footballs and whether the football authorities will ever get round to doing anything to reduce the chances of footballers suffering from dementia later in life. Jeff Astle’s widow, Laraine, and his daughter, Dawn, have been on the campaign trail for a number of years following Jeff’s death in 2002 at age 59. Jeff was a great header of a ball and he was a contemporary of Tony Hateley, the best header of a ball that I have seen at Villa Park. They played together for Notts County as youngsters, which must have been a terrifying experience for opposing defenders. Hateley died in 2014, aged 72, after suffering for several years with Alzheimer’s Disease.

It is eighteen years since a coroner ruled that Jeff’s death was the result of an industrial disease caused by repeatedly heading a football. In the meantime, many more ex-footballers have contracted dementia. Nobby Stiles died from it last month and it has recently been reported that Bobby Charlton has also developed the disease, though he is now in his eighties, a time of life when the general population is prone to contract it. Progress in tackling the issue is very slow because proving a direct link between heading and brain damage is very difficult and may take a while yet. Not only that, but shedloads of money are being made by keeping the game as it is (apart from endless tinkering with VAR and the offside rule of course).
Research is now being undertaken though. Modern balls are lighter than the sometimes waterlogged leather cannon balls of old but they travel through the air quicker, meaning their impact can be just as damaging, or perhaps more so. Recent research by the Liverpool Hope University found a majority of players failed a pitch side concussion test after just twenty headers, while another study showed there was an immediate disruption in normal brain function and a significant reduction in memory function following as few as twenty headers from a corner kick. At least the subject now seems to be starting to be taken seriously.

So what might the football authorities do to reduce the risk? The PFA has called for restrictions to be introduced this season on heading in training, which could make a significant difference. However, the families of some ex-footballers with the illness believe the PFA has not so far taken the matter seriously enough or provided proper support for the families of ex-footballers with the illness.

In general, professional football seems reluctant to engage with the issue and it is not difficult to see why; it is likely to involve significant changes to the game which may be detrimental to the viewing experience. There is already a lot less hoofing the ball in the air than there used to be years ago but corner kicks are often taken long and free kicks are frequently more effective when the ball is lofted. If heading is banned and players are obliged to keep the ball on or near the deck, the game could become rather anodyne and start to resemble five-a-side or a practice match.

As an alternative, players might perhaps be issued with protective headgear. Would footballers be happy to run around wearing helmets, though? The material used would need to be lightweight enough not to be an encumbrance but still able to absorb blows to the head. If players were still able to head the ball, doing so with any accuracy while wearing a helmet would no doubt require an awful lot of practice.

Playing most sports must increase the chance of some sort of injury. While cross-country was my choice in my school days, these days I use a treadmill because I am keen to avoid jarring my lower limbs. If I suggest to my daughter that the easiest way to wreck your hips, knees or ankles is to run a marathon or two I am told that that’s nonsense and in fact the reverse is true. All the pounding along the roads apparently strengthens the muscles that protect the joints. Yeah, right. I remain unconvinced. I bet orthopaedic surgeons rub their hands in anticipation every year when the London Marathon comes round.

Whatever the truth, there is a risk of injury in most sports, with repetitive strain being a particular threat in such as tennis or golf. Let’s not talk about boxing, with all the blows rained on the head. Dementia is such a horrible illness, though, not only for the sufferer, but because of the long term strain and distress inflicted on loved ones, that there seems to be a moral duty to do whatever it takes to avoid unnecessary suffering. Realisation that too many ex-players are suffering brain injuries is growing and perhaps the legal action threatened by those former rugby players will concentrate a few minds, especially if the football world follows suit.

Online dcdavecollett

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Re: A central defender's nightmare
« Reply #1 on: December 12, 2020, 02:00:13 AM »
It could be an intensity thing. I remember talking to a scientist mate of mine in the eighties re the almost total absence of evidence of brain damage in amateur boxers, as they usually only fought in three round matches.

It's a very different matter in the professional game, however. The prolonged intensity of the longer bouts may do the damage.


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