Footballers are heading for trouble

Hacks have uncovered a staggering scoop, to much self-congratulatory din: regular heading of a football can cause neurological disorders. Professional players are 3.5 times more likely than average people to suffer conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s in later life.

Now let’s talk about the danger of football headers

This is one of those startling discoveries that have been common knowledge for yonks. When I played footie for my school, a friend’s mother told me never to head the ball. “You’ll scramble your brain,” she said with solicitous disdain, “provided you have one”.

Even if common knowledge were lacking, common sense would take up the slack. For it stands to reason that repetitive impacts can have a detrimental cumulative effect.

During his career, a footballer hits between 50,000 and 100,000 headers in training and matches. Each time the jelly-like mass inside his cranium is shaken, if not stirred. This can’t be good for the ganglion of nerve cells and synapses – any rank medical amateur could tell you that.

That established, pragmatism for which the British are so widely known demands the posing of the lapidary question: “So what are we going to do about it?”

Since these days we all seek immortality through ‘elf and safety, answers come in a steady stream. Ban heading altogether and penalise it like a hand ball. Do so only in training. And perhaps only for children. Make footballers wear mouthguards. Or headguards. Or helmets.

And finally, the measure actually being put into effect by the FA and the Premier League: no more than 10 high-force headers per week’s training. This in the knowledge that many players hit some 100 such headers per day, not 10 per week.

One wonders how this rule will be enforced. A new coach will have to be hired whose sole responsibility will be keeping the count of headers hit by every player in every training session. Or else an honour system could be introduced, with each player keeping his own count and then refusing to go for corners whenever he has filled his week’s quota.

I can just see a central defender letting a corner kick float by him and then telling the manager, “Sorry, boss, it does me ‘ead in”. Decorum prohibits citing the manager’s likely response.

An unenforceable law does more harm than good, and not just in football. So perhaps the lapidary British question I asked earlier is wrong or at least premature.

As is almost always the case, the first question should be not pragmatic but philosophical: “Should we do something about it?”

After all, no one has suggested banning head blows in boxing – this though the damage there can be both catastrophic and instant. While a footballer may get the shakes in his old age after having headed the ball 100,000 times, a single boxing blow can paralyse or even kill. Moreover, while producing concussions is only a by-product of football, in boxing it’s the deliberate objective.

In most bouts there’s a rule that a boxer knocked down three times loses the fight by technical knockout. Though it’s called the three-knockdown rule, the more appropriate name would be ‘the three-concussion rule’ – a fighter suffers a concussion each time he hits the canvas after a blow to the head.

So should boxing be banned? Or turned into a non-contact sport, like exhibition karate contests? Should points be awarded for artistic impression, like in figure skating?

Palliative measures don’t really work. For example, amateur boxers have been wearing headguards for decades, with only a marginal reduction in the number of concussions.

Even the three-knockdown rule is a half-measure. A boxer may remain upright, while still suffering the cumulative effect of hundreds of blows.

This isn’t an exaggeration: the great boxer Manny Pacquiao once landed 474 blows in one title fight, without knocking his opponent out. How many of those blows had a concussing effect? Ask his opponent’s neurologist.

There are only two logical solutions to this problem, one authoritarian, the other libertarian.

The authoritarian solution in any sport where neurological damage is possible or even, as in boxing, almost certain would be a partial or total ban. For example, boxers could be penalised for a head blow the way they are now penalised for a headbutt. Alternatively, boxing could be banned altogether, on the assumption that the human body deserves enough respect not to be used for gratuitous pummelling.

Bans at various levels could also solve the problem in football. Here one could even argue that eliminating ‘high-force’ headers could make the game more watchable by encouraging the more attractive skills.

The libertarian solution would be no solution, or as near as damn. Youngsters choosing a career in football, boxing or any other high-risk sport are free agents entitled to make their own choices in life. Once they’ve been informed of the risks, the decision is up to them.

They can choose a potentially lucrative career offering the kind of rewards they can’t realistically hope to get in any other occupation – knowing in advance that they may be in for an early and miserable old age.

One could also argue that a concerted effort to eliminate all risks may dilute the human strain, producing generations of wimps unfit to survive in life’s rough-and-tumble. One could argue all sorts of things without arriving at a definitive conclusion.

Proceeding deductively from the general to the specific, neurodegenerative diseases were a factor in 42 per cent of the deaths among top-flight footballers playing in England in the 1965-66 season. And by the looks of them, most boxers suffer from Dementia pugilistica in their old age.

The problem is real, but is it worse than in many other sports, such as car racing, mountain climbing, sky diving? You know the old saying: “If at first you don’t succeed, sky diving isn’t for you.” At least a footballer is unlikely to be killed by a single headed clearance.

Flippancy is often used to hide vacillation, as it is, I’m afraid, in this case. The argument has at least two sides, each further fractured into multiple fragments.

My tendency would be to go all out either way: let people be or ban headers altogether. Patently unenforceable and useless solutions, like the one mandated by the FA, may have a good PR effect, but no other.

11 thoughts on “Footballers are heading for trouble”

  1. A short life of glory is preferable to a long life of anonymity?? That tradeoff of brains for glory always understood and many willingly accept it seems.

  2. Sadly all contact sports are headed this way (‘scuse the pun) . Following the American NFL’s lead on concussions – really just a grab for more cash i think – my own AFL downunder is getting ridiculous on head knocks where even the possibilty of concussion is a week off , or two and the player has no say in it. And they want to set up a fund to compensate not just current players but long retired ones who of course now are lining up for it. My problem is , we all knew the risks and happily took the field regardless to play a game we love , in my case AFL where when I was 23 ,I got what the surgeon said was the worst cheekbone fracture he’d ever seen outside of a car crash , I woke up in hospital at midnight wondering what had happened .I played for another 7 years with no problems other than numbness to one side and at 61 have no problems or regrets.

    1. Good on you. I used to know several NFL players, and none of them had any regrets looking back. Those whose careers ended prematurely usually ended up at insurance or advertising companies. One of them became a close friend: Bill Sullivan, former linebacker and the best account handler I’ve ever worked with.

      1. And I’d say to any spoilt multi millionaire sportsman ; if there was no cash on offer, would you still play your chosen sport? I know i would.

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