Concussion clouds gather over football

The C word has been growing in significance in sport for a few years now.

It’s always had traction in boxing, which is largely about blows to the head, but it’s now a major issue for the NFL and rugby union. Should football be taking it more seriously too, or is it a panic about nothing?

The first thing to understand is that it is repeated sub-concussive head impacts that can change the structure of the brain slowly over time and lead to problems in later life, as well as increasing the risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

A study by the American Public Service Broadcasting programme Frontline found that of 91 ex-NFL players surveyed, 87 showed signs of CTE, prompting more players to  challenging the NFL over its handling of the issue.

The worrying aspect surrounding this issue is that CTE can only really be confirmed in a deceased person. It does pose the question, as players get physically stronger and faster, what the situation would be like in 20 years?


Extensive media coverage of the issue has helped forced the NFL to wake up and offer help and compensation to former players, but is concussion also an issue for football?

When we think of the beautiful game, we’re more worried about other injuries people get. Hamstrings, groin tears, sprained ligaments, etc, but there’s a legitimate reason to take more interest in the effects of sub-concussive blows.

With the pace at which the elite game is played of football speeding up as footballers get fitter and stronger, the potential for collisions is growing.

One way the modern development of football can lead to more is the idea of a ‘sweeper keeper’.

Up to the mid-2000s, goalkeepers seldom strayed beyond their six-yard box. These days, more keepers patrol their entire area, play passes out to team-mates and rush to make last-ditch tackles when their defence is exposed.

Furthermore, the concept of appearing macho or hard on the pitch is another parallel to the American game where fans and players alike treat some nasty-looking injuries as if they were minor. Newcastle’s tough-tackling midfielder Chiek Tiote suffering a head injury recently but describing it as scratch and was in the team for their next game.

Bad advice

At the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, millions of viewers around the world say Uruguay left-back Alvaro Pereira knocked unconscious and lie on the floor not moving.

When he came to, he was allowed to complete the game, and when it was over there was little or no mention of the incident or the fact that a player knocked out for five minutes had been allowed to return to the pitch?

“Football could learn a lot from how other sports have changed their protocols to better look after their players”
– consultant neuropathologist
Dr Willie Stewart

This is a product of poor advice, a lack of firm protocols, and lack of knowledge by fans, the media and players on the subject of injuries. It has gotten to the stage where people are criticising players, such as Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge for NOT playing through the pain.

West Brom goal-scoring legend Jeff Astle died aged 59 of a degenerative brain disease caused, said the coroner in 2002, by repeated minor traumas associated with heading old-fashioned football. His family have long campaigned for more research on the issue, an opinion shared by consultant neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart.

He stated that he was “depressed, disappointed and dismayed” by the incidents surrounding footballers and head injuries and also was critical of football’s approach compared to other sports.

“I don’t see much progress happening in football. It could learn a lot from how other sports have changed their protocols to better look after their players.”

My fear is how football seems to be following the same fate as the NFL. Public interest to resolve the issue still isn’t there, and we seem to be in a denial stage where we refuse to believe football is dangerous in this way.

The astronomical sums of money at stake mean governing bodies and corporations will of course will look to serve their interests. For the game’s sake, and the sake of those who play it, I hope every aspect of player safety is explored with the utmost care.