The union representing soccer players in England on Friday called for balls to be headed less in training amid growing concerns about brain injury diseases among former professionals.
The decision by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) followed a meeting of its management committee, which assessed research into dementia and neurodegenerative diseases.
“Science has been developing quickly in this area and we need to make an urgent intervention based on the evidence that is available now,” association chairman Ben Purkiss said.
“A reduction of heading in training is a practical and straightforward step. We will be engaging with members, former members and their families to work on this area within the scope of the PFA’s new advisory group, where decisions will be made on the basis of expert advice.”
It was announced this month that Manchester United and England great Bobby Charlton was diagnosed with dementia.
In July, the 83-year-old’s brother and fellow England World Cup winner, Jack Charlton, died after being diagnosed with the disease. Nobby Stiles, who was also part of England’s only World Cup-winning side, died after battling dementia.
“In the short-term, football cannot carry on as it is,” PFA chief executive officer Gordon Taylor said. “There is a big issue here and based on the increasing evidence available.”
Research published last year by the University of Glasgow found former male professional players had a 3.5 times higher rate of death from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. In absolute terms, that risk remained relatively small — 1.7 percent among former players and 0.5 percent for the comparison group. Former players also were more likely to be prescribed dementia medicines than the others were.
Researchers compared the causes of death of 7,676 Scottish men who played soccer with 23,000 similar men from the general population born between 1900 and 1976. Over a median of 18 years of study, 1,180 players and 3,807 of the others died.
They found that players were less likely to die of common causes such as heart disease and cancer compared with the general population, but more likely to die from dementia.
“I don’t think it’s entirely clear cut to identify the risk factors, but, obviously, heading could be one of those risk factors and that’s why we put in place all the guidelines we have with regards to youth football, which I think are actually tougher than any other country in the world,” English Football Association chief executive Mark Bullingham said ahead of the PFA announcement.
In January, soccer officials in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland announced that children up to the age of 12 would be banned from heading a ball in practice sessions. The guidelines say that there would be a “graduated approach” to heading in practice for kids aged from 12-15, while heading will be restricted to one practice session per week for players aged 16 and 17.
Campaigning to discover more about the long-term impact of head injuries in soccer has been led in England by the family of former England striker Jeff Astle, whose death at age 59 in 2002 was attributed to repeatedly heading old-style heavy, leather balls.
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