Shocked MPs slam British sport for inaction over brain injuries

The MPs highlighted football’s “lack of engagement … despite a coroner’s court verdict nearly 20 years ago that dementia suffered by Jeff Astle was ‘entirely consistent with heading a ball’,” and also condemned the players’ union, the Professional Footballers’ Association.

“Football’s engagement with the issue of concussion, both in England and internationally, has taken too long and its current prominence is due to the campaigning of organisations like the Jeff Astle Foundation and prominent spokespersons like Chris Sutton,” said the report. 

“We would have expected the FA, as the national governing body, to have taken a stronger, sustained interest in the issue after the coroner’s verdict of Jeff Astle’s death.

“We would also have expected the FA to have been publicly hounded by the PFA, whose key concern should be player welfare. Over the past 20 years, neither the FA nor the PFA have fought hard enough, or publicly enough, to address this issue within the broader football community.”

Both organisations have defended their record and specifically highlighted how they funded research, which conclusively did prove the link in October 2019 between football and dementia. They have also promised further research and are in the process of drafting new heading restrictions in training.

The report recommends a UK-wide standard definition for concussion in sport after finding that individual governing bodies were being left to design their own protocols. They also recommend that UK Sport should pay for a medical officer at every major sporting event with the power to prevent athletes at risk from competing.

The Government, say the MPs, should also use its power to establish a single research fund to ensure that funded projects are independent of governing bodies and excellence driven. Dawn Astle was especially encouraged by the call for government intervention. 

“For almost 20 years now, football has failed to act and failed to protect its players – men, women, children, all at risk, potentially, with no restrictions, unprotected, uninformed,” she said. “If the sport is left to its own devices as it is, it will just do what it wants to do.”

The campaigning group Head for Change said that it was “gratifying, despite being somewhat overdue, that this necessity for urgent action is now recognised at the highest level and documented in the DCMS report”.

‘Brain abnormality’ in quarter of elite rugby players

By Jeremy Wilson

Research has found that half of elite rugby players are showing an unexpected reduction in brain volume, and almost a quarter have abnormalities in their brain structure. 

The study, which was led by Imperial College and is the first to examine the long-term impact of rugby union and league, used a pioneering method of imaging which allowed researchers to study blood vessels and white matter. 

Results were compared with those who had not played contact sport and found a “significant proportion” of the rugby players, of which almost half were assessed shortly after a mild brain injury, were displaying abnormalities. Although the group of rugby players did not show any cognitive decline in memory tests, the report’s authors concluded that their findings suggest “an association of participation in elite adult rugby with changes in brain structure”. 

James Drake, founder of the Drake Foundation which funded the research, called for urgent “common sense” rule changes in rugby that would significantly reduce the “number and ferocity of impacts, both in training and actual play”. 

Concussion has been the most widely reported injury in rugby union for the past nine years and the Rugby Football Union, which supported the research, on Wednesday announced an action plan that will include guidance this summer to limit head impacts. 

Any player returning from a concussion in 10 days or under will also be reviewed by an independent concussion consultant, although it will still be possible to be back playing within the current six-stage window. Campaign groups such as Progressive Rugby have called for a mandatory three week break, citing how Luke Cowan-Dickie was cleared by one of the consultants to play for the British and Irish Lions a week after being knocked out in the Premiership final. 

Publication of the Drake-funded research follows the emerging testimony of a series of recently retired former players suffering symptoms of early-onset dementia, as well as legal action that has been brought by a group of players against both World Rugby and the RFU. 

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