Head Injuries in Sport – Deaths in Football

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Head Injuries in Football
LLB (Hons) & LPC Stacy Pimlott
Legally reviewed by: LLB (Hons) & LPC Stacy Pimlott In: Industrial Disease, Personal Injury

In the first piece of our three-part blog series on head injuries in sports, we covered the symptoms, diagnosis, and research that is going into the impact of head injuries in sports. In this second part of our blog series, we look into, quite possibly, the most popular story surrounding brain injuries in contact sports; the recent deaths of professional football players – Jeff Astle,  Rod Taylor, and Alan Jarvis.

Read the first installment of our blog series here

Recent news has revealed that Rod Taylor has become the second British footballer to have been diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) after his death in April 2018. This was confirmed in April 2018 following a post-mortem of his brain.  The diagnosis highlights the dangers of post-concussion trauma in the much-loved game of football.

What Does Our Legal Team Say About Brain Injuries in Professional Sports?

Craig Johnson, Solicitor Apprentice, has considered his views on the subject below.

From a legal perspective, a duty of care must be established by law for an action to be brought against a potential Defendant and the potential Defendant must also breach that duty via an act of culpable omission. The question to ask is who owes the duty of care to the players? Is it their clubs who employ them, their medical staff who may have examined them privately, or is it the FA who is the regulatory authority?  What would also constitute a breach of that duty?

Jeff Astle was part of football folklore and to his beloved fans of West Bromwich Albion he was known as “The King”.  A prolific striker throughout the 1960s and 70’s earned him a call-up to the England squad for the 1970 World Cup and his popularity rose again during the 1990s due to the  Fantasy Football Show.

A key attribute to Jeff’s success was his talent in heading a football. However, unbeknown to him or anyone else in the professional game, this skill lead to him receiving what was described as repeated minor traumas to his brain which in turn at the time lead to a diagnosis of dementia. Jeff sadly passed away in 2002 as a result of his condition.

In the coroner’s report, it was described that Jeff Astle died as a result of an “industrial disease”; a disease that was not caught via a virus, or from the air, but was actually a disease that was contracted in the course of his employment playing a game that he and many others, including myself, dream of having as a career.

More recently, Alan Jarvis famed for his days with Everton, Hull City, and Mansfield as well as a Welsh international has also passed away. In the coroner’s report in October 2020, Mr. Gittins held that Alan Jarvis died from a disease we know as Alzheimer’s that was caused by his occupation.  His daughter has also stated that “the ball was hard enough that when it hit him it detached his retina.”   The findings from the  Coroner was the second recorded case of an industrial disease within this occupation and there are now calls for it to be recognized formally as one which will help players at all level who may suffer from dementia as a  result of heading footballs or any other neurological condition.

Alan Jarvis’s brain was donated to the researchers at Glasgow University to the team who also reported in the Alan Shearer BBC documentary in 2017. Dr. Stewart found in his research that Alan Jarvis’ brain was consistent with observations of neurodegenerative disease in former contact sport athletes.

Dr. Stewart has been critical of the failure of football to recognize the ongoing dangers associated with heading a  football and he believes that modern players carry the same risk despite the change to a  synthetic ball in  1986. He was a  leading part of the first peer investigation in 2019 which was called “The  FIELD” study, this was funded by the  PFA,  and illustrated that former football players are three and a  half times more likely to die of dementia than people of the same age.  He is a vocal advocate for a  number of changes to be made to the game in relation to a  concussion protocol which would lead to a proper assessment of the trauma when it occurs and removing the player from the field of play immediately as they are most vulnerable at that time. A uniform approach to the amount of heading taking place in training and a national database being established.

What Does the Football Association Plan To Do About The Prevalence Of Industrial Disease?

The governing body (the Football Association) and the players union (the Professional Footballers’ Association) both agreed to conduct a 10-year study to investigate the risks of contact diseases affecting the brain from repeatedly heading a football following Jeff Astle’s coronary report. However, both the FA and the PFA failed to uphold their agreement and no research was conducted or published despite increasing awareness from the media.  At least 50% of the 1966 World Cup winning squad were diagnosed with dementia and as they were not paid like their multi-millionaire counterparts today and ended up selling their old memorabilia to pay for treatment.

Within the same timeframe, neither the Football Association nor the Professional Footballers’ Association was able to provide details of their research. Instead, they sent only two letters to the family of Jeff Astle who promised that the research was their priority at the time of the inquest. The FA and the PFA seemingly ‘swept the issue under the carpet’ in the hope that the issue would pass, but the Jeff Astle Foundation did not allow this to happen and has worked tirelessly to bring the attention of this tragedy to the public domain.

They have been contacted by over 300 family members of former footballers who are household names and are thought to be suffering from similar conditions or concerned regarding memory loss.  Locally, Nobby Styles and Eric Harrison have been diagnosed with conditions that may have been related to years of training that may have continued after they stopped playing.

In 2014, Jeff Astle was posthumously diagnosed with CTE, the same condition that was found in former NFL players. Since this discovery was made the PFA and FA still have not reached out to the Astle family or conducted further studies.  It was only in November 2020 that the PFA said that their ‘Neurodegenerative Disease Working Group’ (NDWG) planned to consult with her in relation to ongoing research.

Gary Lineker has recently confirmed in an interview that he stopped practicing headers in training in the 1980s but that he saw defenders regularly practicing hundreds in training. Gary  Pallister is amongst recently retired players who have confirmed that they would often suffer from headaches and migraines during their playing careers which have continued to affect them still to this day.

It might be worth noting some of the past heroes that have been diagnosed with CTE and or dementia with the common denominator being that they all played in the 1960s and ’70s across  many different  clubs with  similar training  regimes;

  • Jeff Astle 1942 – 2002: the inquest found that he died as a result of an industrial disease
  • Alan Jarvis 1943 – 2019: the inquest found that he died as a result of an industrial disease
  • Peter Bonetti 1941 – 2020: suffered from Alzheimer’s
  • Tommy Carroll: 1942 – 2020: suffered from Dementia
  • Stevie Chalmers 1935 – 2019: suffered from Dementia
  • Jack Charlton 1935 – 2020: suffered from Dementia
  • Jimmy Conway 1946 – 2020: suffered from Dementia
  • Duncan Forbes 1941 – 2019: suffered from Alzheimer’s
  • Frank Kopel 1949 – 2014: suffered from Dementia and Alzheimer’s
  • Bill McNeil 1943 – 2019: suffered from Dementia
  • Martin Peters 1943 – 2019: suffered from Alzheimer’s
  • Barry Pierce 1934 – 2020: suffered from Dementia
  • Nobby Styles 1942 – 2020: suffered from Dementia
  • John Talbut 1940 – 2020: suffered from Dementia
  • Mike Tindall 1940 – 2020 suffered from Dementia and Alzheimer’s
  • Ray Wilson 1934 – 2018: suffered from Dementia

It is also known that a few well-known players that are still with us today are also suffering from similar symptoms as those greats above including; Sir Bobby Charlton, Chris Chilton, and Mike Sutton.

The latter’s son, Chris, is also an ex-professional footballer and has proposed suing the FA and the Players Association for his father’s condition.  He has raised awareness of a £1 million project through the  University of  East Anglia to investigate the early signs of dementia amongst recently retired footballers like  Jeremy  Goss, Iwan Roberts, and Mark Bright which has been backed by the League Managers Association.  In addition, he has called for a dementia charter in relation to the following  points:

  • Increased  funding from the FA and the PFA for more research into the link with football
  • The PFA provides respite for families who have  suffered from  dementia
  • The PFA to appoint a dedicated  “dementia team”
  • The PFA to  fund social  events  for players living with dementia
  • Dementia to be formally recognized as an industrial disease
  • The introduction of concussion substitutes
  • Clubs to limit heading at all levels with a  limit of a maximum of 20 headers per session and a minimum of 48 hours between sessions.

In response, the PFA set up the  NDWG task force to consider these points and Gordon Taylor’s retirement has been overshadowed by the failure to do more over the last twenty years.

You can still make a claim on behalf of a loved one who had died. Find out more information about making a claim after a family member has passed away here.