Parliament launches inquiry into link between sport and long-term brain injury

A parliamentary inquiry into the link between sport and long-term brain injury has been launched.

MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee will call witnesses to examine the issue, starting from next Tuesday.

It comes at a time when legal actions across football and both rugby codes are being considered or have been launched, and follows the 2019 FIELD study which found professional footballers were three-and-a-half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease than age-matched members of the population.

England 1966 World Cup winner Sir Bobby Charlton’s dementia diagnosis was confirmed last year, with four other members of the side – Nobby Stiles, Jack Charlton, Martin Peters and Ray Wilson suffering with dementia at the time of their deaths.

DCMS committee chair Julian Knight told Sky Sports News: “We’re going to take some evidence from players, from people who have taken part in elite-level sport, and also those who are medically trained, and governing bodies.


Judith Gates explains the goals of Head for Change, a new charity launched to support players and their families who have been affected by brain injury and dementia

“We’ve got to ensure that protocols were followed in the past, but we’ve also got to ensure that the protocols that go forwards are the right ones, and we’ll ensure that people don’t suffer these injuries for taking part in the sport that they love.

“I want to know more about the topic, so do my colleagues on the committee, and we want to make fact-based recommendations to the government and also to sporting bodies.”

A group of former rugby union players has launched an action against World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union.

The action, supported by Rylands Law, includes former England international Steve Thompson, who is suffering from early onset dementia. He says he has no recollection of winning the World Cup with his country in 2003.


James Haskell is part of a new ‘Progressive Rugby’ group which has written to World Rugby to call for reform in how the sport deals with head injuries

Similar actions are being considered in football and rugby league.

“In rugby’s case, there’s a lot of talk about protocols pre and post-2001,” Knight said. “We’re not going to get into any matters which will be matters for the court.

“But at the same what we’re looking to do is explore all the issues, and to find out whether or not there are any learnings or whether or not the duty of care that I think is there for all sports, is followed now and has been followed in the past.”

Heading guidelines were altered last year in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland last year to encourage coaches not to practise heading at all in training for children up to primary school age.

Aston Villa boss Dean Smith (PA image)


Aston Villa head coach Dean Smith admits he is ‘worried’ about a potential link between heading in football and dementia

A working group is also looking at the introduction of guidelines for the professional game.

Concussion substitutes are being trialled in the Premier League and the FA Cup, in a bid to ensure players are not left on the pitch with suspected concussion to suffer damaging secondary impacts.

The Football Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association are providing funding for further studies to examine the link between playing the game professionally and neurodegenerative disorders.

England football manager Gareth Southgate has agreed to be part of the ongoing HEADING study being conducted by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Jeff Astle earned five caps for England and played nearly 300 times for West Brom during his 18-year playing career


New PFA dementia advisor Dawn Astle, daughter of Jeff Astle, will help shape the dementia care provision at the players union for former and current footballers

One of the lead academics on that study, Professor Neil Pearce, said last month that organisers were still looking for around 100 further participants.

Any PFA members aged 50 or over would be eligible, he said.

The committee said it would hear from individual players and governing bodies in a second session, after the initial hearing next Tuesday.

“We really want to be as inclusive as possible,” Knight added. “We want to hear from as many organisations and as many individuals who are impacted by this situation.”

Nathan Byrne of Derby County battles for a header with Ryan Giles of Coventry City


Consultant Neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart believes football needs to reduce ‘unnecessary heading’ after he found that Nobby Stiles’ dementia was caused by repeated heading of a ball

DCMS hosted the second of two roundtables on head injuries in sport last week, with the Government department hearing from athletes, governing bodies and medics.

Sports minister Nigel Huddleston said: “Encouraging progress is being made in our understanding of head injuries in sports with the significant research that is under way.

“With the clear commitment to work together shown by all governing bodies and health professionals, I am confident we will make swift progress in improving the welfare of our present and future sports stars.

“Now is the time to form a coherent approach – to prevent the risk and potentially devastating impact of head injuries at elite and grassroots level, and protect the sports we love.”

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