The Telegraph’s campaign for research into the link between football and dementia helped secure a vital victory on Thursday when the FA committed to a major new study into what affected families have called “sport’s silent scandal”.
Jeff Astle’s family have been unremitting in calling for answers ever since the former England striker died in 2002 from brain injuries sustained during his playing career and The Telegraph have also taken up the campaign with an influential series of hard-hitting reports.
The FA and PFA finally responded to the mounting pressure on Thursday with a joint announcement inviting independent researchers to submit proposals that will answer the question of whether footballers are suffering disproportionately from degenerative brain injury. The FA’s head of medicine, Charlotte Cowie, presented the case for research to the FA’s Board on Wednesday and funding for a six-figure sum has been signed off.
The research question is almost identical to The Telegraph’s repeated campaign suggestion throughout the past year. The news has been welcomed, albeit cautiously, by the families of those players who have been suffering the devastating impact of degenerative brain disease after a series of unfulfilled previous commitments.
Dawn Astle, the daughter of Jeff, expressed “delight tinged with relief” following what has been an all-consuming fight for justice. “It is definitely progress but it has been a long time,” she told The Telegraph. “We will keep watching and we will keep making sure it is progressing because we have had this before.”
Thursday's announcement directly followed another series of exclusive Telegraph interviews this week, beginning with the Astle family calling for PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor to stand down and outlining the hurt they feel at the lack of progress during 15 long years since Jeff's death. Chris Sutton, the former England and Blackburn Rovers striker, also hit out at what he calls “a national disgrace” and told the moving story of how his own dad Mike – also a former professional player – was now suffering from dementia.
Over the past year, the Telegraph has also reported how half the surviving outfield players in the 1966 World Cup winning team are suffering from dementia or memory loss, as well as the plight of other past heroes, including Stan Bowles, Frank Kopel, Jimmy Hill and Ernie Moss.
The FA confirmed in a statement that, in collaboration with the PFA, it was “now seeking applications for independent research into degenerative neurocognitive disease in ex-professional footballers”. It will be completed by an independent research group and the study will be focused on one fundamental question: ‘Is the incidence of degenerative neurocognitive disease more common in ex-professional footballers than in the normal population?’
The anecdotal sense of former players apparently suffering disproportionately with dementia has been striking and the suspicion is that they are actually experiencing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a strain of dementia that is caused by blows to the head and was previously known as ‘punch drunk syndrome’.
CTE was posthumously diagnosed on the brain of Astle by Dr Willie Stewart, who is part of the expert FA panel that will now assess research proposals. Stewart had been frustrated by football’s past failure to act and believes that this research could have been answered within three years of the Astle inquest. Cowie has warned that the process “will not be rapid as diligence is essential” and the deadline for research applications is June.
The FA panel was set up in 2015 and has already drawn up new guidelines for the on-field treatment of concussion, although its failure to meet in nearly two years since has led to questions about the speed of progress. The FA says that it has been constantly liaising in that time.
“This is a crucial issue for the FA and one that we feel passionately about addressing,” said Cowie. “Dementia is a debilitating disease, which places extraordinary emotional and physical burdens on both sufferers and those close to them. It is increasingly important that the football authorities investigate further whether there are any potential risks associated with heading the ball, as this is a unique feature of our game.”
The aim is for the study to be definitive in establishing whether footballers really are at an elevated risk compared to the national population. The Astle Foundation hopes that the project could be completed within three years.
"It is too late for dad, but I am just pleased for all of the families which we are representing now, because all you want is answers,” said Dawn.
“Is it a ticking time bomb? We needed to know, the families need to know and football needs to know. It is not about stopping football. It is just about letting people make informed choices.” The Astle Foundation also wants families of affected players to be supported by the PFA so that they are not in a position where they cannot pay care bills.”
Taylor is adamant that his organisation had always been “committed” to research and said the issue was “at the top of their agenda”. Brain injury charities have also welcomed the development, although they also want football to look at the risks associated with the modern football.
“Everyone connected to the game, especially parents, deserves reassurance based on robust evidence that heading a modern, lightweight football is safe,” said Peter McCabe, the chief executive of Headway. “At the same time, families of players who were playing in the era of heavy leather footballs are entitled to answers of whether or not heading those balls contributed to their loved ones developing dementia.”