Head injuries campaigner Dawn Astle says a new report from MPs on concussion in sport has given her family hope that change will finally come.
Among the key recommendations in the report from the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee is a call for the Health and Safety Executive to take a much more hands-on role in ensuring that sports injuries are reported.
Committee chair Julian Knight said the HSE had for too long delegated risk management to sports governing bodies, something he described as “a dereliction of duty”.
Dawn Astle’s father Jeff played professional football for West Brom and played five times for England. He died in January 2002, and his death was found to have been caused by a degenerative brain disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
A coroner’s verdict recorded it as death by industrial disease, due to Astle’s repeated heading of the ball.
His daughter has long campaigned for greater research into the links between playing professionally and the onset of neurological disease, and for the game’s authorities to take greater steps to prevent damage being done while research is ongoing.
She welcomed Thursday’s report and told the PA news agency: “The issue of dementia in football grew from a flickering ember to a raging fire. As uncomfortable and unsettling as it was for the football authorities, this was the reality.
“Former players were dying and nobody gave a damn. So today, to read the findings of the DCMS committee report has finally, after too many years of struggle, given me and my family a bit of hope that change will come, because no longer will the governing bodies be left to their own devices.”
She hoped the recommendations on reporting of head injuries were acted upon.
“You can work in a warehouse and get knocked out and it gets reported, but if it happens at a football match, nothing,” she said.
“Because it’s sport, it doesn’t matter. Football is a sport enjoyed by millions of people around the world but to my dad it was just his job. He should be afforded the same protection from known risks as in any other job.”
The HSE appeared to push back on the recommendation, and said in a statement: “On the whole we would not expect to be involved in incidents where sportspeople (either professional or amateur) have been injured during normal participation in a sporting event.
“The exception would be if the premises, equipment or organisation of an event had in some way led to an incident meaning that any injury must be reported.”
The statement continued: “There is a balance to be struck between managing safety and ensuring that people can take part in sporting activities, which bring many health benefits.
“Most sporting activities, by their very nature, present a risk of serious injury to those who voluntarily take part. As a regulator we believe sports governing bodies are best placed to make judgements on the risks and we would expect them to regularly review their rules and procedures as appropriate.”
Sporting injuries are not generally considered reportable under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) of 2013.
Knight told the PA news agency: “HSE needs to understand that it’s in the spotlight and it needs to take action right now. If it doesn’t, then it’s as culpable as any of the sports governing bodies themselves.”
The Football Association was criticised for not taking a stronger, more sustained interest in the issue of head injuries in the wake of the coroner’s verdict on Astle.
It said in a statement: “We welcome the committee’s report and will work through the recommendations with the relevant stakeholders.”
If there is one takeaway from @UEFA @EURO2020 it's that #concussion management in a sport with demonstrated #dementia and #cte risk is a shambles, no matter what the spin from #soccer #football might be about player welfare being a priority@CommonsDCMS
— Dr Willie Stewart (@WillStewNeuro) June 21, 2021
Professor Willie Stewart, who led the influential FIELD Study which found a three and a half times greater risk of death due to neurodegenerative disease for footballers compared to age-matched members of the population, was pleased to see the report recommend a UK-wide minimum standard protocol for concussion that should be applied across all sports.
He said: “This is a most thorough and balanced report from the DCMS following their recent enquiry into current management of head injury in sport in the UK.
“The recommendations to mirror practice in Scotland to deliver a common approach to concussion management across all sport, together with more coordinated reporting of injury and support for truly independent research are welcomed.
“As the committee note, this is not the first time that Government has looked into this issue. However, it is clear that there is commitment that, on this occasion, real and effective actions must follow.”
Rugby Football Union chief executive Bill Sweeney defended his organisation’s record on concussion research and protocols, after the report accused all sports of “marking their own homework”.
Sweeney said: “We’ve been at the forefront of evidence-based research, evidence-based surveillance and monitoring going back to the early 2000s.
“And we care about this topic, so we believe that we have actually been doing a good job of proactively managing and monitoring the situation.”
A spokesperson for the DCMS Government department said: “Ministers share the committee’s concerns and have also heard the devastating impact that concussion has had on some athletes and families. We must all do better and work together to keep sport safe.
“Our plan includes steps to accelerate research by national governing bodies, work with the sport, education and health authorities on their concussion protocols, and maximise the use of technology to improve safe participation.
“This week we appointed a leading expert in dementia care, Laurence Geller CBE, as a ministerial adviser to drive action on concussion in sport. He will work intensively with governing bodies of sports and health experts to ensure all reasonable steps are taken to address this issue.”