A trial of mouthguard technology will influence what limits are placed on heading training in professional football, the Football Association’s head of medicine has said.
Dr Charlotte Cowie told a parliamentary inquiry looking at concussion in sport that an independent expert panel advising the FA had now recommended a reduction on the amount of heading practice in training at senior level, to go alongside existing guidelines already in place in youth football.
“There is no argument about decreasing the exposure to the amount of heading in the game,” she said.
“The main exposure to heading is in training, and so limiting that training in terms of the number and type of heading as well is definitely the direction that we need to go in.”
A piece of research is ongoing into the use of mouthguards to measure the force and impact on the head of different types of heading, Dr Cowie said.
“If you say 20 headers for instance, if one of those is a short header from a short distance and one is a long header from a long punted ball, those forces might be quite different,” she explained.
“It might be 10 (from a long ball) was equivalent to 20 shorter ones.
“We want a little bit more detail on that before we rule within the professional game but we fully intend to do that and also in the adult grassroots game.”
It is understood this specific research is Premier League-led.
Football and rugby were criticised for not doing enough to protect participants from long-term brain injury, with campaigners Dawn Astle, Chris Sutton and Kyran Bracken all calling for Government intervention.
Astle referred to a previous dementia study which the FA and the Professional Footballers’ Association commissioned which she said was “shoved in a drawer” and would have remained there if she had not challenged them on it.
The death of her father Jeff, an England and West Brom striker, in 2002 was determined by a coroner to be the result of a neurodegenerative condition caused by repeated heading of a ball during his professional football career.
She said: “In any other industry, an inquest ruling like that would have had earthquake-like repercussions for that industry, but not football. My dad’s death didn’t matter to them.”
Former Blackburn and Celtic striker Sutton, whose father Mike was also a professional footballer who died with dementia in December last year, said the Government had to “take ownership” of the issue, saying the FA and the PFA had not done anywhere near enough.
Cowie was repeatedly questioned by the chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee about what the FA’s annual research budget was, but she pointed out there was “no limit” on what could be made available and that each application for research that the independent panel considered had a differing cost.
She said: “If it turns out that (a project requires) an enormous amount of money but (the panel) feel it is worth it in terms of getting the answer, then we will go wherever we need to (to get the funding).
“Obviously the FA is a not-for-profit organisation but there is money in football and we will go not just to English football but also outside it because this is a global thing.”
DCMS committee chair Julian Knight said he was “appalled” that Dr Cowie did not know an annual figure.
Bracken said he hoped the committee could “rattle the cage” of rugby’s administrators to make it safer, following the lodging of a letter of claim on behalf of a group of former players diagnosed with early-onset dementia.
He believes rugby is miles behind the NFL in terms of putting protections in place for players.
Bracken, who is part of the Progressive Rugby group which is lobbying for reforms to the laws of the game, said: “I myself have been struggling since I retired. I had to approach the Rugby Players’ Association because I was forgetting the codes to get into my house, I sent money to people and had no recollection of doing it.
“If these ex-players can sit down with current players and say ‘OK, you’re in gladiatorial mode, but this is what could happen if you carry on – you might not be able to hold down a job, drive properly, remember words and names’.”
He said the decision of the rugby authorities to cut the concussion recovery time from three weeks to six days was “scandalous”.
Rugby Football Union chief executive Bill Sweeney said there was no reluctance on his part, or that of his governing body, to hold a formal meeting to discuss Progressive Rugby’s proposals.