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A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine on 21 October 2019 into ‘Neurodegenerative Disease Mortality among Former Professional Soccer Players’ has recently hit the headlines.

The study

The researchers conducted a study which sought to compare the rate of deaths caused by neurodegenerative diseases (diseases affecting the neurons of the human brain – such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease).

They did this using a database of former professional Scottish football players, taking a total of 7,676 players born between 1990 and 1976 and comparing them against 23,028 control subjects, selected from the general population and matched to the players based on sex, age and social background.

The findings

The researchers reached a number of conclusions: –

  • Over 18 years, the ex-footballers were less likely to have died (15.4% of the ex-footballers having passed away, versus 16.5% of the control group);
  • The professional footballers average age at death was higher (67.9 years old, versus 64.7 for the control group);
  • The professional footballers were less likely to have died from heart disease (2.3% compared to 2.5% of the control group) or lung cancer (1% compared to 1.6% of the control group);
  • The professional footballers were three-and-a-half times more likely to have died because of a neurodegenerative disease;
  • Alzheimer’s disease was the neurodegenerative disease with the strongest link to professional football, with the ex-footballers being five times more likely to suffer from it than the control group.

What is the cause?

In short, it is not yet known. Cohort studies, like the one conducted by the researchers, are good for identifying patterns, but they do not give any insight as to the cause of the pattern.

However, concerns regarding footballers suffering head injuries are not new. In fact, the research in question was commissioned by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) and The Football Association (FA), in 2017, as part of a wider programme to look into the link between the sport and head injury.

Despite the fact that the researchers who conducted the study and those who commissioned it have been open about the inability to attribute a cause to the increased incidences of neurodegenerative disease, in professional footballers, some have been quick to blame the act of heading footballs as the cause.

This is a long-standing link, which can be traced at least as far back to an article published in the October 1966 edition of the Football League Review, titled “Danger in heading the ball”, in which a number of people who had been affected by head injury opened up about how heading had caused their injury.

One interesting piece of information that can be taken from the research is that there was no significant difference in the risks to goalkeepers, compared to outfield players – who obviously have vastly different roles in the game.

Could footballers claim compensation?

Injuries affecting the brain are often life-changing, so it’s understandable that those afflicted by avoidable injuries might want to seek financial recompense.

In order to succeed in a claim for personal injury in England or Wales, you must prove: –

  1. The person bringing the claim was owed a ‘duty of care’ by the person the claim is against.
  2. There are various people/organisations where this duty could exist for a professional footballer, the most obvious being their club – in other words, their employer. It might not be your everyday job, but it is nevertheless a job, and they owe the same protections to their players, that your boss would to you.

  3. There was a breach of the duty of care.
  4. A person brining a claim must prove (with the help from expert evidence, if necessary) that the stance which was adopted by the person the claim is again was contrary to a reasonable body of professional opinion, at the time (the benefit of hindsight cannot be applied).

    Articles such as “Danger in heading the ball” (published in October 1966) might go some way towards doing this.

  5. That ‘but for’ the breach of duty the Claimant would not have suffered the loss or damage which is being claimed.
  6. Evidence from a medical expert would be need to prove this, as it is in most claims.

What must be done

Whilst the recently published research is somewhat inconclusive as to what precisely exposes professional footballers to an increased risk of neurodegenerative disease, it is the first time a peer-reviewed study has shown that there is an increased risk.

Whether this was known historically, and the extent to which it was known, is, at the time of writing, up-for-debate. But what is no longer up for debate is that there does appear to be a correlation between playing football and the risk of suffering from a neurodegenerative disease.

It’s now incumbent on all interested parties to take the necessary steps to find out more about the causes and about what can be done to lower the risks, to prevent the current and future generations from being afflicted from potentially avoidable diseases of the brain. It’s promising that in recent years we have seen the introduction of concussion protocols and improved medical facilities, but those responsible must not rest on their laurels.

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