Dementia used to be a taboo topic in football. Whether it was an unwillingness to acknowledge that a key aspect of the beautiful game was actively harming its players or a general misbelief over the relative lack of research, the FA was slow to react to the reports.
Alan Shearer, a man famous for heading balls into the backs of nets, set about investigating this increasingly important topic for the BBC in a documentary called ‘Alan Shearer: Dementia, Football and Me’. In it, Shearer describes the lives of former pros after they retire and in particular that of Jeff Astle and Nobby Stiles.
Astle was a player for West From that died in 2002 at the age of 59. The significance of Astle’s postmortem was the corner ruled that his death was caused by the repeated heading of footballs, the first time a medical professional had made such a link. The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) commissioned an inquest but it was stopped before any major conclusions were found.
After the documentary aired, the PFA said that children under the age of 11 should be banned from heading the ball, a common practice in the United States, until further research was conducted. The hesitancy in which the PFA and FA has had in terms of funding research has met little progress has been made since Astle’s death.
Cognitive neuroscientist Dr Magdalena Ietswaart commented after the documentary that, “we do not yet know whether there is a definitive link between football and dementia. This can only be discovered by carrying out research in this area. Scientific developments open up a new approach that is achievable but requires a robust funding drive.”
Throughout the documentary, Shearer appeared to grow increasingly frustrated at the lack of movement from the FA, UEFA and FIFA. The scientists he spoke to all made it clear that they lacked the funding needed to conduct proper research and so the link between dementia and heading remains hypothetical.
One of the most emotional scenes in the documentary was when Shearer spoke to John Stiles, son of Nobby. Nobby Stiles was part of the 1966 England World Cup winning squad and video of him dancing with the trophy across the Wembley pitch remain with many. Nobby developed dementia in later life and now lives in a home. “I’m utterly convinced that heading the ball in training is responsible but that’s only my opinion” his son said.
Nobby’s struggle is seen by some as a great failure of football. The fact that a member of successful England and Manchester United teams was left behind. He was forced to sell his winners medals so he could “leave something for my family,” but the real frustration appears to be at the lack of research done to prevent, or better understand, future cases like Nobby.
The families of Stiles and Astle have made it clear, more research needs to be done into this. The misconception that because the balls are lighter now there is a less of a risk is wrong because they travel at greater speeds. While the FA, Premier League, UEFA and FIFA continue to revel in record profits, surely now is the time to put some of it towards saving players’ lives.