SCOTLAND THE BRAVE: Football pioneers ‘leading the way’ in the fight against dementia in football

By Kieran Gallagher & Euan Wood.

The Scottish game is setting the precedent for increasing safety measures in football’s long-term battle with dementia.

From the Scotch Professors’ ground-breaking passing game, to the first-ever black international captain, the Scots are at the forefront of revolutionising the global game even further, with preventative heading training and concussion protocols

Dr. Judith Gates, Chair and Co. Founder of the ‘Head for Change’ Charity – a foundation designed to help former athletes and their families deal with neurodegenerative diseases – has claimed that Scotland is ‘leading’ the way for change.

“I think Scotland’s leading the way with many of these things”, she said.

“They were the first to introduce the no heading of the ball rule for under 12s. Those sorts of steps are a step in the right direction because there is some emerging evidence that indicates that the younger the heading starts, the more chances there are for subsequent neuro-degenerative disease.

“A part of that challenge is an inherent resistance to change and a desire to protect much-loved sports and not wanting to think that there any issues with the sport. Another part of the challenge is also the perceived indestructibility of youth, the sense that you are immortal.”

The SFA have revitalised its approach to football at the primary school level, by issuing a precautionary mandate that there should be ‘no heading practice’ whatsoever.

The application of a ‘low priority’ and staggered approach to heading at the ‘secondary school’ level has also been reinforced by the footballing authority, with adult professionals restricted from heading the day before and day after matches.

Following the successful implementation of the rule change in Scotland, the English FA have since trialed a reduction in ‘deliberate heading’ at the U12 age group from the 2022-23 season, which if successful may become permanent in the following year

Research conducted by the University of Glasgow, led by Dr. Willie Stewart revealed that footballers are three-and-a-half times more likely to suffer from a neurodegenerative disease in later life.

“This is the largest study to date looking in this detail at the incidence of neurodegenerative disease in any sport”, Dr. Stewart explained in his findings.

“Our data show that while former footballers had higher dementia rates, they had lower rates of death due to other major diseases.

“It is important that the global football family now unites to find the answers and provide a greater understanding if this complex issue.”

Dr. Gates – whose husband has suffered from dementia due to repeatedly heading the ball during his playing days – believes that the reduction of heading in training can only be a good thing in the long run and would urge England to follow Scotland in protecting the players.

“My husband was of the generation of ‘100 headers a day’ during the 60s and 70s and he came home with terrible migraines and nobody took any notice of it, it just went with the territory.

“One of the myths for football is about the old leather footballs’ and people’s perception of when the players that played with the old leather football die, this problem will go with them.

“We know from research that football’s now are exactly the same weight, yes now they are coated so as not to absorb water, but the velocity is greater, so the research is showing us that the impact is the same, if not greater, and so the danger continues.”

The previously proposed inaction of the English FA and PFA came under the spotlight in recent years after slipping into the shadow of their progressive Scottish neighbours.

Ex-Premier League champion and UEFA Cup finalist, Chris Sutton has been a key advocate for reform following his dad’s lengthy battle with dementia.

Sutton has since criticised the footballing authorities for turning ‘the back on what has been a massive issue’ whilst addressing the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee in March 2021.

“Hundreds of players have died”, said the ex-Blackburn Rovers and Celtic talisman.

“We’re not just talking about the professional game; we don’t even know what has happened in the amateur game and this is something we need to deal with and deal with now.

“This meeting we’re having should’ve happened 20 years ago.”

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