The daughter of a former England player has called upon the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) to start deducting money from rich footballers’ wages, to set up care homes for ex-players suffering from brain disease.
Dawn Astle’s father Jeff played for West Brom and Notts County and died in 2002 at the age of 59. The coroner recorded that his degenerative brain condition was an industrial disease, due to repeated low-level trauma caused by heading footballs during his lengthy playing career. Mr Astle also has the very sad distinction of being the first player in this country to have been tested for - and diagnosed with - chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), sometimes called ‘boxer’s brain’. CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem. Degenerative brain disease contributed to the deaths of many former footballing stars such as Sir Alf Ramsey, Jimmy Hill, Bob Paisley and Nat Lofthouse.
The Jeff Astle charitable foundation helps support the families of other ex-players suffering from brain disease and raises awareness of CTE. Established in 2015, its patrons include Alan Shearer, Gary Neville, Gordon Banks and Frank Skinner. In an article posted on the foundation’s website, Dawn expressed concern that many ex-players are “suffering serious problems in later life” which could be misdiagnosed as either dementia or alzheimer’s. Following the verdict in Jeff’s inquest, the PFA & FA announced they would be funding a joint study but this did not come to fruition. Both bodies have announced they are now contributing to further research costs, following publication earlier this year of a research paper from University College London and Cardiff University. Researchers examined the brains of six footballers who developed dementia in their 60s and found signs of CTE in four out of six cases.
As the wages of players from previous generations continue to be dwarfed even more by the modern day pay packets of their successors, Dawn further commented; “Our dream is to have a series of care homes to provide respite or long-term care. A 1% levy on the wages of Premier League players would raise millions to do that. Surely today’s players, who have so much money, wouldn’t begrudge that so those who laid the foundations for everything they have can be looked after?”
Speaking to the Mirror (23rd August 2017) the PFA’s deputy chief executive, John Bramhall, confirmed they have a benevolent fund of £800,000 to help ex-professionals and whilst “there have been cases where we have helped with respite care and amendments to their homes, we can’t pay for full time residential care, it’s not within our gift to do that.”
There is a widely held conception that such brain injuries arise due to the use of heavy leather footballs up until the 1970s, which were notorious for becoming very heavy when matches were played in wet conditions. Dr Michael Grey, reader in Motor Neuroscience at the University of Birmingham's School of Sport, points out that a football’s regulation weight hasn’t changed since then. In addition, due to the increased speed at which footballs now travel, the amount of kinetic energy on impact is much greater. Dr Grey predicts that the number of cases can only increase in future years as a result and recommends that children should not be heading footballs at all. Professional bodies await the outcome of this further research and it remains to be seen whether the laws of football will need to change in the face of increasing external pressure and developments in scientific knowledge.