Football’s head injury rules ‘a shambles’ says leading brain specialist

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Football’s concussion protocols are a shambles, according to one of the UK’s foremost brain injury experts.

Professor Willie Stewart told MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) committee that he could not understand why the sport had chosen not to follow rugby’s path in introducing temporary substitutions and therefore allowing a longer period of time for a potential concussion to be assessed.

He also expressed concern that there was a lack of research into head impacts in women’s sports, given the increased risk to women of concussion, saying: “I don’t think we’re giving it nearly enough attention.”

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Stewart led the FIELD study at the University of Glasgow which in 2019 established that professional footballers were three and a half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease than age-matched members of the general population.

The late Nobby Stiles pictured at DeepdaleThe late Nobby Stiles pictured at Deepdale
The late Nobby Stiles pictured at Deepdale

He believes on the balance of probabiliti diseases such as dementia among elite athletes, and could not understand football’s approach to managing concussion.

Football has a habit, whenever it is forced to develop, of going out on their own and trying to develop something unique to everybody else as if the problem never occurred before,” he said. “What football has introduced is a shambles in 2021.”

Football’s lawmaking body the International Football Association Board (IFAB) approved protocols last December to trial the use of permanent concussion substitutes, with the initial on-field assessment period remaining at three minutes before next steps – further examination or a substitution – are taken.

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Asked whether the temporary substitute model was preferable, Stewart said: “Unquestionably. Rugby has made great developments in understanding how you can assess and identify players with brain injury on the field, and that should be the model and the benchmark that sports start from.”

The parliamentary inquiry comes less than six months after the death of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning midfielder Nobby Stiles, who Stewart discovered postmortem was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease only seen in those who have suffered repetitive head trauma.

Stiles’ England, Manchester United and Preston North End club-mate, Sir Bobby Charlton, has also been confirmed to be living with dementia.