It’s a dreary, wet and soggy morning and in the back of your mind you can’t wait until this hellhole of a Sunday league game is over. Last night’s shots are still coursing through your blood and the last thing you need is to suffer another hammering after last week’s 5-1 debacle.
Playing in this team you know there’s no hiding as a centre back because, invariably, the ball will keep heading back towards your goal. Another ball is being lofted forward to their big man upfront, and there’s no hiding from it, you’re going to have to stick your head in there where it hurts. It’s what’s expected at every level of the game. Get stuck in, or be seen as a wimp.
Luckily, we amateurs only have to disturb our brain fluid on a handful of occasions compared to full-time professionals. On average a pro might head the ball something like 800 times during a season, a figure that can be doubled for defenders. Between 50 to 100 lb of force can descend upon the head when contact is made with the ball, depending on the strength of the kick that propelled it there.
From an outsiders perspective football may seem like the craziest hobby in the world.
To put it into perspective, if you are doing anything else and spot something falling out of the air towards your head, the last thing on your mind will be to leap into the sky to give it a nudge with your noggin.
A rising tide of research
A newly found level of awareness has come about as a result of the rising amount of concussions seen in American Football. Studies over the past 15 years have highlighted a disease that seems to be plaguing athletes in the sport; Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). And it’s suspected cause? Repeated blows to the head. Wearing a thick metal helmet does little to protect the brain from rattling around inside its fluid when the head is on the receiving end of violent contact.
A recent study by The JAMA Network, the largest of its kind so far, found that out of the 111 former NFL players examined, 110 were identified as having the disease. Scientists at University College London found CTE to be a common occurrence in a much smaller study conducted on five deceased football players. More intensive research will have to be undertaken before any final conclusions can be made on the potential breadth of the problem. But when you consider legendary players such as Nat Lofthouse, Bob Paisley, Danny Blanchflower, Ferenc Puskas, Jeff Astle, Stan Bowles and Gerd Muller, all suffered from dementia before their deaths, the associated signs are pretty ominous.
Science vs culture
While much of the analysis so far has covered the men’s game, studies about the effects on female athletes have shown that sports-related concussion rates are even higher. Recent Columbia University research revealed that women were 50% more likely to receive concussive injuries. This was also the case for adolescent girls playing the game, which mirrors concerns expressed about boys repeatedly heading the ball at a young age. The PFA has already asked the FA to ban heading for children under 10-years-old. It follows on from similar guidelines introduced in America, which in addition, includes limited heading for 11 to 13-year-olds.
The studies and bans are a good place to start but there is much more work to be done to alter the culture that surrounds football. The real leg-work begins in translating the science for fans used to approaching the game in a traditional way. It would be naive to think that heading could disappear from football altogether.
Despite the growing evidence, there are critics already saying that if kids do not learn how to head the ball at a young age then they never will.
The rules may change but some attitudes will not, and given the scale, it would be impossible to enforce. Coaches will teach kids to head the ball regardless of any scientific facts. The rationale being that “It never done me any harm, did it?” American Football faces a similar problem, especially when you have a President labelling those playing the game as “soft”.
The case against heading is gaining momentum across the world, and as the long-term effects of heading become clearer, disseminating the information into a digestible format will be key to convincing people to listen. Football laws were written in England during the 1860s and the heading of the ball has been an integral part of the sport for even longer.
Balls have got lighter over the years and the game, especially in the UK, is played on the ground far more than in year’s past. But if someone is unwilling to meet the ball with their head, it is more than likely that someone on the opposing side will. After all, football is all about gaining legal advantage wherever possible. The cost of which will come as a direct result of our willingness to change.