How are brain injury claims influencing football regulations?

Brain injury claims against the FA

What claims have been made?

At the beginning of this year, a collection of former footballers began a legal battle with the Football Association for compensation over brain injuries. 19 ex-players are making claims after suffering irreversible neurological impairments such as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and post-concussion syndrome.

What is the link between brain injury and football?

The repeated impact from heading the ball or accidentally clashing heads with other players is thought to cause long-term brain damage. These findings are the result of two decades of research by neuropathologist Willie Stewart who is investigating traumatic brain injuries and their link with neurodegenerative disease in athletes.

While the FA has yet to formally acknowledge this connection, there’s much evidence to support Stewart’s claim. Professional players of football and other contact sports such as rugby are at a much greater risk of death from progressive brain diseases such as dementia than the general population, and these are more likely to develop at an earlier age.

What will happen if the claims are successful?

The exact amount hasn’t been announced, but successful claimants will receive a significant financial payout. However, this movement is about more than monetary compensation. In seeking support from brain injury solicitors to make a legal challenge against the FA, these footballers hope to raise awareness about the risk of the sport causing brain trauma.

How claims are changing football

With a greater spotlight on play protocols following the claims of long-term damage from head injuries, the FA have taken some steps to change the sport – both how it’s played and how injuries are treated.

No heading for children under 12

Heading is still included in training programmes and permitted in matches for footballers of most ages. However, in 2021 the FA banned heading in training for under 12s. This was introduced as a means of supporting the development of more skilful players, but they did reference mitigating potential brain injury risks. Last season, this rule was expanded to cover matchdays too.

This recognition of the issue and effort to protect children is seen as a step in the direction by many. However, as skulls do not fully fuse until most footballers have finished their careers, there’s still a danger of damage caused by repeated impact to the head. Should these claims prove successful, the FA may feel obligated to remove the technique of heading from the sport altogether.

Changing the approach to concussion

In comparison to previous years, professional football matches are being stopped more frequently when head injuries occur. Players are often subbed off immediately for examination by a professional before being allowed to return to the pitch.