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Blog: Science is the solution if sport is serious about player protection

By James Drake, Founder and Chairman of The Drake Foundation

The long-term impact of head injuries in football and rugby has recently become front-page news, with ongoing litigation against rugby’s governing bodies by some of the sport’s biggest names and mounting concerns over the number of retired footballers suffering from dementia.

These concerns have clearly filtered through to parents whose children play these sports, and to amateur footballers and rugby players who enjoy the grass-roots games. A survey of 2000 people for The Drake Foundation found widespread support for law changes and new guidelines to protect players better.

Notably, 70% of amateur footballers want guidelines to restrict heading training and 48% want less heading in matches. One in three parents want heading banned for the U14–U18 age group. Meanwhile, 66% of parents want scrums to be banned from youth rugby and 65% want tackling to be banned from Under-14 rugby.

I launched The Drake Foundation 7 years ago after seeing the head injuries sustained by Tottenham goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and Welsh winger George North. At the time, there was much less focus on the issue, but I felt it was inevitable that they would suffer some longer-term damage. From a commonsense standpoint I could not imagine that would not be the case.

I felt that science could have a big impact on this and set up the Foundation to fund research into player welfare. Sport understands sports medicine but very little about neuroscience. Our understanding of brain damage and disease is also basic when compared to the knowledge and treatments that we have for other organs like the heart and lungs. I felt my background in scientific publishing and passion for sport put me in the prime position to fund research that could not only improve sporting welfare, but also deepen our knowledge of the brain and dementia for wider society.

Rugby has changed out of all recognition in recent years since the professionalisation of the game in the 1990s. Players from an earlier era were built like ballet dancers compared to today’s bulked-up professionals, which means the impacts are much stronger. It is therefore essential that research studies are undertaken to investigate the effect of the game on current and recently retired players, as well as those who played pre-1990s – some research is ongoing, but we need much more in order to properly understand the link between rugby and brain disorders.

In football, many have blamed the old heavier leather ball for the link between football and cognitive decline in retired players. However, in today’s game the ball may be lighter but it also moves significantly faster, so we are likely still seeing the same level of impact on players’ heads and potentially the same neurodegenerative consequences.

So, with both sports, we know there is a problem – the only thing we don’t know is how big it is.

Our survey shows that concerns about the health effects of head injuries in football and rugby have reached beyond the professional game. If parents are worried about the health of their children when they are playing rugby or football at this stage, what will happen to the future of those sports? And if more than six out of ten amateur rugby players intend to reduce their playing time, or give up completely, what does that mean for the grass-roots game?

We all love football and rugby, and they are so important because of all the health benefits they bring, but two things need to happen to ensure the future of the sports. First, more research is needed, amongst both current and retired players and at all levels of the game. Only with this full landscape of intelligence can we work out what is happening to the brain as a result of physical impacts. Second, evidence-based law changes need to be made to the games to protect players at all levels. However, until we have all the research-based evidence, there must be common-sense changes to game laws and safety protocols – this cannot wait and must be a priority for the sports’ governing bodies.

We are not killjoys. We are not trying to be prescriptive or tell these sports how they should respond, but we do believe common sense should be applied whilst we are waiting for the science to catch up.

We work with governing bodies and look forward to continuing our partnerships with the FA and RFU and with the PFA and FIFPRO, which represent the players. We want to see more evidence-based research that will help protect players at every level and we are proud to be playing our part in funding it.