The Drake Foundation survey reveals health concerns in grass-roots football & rugby: calls for law changes to make the sports safer

Amateur footballers, rugby players and parents have voiced concerns about the long-term health risks from head injuries in both sports and are for calling for law changes to keep players safe.

A survey of 2000 people was conducted on behalf of The Drake Foundation, a not-for-profit organization, which has funded more than £2million of scientific research into the health and welfare of sports players.

Two-thirds of amateur footballers (66%) fear that heading the ball may be having a detrimental impact on their health, mirroring concerns raised in the professional game, and 70% want guidelines to restrict it in training. 48% want less heading in matches.

The majority of parents (56%) want heading in training to be restricted for children aged 14–18, in line with restrictions already introduced for younger players, and 32% want it banned completely.

The survey findings come as a joint committee, led by the Premier League and the Football Association, is working towards protocols that would make England the first country to limit heading in professional training. A study published in October 2019 found that former professional footballers are 3.5-times more likely to die of dementia than the general population. Further research into the link between playing football and neurodegenerative disease is ongoing, including The Drake Foundation-funded HEADING study, which is specifically investigating the relationship between exposure to heading the ball and later brain health.

In rugby union, governing authorities are facing lawsuits from former players over head injuries sustained during their careers, including World Cup winner Steve Thompson. And a group of doctors recently wrote to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden calling for tackling to be banned in schools to protect them from head injuries.

The Drake Foundation survey shows these concerns are shared by amateur rugby players and parents alike.

63% of amateur players have decided to limit the amount they play, or to give up playing completely, in the light of reports that former professionals believe rugby is to blame for permanent brain injuries. Seventy-seven per cent want tackling above the waist to be banned. 64% fear that rugby could have a long-term impact on their health.

Meanwhile, 66% of parents want scrums to be banned from youth rugby and 65% want tackling to be banned from Under-14 rugby, with 58% also supporting a ban for Under-16s and 55% for under 18s. The majority of parents (58%) fear rugby could have a detrimental long-term impact on their child’s health.

James Drake, founder of The Drake Foundation, said: “It is clear from these findings that the concern around brain health seen recently from professional rugby and football players is a sentiment echoed at all levels of the sports. We are saddened but not surprised to see that more than two-thirds of parents are concerned about the risk to their child from heading the ball, with similar statistics seen across youth rugby and amateur levels.

Whilst we all know that sport on the whole is good for us, there is no denying now that there needs to be a paradigm shift in both football and rugby’s approach to brain health, from grass-roots through to the elite level. As we start to see changes in the professional games, we hope these findings will help to speed up the implementation of rule changes also to protect younger and amateur participants, so both rugby and football can be enjoyed safely by all.”

Key poll findings

Youth football

  • 67% of parents with secondary age children who regularly play football for an organized team are ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ concerned about the risk to their child of heading a football
  • 56% want heading to be restricted for Under 18s in training and 30% want it banned completely. 42% want heading to be restricted in matches and 29% want it to be banned.
  • 60% believe that FA guidelines limiting the U14–U16 age group to 10 headers per training session are ‘about right’ but 33% believe they do not go far enough and, of those, 91% want a complete ban
  • 42% want heading to be restricted in U14–U16 matches and 32% want it banned completely
  • 9% of parents said their child had been concussed playing football and, disturbingly, in 40% of cases the child resumed player later in the match or training session, whilst 29% continued playing. Both are a clear contravention of concussion protocol.

However, despite parents’ concerns about the possible long-term health risks of heading a football, 92% believe football is a safe sport for their child.

Amateur football

  • 70% of amateur footballers playing regularly in an organized team want FA guidelines to be introduced to restrict heading in training – as happens in youth football – and 81% would follow FA guidelines, if introduced
  • 48% say heading should be restricted in matches, 52% are against any restrictions
  • 66% are ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ concerned about the effect of heading the ball on their long-term health
  • 61% say they take part in heading drills during training
  • 34% say they have suffered concussion playing football and, of those, 32% played on whilst 41% returned later in the match or training session. 40% said they were unaware of the FA’s Concussion Guidelines

Youth rugby

  • 66% of parents whose children play rugby want scrums to be banned from youth rugby and 69% want physical contact in training to be limited
  • 65% want tackling to be banned from U14 rugby and more than one in two want it banned from U16 rugby (58%) and from U18 rugby (55%)
  • 58% are ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ concerned that playing rugby could have a long-term effect on their child’s health
  • 15% say their child had been concussed whilst playing rugby and, of those cases, 23% had not been reviewed by a doctor in apparent breach of protocols

Despite parents’ concerns about the impact on their child’s health, 77% believe rugby is a safe sport.

Amateur rugby

  • 64% of amateur rugby players who play regularly for an organized team are ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ concerned that it could have an adverse effect on their long-term health
  • 46% say they will limit the amount they play and 17% have decided to give up the sport; 44% are more likely to wear a headguard as a result of recent publicity around possible links between rugby and dementia, whilst 45% already do so
  • 77% want tackling above the waist to be banned in the amateur game and 58% say dipping into a tackling, rather than staying upright, should be banned
  • 71% want physical contact in training to be reduced
  • 41% say they have been concussed whilst playing rugby and, although 65% were aware of the RFU’s Graduated Return to Play Protocol, 21% of those who had been concussed had returned to playing without being reviewed by a doctor

Despite players’ concerns, 86% believe it is a safe sport at their level.