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Concussion in football: Dangers known for decades, say former players suing governing bodies

Former England midfielder Nobby Stiles playing for Manchester United in 1969
Former Manchester United and England midfielder Nobby Stiles, pictured here in 1969, died in 2020

Minutes of a Football Association meeting in 1983 “indicate [it] was always fully aware of the dangers” of concussion in football, say former players and their families who are suing several of the game’s governing bodies.

The group alleges that despite that, the FA “failed to take action to reduce the risk to players to the lowest reasonable level”, as stated in ‘particulars of claim’ issued at the High Court, and seen by the BBC.

The Football Associations of England and Wales, the English Football League (EFL) and rule-making body the International Football Association Board (Ifab) are accused of being “negligent and in breach of the duty of care owed” to the ex-players.

The claimants are said to have suffered “permanent long-term neurological injuries” as a result.

“At all material times the defendants knew, or ought reasonably to have known, of the likelihood of brain injuries, including long-term neurological injuries, due to the cumulative effect of repeated… injuries to the brain occurring in the sport”, allege the claimants.

They say a meeting of the FA’s medical committee in December 1983 concluded “players who had been concussed should take no further part in the game.

“However, in the absence of disclosure, it is unclear whether (or if so what) action was taken as a result of this conclusion.”

In a statement to the BBC, the FA said it was “not able to comment on ongoing legal proceedings” but “we continue to take a leading role in reviewing and improving the safety of our game”.

Background

The particulars of claim, which the group says have been served on the defendants, relate to 17 former players and families understood to be aged between their late-30s and mid-70s, with seven now dead.

The players or their families initiated their legal claim in correspondence two years ago. It includes the family of 1966 World Cup winner Nobby Stiles, who died in 2020, and had prostate cancer and advanced dementia. His brain was diagnosed as having chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a form of degenerative disease dementia that is believed to be caused by repeated blows.

A similar action was launched by former rugby league and former rugby union players in 2022.

Research in 2019 showed ex-footballers were three and a half times more likely to die of dementia than the general population.

Details of the claim

Among allegations set out in the particulars of claim are:

  • The “causal link between cumulative blows to the head and permanent brain injury has been reported on and demonstrated for over a century”, and the defendants “ought to have known” that the complications from blows to the head in football were “well established at all material times”
  • The football authorities have been negligent in relation to the “the obvious hazard” of long-term brain injury in the sport, removing and returning players from play after a suspected or actual head injury, protecting players from the risks of multiple concussions, and failure to take steps to protect players
  • In 1989, the FA’s Joint Liaison Committee discussed a case involving a Southampton player who “recently continued to play in a match despite suffering from concussion” but the claimants “have found no evidence to suggest that any positive action was taken to ensure that clubs and/or referees complied with guidance to remove players with suspected head injuries from the field of play”
  • The same year, at a meeting of the FA’s Council, head injuries “appear to have been discussed in relation to the recent case of Terry Butcher having played on after sustaining a head injury in an international match… concern was expressed that the player had been allowed to remain on the field. It was felt, however, that it must be left to the doctor present at the match to decide whether it would be harmful for the player to continue to play… the claimants have found no evidence to suggest that any positive action was taken to protect players”
  • Research into head injuries conducted by the defendants has “relied on those with a very close relationship to the game and/or the governing bodies” who “cannot be considered independent”
  • Ifab before 1958, and the FA and FAW before 1965, failed “to allow injured players to be substituted at all” and “players were encouraged to play on following head injuries”
  • Claimants “have suffered permanent long-term neurological injuries as a result of the defendants’ negligence”

‘Admission of liability’

The claimants argue new regulations on management of concussion in recent years “amounts to an admission of liability in respect of the defendants’ past failure to take reasonable steps to reduce players’ exposure to the risk of long-term neurological injuries… to the lowest possible level at a much earlier date”.

New guidelines issued in July 2021 said professional footballers in England should be limited to 10 “higher force headers” a week in training from the 2021-22 season and permanent concussion substitutes were introduced in the Premier League in 2021.

A law for additional permanent concussion substitutes will come into effect from July, but it will be up to the organisers of individual competitions on whether they implement it. The protocol means permanent substitutions can be made if a player suffers a head injury, even if all replacements have been used.

The claimants’ lawyer, Richard Boardman, told the BBC: “These particulars of claim are a landmark moment. This is the first time that this type of litigation has, at this scale, been brought in the world’s most popular sport.

“The scale of the issue is huge – many more claimants will join this case in the coming weeks and months.

“There has been a systemic failure among football governing bodies in our country to limit concussions and sub-concussions sustained by the football playing community. We believe those governing bodies had knowledge of this issue going back many decades, but they failed in their duty to protect footballers from the resulting neurological impairment and deaths.”

What do the governing bodies say?

In a statement to the BBC, the FA said it was “not able to comment on ongoing legal proceedings”.

It added: “We continue to take a leading role in reviewing and improving the safety of our game. This includes investing in and supporting multiple projects in order to gain a greater understanding of this area through objective, robust and thorough research.

“We have already taken many proactive steps to review and address potential risk factors which may be associated with football whilst ongoing research continues in this area, including liaising with the international governing bodies.”

The FAW said in a statement that it “is engaged in the litigation process and are unable to comment on any individual case. We take the welfare of players extremely seriously and player safety is, and always has been, of paramount importance to us.”

The EFL said it “understands that this in an incredibly challenging and deeply difficult situation for all those people and their families who have been affected”.

It added: “As a result of ongoing proceedings, we are unable pass substantial comment on the matter, however, it is important to acknowledge that prolonging this process any more than is necessary is completely unfair on those impacted.

“The EFL received notice of claims in December 2022. Since then, the league and our legal representatives have actively engaged in the process and have challenged the lack of progress from the claimants’ legal representative in advancing the case.

“Those delays could potentially impact further efforts by the whole game to support those in need, so we call on the relevant parties to move this forward quickly so the claims can be tested in the appropriate way.”

BBC Sport has also contacted Ifab for comment.

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