Dementia in rugby players and boxers could be recognised as industrial disease

Dementia in rugby players and boxers, as well as footballers, could be formally recognised as an industrial disease after the government’s key scientific advisers agreed to widen their deliberations to a range of contact sports.

With Fifa admitting they now suspect a link between heading and brain injury, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC) heard evidence at its latest meeting from the Glasgow neuropathologist Dr Willie Stewart as part of its ongoing investigation into football.

Dr Stewart found former professional players were three-and-a-half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease and his landmark research is being used in support of a coalition of charities, including the Jeff Astle Foundation, Head for Change and the Professional Footballers’ Association, who are calling for dementia in football to be formally recognised.

This would make former footballers living with dementia eligible for a capped weekly benefit of up to £180 per week which is currently paid to people who have become disabled because of an accident at work, or due to certain prescribed diseases caused by their job. Guidelines state a disease must be at least twice as prevalent in a particular industry.

The IIAC is currently reviewing the evidence in relation to football but, with neurodegenerative disease also worryingly apparent among former professionals in sports like rugby union, rugby league and boxing, the inquiry may be extended to include other contact sports. It has been agreed a research working group will consider the wider available evidence and make a recommendation.

It comes as Andy Massey, Fifa’s medical director, acknowledged the questions facing football over brain disease. “What we need to find out is what is it that they are doing within football that is causing it,” he said.

“We think it is heading, we think heading has a role to play in it but it’s very difficult to set up a scientific study. Heading is part of football. If there is a risk associated with heading, then we have to be open with it and let people make their own decision about whether they want to play football and head the ball during football.

“We do have to think about the younger age groups who maybe are not in the position to make that informed consensual decision and protect them.”

Fifa has also announced ‘concussion spotters’ will be in the stands now at all its competitions, as has long been the case in American football’s NFL, to help team medics identify possible on-field concussions.

A desire to limit heading has already prompted the Premier League, the English Football League and the Football Association to set up a separate working group to recommend heading restrictions in training from the start of next season.

Richard Bevan, the chief executive of the League Managers’ Association, has also told Telegraph Sport he would welcome talks with other stakeholders about a potential industry care fund for former professional players and their families.

“The cost is enormous,” said Bevan. “Could sport centrally raise funds? We should be joined up not just with football but other sports as well. I for one would welcome that discussion and in particular how you help the unpaid careers.

“It is something that should be discussed. We should be making sure what resources we have are maximising every pound.” 

Bevan is also on the board of the Alzheimer Society’s new Sport United Against Dementia campaign, which is working with a range of different sports to provide advice and support to families on issues ranging from care plans to accessing benefits.

Initial research into heading limits has suggested that there are still coaches who might be ‘outliers’ in terms of their training practices, but Bevan believe his members will want to prioritise the future safety of its players. “People’s wellbeing and health must be at the heart of every decision going forward,” he said.