The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council was first asked to consider neurodegenerative diseases in footballers almost two years ago after the University of Glasgow published landmark research which showed that there were 3 former professionals, 5 times more likely to die from dementia.
The usual threshold for an illness to be considered an occupational illness is if employees are at double the risk and, after starting to study the evidence among former footballers, the IIAC has decided to expand its investigation to a range of contact sports. This will certainly include rugby, where former union and league codes players with dementia premature are now taking legal action against the governing bodies, and potentially boxing as well.
While the families of former rugby participants will welcome the decision to consider their sport as well, there will be frustration within football with the continued wait for a decision on their candidacy at a time when many families are in need.
Recognizing a neurological disease in football as an occupational disease would mean families could receive a legal benefit available on a sliding scale of up to Â£ 180 per week.
The Glasgow study looked at the medical records of nearly 8,000 former professional footballers and was the subject of extensive peer review. No such in-depth study has been carried out on former rugby players or boxers.
The football submission was made in January 2020 by Dr Judith Gates in conjunction with the Jeff Astle Foundation charity. Dr Gates has since founded the Head for Change charity. The app is also supported by the Professional Footballers Association, whose new CEO Maheta Molango was praised last week for his work in separately trying to create an industry-wide care fund. for former players and their families who face enormous health care costs.
Dawn Astle, the daughter of former England striker Jeff, said she was “more than happy” with the PFA’s draft plan for a football protection fund. Penny Watson, wife of former England captain Dave Watson, also praised the PFA’s work under Molanga, who replaced Gordon Taylor in July. “I know he took the time to visit the families of former players to hear what they have to say and especially what they need,” she said. “These visits have not been made public because he is not interested in any fame, has no ego but just wants to do the right thing.”
A study last month of 146 former rugby players suggested a link between multiple concussions and significantly worse brain function above age 75. This focused on players from the old amateur era. A separate study, funded by the Drake Foundation, also found that 23% of current elite adult rugby players had abnormalities in the structure of the brain.
A group of former players, including 2003 Rugby World Cup winner Steve Thompson, are taking legal action against rugby authorities for brain damage they suffered during their careers.
Thompson, who suffers from dementia precocious, says he no longer remembers playing for England at the World Cup 18 years ago and there are fears the game has become much less safe at professional time.
Bobbie Goulding, Paul Highton and Jason Roach are among a group of 10 former rugby union players who have been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and probable CTE and have launched their own legal action.
Q&A: What does the treatment of dementia in rugby as an industrial problem involve?
What is the Workplace Injury Advisory Council?
The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC) is an independent scientific advisory body that advises the government on workers’ compensation benefits. They review published medical and scientific research and make recommendations to update the list of diseases and occupations for which benefits may be paid.
What evidence is needed for a disease to be recognized as an occupational disease?
The IIAC is looking for evidence that the risk of the disease is at least doubled for those working in this type of job.
Counseling typically requires at least two studies as well as broader evidence before deciding that a particular illness should be classified as an occupational injury. A large study of nearly 8,000 former players by the University of Glasgow found that former footballers are 3.5 times more likely to die from dementia. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy disease – a type of dementia associated with shocks to the head – was also found separately at autopsy in a disproportionate number of former footballers. A study in Italy found that former footballers were five times more likely to suffer from motor neuron disease before the age of 45. This was largely consistent with research from Glasgow which found a four times higher risk of death from the disease among former professionals.
How would that help former players and their families?
The formal recognition of neurodegenerative diseases would allow players to claim disability compensation for accidents at work, as is the case for more than 70 other diseases that are included in the scheme.
This is a capped weekly allowance paid to people who become disabled as a result of an accident at work or certain prescribed illnesses caused by their work. Current government guidelines suggest that people with occupational diseases are assessed and, depending on severity, entitled to benefits on a sliding scale of up to around Â£ 180 per week.
Why don’t sports themselves support their former players?
Some industries with serious workplace injuries have also started their own compensation programs, such as the Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis Scheme. The National Football League of America has set up a ‘Concussion Settlement Fund’ to help families of former players with dementia and has so far donated nearly Â£ 730million.
The Professional Footballers Association announced last week that it had agreed to a draft plan with the Premier League, the Football Association and the English Football League for a care fund for former players.