Should they ban children from heading footballs?

Posted on: January 17th, 2020 | by Laura Murdoch | 2 Comments

The week, the Scottish FA announced that it was finalising proposals that would ban children under the age of 12 from heading footballs in training. The United States has had a similar plan in place since 2015 but Scotland would be the first European country to put this type of restriction in place. So, we thought we’d take a closer look at why the proposals have been put forward.

Brain HealthWhy the ban?

The Scottish FA’s decision came about because of new research into the link between football and dementia. As we mentioned in our History of Footballs blog post, there have been plenty of case studies that linked football playing to degenerative brain disease. Last October, a report by the University of Glasgow showed a clear link between the two.

The report revealed that former professional footballers were three and a half times more likely to die of degenerative brain disease. The average person has about a 3% risk of getting one of these diseases but an ex-footballer has around an 11% chance. The project also discovered that there was a five-fold increase in the risk of Alzheimer’s, a four-fold increase in motor neurone disease and a two-fold increase in Parkinson’s. Although the report didn’t establish the root cause of these higher levels of brain disease, people have used the results to call for a ban on headers.

The FA

After the results were revealed, the FA confirmed that it didn’t think there was enough evidence to change any aspects of the game. They also believed that there had been a recent decrease in the number of aerial challenges over the years, which the evidence does agree with. Data acquired by Opta Sports, a British sports analytics company, shows that high crosses in the Premier League have declined since records began in 2006. It has gone from 36.2 per game in 2008-09 down to 24.2 last season. Even though the FA were willing to look further into the issue, it’s clear that the way the game is played has already changed. Enough for them not to think about taking drastic action anyway.

Young football player heading a footballThe Scottish FA

Despite the FA not moving to make any changes, the Scottish FA decided that action needed to be taken. This week, the SFA released a statement saying that they couldn’t ignore the results of the study and had been looking into ways to improve matters. This is where the proposal comes in. The plan would ban heading during training for all children under the age of 12. Findings show that, in youth football, there is an average of 1.5 headers per game but that it is more prominent in training sessions.

The SFA’s doctor, John MacLean, was part of the team that highlighted the increased risk of degenerative brain disease in former football players. The team weren’t able to find any definitive link between heading the ball to dementia but he did believe a restriction of head contact was just common sense. He stated that “we can’t wait on the evidence one way or the other on heading” and insisted that it was important to reduce the possibility of it occurring.

A mixed reaction

As you might expect, the announcement was greeted with mixed feedback. Many who oppose it say that there is not enough evidence linking youth football to future brain diseases. Others have said that heading is not an issue with young players, so a ban would be unnecessary. Some parents have said that it would ruin the sport and make their children unlikely to keep playing. There has also been the suggestion that the ban would not be enforceable. The argument being that children will always try and replicate what they see their favourite players doing. Instead of a ban, their solution would be to teach children how to head the ball properly and safely.

Football player heading footballResponsibility to the players

Although, there has also been plenty of praise for the announcement. Former footballers and their families have said it is welcome news. Glasgow’s largest youth football club, who has changed its policy on headers already, welcome the blanket ban. The chairman of Griffons’ Soccer Centre spoke of their responsibility to their players being the main driving force for their ban.

Dr Willie Stewart, who led the study, has said he is delighted by the decision. Dr Stewart has said that, even though there are still many unanswered questions, he thinks it is clear that football needs to change in some way. Gordon Smith, former chief executive of the SFA has welcomed the ban and, on the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland radio show, he suggested that young players could still be taught heading techniques safely if they used lighter balls.

The benefits of playing football outweigh the disadvantages

Of course, it’s great that this research is starting to get people thinking about how the game is played but it is no reason to worry. It shouldn’t be forgotten that football has a positive effect on its players. The Glasgow University study also found that former footballers were less likely to die of other common problems, including heart disease and some cancers. On average, ex-players also lived three and a quarter years longer. So, there’s absolutely no reason to put away your football kit or hang up your football boots.

Dr Carol Routledge, the director of research at Alzheimer’s UK, has said the benefits of playing outweighed the disadvantages. After all, good physical health is an important part of keeping your brain healthy. Whatever the future may be for heading balls in the sport, it’s clear that football is a positive pursuit for everyone involved but, just like in any sports, players need to take care of themselves and not do anything that may put them under any undue risk.

What do you think?

So, do you think that there should be a ban on heading for young children? Should there be a ban on heading across the game? Or do you think the FA should wait for more evidence about the cause of dementia?

Football player heading a ball

2 Responses

  1. Barry Wilsion says:

    I have no idear what they are on about but the way they are putting it like every time you head a football you have a problem. In games the children only head a ball in most cases maybe 1 or 2 a game at junior level some of the children dont head it at all. The problem is not junior football. The profesional teams have to chalenge for all balls and in a lot of cases they hit the other person verry hard so not suprizing they get hurt. But they get paid to chalenge for the ball so if they went in like fairies they would get an early move to another club. At junior level we dont hardly see clashes I watched our U14s last week and 12 headers in the game and only one was chalenged by the oposition the rest were good headers to clear the ball by the defence most of the time the ball is kept on the ground which is what we teach them. But it is not the ball that dose the damage it is head on head and that dont come till the move to the higher levels where the chalenge is total comitment.

  2. Laura Murdoch says:

    Thanks for your comment, Barry.

    You make a very good point. The study didn’t say why the link might exist and, as you say, children aren’t heading the ball very often in their matches. That’s the main reason why the FA haven’t done anything yet. It’s also why some of the criticism surrounding the decision pushed for children to be taught how to do it properly and safely. It looks as though the FA will need more information and to look at other aspects of the game before they change anything.

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