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MPs say sport is 'marking its own homework' on athletes' brain injuries

  • 29.07.2021
  • JessicaMG
  • Personal-injury
  • Brain Injury Personal Injury concussion rugby football brain injury in sport

Sport has been allowed to "mark its own homework" on reducing the risks of brain injury, according to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) select committee.

The DCMS inquiry heard evidence from former athletes, scientists, doctors, players' unions and the governing bodies for various sports, and has released a report calling for a standard definition of concussion that all sports must use, as well as a paid medical officer at every major sporting event.

The inquiry found that "unaccountable" governing bodies had failed to address the concern of brain injury in their sports, adding that the government had "failed to take action on player welfare". The result of which means the safety of athletes could be easily lost as funding for individual sports is dependent on how good their protocols looked on paper, but not in practice. Committee chairman, Julian Knight, said:

"We've been shocked by evidence from athletes who suffered head trauma, putting their future health on the line in the interests of achieving sporting success for the UK.

"The Health and Safety Executive is responsible by law. However, risk management appears to have been delegated to the national governing bodies, such as the FA (Football Association).

"That is a dereliction of duty which must change."

Mr Knight added the committee had found "negligible effort to track brain injuries" - and the long-term impacts of them - at grassroots level too.

Growing evidence

There is growing evidence that heading a football repeatedly over many years may cause brain damage, with previous research such as the FIELD study finding that former professional footballers are three-and-a-half times more likely to die of dementia than people of the same age in the general population.

However, there is still no definitive proof that one causes the other.

During the inquiry, the daughter of former England player Jeff Astle told MPs that she felt let down by the lack of research that had taken place since. Dawn Astle said:

"I want to make sure that the game is safe, safe for players now, players in the future, and children coming into the game. Sport just has not done enough and they should hang their heads in shame, in my opinion."

Her father died of dementia nearly 20 years ago, at the age of 59, and a coroner ruled that he had the brain of a boxer which had been damaged by years of heading heavy leather footballs.

Rugby brain study

The inquiry comes as the first study to scan elite rugby players' brains suggests one in four could be at risk of small abnormalities.

A study of 44 elite rugby players from seven clubs, funded by the Drake Foundation, brain scans showed rugby players were more likely to have suffered changes to their brains than other athletes in non-contact sports, and non-athletes.

10 of the players had signs of damage on scans, including small tears in blood vessels. These were seen in players both with and without a recent head injury. Furthermore, scans showed unexpected changes in the brain's shape (or white matter volume) in half of the players studied.

There was no evidence that any of these players had poorer cognitive function or memory than other people in the study.

Prof David Sharp, senior study author from Imperial College London, said: "What is not clear at this stage is the long-term clinical impact of these changes. Further research is needed to understand the long-term implications of repeated head injuries experienced during a rugby career and to provide more accurate ways to assess risk for an individual."

Dr Richard Sylvester, consultant neurologist at the National Hospital of Neurology and Neurosurgery and Homerton University Hospital, said: "You can find an abnormality if you look hard enough - but what is the relevance of it?"

The Rugby Football Union (RFU) has announced measures to reduce head impacts by players in both training and matches.

The RFU says it will agree a new framework for contact training, and will introduce off-field assessments of head impacts in the women's game. The latter already exists in men's rugby.