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Headers in football – should we consider banning them?

Headers in football – should we consider banning them?

Scotland is about to become the first European country to impose a ban on children heading footballs. The decision to eliminate headers in football follows a report, released by the University of Glasgow last October, that found that former football players have a bigger risk suffering from dementia and brain damage compared to people who do not play football. BBC Scotland report that the ban will be announced “within weeks” for children at under-12 level and below.


Brain damage

Doctor of the Scottish Football Association, John MacLean, was part of the team which highlighted that former players are three-and-a-half times more likely to die of dementia. It’s not likely a ban on headers in football will be implemented in the major leagues any time soon but McLean would at least want to see a rule where temporary substitutions would be allowed to avoid long-lasting football brain damage.

Currently, games are stopped for 3 minutes to allow an examination of a suspected concussion by medical staff. In instances when further treatment is needed, the player then must leave the field permanently. If temporary substitutions were allowed, the player could come back on the pitch and finish the game.

In the United States, a ban on headers in football for children has been in place since 2015. US “soccer” was obliged to enforce a ban after a group of parents filed a class-action lawsuit against FIFA citing concerns over brain damage. Their claim was that the governing bodies had been negligent on the impact of headers in football. A mandate was then imposed stating that players aged 10 or younger would be prohibited from heading. Additionally, a limit was set for kids between 11 and 13 years old. The rule came into effect on the 1st of January and applies to every youth team within the MLS.


Is there proof?

Are there lasting effects of headers linked to football brain damage? The debate about a ban or limitation of headers is certainly not going away. Studies have been mixed about the long-term effects of heading. Some studies have shown problems with memory, attention, and reaction speed when football players use tend to head footballs a lot. A study by the University of British Columbia shows that blood levels of proteins, associated with damage to nerve cells, increase after heading the ball.

But not everybody is convinced that headers have an impact on the health of players and claim that the evidence linking headers with neurological problems and brain damage is rather flimsy. “This is not evidence-based policy, but a willingness to see something done,” according to Dr Dominic Malcolm, reader in sociology of sport at Loughborough University.

A football weighs slightly less than half a kilo and can hit a player’s head at speeds up to 129km/h. Debates surrounding the effects of headers in football, and the links with long-term brain injuries, are certainly growing and more research is clearly needed. At this moment, because of lack of studies, research into the impact of a football hitting the head is not all that conclusive.


What about adults?

Most of the research focuses mostly on minors rather than adults. One of them being a publication by the JAMA Pediatrics journal. The research found that heading was the most common activity resulting in a concussion. However, it’s not only heading the ball that is considered dangerous. Head-to-head or elbow-to-head contact is much more likely when jumping up for a header and could also have heavy consequences. For some, another good reason to ban this part of the game altogether.


Using headgear

One alternative idea to banning headers in football would be to introduce headgear to protect the impact. Would this be a solution? It has been tried and tested, the conclusions are not clear. Few studies have looked at the efficiency of protective headgear and those that have suggested that, although it does limit the dangers, it doesn’t eliminate them. Football headgear didn’t reduce the overall number of concussions, it appears. In conclusion, there was no difference in rates of sport-related concussions among the players who wore headgear and those who didn’t.



What would be the impact on the game if we banned headers at all levels of football? If headers in football were totally banned, it would obviously have an impact on the way the game is played. Indeed, the team of the decade could look very different. Tactics would need to be altered and taller players woule have les influence on the pitch. Heading would even need to become a punishable offence, just like the handball rule. When a player deliberately heads the ball, an indirect free-kick would then be awarded to the opposing team where the header took place. If the deliberate header took place in the goal area, a penalty could be awarded. It doesn’t sound right!

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