The son of Nobby Stiles has accused the English football authorities of being “all talk”and adopting delaying tactics over the game’s dementia crisis after a post-mortem left “no doubt” that the 1966 World Cup winner’s death was caused by heading footballs.
Representatives from the Football Association, the Premier League, the English Football League, the Women’s Super League and the Professional Footballers’ Association met on Monday for the first time to discuss restrictions on heading in adult training – some 14 months after it was found that former professionals were 3.5 times more likely to die of brain disease.
The governing bodies are also not expected to make any recommendations until later this season, with the FA head of medicine, Dr Charlotte Cowie, on Monday highlighting the current unknowns and appearing to question whether head impacts lead to dementia. Dr Willie Stewart, who examined Stiles’ brain and oversaw the research which proved football’s dementia link, said that it was now “unacceptably poor” for football to say more evidence was needed before making changes.
The PFA has also called for urgent action to limit heading.
“We have gone past the point of, ‘Is heading perhaps a problem?’ to, in the absence of any other evidence to the contrary, it is a problem in football,” said Dr Stewart. “The
football authorities, or whoever is advising them, saying, ‘We haven’t got cast-iron evidence yet, causality has not been proven’, are being disingenuous because we may never be able to prove causality between exposure to something in your 20s and a disease that turns up in your 60s and 70s. We just don’t have time to wait for that – that’s unacceptably poor.
“What we have got is more than enough evidence that the problem, linking up all these sports, is pointing towards head injuries and head impacts. In football, head injuries are rare and head impacts are common, so heading, by the balance of probability and triangulating all the evidence, is the problem.
“The evidence we need to wait for is proof that it is safe to head. Until then, we have to cut it back as much as possible because it is not safe as far as I am concerned to continue at the level we have.
“At the least say, ‘Get rid of as much of it from training as possible’ and possibly start to think whether it is something so integral that we take the risk. If we do, then I think players have to be aware and possibly have to be indemnified – insured by their clubs – for the risk they are taking to care for them in the future.”
The Stiles family made the decision to donate Nobby’s brain in the immediate aftermath of his death, aged 78, in October. He had been living with dementia for more than a decade and Dr Stewart’s examination found “extensive” evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a pathology associated with head impacts. CTE has been found in three-quarters of the footballers’ brains that Dr Stewart has examined, including Stiles’s former England team-mate Jeff Astle, whose death was recorded by a coroner in 2001 as “industrial disease” as a result of heading footballs.
“Since Jeff Astle’s diagnosis there has been almost 20 years of players – men and women – playing football at risk,” said Nobby’s son, John. “Unprotected. Uninformed. Two generations of players. That’s a disgrace. That’s a scandal.
“All they do is talk and put it off when the facts are staring them in the face. They know there is a problem and they don’t want to change – that’s my opinion. They should be meeting to get some proper money together to help these footballers. There is an immediate need with players who are in the same situation as my family who are looking after people with brain damage.”
Of the suggestion that there is no definite link between heading and dementia, Stiles said: “How can they possibly say that given the findings of my father? The damage happens when they are in their 20s and the symptoms occur when they are in their late 50s and early 60s. That’s been the authorities’ way out all the way through. I don’t see any responsibility being taken.”
Stiles said that he felt “vindication but anger” that his father suffered so severely in later life and that he was in “no doubt” that heading footballs had caused his death.
Dr Stewart’s post-mortem also considered Stiles’s wider life and career.
“In Nobby’s case we heard there was not really a story of head injuries per se but there were plenty of head impacts from heading – which brings us to heading being the risk here,” said Dr Stewart.