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Football’s caveman concussion policy

Football’s caveman concussion policy


Footballers are three and half times more likely to develop neurodegenerative diseases later in life. So why aren’t policy makers acting?

Why did Chris Sutton call Michael Owen a ‘caveman’ for his views on concussion?

“Leeds United say Robin Koch passed all the on-field concussion tests, despite having to be substituted twenty minutes after a collision during their game with Manchester United at Elland Road. The Professional Footballers’ Association have called for the rules to be changed on concussion substitutes, saying players are being put at risk. Brain injury charity Headway have gone a step further, saying the Premier League’s reputation is on the line.”

Sky Sports News

That incident was on the 20th of February. Many, including ex-professional Steven Warnock called for change. 

“The player’s never going to say he wants to leave the pitch. It’s not going to happen. That’s where the physios and the doctors have to be strong enough to say I’m sorry, but you’re coming off. I mean you could visibly see, he barely could walk coming off the pitch could he? And you think how do you get yourselves in that situation?”

Sky Sports News

Just three days later, Ajax defender Lisandro Martinez clashed heads with Benfica’s Nicolas Otamendi in the Champions League. 

Lisandro Martinez played on, even though he was visibly dazed by the blow.

Former striker Chris Sutton was a BT Sport pundit that day. He has campaigned tirelessly for the introduction of concussion substitutes in football.

“This is hard for me, this.”

“Chris, what can we do, what should be done?”

“OK. There’s no cure for dementia. There’s no cure for Alzheimer’s. There’s no cure for motor neurone disease. There’s no cure for Parkinson’s. You’re three and a half times more likely to die from neurodegenerative disease if you’re a footballer. These are facts.” 

BT Sport

You can hear the emotion in Chris Sutton’s voice. 

His father Mike – also a former professional footballer – died on Boxing Day 2020. He’d had dementia for ten years.

He says that during that time, his Dad’s dignity was stripped “piece by piece.”

Which is why – when Lisandro Martinez took a blow to the head and simply carried on – Chris Sutton took the opportunity to outline what he thinks needs to change in football.

“He needs to come off the pitch and he needs to go to the sanctuary of a dressing room and get checked by an independent doctor. In the meantime you have a temporary substitution who can go on and take his place so numerically you are not disadvantaged. If the player’s OK he can come back on. It’s common sense.”

BT Sport

His colleague, Michael Owen, couldn’t see the logic. 

“Why aren’t IFAB stepping up?

“Because bumps and bangs on the head…

“Hang on a minute Michael, concussion is a bump and a bang?

“No no no, not concussion but none of those…

“But how do you know that, the players are rolling around on the floor, how do you know that’s not concussion?

“So if we take your [view] to the extreme, every time they roll around holding their leg… they’ve broken their leg. Course concussion is serious, but if you had your way, they’d be coming off every two minutes.

“Michael, that is the view of a caveman.”

BT Sport

To use Chris Sutton’s own statistic, Michael Owen is three and a half times more likely to suffer from a neurodegenerative disease in the future, because he has played football. 

There have been high-profile cases of these types of illnesses among ex-footballers. Denis Law and Sir Bobby Charlton have both revealed they have dementia.

And Wycombe’s Matt Bloomfield has suffered from five concussions in the last four years. He’s 38. And was forced to retire after a ball hit him on the back of the head last August. 

“So just in conversations, a simple word that I’m in mid-flow… I’m talking and then the simple word will just evade me and I have to think a little bit harder about it. It gets quite frustrating… I get a little bit angry with myself… so little things like that…”

Sky Sports News

So why is football not taking concussion seriously?

It comes down to the International Football Association Board. It sets the laws of the game for everyone. 

At the moment, teams can only use a concussion substitute if the medical team feels the player has suffered a head injury. The decision to make a substitute can’t be reversed. 

So there’s little incentive for teams or players to treat concussion more seriously, because it potentially disadvantages them on the pitch.

IFAB were due to meet last week to discuss the concussion protocols, but warned that changes to the policy “are not foreseen.”

Until they change their position, people like Chris Sutton will have to continue their battle to highlight the dangers to footballers.

Today’s story was written by Chloe Beresford, and produced by Ella Hill.