This important Scotland-based study strengthens our understanding of lifelong health outcomes in former professional footballers, in particular in the areas of dementia and neurodegenerative disease. It is crucial that all adults and children can participate in football safely and a range of actions have already been taken in Scotland, which was the first country to produce national guidance on dealing with concussion in sport. We remain in close contact with experts at the sportscotland institute of sport and the chief medical officer at the Scottish Football Association and we will work with partners, including the Professional Footballers Association Scotland, to carefully consider the study and any action that is required.
This was a robust study of 7,676 male ex-professional footballers in Scotland born before 1977. Although not assessed specifically, heading footballs is assumed to have had an impact, with 1.7 per cent of ex-footballers having died of neurodegenerative disease compared with 0.5 per cent of the general population.
Does the cabinet secretary share my view that, in banning the heading of balls by under-12s, which is likely to happen from next year, the Scottish Football Association has taken a welcome step forward, joining the United States Soccer Federation, which is currently the only organisation in the world to take that positive decision?
The survey, which included goalkeepers as well as outfield players, does not confirm whether heading footballs is to blame for the increased incidence of neurodegenerative disease among former professional footballers compared with the general population. The study talks about factors in that increased incidence; head trauma, for example, may also be a factor. Nor are its findings highlighting any unique issues with football in Scotland. It is only the start of understanding the relationship between football and neurodegenerative disease, and further research is required before we have definitive answers. However, the SFA is considering whether to reduce heading training for younger players and, although no decision has yet been taken, I agree with the member that the SFA has responded positively to this important piece of work.
The study also found that former footballers are less likely to die of other common problems, such as heart disease and some cancers, and that they live on average three and a quarter years longer than those in the general population. Does the cabinet secretary therefore agree with Dr Carol Routledge, the director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, when she says that the benefits of playing football outweigh the disadvantages and that
“good heart health is the best way to keep the brain healthy, so when played safely,” football
“is still a great way to stay mentally and physically active”?
That question highlights one of the important approaches that we need to take to what is an important study, and that is to recognise that we are talking about how football can be played safely. Mr Gibson is right to point out that the study confirmed the benefits of physical activity for other aspects of life, particularly the reduction in heart disease and some cancers. Football remains an excellent way for people to stay mentally and physically active. Many members across the chamber will have seen its value for some of our older citizens, including those suffering from dementia, through some of the work of community football trusts. There are benefits to people of all ages—boys and men, and women and girls—from participating in the game. Our role is to consider, with the stakeholders that I mentioned, how we can achieve more safety in the way in which the game is played and, in particular, how young people are engaged and trained to be football players.
Malcolm Steele is a 56-year-old Aberdonian who, four years ago, received the shock diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. He is an Aberdeen fan who played street football from the age of five or six and who wanted to play every day. He began playing in his primary school team and continued subsequently at amateur level. His advice to others with dementia is
“just to keep going, and never give up”.
How can we protect not just professional players but the many amateur players from possible neurodegenerative disorders?
That is an important point. The study looked at professional players, but many people play football outwith that purely professional role. My response is similar to the one that I gave to Mr Gibson’s first question: we need to look carefully with those key stakeholders that I mentioned at all the outcomes of the study and what more might need to be done across football playing as a whole and not just in the professional arena. We must consider any additional steps that need to be taken so that people can continue to play football and gain the enjoyment and other benefits from that physical activity but in a way that gives increased protection and safety, if that is what is required.
As well as the welcome research by the University of Glasgow, there has been significant research in the United States by the United States Soccer Federation, which Kenny Gibson alluded to, showing that soccer is the third-biggest contributor to accelerating neurological conditions, behind American football and ice hockey. Does the cabinet secretary agree that, in deciding how to approach the issue, it is important that we take into account the evidence in its entirety? In the USA, consideration is being given to banning heading footballs among those under 14.
Yes, I agree. I am grateful to Mr Gibson and Mr Whittle for their reasoned approach to this important issue. We have the University of Glasgow research as well as the international evidence, particularly from the United States. We want to find a way in which people can continue to engage in this physical activity, which has significant benefits, but in a way that increases their safety, so that the activity is preventative while also producing benefits. We need to take time to work with sportscotland’s institute of sport, the chief medical officer of the SFA, our partners in PFA Scotland and others to consider what additional steps they might sensibly take and where we in the Government can assist them in doing that.
What guidance and support could be given to physical education teachers in schools to raise awareness of the potential risk and to reinforce the important role that schools play in keeping young people fit?
Schools play a critical role in keeping young people fit. The introduction to physical activity that they gain at school stays with them, in one way or another, throughout the rest of their lives. I have to confess that my own introduction was remarkably poor and I have been working against that ever since. However, it makes a big difference for many people. As members will know, all sorts of physical activity now take place in schools. The guidance that we might give to schools at this point in relation to this study will be informed by the further work that we need to undertake with sportscotland and the other organisations that I have mentioned. However, Mary Fee is right to say that it is a critical area of work and to pick up on the point that was made earlier that, in this context, we are not talking solely about professional football players.