The football authorities were lambasted over the sport’s dementia crisis on Tuesday during an extraordinary parliamentary session in which MPs were told that players’ chief Gordon Taylor “has blood on his hands”.
Chris Sutton, the former England and Blackburn striker, and Dawn Astle, who runs the Jeff Astle Foundation, were appearing before the digital, culture, media and sport committee and made a direct appeal for the government “to take ownership” of the scandal.
“The FA and PFA haven’t done nearly enough — they haven’t been interested because it doesn’t benefit them in any way,” said Sutton. “Gordon Taylor, who is stepping down now [as PFA chief executive], has blood on his hands. The FA and PFA have only started to act because they have been embarrassed into acting because of campaigns. They have been exposed. This meeting should have happened 20 years ago. As members of parliament, you have the power to hold football to account. Because football will continue to kick the can down the road if it’s enabled to.”
Taylor, however, responded to Sutton in a statement, saying: “During four decades at the PFA, we have always looked to help not only our current members but our approximately 50,000 former members when they have requested our support for whatever reason.
“Such support was offered personally to Chris Sutton for his father, together with an invitation to our offices to see at first hand the work done, the lobbying done, the research done, the support available, the changes to regulations and medical rules in dealing with concussion and possible short and long term consequences of repetitive heading.
“The invitation was never taken up but nevertheless, I believe we have done more than any other players union, sporting union or trade union on this issue when this is also a worldwide problem for governments and all populations, health services and neurologists alike.
“A co-ordinated approach is necessary and we will continue to lobby for that and continue to address it whilst mindful of the many beneficial effects and well-being that fitness and sport bring to our lives.”
Astle has long called for Taylor’s resignation after research following her father’s death in 2002 was delayed and then did not deliver answers over the prevalence of dementia in British football. “I believe that the study was shoved in a draw, that draw was locked and it only came out because we challenged where it was,” said Astle.
“Every slice of my dad’s brain had trauma in it. We assumed incorrectly that the inquest ruling of industrial disease would be a defining moment. In any other industry a finding like that would have earthquake-like repercussions. Not football. My dad’s death didn’t matter to them. I believe football’s privileged status of self-governing is why. They should hang their heads in shame.”
MPs were aghast when Dr Charlotte Cowie, the FA’s head of performance medicine, did not provide specific details of past funding levels into concussion and dementia research. The PFA and FA previously funded a £250,000 study by the University of Glasgow which found that former players were 3.5 times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease. The FA have also put out a call for new research and, with the Premier League, are working on a study to trial head impacts using mouthguards. These findings, suggested Cowie, will then inform heading limits in training. “Limiting the number and possibly the type is definitely the direction we need to go in,” she said.