The Scottish Football Association is expected to announce a ban on children heading the ball in Scotland.
The move comes after the results of a cohort study of 7676 former professional football players were published in the New England Journal of Medicine last year. The study found that players were around 3.5 times more likely to die of neurodegenerative diseases than the general population (The Lancet, January 25, 2020).
The Scottish FA wants to lead the way in Europe (American football, rugby and soccer are already restricted in the US), officially announcing a ban on under-12s heading the ball in training later this month.
The main question is whether the aforementioned study and the American antecedents can provide direct evidence for such measures to prevent neurodegenerative diseases.
In this respect, William Stewart of the Department of Neuropathology at Queen Elizabeth University in Glasgow and one of the study authors said that “while these pathology studies are informative in many ways, they cannot provide insight into the real risks of neurodegenerative disease in these athletes” (see HERE).
But a leading American specialist in brain injury supports the Scottish FA ban. Dr. Bennet Omalu, clinical professor of Medical Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of California, found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in autopsies from former professional American football players. He thinks “it’s important to make football safer, particularly for children”. In 2015, the USA issued a similar ban in children under 12 years playing soccer.
In this regard, Andrew Maas, Professor of Neurosurgery at University Hospital Antwerp in Belgium, says that, despite the lack of direct evidence regarding heading in children, he still welcomes the move by the Scottish FA. “We need to be protective of our children. We know that young brains in children are still growing and developing and are more vulnerable. Moreover, the head of a child is smaller than that of an adult and neck muscles are weaker—the relative energy transfer by the impact of a soccer ball will, therefore, be greater.”
Considering that the child is in a period of growth and development, the Scottish restriction seems—at least to us—reasonable.