Football Association fully aware of concussion risk for decades, High Court told

The Football Association “was always fully aware” of the risk of concussion and brain injury to players as early as the 1980s, but failed to take steps to improve safety, the High Court has been told.

Lawyers representing several former footballers and their families have said in court documents that minutes from an FA committee meeting in 1983 “indicate” that it knew of the risk posed by head injuries, “but failed to take action to reduce the risk of players to the lowest reasonable level”.

Ten former professional footballers – and the families of a further seven who have died – are suing the FA, the Football Association of Wales (FAW), the English Football League (EFL) and the sport’s law-making body, the International Football Association Board (IFAB).

They include the family of former England midfielder and 1966 World Cup winner, Norbert “Nobby” Stiles, who died in 2020 after suffering from dementia and was found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive brain condition caused by repeated blows to the head.

In the documents, seen by the PA news agency, barristers have claimed that the four governing bodies were “negligent and in breach of their duty of care” owed to the ex-players, who “suffered permanent long-term neurological injuries” as a result.

She continued: “The fact of long-term neurological complications and conditions arising from concussive and sub-concussive blows to the head in a contact sport like football was well established at all material times, and the defendants ought to have known of the same.”

A hearing in the case is expected later this year, with the court being told in January that up to 75 players could eventually be involved in the legal action against the bodies.

The court documents state that the claimants suffered injuries “due to cumulative blows to the head” received from directly heading the ball and indirectly “both in match play and in training”.

But the claimants contend that research on the link between cumulative blows to the head and permanent brain injuries had been published as early as the 1890s and reiterated in a “body of published peer-reviewed scientific studies” over more than a century.

It was also “well recognised” that “sequential sub-concussive blows” could lead to brain damage as early as the 1940s, the documents said.

Lawyers claimed that before December 1983, the FA set up a medical committee to “consider matters pertaining to players’ health and welfare”.

Minutes from the committee from a meeting on December 12 that year state that the committee discussed “the problem of head injuries and the need for some guidance to be given to referees in general on their responsibility for dealing with injuries”.

“It is unclear whether, or if so what, action was taken as a result of this conclusion”, Ms Rodway said.

Further committee meetings took place throughout the 1980s, where it concluded that a referee should stop the game and a player should be seen by a doctor or taken to hospital if they were suspected of having suffered a head injury.

But Ms Rodway said that the claimants “have found no evidence to suggest that any positive action was taken in response in order to protect players” as a result of the conclusions.

A FA spokesperson said: “We are not able to comment on ongoing legal proceedings. We continue to take a leading role in reviewing and improving the safety of our game.

“This includes investing in and supporting multiple projects in order to gain a greater understanding of this area through objective, robust and thorough research.

“We have already taken many proactive steps to review and address potential risk factors which may be associated with football whilst ongoing research continues in this area including liaising with the international governing bodies.”

An EFL spokesperson said “The EFL understands that this is an incredibly challenging and deeply difficult situation for all those people and their families who have been affected.

“As a result of ongoing proceedings, we are unable to pass substantial comment on the matter, however, it is important to acknowledge that prolonging this process any more than is necessary is completely unfair on those impacted.

“The EFL received notice of claims in December 2022. Since then, the league and our legal representatives have actively engaged in the process and have challenged the lack of progress from the claimants’ legal representative in advancing the case.

“Those delays could potentially impact further efforts by the whole game to support those in need, so we call on the relevant parties to move this forward quickly so the claims can be tested in the appropriate way.”

The FAW and IFAB have been approached for comment.

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