MPs rage at the FA over lack of action on dementia going back 20 years

MPs accuse the FA of being ‘too embarrassed’ to admit how little it spends on research into brain injuries as a Parliamentary committee rages over a lack of action to protect players that has gone on for 20 years

  • Members of the DCMS committee investigating the link between sport and dementia were furious at what they see as a lack of action in football 
  • The committee chair Julian Knight accused the FA of being ‘too embarrassed’ to admit to how little it spends on research into brain injuries among players
  • MPs said they were ‘lost for words’ and ‘agog’ at slow pace of change in game  
  • Tory MP Heather Wheeler rebuked FA’s head of medical Dr Charlotte Cowie 

MPs have accused the Football Association of being ‘too embarrassed’ to admit how little it spends on research into brain injuries among players during a bruising encounter in Parliament.

The politicians became exasperated during an investigation into the link between sport and dementia, which led one member to rebuke the FA’s head of medicine, Dr Charlotte Cowie.

‘I don’t know if I could do your job, love,’ said Conservative MP Heather Wheeler.

MPs on the DCMS committee are investigating links between sport, brain injury and dementia 

The Department for Culture Media and Sport Committee had already heard explosive testimony from former striker Chris Sutton during its evidence session on Tuesday.

The ex-Blackburn Rovers forward said the Professional Footballer’s Association’s chief executive Gordon Taylor ‘had blood on his hands’ for not acting more quickly on dementia in ex-players.

Ex-striker Chris Sutton gave evidence to the committee

Brain injury campaigner Dawn Astle had told MPs more research and support for players, as well as new rules to limit heading in training, were needed now.

And in a wide-ranging inquiry, former competitors in bobsleigh and ice hockey had told the politicians how their careers were cut short and health is threatened after they suffered serious head injuries during competition.

Committee chairman, Julian Knight, finally snapped when Dr Cowie appeared unable to give him a figure for how much the governing body spent on research in this area.

‘I am staggered you have not come here today furnished with the information in terms of how much you are spending on research in the last year,’ fumed Knight. ‘I think it is unacceptable.

‘I am not blaming you as a person. I am sure you have a great deal to deal with at the FA.

Dr Charlotte Cowie, the FA head of medicine, was questioned by MPs on the committee

‘The situation is you are in front of a Parliamentary committee. We have been speaking to people today, young athletes who talk about their incontinence, who talk about the fact they are fearful for their future and they wonder whether they are going to die as a result of their sport.

DCMS committee chair Julian Knight was exasperated Dr Cowie could not give him a figure for research funding

Heather Wheeler MP wants faster action on dementia in football

‘And you are seriously telling this committee that you do not know how much the FA is spending on research into this topic in the last year?

‘I think you are too embarrassed and I cannot blame you.’

Dr Cowie remained remarkably calm as the temperature of the debate rose, explaining that the FA and Professional Footballers’ Association had funded the pivotal FIELD study into brain injury among footballers.

The work undertaken by Dr Willie Stewart, a celebrated neuropathologist at the University of Glasgow, concluded in 2019 that former players were 3.5 times more likely to die of neurodegenerative diseases than the general public. The work cost £250,000.

In addition, she said the FA had now put out a further call for research to build on the harrowing findings of the FIELD study.

‘There is genuinely no funding limit we have set on this,’ said Dr Cowie. ‘We simply want it to be the study that answers our research questions.

‘I can put my hand on my heart and say there is not an amount of money we have set for this.’

It was not just funding that had MPs exercised, however. They were evidently persuaded by the arguments put forward by Sutton and Astle, whose father Jeff died in 2002 aged 59 from brain injuries that resulted from repeated heading during his career at West Bromwich Albion.

Dawn Astle wants brain degeneration in footballers to be declared an industrial disease

The link between heading and his passing was recorded on the death certificate by the coroner.

Sutton and Astle proved a devastating partnership. They had argued not enough has been done in the last 20 years to protect footballers from brain injury.

In addition to more funding, the MPs wanted assurances about the amount of heading players are allowed to do in training, including at a professional level.

Outgoing PFA chief Gordon Taylor has been criticised for failing to handle the issue adequately

Dr Cowie explained the FA was committed to reducing the amount of heading in training in the adult and professional game.

‘We are putting in place guidelines for youth heading now,’ she said. ‘Someone in the youth group would only head the ball ten times once per week. They are the most stringent guidelines in any governing body in the world.

‘We are moving to heading guidelines in the professional game. It is contingent on a couple of things. One is a survey we are doing at the moment about how effective those guidelines are with youth coaches And we are trying to understand [the impact of different] types of headers, as well.

The DCMS want to know what actions might be taken to mitigate risks for players


Football’s rulemakers decided to introduce permanent concussion substitutes, not temporary ones.

The reasons for the move, given by the International Football Association Board, were to:

  • prevent a player sustaining another concussion during the match as multiple head-injury incidents can have very serious consequences 
  • send a strong message that, if in doubt, the player is withdrawn but there is no numerical or tactical disadvantage by prioritising the player’s welfare 
  • reduce the pressure on medical personnel to make a quick assessment

‘We want a bit more detail on that before we rule on them in the professional game.’

That was not enough for some members.

‘I am agog listening to all this,’ said MP Julie Elliott, Labour MP for Sunderland Central.

‘We do not need another survey to tell us there is a problem and people are dying and becoming seriously ill because of head injuries in sport.

‘In the workplace when anything becomes apparent things are stopped while [it is] discussed what will make the workplace safe again.

‘Somehow in sport we seem to be operating under different rules.’

Meanwhile, Heather Wheeler, Conservative MP for South Derbyshire, said she was ‘almost lost for words’.

‘We have had all this science, had all this history,’ she said. ‘ We have a death certificate from 20 years ago and we are doing another survey after another survey because we do not want to change anything because of unforeseen consequences.

‘Someone somewhere needs to jump the shark here. May be make this your life’s work, Charlotte.

‘I don’t know if I could do your job, love. I really don’t.’

Earlier, MPs had pressed Dr Cowie on the introduction of permanent concussion substitutes in football, in contrast to the temporary replacements allowed in rugby.

Dr Cowie said that there was concern temporary subs could result in players returning to the action with a concussion that has been missed. And doctors within the game had favoured permanent replacements for an 18-month trial.

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