Scottish FA set to ban children under 12 from heading a football

Ellena Cruse
If passed, it would mean that anyone under the age of 12 would be banned from heading the ball: AFP via Getty Images

Children could be banned from heading the ball in Scotland due to links between football and dementia, it was reported today.

BBC Scotland said the Scottish Football Association is set to announce the ban for under-12s later this month.

The United States have put a similar ban in place since 2015 but the SFA would become the first European country to impose such a restriction.

The decision follows the release of a report by the University of Glasgow last October, which discovered former professional footballers were three-and-a-half times more likely to die of a degenerative brain disease.

PM Boris Johnson using his head during a game of football (Getty Images)

Former Arsenal and Celtic striker John Hartson praised the Scottish FA for their stance on the subject.

He told the BBC: “Heading was a massive part of my game. Managers bought me because I could head the ball.

“There have been some serious situations where players have lost their lives and ex-legends suffering from dementia, so I’m glad the SFA are leading the rest of football and doing something about it.”

John Hartson said the heading the ball can be dangerous (PA Archive/PA Images)

A spokesperson for the Scottish FA said: “Since the publication of Football’s Influence on Lifelong Health and Dementia Risk [FIELD] study by Glasgow University into the link between football and dementia towards the end of last year, the Scottish FA has worked closely with the authors of the research – which includes the men’s national team doctor and medical advisor, Dr John MacLean – and wider football stakeholders to look at practical steps the national sport in this country can take to minimise risk in the area of head trauma.

“Given the study was undertaken using medical records from Scottish footballers, there is an additional onus on the national governing body in this country to take a responsible yet proportionate approach to the findings.

“The presidential team of Rod Petrie and Mike Mulraney, along with chief executive Ian Maxwell, were keen that all possible options were open to discussion but that any final recommendations would be taken with the guidance of the medical experts.

Heading the ball features regularly in professional matches (Getty Images)

“To that end, productive discussions have taken place within the auspices of the Scottish FA’s Professional and Non-Professional Game Boards, as well as main board, on proactive, preventative measures with particular focus on younger age groups.

“It is our intention to finalise those proposals with the relevant stakeholders in early course and further details will be announced thereafter.”

Brain injury association Headway has called for further research to be undertaken.

Chief executive of Headway Peter McCabe said in a statement: “In light of the recent study undertaken by the University of Glasgow which suggested that professional football players have a higher risk of neurodegenerative diseases than the general public, there does seem to be merits in considering such a move.

If passed, it would mean that anyone under the age of 12 would be banned from heading the ball (Getty Images for DFB)

“It is understandable that coaches and parents are looking for clarification on this issue. It is therefore vital that more research is conducted to fully understand what risks, if any, are linked to heading lightweight modern footballs.”

The statement continued: “There are questions about the age limit and speculation suggests this will be 12 years. This infers that a child of 13 years is safe to head the ball. How do we know this to be the case?

“The difficulty we face, in the absence of meaningful research relating to the modern game, is where we draw the line in terms of acceptable risk versus the rewards we know healthy exercise can bring.”

Campaigners praise the move

The Scottish Football Association’s move towards a ban for under-12s is a “positive step” according to campaigner Dawn Astle, who hopes other governing bodies follow its lead.

Ms Astle’s father, former West Brom and England striker Jeff Astle, died aged 59 in 2002 from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a type of dementia caused by brain injury. The coroner ruled that his death had been caused by the repeated trauma of heading the ball, describing it as an “industrial disease”.

“We’re very pleased, we applaud them for trying to put things in place to reduce the risk and not hanging on and hanging on and keep saying ‘more research, more research’,” she said.

Jeff Astle, who played for West Bromwich Albion, died from repeated trauma of heading the ball, (PA Archive/PA Images)

“The FIELD study is a very strong study which clearly shows the amount of risk footballers are at, so I applaud them and I hope that children in other countries – English, Welsh, whatever – mean as much to our specific FAs as clearly Scottish children do to theirs.

“It’s a very positive step to reduce the risk and make sure their kids are OK. My dad’s dementia started at some point, didn’t it, and it’s always been my belief that it manifested in my dad – although no one was aware of it – when heading footballs as a kid.

“Children’s brains are more vulnerable because they’re still growing.”

Ex England player Steven Gerrard: Children should be able to head lighter balls

Rangers boss Steven Gerrard agrees the dementia issue needs to be tackled – but favours an alternative approach to an all-out ban for youngsters.

He said: “It’s certainly something I back in terms of the seriousness of the dementia risk. But there’s ways you can do it when it comes to the debate over banning heading totally for under 12s.

Steven Gerrard said balls could be made lighter instead of banning the move (PA Wire/PA Images)

“I used to love heading balls, probably from the age of four.

“So I wouldn’t take it away from them completely because they will be watching their heroes every day on the TV, heading and scoring goals.

“But [there are] certainly things you can help them with by making the balls smaller or lighter or doing heading in a different way without using the heavy case balls.”