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The Wright View | Outlaw heading in schoolboy football

Published:Monday | October 2, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Tumekie Blackwood of Camperdown heads the ball over Shackiez Fuller of St Mary’s College in their ISSA-FLOW Manning Cup match played on Saturday. St Mary’s College defender Shandaye Edwards was hospitalised after collapsing during the game.

Sunday Gleaner writer, Robert Bailey, reported an incident that occurred last Saturday in a Manning Cup match between St Mary's College and Camperdown High. He reported that a St Mary's College defender, Shandaye Edwards, collapsed on the field after a collision with a Camperdown player during the game. In a post-game follow-up, Bailey reported that young Edwards was "reportedly speaking and functioning normally". I have been trying to ascertain exactly what happened during the game, but according to reports, the young footballer, in trying to collect a high ball, collided with another player and collapsed after the tackle. The player was taken to the nearby St Joseph's Hospital, where, according to the report, he was falling in and out of consciousness, necessitating transfer to the University Hospital of the West Indies for further tests.

I am positive that all Jamaicans are hoping that the tests will reveal no significant damage and that young Edwards will return to his family and school in the shortest possible time. The big issue, however, will be: when can he return to play? According to well established concussion protocols, Shandaye Edwards will be required to be symptom-free (here, read: no headaches) and be able to complete simple neurological tests before being allowed to return to the competition. In the quest to ensure that the approximately 2,620 boys involved in the Manning Cup and Dacosta Cup competitions have a thorough pre-participation evaluation, there are some schools that have had their children comprehensively examined by trained physicians and support teams that includes not only blood, urine and physical examinations, but some schools have ensured that their boys get a pre participation digital symbol substitution test (DSST), which quantifies basic brain function in the pre-injured athlete. The criteria for medical clearance to play would include another DSST, where the player's pre-participation score should be improved to confirm the player's ability to return to play.

The big question here, though, is 'What arrangements are in place to minimise brain injury in young children who play football?' Kevin Doyle, a Republic of Ireland striker who has played international matches for his country as recently as March this year, has announced his retirement from football on medical grounds. The reason: persistent headaches caused by heading the ball.


Headers almost mandatory


Football fans, and medical experts associated with the game alike, welcomed the change from leather balls. This was because it was believed that in the past when these balls were saturated with water, they became missiles, which caused concussive injuries. The new balls are much lighter and are resistant to absorbing water, thus were thought to be safer. However, these balls travel mush faster when kicked, and the present tactics that have the ball being crossed from the wings to the heads of waiting attackers (or defenders) make more headers almost mandatory. In the USA, heading the ball in football games involving children under the age of 10 is illegal.

Post-mortem evidence in the case of an English footballer, Jeff Astle, reveals that he had "dementia brought about by heading the ball". The neuropathologist who examined the brain of Jeff Astle likened his findings to the "brain of an old boxer". Astle died at the age of 59 with absolutely no memory of his epic career with English club West Bromwich Albion, where he was a hero, nicknamed by adoring fans as the 'King'. His death was caused by chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) the same disease now being actively investigated in USA and Europe. There are ongoing medical studies in New York regarding the damage to the brains of footballers who head the ball!

The relevant question for us in Jamaica is: What is being done by the Jamaica Football Federation and the Intersecondary Schools Sports Association to protect our children who play football, from primary school to the intercollegiate level? Here are my suggestions:

- Ban heading the ball in all games where the participants are 10 years or younger.

- In all games where the participants are under the age of 18, make heading the ball a foul. As an added incentive to ensure compliance, make the refs who fail to award a foul when a ball is headed be liable to legal sanctions.

These ideas need to be discussed because the world is now becoming more aware of the dangers involved in heading the ball in football. Heading is not necessary in the game of football. The game can be played without this 'skill'. Football without heading would promote possession and passing with the onus on skill and movement with the ball on the ground. Are we really interested in the health of our children at play? Are we doing enough? Can more be done? The verdict, reader, is yours.