Football fever has once again taken over the nation, with Scotland's men's team making a long-awaited return to an international tournament. In the highly anticipated England v Scotland showdown, fans saw a header from John Stones almost go in for England, with a Lyndon Dykes strike for Scotland being denied by a goal-line header at the other end of the pitch. Such heroic headers will make it into the history books, but only last year the SFA introduced heading guidelines recommending no heading practice in children's football (i.e. primary school age) and a graduated approach in youth football (i.e. secondary school age), highlighting the potential dangers of brain injuries and concussion in contact sports.

What is the danger in heading the ball?

Playing any kind of sport can increase an individual's risks of concussions, particularly where the sport being played involves contact between players. In recent years, studies have found links between professional football and dementia risks, with a Glasgow University study revealing former professional footballers to have an approximately 3.5 times higher rate of death due to neurodegenerative disease compared to the general population, despite having lower rates of death due to other diseases. The study itself did not confirm that heading the ball was the cause of degenerative neurocognitive disease, however the SFA chose to introduce their new heading guidelines to "mitigate against any potential future risks being established". Further studies looking at the risks of dementia to elite rugby and football players, as well as further studies into the impact of heading in football, are ongoing.

Could we see claims being brought against sports regulators in Scotland?

A class action in the USA in the early 2010s saw over 4,000 former NFL players bring claims against the football league over concussions suffered during their playing careers and the league's handling of said concussions. More recently in the UK, legal action was reportedly instigated by way of a pre-action letter, with World Rugby, the Rugby Football Union and the Welsh Rugby Union finding themselves facing potential litigation from professional rugby players who had been diagnosed with early onset dementia. Reports also suggest that further legal action may soon be brought by former players against football and other sport regulators "with respect to brain injuries caused by contact sports including football".

Should these litigations go ahead, some of the key questions to be considered by the court are likely to be (i) whether the risk of brain injuries could be considered a 'known risk' at the time of the injury and (iii) whether the sport's regulatory bodies took reasonable steps to prevent this 'known risk'. The outcome of these questions is difficult to predict, at least with regard to heading in football, where conclusive evidence has not yet been provided by research to confirm the cause of the brain injuries. However, with studies ongoing, there may be further findings in the future which establish a causative link between heading and brain injuries suffered by professional players.

Regardless of any outcome to the potential claims which may be raised, the studies highlight the importance for governing bodies to be aware of the potential risks of brain injuries in football and the potential for future claims. Correct risk assessments and safety precautions can limit, but not eliminate, the risk of potential liability if a personal injury claim were to be brought and organisations should remain alert to what remains an ongoing issue for football and other contact sports.


Laura Townsend

Trainee Solicitor