Cases of dementia in former footballers should “undoubtedly, indisputably” be classed as an industrial injury, the Scottish Government has been told.
Labour MSP Michael Marra made the plea as he called on ministers to honour the footballing “heroes who suffer for having entertained us”.
Just a month after former Scotland and Manchester United player Denis Law revealed he has been diagnosed as suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, Holyrood debated the links between football and conditions such as these for the first time.
It comes as the Injury Time campaign is working to see dementia in former players recognised as an industrial injury.
It also wants increased research into the issue, and for a working group to be set up to consider brain injury and dementia, including the impact of this on the grassroots game.
Former Celtic striker Chris Sutton is backing the campaign, and has urged the Scottish Government to show “leadership” on the issue.
Meanwhile, when the Scottish Government takes responsibility for Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefits, Marra demanded that ministers must “classify dementia in former footballers an industrial injury”.
Speaking in Holyrood, he said: “This is not – we must be clear – a debate about concussion. The medical condition here comes from repeated brain trauma from the repeated heading of a football on the pitch and in training.
“The striker Chris Sutton – who lost his beloved footballer father to dementia – estimates his own repetitive trauma amounting to 70,000 times heading the ball across his career.
“Chris has backed this campaign and is calling on Scotland to show leadership.”
Research has already shown that former footballers have higher dementia rates than the general population.
Researchers at Glasgow University assessed the medical records of almost 7,700 men who played professional football in Scotland between 1900 and 1976 – finding that they were approximately three-and-a-half times more likely to die from neurodegenerative disease than the general population.
The study, carried out for the Football Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association in 2019, discovered that there was a five-fold increase in Alzheimer’s disease among the former players.
Marra highlighted the deaths from dementia of former Celtic captain Billy McNeill, and the former Dundee United player Frank Kopel – whose wife Amanda led a successful campaign to extend free personal care in the wake of his dementia diagnosis.
But the Labour MSP added that while some famous players had spoken publicly about their condition, many more were suffering.
Marra said: “Many families of household names choose to preserve their privacy, to maintain their public dignity when dementia has stripped them of so much.
“And then there are those whose names would not command headlines but who played, entertained, loved the game and who now suffer.”
He added: “The research undertaken by Dr Willie Stewart of the University of Glasgow is clear – a professional goalkeeper has the same chance of developing dementia as any citizen, a striker is 3.5 times more likely to suffer and a defender five times more likely.”
Public health and sport minister Maree Todd said when the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit transfers to Scottish control, ministers would consider “how best to meet people’s needs”.
She described the issue of brain injuries among former sportsmen and women as being both “important” and “complicated”.
Todd said ministers were “committed to increasing our knowledge of the possible links between neuro degenerative disease, including dementia, and sports related injury”.
Calls for a working group to be set up will be responded to in “due course”, she added.
Todd continued: “Unfortunately the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit is still currently delivered by the UK Government, and I understand that they do not currently consider dementia as an industrial injury.
“It will be delivered by the Scottish Government in the future. And when it is delivered by the Scottish Government, that will be after a full public consultation on how best to meet people’s needs.”