Following the news that the football associations in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland have banned under-12s from heading footballs in training sessions, Dr Niki Koutrou and Dr Geoff Kohe, experts in sport management and policy, have provided comment on how the head contact ban can be seen as a positive movement, yet sport organisations need to act beyond this to safeguard young people.
‘Concussion, and in the UK specifically head contact in football, have both received considerable global attention in recent years. Concerns have been informed by: the confluence of scientific advancement (particularly links posed between Dementia and loss of cognitive function later in life), increased media attention and growing public awareness about the detriments of sport, athlete advocacy, and shifting attitudes about organisational responsibilities. Notwithstanding ongoing research being undertaken to ascertain the precise effects of heading on players’ lives, debate (fortified by organisations such as the International Olympic Committee, FIFA and its affiliates, British Medical Association, and sport bodies) has gathered substantial momentum.
‘Advances have been made in establishing guidelines, research and training initiatives in attempt to improve practices and overall playing conditions. Moreover, international and national federations are progressing with specific bans on restricting head contact for youth players – of which the FA’s steps are just the latest responses within the sport.
‘While such efforts make sense, counter arguments – which have also been expressed with regards to rugby in New Zealand and Australia, and American football and ice hockey in North America – have identified that the risk and harm are minimal, and such bans represent a fundamental shift in the nature of the respective sports and detract essential aspects of the sporting experience for young people.
‘Irrespective of opinion, such debate has precipitated wider ethical, legal and political discussion in sport, and UK football specifically, about the sport ethos, ethics and duties of care. For organisations at the domestic level, the efforts to address heading in football can be situated within the wider context of strengthening and extending clubs’ and regional FA bodies’ health, safety and welfare responsibilities toward player, coach, referee and parent education. Within a framework of organisational duties of care, efforts to ban head contact can be considered needed steps to safeguard young people and create safe spaces in sport at all levels.
Yet, amongst other findings our research has established that young peoples’ voices on welfare issues remain underrepresented, which needs more investigation. Drawing on such specifics, we contend, would add value to sport organisations’ abilities (in and beyond football) to further participation imperatives and address moral and legal duties of care in meaningful ways.’
Dr Niki Koutrou is Programme Director for Sport Management and Dr Geoff Kohe is Lecturer in Sport Management and Policy at the University of Kent’s School of Sport and Exercise Science. Their recent research has investigated the grassroots football industry in South East England, in relation to stakeholder experiences and the need for better safeguarding practices toward young athletes.
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