Chris Sutton has launched a stinging criticism of football’s authorities for dragging their feet when it comes to offering financial and practical support to the families of former professionals with dementia.
Speaking on a special episode of the Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast, the former player-turned pundit and campaigner singled out the Professional Footballers’ Association for its procrastination when it comes to helping families of retired players who need round-the-clock care for the incurable, neurodegenerative disease.
In 2002, Andrew Hague, a coroner, found that the former England international Jeff Astle had died from “an industrial disease” caused by repeatedly heading footballs throughout his career. The Football Association and PFA immediately promised to prioritise a 10-year study into the links between football and dementia, the results of which have never been released.
Last year, Dr Willie Stewart, consultant neuropathologist at Glasgow’s Queen Elizabeth University hospital, and leader of the Field study research, found that footballers are three-and-a-half times more likely to die of neurodegenerative disease than age-matched members of the general population.
Stewart appeared alongside Sutton on Football Weekly, where the pair were also joined by John Stiles. The son of Nobby, a World Cup winner with England in 1966, Stiles is also campaigning to raise awareness of the link between football and dementia. One of six players from the 1966 team that started the final to have been diagnosed with the illness, his father died in October.
“I’ve been in discussions with the PFA and I keep hearing that things are going to happen,” said Sutton, whose father Mike, also a former professional footballer, has dementia and resides in a care home. “I don’t understand why they can’t be more transparent. Why is it all cloak and dagger? I don’t know. I’ve not really thought about going down the legal route with my dad but it may be something which I do think about because I know there are a lot of families out there who are thinking about this.
“All I really want is for the PFA to do the job they should be doing and to acknowledge that they have made huge mistakes with regards to dementia, and to move forward and to act with transparency right now. Not in three months, four months or six months … having meetings about meetings. These families need help right now, because these families need help to lessen the load.” The PFA was approached for comment by the Guardian.
Speaking about the effects of the disease on those who have it and their families, Sutton said that people who have not been exposed to it should be in no doubt about its devastating effect. “It’s not forgetting your fucking car keys,” he said. “It’s not forgetting your wallet, it’s not forgetting somebody’s name. It is horrific the way the degeneration affects people and those around them. If you see it for real in someone you love, dying the way my dad is dying and others have died, that would change your mind. It’s graphic but that’s the message people need to understand.”
In a wide-ranging discussion on the podcast, Sutton spoke of his guilt at encouraging his five sons to practice heading footballs before he became aware of the potential harm it might cause them in later life. He also called for the immediate introduction of temporary concussion replacements in football, a sport he claims is “in the dark ages” when it comes to facing up to the potentially disastrous consequences of head injuries.
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