TV review: Alan Shearer puts spotlight on brain damage in soccer

Alan Shearer is tested to see if his career as a professional footballer has damaged his brain. (C) BBC - Photographer: Production
Billy Foley

Alan Shearer: Dementia, Football and Me, BBC 1, Sunday at 10.40pm

Football is unique, and not just in its popularity. It is the only sport where the head is used as an implement to hit the ball.

Head injury is a problem in other sports of course, but it's generally through clashes with other players or unintended contact with the playing surface or implements.

Hurlers wear helmets to protect them from flying hurleys and hard sliothars.

Ice hockey players wear head protection because the puck flies at up to 100mph.

American footballers wear helmets because they are very big men running at each other as fast as they can.

And that's where this story began. American footballers who suffered repeated concussion and developed brain damage successfully sued their governing body.

Then the problem was highlighted in rugby where professionalism meant that the collisions had become increasingly brutal. Concussion protocols have been put in the place but the concerns remain, particular for school age players.

Meanwhile, the only sport where head contact is an intrinsic and desired part of the game ignored it.

Soccer even managed to pretend the problem didn't exit when a coroner, in 2002, blamed repeated heading of the ball for the dementia which killed Jeff Astle, a former England international.

Some argued that it was the old leather football, which significantly increased in weight when it got wet, which was the problem.

And, anyway, scientific research has been unable to establish a link between serious brain damage and repeated heading of a football.

But the reason for that, as Alan Shearer pointed out, was that despite all the money in professional football none of the lead organisations – Fifa, Uefa, the FA or the PFA – were willing to order and pay for the research.

Shearer, a former England striker and current Match of the Day pundit, was an ideal choice to present the programme.

He is regarded as one of the best headers of the ball of his generation and said he used to hit about 100 headers a day in training.

Of his 260 Premier League goals, 20 per cent were with his head, he estimated.

The good news for him came after a battery of tests when the specialists found that his brain appeared to be undamaged.

But plenty of others are convinced that heading causes lasting damage, including the family of Jeff Astle and another England legend, Nobby Stiles.

The US football association has banned heading for under-11s and finally it seems the British authorities have been forced to order proper scientific investigations.

Well done to the BBC and Alan Shearer.


Newsnight, BBC 2, Tuesday at 10.30pm

Sometimes television can be so powerful that all other issues pale in comparison.

Gabriel Gatehouse's report on the massacre at Tula Toli on the Rohingya people of Myanmar was stunning in its clarity and power.

It included troubling interviews with survivors, an apologetic town official on the phone, video footage of the attack and excellent graphic support to explain the events with accuracy.

The viewer was left in no doubt that this was ethnic cleansing and that the Myanmar authorities, assisted by other local elements, were seeking to kill as many as possible and drive the rest of the ethnic Rohingya Muslim people across the border into Bangladesh.

Unfortunately the world now finds it is in a position where politics and leadership are discredited and a unified response to the attack on the Rohingya looks unlikely.

The best we have is Bob Geldof handing back his Freedom of Dublin in protest that Aung Aan Suu Kyi holds one as well.

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