Friday 20 July 2018

Keane's concussion comments anger dementia campaigners

Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane. Photo: Sportsfile
Republic of Ireland assistant manager Roy Keane. Photo: Sportsfile

Jeremy Wilson

At one very basic level, Roy Keane is, of course, right. Chess is, indeed, rather safer than football. The very obvious difference, however, was that we pretty much know and understand the risks of chess. In football, the quite startling inertia of the authorities leaves us all in various states of ignorance although, judging by the rest of Keane's comments, it seems that few contributors to this particular debate are less acquainted with the facts.

Does it really matter? Should we just accept, as Dawn Astle said to me on Friday, that "Roy Keane is Roy Keane - we listen to the experts", and move on? No. Quite apart from the upset Keane has caused some of the suffering families with his casual use of language, the overall tone of his message was potentially dangerous.

On the first point, it was no great surprise to hear Astle also describe herself as "angry and upset" at his "insensitive" comments. Not only was there the comparison to chess, but also a repeated use of the phrase "it's part of the game" and, perhaps worst of all, "knocks" to describe these sorts of injuries. Knocks? It is not pleasant to outline the reality that is facing hundreds of former players but, when one of football's more influential and usually intelligent figures speaks out so contentiously, it surely becomes necessary.

These are "knocks" that, if the suspected link between football and dementia is established, can manifest themselves several decades later into the premature disintegration of a person's brain.

For Jeff Astle, who was 54 when he first became seriously ill, it meant not knowing that he scored the winning goal in the FA Cup final. It meant ultimately dying in front of his family while he choked because his brain had forgotten how to eat. For Frank Kopel, who was diagnosed with dementia at the age of 59, it meant being unable to walk, sit or feed himself. It meant becoming incontinent, having hallucinations and tremors.

For Nobby Stiles, a legend like Keane in the Manchester United midfield, it has meant a 16-year battle with Alzheimer's that has left him largely asleep and, at 75, barely able to recognise his family.

These were certainly all brave men who, as Keane pointed out in the case of Ireland striker Kevin Doyle, who has just retired due to persistent headaches, could probably dish it out as well as take it. But when Keane says "you know yourself there is a chance you might get hurt", does he really mean getting damaged like this? Is he seriously saying that these men knew that their lives could irrevocably crumble before they reached 60?

And when people tell you that even non-footballers get dementia, it is worth pointing out that the odds of a diagnosis in the wider population between the ages of 40 and 65 are one in 1,400. We do not yet know if it is higher in football because no one has completed the research even though clear anecdotal warnings were being received at least 22 years ago.

"It does upset me and make me angry to hear someone trivialise it," said Astle. "It was insensitive. I am not fighting this campaign for me but because other people who should have been leading it - like the PFA - have not got it done. I would be neglecting what is right if I walked away from this. It is about protecting players and is not just about the past, but also the future."

In fairness to Keane, he did also agree with the proposition that research was needed and Doyle was right to retire. Yet the macho "take it or leave it" feel to his wider observations were badly misguided. As if it would be impossible to better mitigate risk at least in children's football, where young brains are still developing, if a problem was found. Or as if we could not still raise awareness and improve upon a concussion protocol in senior football that depends not on independent doctors to make a risk assessment, but often just a few seconds with club doctors who themselves admit they often feel under huge pressure to keep players on the pitch.

There also seems to be a misunderstanding of what campaigners want and an almost instinctive and irrational desire to preserve football in its exact current form, even when quite simple changes could mitigate risk. Not one campaigner is calling for a ban on heading for mature adults who are old enough to make their own decisions. What they do want is some closure, some answers, the ability for people to make informed decisions and a mature look at how football could be made safer, especially for young children.

As the neuropathologist Dr Michael Grey also stressed: "It is about risk management, but you can't understand risk if you don't do the research. I was surprised to hear what Roy Keane said. It is sad. Really, really unfortunate. I think we are seeing a cultural change but when you hear something like this, it makes you realise that we still have a long way to go."


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