Concussion Football PR

Member Insights: How is sport battling against dementia

May 11, 2023

In this Member Insight piece, David Alexander MD Calacus PR, looks into the public relations story behind sport’s battle with dementia.

So much has been written in recent years about the risks of brain injury caused by rugby and latterly by football.

A number of high profile deaths has prompted concerns about the long-term health of footballers who head the ball regularly.

Former England and West Bromwich Albion and England striker, Jeff Astle, died of dementia in 2002, aged just 59 with a coroner ruling that he was killed by his work as a footballer having scored a large number of headed goals.

Since then, a number of former footballers have been diagnosed with, or died of, dementia, and many of them have had that diagnosis linked to their careers.

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Former Leeds and England defender Jack Charlton died in 2020 while Nobby Stiles died in 2020 and Ray Wilson in 2018 – all suffering from dementia. Jack’s brother, Manchester United legend Sir Bobby Charlton, is also a sufferer.

No wonder a group of former football, rugby league and rugby union players have been taking legal action claiming they suffered brain injuries playing their respective sports including relatives of Stiles.

Some research undertaken by the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, published in the Lancet Public Health journal, found that footballers are 50% more likely to develop dementia than the rest of the population.

Its research found that 8.3 per cent of outfield footballers were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, compared to 5.1 per cent of the control group.

The study compared the health records of 6,000 elite footballers and more than 56,000 non-footballers between 1924 and 2019 and suggested that outfield footballers were 50 per cent more likely to develop dementia than the rest of the population.

The data shows concerning trends, so it is no surprise that in England, the Football Association is trialling banning children under 12 from heading the ball in certain grassroots competitions and leagues. If successful, it will apply to the International Football Association Board for a law change to remove heading for under-12s altogether.

Brain injury charity Headway criticised UEFA  for not allowing concussion substitutes in the Women’s Champions League after Arsenal and England’s Beth Mead suffered a head injury against Ajax.

Luke Griggs, Headway’s chief executive, said: “It is important that football is willing to evolve as our understanding of the long-term implications of repeated sub-concussive impacts increases.

“We know enough now to make balanced, sensible adjustments to limit exposure to head impacts.” This includes “limiting of heading practice drills for adults, and complete bans on children heading the ball as they move through key stages in their physical and neurological development,” he added.

Perhaps, then, the official charity partnership between England’s Football Association and dementia charity The Alzheimer’s Society is a natural fit, with recent activity around the England Lionesses’ match against Australia to raise awareness and funds for dementia research and support by encouraging fans to donate and share their memories.

ESG (environmental, social, and governance) is fundamentally important for every organisation – whether they are in governance or business in sport or beyond.

According to Deloitte, “The core values of the generation are reflected in their prioritising social activism more than previous generations and in the importance they place on working at organizations whose values align with their own, with 77% of respondents saying that it’s important. Gen Z no longer forms opinions of a company solely based on the quality of their products/services but also now on their ethics, practices and social impact. 

“To win the hearts of Gen Z, companies and employers will need to highlight their efforts to be good global citizens. While focusing on the quality of the goods/services you provide is still important, a company’s ethics are more important than ever. Moreover, actions speak more loudly than words.”

An estimated 850,000 people live with dementia in the UK (the writer also lost his Mum to dementia a few years ago), which is likely to increase to above 1 million by 2025.

By using the power of sport to drive positive social change, the campaign was able to create a sense of shared purpose and belonging among fans and players alike.

Most notably, players on both the England and Australia teams played without names on a third of their shirts to highlight the fact that one in three people could forget the name of their favourite player or treasured football memory.

Different players wore the nameless shirts after half-time, to further draw attention to the confusion and memory loss often experienced by those living with dementia, before being auctioned. 

Fans were encouraged to engage with the stunt using the hashtag #TheForgottenThird.

Kate Lee, Alzheimer’s Society CEO, said: “Right now, there are too many people facing dementia alone and without the right support.  With The FA’s backing and support, we can reach more people than ever before, and we can reach them sooner.

“The sport has an unrivalled ability to bring people and communities together, which is why we’re asking fans up and down the country to get behind this important cause and donate whatever they can, so no-one must face dementia alone.

“We hope by making this simple alternation with this gesture and getting both teams to show a sign of solidarity, we can put an important spotlight on just how much dementia can devastate lives.

“I hope it makes a massive impact from the stands to screens, inspiring people to donate so we can reach even more people with our life-changing support, which helps people through some of the hardest and most frightening times.”

Ahead of the game, 11-year-old Eve interviewed the Lionesses to discuss what football means to them and their experiences with dementia.

The international fixture was hosted at Brentford FC’s Gtech Community Stadium and saw the unveiling of a striking mural by sports correspondent Carrie Brown.

The large-scale art installation, designed and created by MurWalls, captured key moments of England Women’s football – with fans being encouraged to add their most unforgettable memories to the mural.

England coach Sarina Wiegman said: “Tonight was a chance for both sets of players to come together in recognition of the many people living with dementia and their families and friends who help them.

“I’m very proud to see our players again continue to use their platform to show support for important causes – I hope it inspires fans to donate and support Alzheimer’s Society’s important work.”

The social impact of the campaign, however, was significant. Over the past two seasons, the partnership has raised over £400,000, with thousands more fans, players and staff now knowing where to go to access vital dementia support.

The Alzheimer’s Society has created a sense of community and purpose around the cause, inspiring thousands of football fans to donate, share their stories, and engage with the issue of dementia in a meaningful way. 

The synergies between the Alzheimer’s Society and the Football Association make the partnership a natural fit which fans and other stakeholders can understand and get behind.

According to global media company, WPP, “While young people have always been catalysts for social change, Gen Z has the technology and skills to communicate and mobilise in digital spaces in a way in which previous generations did not.

“Demonstrating meaningful purpose and being transparent about how brands are tackling issues are key to building Gen Z engagement and loyalty. There is no longer a line between politics, societal issues and sport – brands, talent and rightsholders are expected to have a point of view about the moments that impact their audiences, or risk losing touch with them.”

It’s a further reminder to businesses and organisations in sport and beyond that contributing positively to society is summed up by a Winston Churchill quote: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”

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Photo Credit: Paul Greenwood

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