The recent media focus on the incidence of dementia among football heroes, such as the World Cup winning squad of 1966, has increased public awareness of the potential for participation in sport to carry a long-term risk. While the current science cannot prove a causal link between dementia and sporting activity and demonstrates overall benefits, it is undeniable that a significant minority of people will face long-term neurological issues as a result of their participation in sport.
Each sport is left to itself to decide on correct protocols for concussion, such as when it occurs, what should happen and when participants should return to play. In grassroots sport the tracking of injuries and therefore the potential to identify long-term impacts on the brain is almost entirely lacking. Those participants rely entirely on the NHS, which does not have sufficient awareness of procedures to properly address the long-term issues. We recommend that the NHS establishes a programme to ensure that it properly records head trauma and ensures that its frontline is properly equipped to not only treat the immediate consequences of head trauma but provide the best advice and, if necessary, long-term treatment for those who suffer acquired brain injury.
Elite sportsmen and women have the advantage of more medical oversight and expertise, though that often comes with a determination to succeed and to downplay the consequences of personal injury in the pursuit of success. The drive that distinguishes world champions and gold medallists also disincentivises prioritising personal safety. Sport has a responsibility to ensure that our elite athletes are not allowed to trade their long-term health for short-term sporting success. We recommend that UK Sport pay for a medical officer, at every major sporting event, whose sole responsibility would be to ensure the safety of participants with the power to prevent athletes at risk from competing.
Professional sport, like any other business in which employees are at risk of health issues, have statutory responsibilities, but we found that these have effectively been delegated to the sporting National Governing Bodies to manage. We recommend that the Health and Safety Executive takes a more proactive engagement with injuries in sport to drive up standards. We also recommend that the Government incentivise the engagement of sport with a central fund for research to ensure greater transparency and coordination of research and resources in this area of science.
For too long the sporting landscape has been too fragmented to properly address this issue and Government has delayed taking action, deferring to the numerous sporting bodies. We recognise that sport will never be, and can never be, one hundred percent safe. However, the Government has a duty to ensure that sporting activity, at every level, bears no unnecessary risk. We recommend that it establishes a UK-wide minimum standard definition for concussion that all sports must use and adapt for their sport.