FA’s ‘frightening’ legal letter warning off Jeff Astle’s grieving widow from pursuing damages claim after inquest found that heading footballs killed him
- Former England international and West Brom star Jeff Astle died in 2002
- An inquest recorded a verdict of ‘death by industrial disease’ as he died aged 59
- The Mail on Sunday can reveal the FA sent a lawyers’ letter to his family
The FA sent a lawyers’ letter to the family of Jeff Astle, warning them off pursuing a damages claim after an inquest found that heading footballs had killed him, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
The letter, sent to Astle’s widow the year after her husband’s death, expresses no remorse or sympathy and questions the inquest verdict. Widow Laraine Astle found it so aggressive that she concluded the governing body were warning her off.
The FA’s lawyers told Mrs Astle that she had failed to carry out the necessary legal work to pursue a legal claim and insisted that the blows to the head sustained by her husband — who became seriously affected by Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) at 57 and was dead at 59 — were not necessarily caused by the game.
The FA sent a letter to the family of Jeff Astle not to pursue a damages claim into his death
‘We consider any suggestion by you of a claim to be flawed, misconceived and without foundation,’ the letter states.
The detail in the letter comes to light after a week in which a group of former rugby players became the first in UK sport to pursue damages over dementia brought on by continual blows to the head. Fundamental to the case — likely to be followed by a footballer class action if the rugby lawsuit is successful — will be whether lawyers can prove governing bodies, clubs and medics knew there was a risk when sending players into action.
The coroner in Astle’s case recorded a verdict of ‘death by industrial disease’, after a consultant neuro-pathologist at the Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham told the 2002 inquest that heading leather footballs had left ‘considerable evidence of trauma to the brain similar to that of a boxer’.
But the FA did not pursue the issue properly until 2014, after its then chairman, Greg Dyke, apologised to the family for the way they had been treated.
Addleshaw Goddard solicitors told Mrs Astle in their letter there must have been other reasons for the former West Brom striker’s dementia, but provided no scientific research to back up such a claim.
The letter states: ‘Mr Astle participated in many forms of football from childhood until his retirement from the game in every conceivable condition. He would [also] have had . . . many occasions when his head would have been hit other than when heading a ball.’
Mrs Astle found the unsigned letter so distressing that her daughter, Dawn, removed it from her house. She told The Mail on Sunday: ‘It’s a “frightening-off” letter really. A nasty letter. It shows them knowing that I don’t have anywhere near the money that they’ve got, with their millions. It wasn’t just the tone. It just added up to the fact that they didn’t want to know.’ The FA said that the letter did not reflect the modern organisation and its current approach to the issue of dementia and football.
The governing body was unwilling to disclose to The MoS this weekend how much money they have committed to research into the link between football and dementia.
Mrs Astle said the letter about her husband (pictured) was a ‘frightening-off’ by the FA
It said that it has ‘helped lead the way’ with substantial investment and support on the issue, including a grant without which Glasgow University’s Dr Willie Stewart would not have been able to carry out ground-breaking research.
Yet some ex-players’ families are concerned that the FA’s head of performance medicine, Dr Charlotte Cowie, is on a technical advisory board of a group — part funded by the NFL — whose boss, Dr Michael Turner, insists there is no conclusive link between sport and brain injury and who has described Dr Stewart as the ‘Attila the Hun of concussion’.
The website of Dr Turner’s group, the International Concussion and Head Injury Research Foundation (ICHIRF), lists Dr Cowie as a member of its technical committee. The body also received a greater level of funding from the PFA in 2019 than Dr Stewart did.
The union’s funding is baffling, given that the ICHIRF will definitely not bring football any closer to understanding the effects of heading. Dr Turner has confirmed to The MoS that their research into concussion in sport, which he says involves 880 amateur and professional sports people, will provide no specific intelligence whatsoever on football.
Many families believe that the conservative ICHIRF is a vehicle for governing bodies to stave off the risk of being sued.
The organisation insists that a direct link between football and brain disease can only be proven by the examination of hundreds of deceased players’ brains, with a similar sized control group. That would take at least 20 years.
An inquest into his 2002 death at the age of 59 found that heading footballs had killed him
Dr Judith Gates, an academic and wife of former Middlesbrough centre half Bill Gates, is spearheading the creation of an alternative independent group of academics, researchers, patients and families, to be called the Repercussion Group. Its aim is to question the research assumptions of the ICHIRF, provide more transparency to players who contribute to research and demonstrate that a lower burden of proof is needed to demonstrate the link.
MP Chris Bryant, of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Acquired Brain Injury, told The MoS he did not agree with Dr Turner’s contention that the only way to prove a link was to examine hundreds of brains.
But Dr Turner defended his group’s work. ‘People get money from all over the place but that does not make research and researchers corrupt,’ he said.
‘The problem here is proving causation. You also need to have examined 200, 300, 400 brains donated by people who never played sport and compare those to the brains of those who have. To my knowledge, there has not been a CTE study of the normal population. To produce a heading study like that is an absolute nightmare.’
He also defended his presentation style. ‘I have had a particular way of delivery over the years that gets my message over but can offend people, for which I have invariably apologised,’ he said. ‘Of course Willie is not Attila the Hun.’
The FA said Dr Cowie had accepted a request to be involved with the ICHIRF because she felt shared understanding with other experts in the field was valuable.
It said there had been no formal involvement with the group since 2016 and that she did not share any view about Dr Stewart that Dr Turner’s comments might reflect.
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