By Peter FitzSimons, Sydney Morning Herald
I know it. You know it. In recent times the great leap forward in contact sport in Australia has been taking the issue of concussion seriously. After years of embracing the culture whereby even after being knocked out, a real man plays on, and backs up next week, just in the past few months there has been a tidal change.
Both rugby union and rugby league have recognised – at least at the top level – the insanity of thinking that players can keep getting hit in the head for years on end and still face no consequences. They have acknowledged the existence of research in the United States that has proved conclusively the link between repeated sporting concussions and the disease known as CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which causes early onset dementia. Rugby league has introduced a strict protocol for how players who have become concussed are to be treated and how long they have to be stood down, and rugby union, just a fortnight ago, has employed a Concussion Commissioner whose sole job is to do what is necessary to educate players and coaches to the dangers of concussion and oversee penalties for those who breach the rules.
Players themselves are taking it seriously and, if not, are having that seriousness imposed on them. Just this week we have seen two significant veteran players in the NRL and AFL – Liam Fulton of Wests Tigers and Brisbane Lions legend Jonathan Brown – both retire after repeated concussions. Their decisions were, if you’ll forgive me, no-brainers.
What some people could POSSIBLY doubt that this is the right way forward?
Last Sunday at 8am, Radio National’s fine investigative journalism show Background Briefing devoted an hour to a program called Concussion Games, where it looked at the whole issue of concussion in sport. Most stunning were quotes from a man presented as the AFL’s concussion expert, Professor Paul McCrory.
”It’s fair to say there is increasing scepticism around the world as to whether this condition actually exists or not,” Professor McCrory said, ”and that might seem very strange and provocative to say because if you listen to the media you get a very different story.”
It does seem strange, Professor, now that you mention it, and perhaps you could point to where this scepticism is arising in the world? Particularly when it is indisputable that sports around the globe are waking up to it, led by the NFL, which is in the process of settling a billion-dollar suit, that has its existence as its foundation stone!
Amazingly, another key member of the AFL’s expert concussion group, Melbourne neurosurgeon and Professor Gavin Davis, was also heard on the show, from an interview he gave JJJ earlier in the year. ”I just think that whilst I am happy [with] people having this discussion and it’s worthwhile people being aware of concussion, a few people are going a little bit over the top talking about chronic injury and chronic effects of concussion,” he said. ”We don’t have any evidence concussion causes long-term side effects in the majority of people. We suspect those claiming long-term memory problems may be due to other things such as genetics, drugs, alcohol and steroid abuse, a whole number of other things.”
Gobsmacking, I know. Seriously, take-your-breath-away stuff. In 2014!
And these are people on the ”AFL’s expert concussion group”!?!?!
Davis went on to question the integrity and expertise of Chris Nowinski, the Harvard graduate who is the driving force behind the study of CTE at Boston University, and who I interviewed in Boston for Channel Seven in January last year.
”First of all, let’s clarify who Chris Nowinski is,” Davis said. ”He is not an academic, he is a former professional wrestler, and he is the person who is going around the world spruiking for money. Secondly, the research they have done they have actually pulled back and recanted some of their publications because when it’s been peer-reviewed, it’s been found that there are some faults with their studies.”
I call bullshit! As did Background Briefing, which could find ”no evidence to support Davis’ statements”. Rather tellingly, Davis would not be interviewed for the program.
As to Nowinski, he was scathing, noting the only people who tend to deny CTE ”tend to always be associated with professional sports leagues who have some sort of financial liability”. Bingo.
To me, Nowinski was even stronger, telling me on Monday of McCrory and Davis. ”These guys are out of their minds,” he said. ”The top people for US National Institutes of Health and Department of Defence have made up their minds, not just that CTE is real but that it’s caused by head trauma.”
He pointed me to a recent statement by two world experts in the field.
Professor Daniel Perl, of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, a neuropathologist who studies brains of former NFL players. He said: ”CTE is only seen in the setting of repeated head trauma. At the end of the day, this is produced by head trauma. I’m sorry, that’s what all the research says.”
And Dr Walter Koroshetz, the deputy director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the institute that administers the NFL research, who said of the indisputable link between CTE and sports head trauma: ”I don’t think there’s any wiggle room. It’s pretty clear this is due to head injury. Whether there are other things involved, and when it starts, that’s hard to know, but I don’t think there’s any question that it’s related to head injury.”
Do Professors McCrory and Davis know better? If so, let’s hear it. But to have two AFL medical experts swimming so hard against the international medical tide on such a serious issue is an embarrassment for the code. And it is remarkably similar to the NFL “experts” who also denied the undeniable for decades.
Peter FitzSimons is exclusively managed by The Fordham Company.