World news – AFL footballers playing concussion roulette


It’s been quite a career. Two hundred and two games, five grand finals, one flag. Ruckman for the legendary 2000 bombers. Teammate and slide for « God », aka Gary Ablett snr, at Geelong. Binge drinker, sleigh driver and clown – John Barnes was the epitome of the athlete’s night announcer, the Larrikin Raconteur. But that was yesterday’s man, he says now.

In 2012, Barnes experienced his first epileptic seizure at the age of 42. By then he had been in his athletic retirement for 11 years. Barnes was sitting in the passenger seat of his buddy’s car and « talking shit happily » as his body held on, and his mouth began to foam. He soon passed out. His buddy thought he was dead and drove to the nearest hospital. When Barnes regained consciousness, he couldn’t remember the seizure. The seizures continue to this day, and Barnes – and his doctor – believe they are related to the accumulation of concussive and subconcussive strokes he suffered during his pedestrian career. « Look at all of the scars above my head, » he says. “I had at least 12 concussions. Broken jaws, broken noses. If you got knocked out, they put some smelling salts under your nose and sent you back there. « 

Barnes has also seen personality changes and a decline in his quality of life. He regularly suffers from confusion, headaches, amnesia and severe mood swings. » At some point after the first attack, I asked: Why am I not sleeping well? Why do I see Things? Why do things move when I look at them? Why does the picture look like it’s moving outside of the TV? Why do I forget shit? Why do I put things where they shouldn’t be? Why do I remember not what to do?

« Independence is out the window. I rely on others to bathe, shower, swim. Like a two year old. I could eat something and have a seizure and suffocate. My family must be aware of this and put their lives on hold because they have to watch me like a hawk. I am the anchor. « 

When the Australian Sports Brain Bank (ASBB) opened in March 2018, hesitant te Barnes not – he immediately promised his brain. The center was established by the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the University of Sydney to study chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a degenerative brain disease – and other pathologies that athletes suffer from repetitive head injuries. CTE, characterized by abnormal coatings of the protein tau in the brain, can only be diagnosed post mortem, and Barnes is aware of the cruelty here: definitive answers are only likely after his death.

While the mechanics of CTE are still debated the symptoms are absent. CTE consists of four phases, of which, according to a study published in the journal Brain in 2013, the most severe phase may be: « Serious loss of attention and concentration, executive dysfunction, language difficulties, explosive aggressive tendencies, paranoia, depression, gait, and visual and spatial Difficulties ”.

Researchers caution that limited data, especially in Australia, should not lead us to reckless extrapolation. Since brains are donated, there is also an inherent selection bias – the brains are not representative. While this commends our reserve, we should also note that in the past, when sports administrators said there was no evidence of a correlation between sports strokes and CTE, they didn’t say so because we weren’t looking. Now we are.

The first diagnosis of CTE in a former NFL player was made in 2005. American football has served as the avant-garde for the disease study. There have been more than a hundred positive diagnoses since then, and following a legal settlement, the league set up a compensation fund of more than $ 1 billion. In 2019, the ASBB CTE found two former rugby league players – a world first. Last year, CTE was found in the brain of Geelong legend Graham « Polly » Farmer, who suffered from dementia in his final years. Months later, CTE found it in the brain of former St. Kilda captain Danny Frawley, who took his own life in 2019 after a long public battle with depression.

« Danny was a total ripper guy, » says Barnes. “Loved by everyone. Always tell gags and have fun being around. He didn’t have the greatest abilities in the world, but he gave everything. What happened to that guy is bloody devastating. It has to reach a state where you can no longer handle it … I am happy that I am not in this mood just yet, but I give a tip that it will come. « 

In July of last year, former Richmond player Shane Tuck died of suicide. He was 38 years old. Last week ASBB announced that Tuck had also suffered from CTE. Professor Michael Buckland told The Age it is the worst example he has ever seen. « It was actually quite shocking how sick he was, » he said. « After getting the dew stains back, I didn’t need a microscope to make the diagnosis for the first time . There was so much dew that I could see it with the naked eye … These cases [Farmer, Frawley, and Tuck] span three generations of players. What is worrying is that the worst case is the youngest and the youngest too. « 

Barnes says he is grateful that the Tuck family donated the brain to Shane and that his examination of the family gave the little comfort of the answers. » It’s not good news to talk about, « says Barnes. “But there’s more credit for what we’re trying to make the AFL more accountable for.”

Ask a football fan what their favorite brand is and they’ll likely give you an example of the “Speccy,” that iconic signature of the Game in which a player uses the back of an opponent as a stepladder and gives the impression of being magically suspended in the air.

However, others suggest less glamorous brands that are spectacular not through athletic skill but through outrageous physical courage Two immediately come to mind: Jonathan Brown’s mark against Hawthorn in 2002 and Nick Riewoldt’s against Sydney two years later, both of which have players sprinting on the long flight of the Approach approaching players with their eyes never leaving the ball. Brown cleans up an opposing player; Riewoldt’s swing throws him spectacularly over another. The brands are acts of an almost disturbed engagement, the willingness to blind oneself for the heavy oncoming traffic they are heading towards.

Both brands lead to a gate; and neither from a catastrophic bruising of skulls nor from cracking of the shins or vertebrae. But it could be easy for them, and it is precisely this risk that makes brands folklore. After suffering a severe concussion, Brown retired on medical advice in 2014.

In 2008, the AFL codified the rating of players who were head hit. Since then, it has changed its concussion protocols a few times, mandating that affected players pass cognitive tests five days before their next game, not just 24 hours, last season. This week, the AFL signaled another change for the coming season – a 12-day hiatus for affected players (an increase of seven) that would force the player to miss at least one game. Barnes – and a number of neurologists – say this is still not enough. « If you have to let your brain sit for three to four weeks, you may not get guys who get 300 games, but at least they will become healthier people when they finish playing, » says Barnes.

Others However, medical professionals fear that if the prescribed spells are too long on the bench, the concussion will “go underground” as the athletes underestimate the symptoms.

Over the years, the AFL has also introduced tougher penalties for players, who ruthlessly endanger the heads of their opponents. The snare tackle and off-the-ball hits were banned, and the trick of using your head to trigger free kicks was no longer encouraged. But there’s little you can do for players who volunteer for harrowing blows unless the game is inherently tough, fast and celebrates physical courage. And concussions don’t just result from headbuttings – whiplash can cause it – and CTE doesn’t necessarily result from concussions, but also from the vast accumulation of more subtle shocks.

Two years ago, John Barnes discussed a class action lawsuit against the AFL. He was glad to be the public face of it, knowing he could soak up the criticism. « I hear, » You are trying to ruin the game. « I say, » Fuck you. You don’t live what I live Put it up your ass. You have no idea what I’m going through. « 

But the class action was never brought to court, and most lawyers don’t give it much of a chance if it ever started – the legal thresholds are too high and the presumed class of players too different in age (and therefore plays in different cultures). under different regimes) to form a unified class. Barnes tells me he would like this to be treated as a workplace safety and compensation issue.

Following the Tuck diagnosis, the AFL released a statement which states: “We take the health and safety of all current, past and future players in our game very seriously and are currently interviewing a position with the AFL that is specifically focused on our work as an industry to address the issue of the To respond to concussion. « 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on
January 30, 2021 as « A Lasting Effect ».

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