AFL footballers playing concussion roulette
It was quite the career. Two hundred and two games, five grand finals, one flag. Ruckman for the legendary 2000 Bombers. Teammate and foil for “God”, aka Gary Ablett snr, at Geelong. Binge-drinker, sledger and clown – John Barnes was the quintessential sportsman’s night speaker, the larrikin raconteur. But that was yesterday’s man, he says now.
In 2012, aged 42, Barnes experienced his first epileptic seizure. He was by then 11 years into his sporting retirement. Barnes was in the passenger seat of his mate’s car, merrily “talking shit” when his body seized, and he started frothing from the mouth. He soon lost consciousness. His mate thought he was dead and drove to the nearest hospital. When Barnes regained consciousness, he had no recollection of the seizure. The seizures continue to this day, and Barnes – and his doctor – believe they are linked to the accumulation of concussive and sub-concussive blows sustained over his footy career. “Have a look at all the scars over my head,” he says. “I had at least 12 concussions. Broken jaws, broken noses. If you got knocked out, they’d put some smelling salts under your nose and send you back out there.”
Barnes has also experienced a change in personality, and decline in his quality of life. He suffers periodic confusion, headaches, amnesia and violent mood swings. “At some point after the first seizure, I was asking: Why am I not sleeping well? Why am I seeing things? Why are things moving when I look at them? Why does the picture look like it’s moving outside the TV? Why am I forgetting shit? Why am I putting stuff where it shouldn’t be? Why am I not remembering what to do?
“Independence has gone out the window. I rely on others to bathe, shower, swim. Like a two-year-old. I could be eating something and have a seizure and choke. My family have to be mindful of it, and they’ve got their lives on hold because they have to watch me like a hawk. I’m the anchor.”
Heartbreakingly, by “anchor” he doesn’t mean his family’s rock, but its burden. Naturally, they disagree.
When the Australian Sports Brain Bank (ASBB) opened in March 2018, Barnes didn’t hesitate – he pledged his brain immediately. The centre was established by the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and Sydney University to study chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a degenerative brain disease – and other pathologies suffered by athletes because of repetitive head injuries. CTE, distinguished by abnormal coatings of the protein tau on 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 aren’t. There are four stages to CTE, the most severe of which, according to a 2013 study published in the journal Brain, can include “profound loss of attention and concentration, executive dysfunction, language difficulties, explosively aggressive tendencies, paranoia, depression, gait and visuospatial difficulties”.
Researchers warn that because of limited data – especially true in Australia – we shouldn’t extrapolate recklessly. Also, because brains are donated, there is an inherent selection bias – the brains aren’t representative. While this commends our reserve, we should also note that in the past, when sports administrators have said there’s no evidence of a correlation between sporting knocks and CTE, they’ve failed to say that’s because we haven’t been looking. Now we are.
The first diagnosis of CTE in a former NFL player was in 2005, and it is American football that has served as the vanguard for the disease’s study. There have since been more than a hundred positive diagnoses, and after a legal settlement, the league established a compensation fund of more than $US1 billion. In 2019, the ASBB found CTE in two former rugby league players – a world first. Last year, CTE was found in the brain of Geelong legend Graham “Polly” Farmer, who suffered dementia in his final years. Months later, it found CTE 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 an absolute ripper bloke,” Barnes says. “Loved by everyone. Always telling gags and enjoyable to be around. He didn’t have the greatest skills in the world, but he gave it his all. What happened to the bloke is fucking devastating. It must get to a state where you can’t handle it … I’m lucky I’m not in that frame of mind yet, but I’m tipping it’s coming.”
In July last year, former Richmond player Shane Tuck died of suicide. He was 38. Last week, the ASBB revealed Tuck had also suffered from CTE. Professor Michael Buckland told The Age it was the most severe example he’d seen. “It was actually quite shocking, the degree of disease he had,” he said. “Once I got the tau stains back, it was the first time I didn’t need a microscope to make the diagnosis. There was so much tau I could see it with the naked eye … Those cases [Farmer, Frawley and Tuck] span three generations of players. What’s disturbing is that the worst case is the most recent, and also the youngest.”
Barnes says he’s grateful the Tuck family donated Shane’s brain, and that its examination has given the family the small comfort of answers. “It’s not great news to talk about,” Barnes says, “but it gives more merit to what we’re trying to make the AFL more accountable for.”
Ask a footy fan for their favourite mark, and they’ll probably give you an example of the “speccy”, that iconic signature of the game in which a player uses an opponent’s back as a stepladder and gives the impression of being magically suspended in the air.
But others will suggest less glamorous marks, ones that are made spectacular not through athletic deftness but outrageous physical courage. Two come immediately to mind: Jonathan Brown’s mark against Hawthorn in 2002, and Nick Riewoldt’s against Sydney two years later. In both, the players are sprinting with the long flight of the kick, towards approaching players, their eyes never leaving the ball. Brown cleans up an opposing player; Riewoldt’s momentum spectacularly flips him over another. The marks are acts of an almost deranged commitment, a willingness to blind themselves to the heavy oncoming traffic they’re hurtling towards.
Both marks result in a goal; and neither in a calamitous smashing of skulls, or snapping of shins or vertebrae. But they easily could have, and it’s precisely this risk that elevates the marks into folklore. After a severe concussion, Brown retired in 2014 on medical advice.
In 2008, the AFL codified the assessment of players who’d suffered a head knock. It has altered its concussion protocols a few times since, and last season mandated that concussed players pass cognitive tests five days before the next match, rather than just 24 hours. This week, the AFL signalled another change for the forthcoming season – mandating a 12-day break for concussed players (an increase from seven), which would oblige the player to miss at least one match. Barnes – and a number of neurologists – say this still isn’t sufficient. “If you need to rest your brain for three to four weeks, you might not get blokes getting 300 games anymore, but at least they’re gonna be healthier humans when they finish playing,” Barnes says.
But other medics fear that if mandated spells on the bench become too long, it will push concussion “underground” as athletes underplay symptoms.
Over the years, the AFL has also introduced tougher penalties for players who recklessly endanger opponents’ heads. The sling tackle and off-the-ball hits have been outlawed, and the ploy of leading with your head to induce free kicks has been disincentivised. But there is little you can do for players who volunteer themselves for concussive blows, not when the game is inherently hard and fast and celebrates physical courage. And concussion doesn’t exclusively result from head knocks – experiencing whiplash can do it – and nor does CTE necessarily result from concussion, but also from the vast accumulation of subtler knocks.
Two years ago, John Barnes mooted a class action against the AFL. He was happy to be the public face of it, knowing he could soak up the criticism. “I hear, ‘You’re trying to wreck the game.’ I say, ‘Fuck you. You don’t live what I live. Stick it in your arse. You’ve got no idea what I go through.’ ”
But the class action has never been filed in court and most legal observers don’t give it much chance if it ever started – the legal thresholds are too high and the putative class of players too diverse in age (and so playing in different cultures, under different regimes) to constitute a uniform class. Barnes tells me he wants this treated as an issue of workplace safety and workers’ compensation.
Following the Tuck diagnosis, the AFL released a statement saying: “We take very seriously the health and safety of all present, past and future players in our game and are currently interviewing for a position at the AFL that will specifically focus on the work we are doing as an industry to respond to the issue of concussion.”
Unfortunately, this may come too late for many who’ve played and loved the game.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 30, 2021 as "A lasting impact".
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