AFL

As a coroner’s report into the untimely death of former footballer Shane Tuck acknowledges the AFL’s attempts to mitigate the risks associated with head knocks, his widow claims the league’s duty of care remains grossly inadequate. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The coroner’s findings on Shane Tuck’s ‘tortured death’

Richmond players honour former Tiger Shane Tuck, who took his own life in 2020.
Richmond players honour former Tiger Shane Tuck, who took his own life in 2020.
Credit: Ryan Pierse / Getty Images

Warning: this article includes discussion of suicide.

Shane Tuck was born on Christmas Eve 1981, into VFL/AFL lineage. His father, Michael, had played 426 games for Hawthorn – until 2016, the highest number of games by an individual. His mother, Fay, was the sister of Geelong’s Gary Ablett Sr. His father won seven premierships with Hawthorn; his famous uncle secured near-mythic status as one of the game’s best.

If professional footy seemed predestined, it was still a struggle. Shane Tuck was selected by Hawthorn in the 2000 rookie draft but was delisted after two seasons without playing a game. He toiled obscurely but well for a season in the South Australian league and caught the eye of Richmond scouts. The club selected him with its sixth pick, the 73rd overall, in the 2003 draft. Tuck was 22.

In 2004, Tuck made his AFL debut. But there were only three AFL games for him that season. In 2005, things changed. He played every game that year, and made for himself a reputation for hard, contested footy. He saw the ball and unflinchingly went for it. He wasn’t often silky, but there was a lot of heart. He was third in the team’s best and fairest that year.

Tuck was a late bloomer, but he had bloomed. He would miss few games until his retirement, in 2013, having played 173 games for the Tigers – and in that time, endeared himself to fans as being almost fanatically committed. A blood-and-guts player.

But as early as 2006, Tuck’s wife, Katherine, saw behavioural changes in him. He became obsessive about training, his fitness, his place in the team. In 2008, a GP referred him to a neurologist after he complained of dizziness and occasional forgetfulness. Brain scans appeared normal, but Katherine said his obsessive-compulsive behaviour intensified.

In 2010, three years before his retirement, Tuck was treated for depression, anxiety and heart palpitations. His wife’s concern had deepened. She would later testify that he had become alarmingly removed from his family and preoccupied with the team’s internal politics and his status within it.

They separated in 2015, but the two remained close, sharing custody of their two children. Tuck was now more forgetful, often locking himself out of the house. This was the same year that Tuck contested his first professional boxing match, in Melbourne’s Convention Centre on the undercard of a Charles Hatley/Anthony Mundine fight. Tuck was knocked unconscious in the fourth round, suffered a bruised brain and was hospitalised.

Only months later, Tuck was hospitalised again – but this time it was from the threat of self-harm. Tuck was suicidal. The next month, January 2016, he returned to the emergency department suffering pain inside his head. He fought in three more professional boxing matches, all of them in 2017. The year after, Tuck reconciled with his estranged wife. They moved in together. But from early on, Katherine would testify, she witnessed his deterioration. He was hearing voices and drinking heavily. He also felt as if his identity had dissolved – that he had only his athleticism to contribute to the world. He wanted to return to boxing.

Shane Tuck’s final two years, per the harrowing coroner’s report, were blighted by depression, anxiety, insomnia, suicide attempts and auditory hallucinations. After his hospitalisation in 2019 following an overdose of sedatives, Tuck received six courses of electroconvulsive therapy. His medication was increased, altered. He had again separated from Katherine and his community release – into the care of his parents – was conditional on a team of medics visiting him periodically.

On July 19, 2020, Tuck said goodnight to his parents. He hugged both of them and told them he loved them. This effusiveness was concerning – was he saying goodbye? His father checked on him at midnight, and then again about 3am. He found his son sleeping on both occasions. But about 8.30am, his father found his son gone from his bed. His car was still in the driveway. Michael Tuck found his son’s body in the storeroom, hanging from a rafter.

On his retirement in 2013, Shane Tuck said of his father: “He gives you the tough love at times and lets you know where things are at. He comes to most of the games and has a quiet beer. He enjoys himself and lets me know how I go. It’s good to have him around.”

 

An autopsy on Shane Tuck’s brain, which had been donated to the Australian Sports Brain Bank, revealed that he had been suffering a severe case of CTE – or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease understood to afflict those who have experienced accumulated head trauma.

In Victorian state coroner John Cain’s findings on Tuck’s death, which were released on December 11, he wrote: “A 2017 US study of over 1300 brains, including 600 former American footballers, demonstrated a very strong correlation between years of football played and risk of CTE. Those who had played fifteen seasons or more had ten times the risk of CTE than those who played for less than five years. The current literature supports the conclusion that CTE is not associated with the number of concussions but rather repetitive head trauma, including concussions and sub-concussive hits.”

While CTE can only be definitively determined post-mortem, there are “clinical features that predict with a very significant degree of sensitivity the presence of CTE in the living”. These include several that applied to Tuck: exposure to head knocks; cognitive impairment, including loss of memory; and depression, anxiety and paranoia.

The inquest was not without controversy. In 2021, Tuck’s widow was upset by what she considered to be insultingly narrow terms of inquiry – that is, that the coroner would not explore concussion protocols during Tuck’s career, with an eye to potential culpability, but would rather only examine the adequacy of current protocols. In April this year, Katherine Tuck withdrew her cooperation from the inquiry. Her lawyer explained that this was caused by her “frustration with the coroner’s decision to severely limit the scope of the investigation, and the refusal to give any consideration to the policies, guidelines, rules and/or practices of the AFL in respect of concussion and head injuries as were in place at the time of Shane Tuck’s playing career, and whether those arrangements were reasonable and proportionate to address the risk of CTE”.

Back in 2021, when Katherine Tuck’s concerns were first ventilated with the court, Cain said he was “far more interested in what the current state of play is in relation to the management of concussion and head knocks in the AFL and boxing” and that it was not his responsibility to “apportion blame”.

In this month’s findings, the coroner acknowledged the AFL’s submission that argued it had made consistent changes to concussion protocols, as well as the game’s rules and officiating, to improve safety for players’ heads. “The AFL has made more than 30 rule changes to the AFL regulations and tribunal guidelines since 2005 to assist in the deterrence of conduct causing or giving rise to the risk of concussion and other head trauma … and to both encourage and enforce change of behaviour on field.”

The AFL also said – a point accepted by the coroner – it was dutifully informed by the international Concussion in Sport Group (CISG), the members of which meet periodically at a conference to issue a consensus statement, a document to guide sports medics on matters of concussion and also to shape sporting bodies’ concussion protocols. The sixth edition of the consensus statement was released in Amsterdam last year.

Despite this, however, the coroner found room for improving the AFL’s protocols. There were 21 recommendations in all. One of those comes directly from the latest consensus statement, and it regards the quantity of high-impact contact in training sessions. Referring to the statement, the coroner acknowledged the CISG’s recommendation that “concussion prevention interventions [include] policy and rule changes that limit the number and duration of contact practices, intensity of contact in practices and strategies restricting collision time in practices”.

This was a point ratified in the inquest by Dr Robert Cantu, the medical director of a United States concussion research centre bearing his name. The recommendation draws upon the consensus view that what’s significant with CTE is the accumulation of knocks, including subconcussive ones, over years. These need not be experienced on match day. The advice would form the coroner’s first, and arguably most significant, recommendation: that “the AFL consider implementing rules and guidelines that limit the number of contact training sessions in the off season, pre-season and during the season”.

Of the inquest’s findings, and each of its recommendations, the AFL has so far said only that it would review them all carefully.

The coroner commended the AFL’s use of “concussion spotters” on match day for AFL/AFLW games, and the adoption of video monitoring of players, but suggested the strengthening of these policies. Namely, that “The AFL implement a rule whereby concussions spotters at elite AFL/W games be empowered to mandate that a player be removed from the field of play for a medical assessment based on their live and/or video review of an incident.”

Cain went further, recommending “The AFL employ independent medical practitioners to attend all elite AFL/W games to assist club doctors in the assessment of a player for a suspected or actual head injury. Whilst the decision to enter a player into concussion protocols should be a joint decision by the independent medical practitioner and the club doctor, if a situation arises whereby the club doctor and independent medical practitioner cannot agree, the opinion of the independent medical practitioner should prevail.”

The coroner thought the issue of forced retirement, a power the AFL does not currently have over contracted players, was vexed. Cain made no recommendation on this, but did accept that the AFL offered players a panel of experts with whom they could consult if they were weighing the risks of continuing their career.

Cain did find “there is more work to be done by the AFL to further its educational materials and initiatives for the broader Australian rules football community on the risks of repetitive head trauma and developing CTE” and encouraged the AFL to extend its use of new mouthguard accelerometer technology, which can monitor the quantity and force of collisions.

The AFL and Richmond Football Club will likely be pleased with the findings, and the historical narrowness of the inquiry. Tuck’s widow, a lead plaintiff in one of several class actions against the AFL, is not. “He was a professional player employed by the AFL, he died as a result of CTE, so what was the duty of care from his employer?” Katherine Tuck said in Adelaide’s The Advertiser on the day the coroner’s report was released. “What happened in Shane’s playing time? And how did it lead to his tortured death? And I guess that hasn’t really been covered.” 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 16, 2023 as "A ‘tortured death’".

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