Former AFL great Greg Williams has again spoken out about his belief in the connection between head trauma suffered during high contact sports and degenerative brain disease, as a recent Channel 7 interview revealed. During the interview the 1995 Carlton premiership star conceded that head trauma suffered throughout his 250-game long career that ended in 1997, has left him unable to remember not only much of the games he played in, but his honeymoon and children’s names. The Age reported that Williams is suffering mood swings, increased aggression, depression and memory loss, all of which are symptoms of the disease caused by ‘repeated blows to the head’, or Chronic Trauma Encephalopathy (CTE). CTE can only be diagnosed after death, a fact of which former NFL player Dave Duerson was aware when he requested his brain be examined for signs of CTE after his death. The examination revealed he ‘indisputably’ had CTE, as reported to ESPN.com by neuropathologist Dr Mckee of the Boston University’s Centre for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy. AFL journalist Mark Robinson of the Herald Sun reported that as American institutions are leading the research into high contact sports and CTE, there will be a ‘lag time’ between what is discovered overseas and what is implemented here in Australia. Ideally in sports, the rules are based upon current knowledge regarding the health and safety of players, and new findings are reflected through adjusting the rules. In 2009, Washington and 15 other US states introduced the ‘Lystedt Law’ following a case of permanent brain injuries sustained by a high school footballer from continuing to play with a concussion. The law prohibits school students suspected of sustaining a concussion from playing football or hockey on school grounds until a doctor authorises them to do so. According to The Age, Williams hopes that exposing his harrowing experience of brain damage will help to protect all football players from the same fate. Williams made reference to the football culture of his day where a player was labelled ‘a wimp’ if he didn’t continue playing after being concussed, and said that there was no proper diagnosis and subsequent treatment. He expressed concern for not only AFL players, but for suburban and country footballers for whom adequate treatment is likely to be unavailable. Meanwhile, he suggested that today’s AFL players are ‘far more dangerous’, with collisions being even ‘more intense’ than when he was playing fifteen years ago.
As CNN reported, the issue of brain damage resulting from sport has sparked another school of thought which maintains that cognitive decline in sporting stars is the result of “genetics, alcohol, drugs, stress, bad luck” and lifestyle choices. The Sydney Morning Herald reveals that President Obama spoke out on the ostensible link between brain damage and high-impact sports recently, and there is mounting evidence of an increased risk of brain injury among athletes that experience multiple hits to the head. In the lag time between findings being integrated into sports policy, it may be vital for sporting regulatory bodies to manage the risk of brain injuries through educating players on the potential dangers of returning to play after concussion.
The Brisbane Times reported that Williams expressed outrage at the AFL’s “denial that CTE exists”, and said they and the AFL Players’ Association “need to do more”. He claims he is certain that head injuries sustained during a game will lead to ‘devastating long-term’ cognitive decline and advocates up to two months off for players who have sustained a heavy concussion. Hopefully the reported hardships of sporting champions like Williams will not be in vain, and that rules and regulations are adjusted to manage and minimise the very real risk of brain damage in contact sports.