The NRL and Football Australia have acknowledged the link between head trauma and serious neurodegenerative disease, a Senate committee has heard.
Representatives from some of the major contact sporting codes in Australia gave evidence at a hearing held on Wednesday for the Senate inquiry into concussions and repeated head trauma in contact sports.
The inquiry was established in the wake of increasing public concern, including ongoing reporting by Guardian Australia, about sporting organisations’ management of player head injuries and the large and growing body of scientific evidence showing links between repeated exposure to head injury in contact sports and the neurodegenerative disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
CTE often manifests as behavioural changes, memory loss and other cognitive impairment, mood swings, depression and anxiety. It is unable to be definitively diagnosed except postmortem by autopsy, but has been found in the brains of multiple Australian sportspeople, from amateurs to professionals.
When asked about University of Glasgow research in 2019 showing that soccer players were 3.5 times more likely than the general population to develop neurodegenerative disease, Football Australia’s chief operating officer, Mark Falvo, said the code was already taking action to “to mitigate the risk of CTE occurring in our sport”.
Those actions included minimising heading of the ball, teaching better technique and looking at training techniques that “may not involve the ball to begin with”.
The NRL chief medical officer, Sharron Flahive, said the league accepted the association between CTE and repeated head trauma, but said it didn’t know how strong the association was, the type of head trauma involved or who was more susceptible to developing it.
“But we do accept that there is an association and therefore that is why we operate with as much caution as we can,” Flahive said.
Her appearance came in the wake of moving evidence from Hayley Shaw, the daughter of late NRL player and coach Steve Folkes, who was the first Australian to be diagnosed with CTE posthumously in 2019.
Folkes’ main signs and symptoms had been loss of memory, Shaw said. “He would tell us the same story over and over again. He would introduce us to people that we’ve met many times. He kept a calendar of every single thing he had to do in his life because he knew, I think, that he would forget things.”
Shaw said her father showed signs of depression that the family put down to grief, but after his death and posthumous diagnosis, wondered if “he was battling it more than we realised”.
Shaw said her family had never been contacted by representatives of the NRL since they found out about her father’s pathology, despite its links to his playing career and the diagnosis being widely reported.
Asked if she thought the NRL was aware of her father’s diagnosis, Shaw said: “They’d be living under a rock if they weren’t.”
Shaw said the family had never wanted compensation but rather acknowledgment of what her father went through for the sport.
“Dad was involved in rugby league his whole life, 30 years at the top level,” she said. “We never wanted anything in terms of compensation. We certainly don’t want to ruin the game … It’s all about awareness for us.”
Shaw said the family had been contacted over the years by former professional players “saying how much they’re struggling and they don’t know where to go … They just don’t know what to do. We just want them to feel supported.”
Flahive said later in the hearing she had not been aware of the background to Shaw’s evidence, but said “certainly the detail of that, we’ll be looking into”.
The committee also heard from representatives of government agencies, including the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), which provides funding for medical research.
Asked how the NHMRC ensured the independence of that research, given some of it had gone to researchers with close ties to major sporting bodies, such as neurologist and accused plagiarist Paul McCrory, the NHMRC executive Alan Singh said the funding agreements bound organisations to conduct research “responsibly, ethically and with integrity”.
“We think that those sorts of issues, depending on the nature of the involvement, would be picked up through that process,” Singh said.
An influential neurologist in concussion in sport, McCrory stood down as chair of the global Concussion in Sport Group in March last year after the British Journal of Sports Medicine retracted one of his 2005 editorials, citing an “unlawful and indefensible breach of copyright” of the work of Prof Steve Haake.
At the time McCrory was quoted apologising on Retraction Watch, saying his failure to attribute Haake’s work was an error and “not deliberate or intentional”.
The BJSM has since retracted nine of McCrory’s articles and placed concerns notices on a further 74.
Reporting by Guardian Australia revealed that McCrory had directly received at least $1.5m from the NHMRC. The council’s written submission to the Senate inquiry said the statutory body had provided grants totalling $6.4m for research on sports-related concussion since 2004.