Australia’s major sporting codes are in a chronic state of denial over concussion, justifying the unjustifiable for 25 years, says Jamie Pandaram
Australia’s major sporting codes are in a chronic state of denial over concussion, justifying the unjustifiable for 25 years, says Jamie Pandaram

'Sport concussion is what smoking was to lung cancer'


This is sport's pandemic. What smoking was to lung cancer in the 1950s.

That is the verdict of leading medical and legal minds delving into concussion and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) as football codes scramble to deal with an overload of head injuries and multimillion-dollar lawsuits.

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Sports are rapidly changing rules and penalties for contact to the head, insurers are reassessing whether they will cover concussions in their new policies, and alarming research has uncovered irrefutable links between head injuries and depression, anxiety, substance abuse, violence and suicides.

Just last week, Sydney Roosters NRL player Jake Friend retired due to repeated concussions, former US Olympic bobsledder Pavle Jovanovic was found to have CTE after hanging himself in May 2020 - the first athlete in a sliding sport found to have the brain disease - and the family of former NFL player Phillip Adams claimed he'd been "messed up" from football injuries after killing five people and himself in South Carolina.

Ben Brown lies unconscious after a horror collision in 2017. Picture: AAP/Julian Smith
Ben Brown lies unconscious after a horror collision in 2017. Picture: AAP/Julian Smith

"In medical sporting terms, this is becoming a pandemic," said top lawyer Greg Griffin, who is leading a lawsuit against the AFL on behalf of the family of Shane Tuck, who took his own life in July 2020, aged just 38, and was later found to have the most severe case of CTE seen by Sydney's Brain Bank.

"I don't think we should let the sporting codes, the AFL, NRL and ARU (Rugby Australia), off the hook in terms of using their much greater resources than all of us have, to actually get the truth out there," Griffin said.

"They're in a chronic state of denial, and it's as if they have to justify their conduct for the last 25 years, which is unjustifiable.


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"What we've got is the AFL, which lives in fear of being exposed, for the manner in which - like the tobacco industry saying 'You don't get cancer from smoking cigarettes'.

"Thirty years later and countless deaths later, that's all shown to be a lie.

"It's disturbing the number of younger players, who are between 23 and 28, who are showing the early signs of damage and brain injuries."

Leading Sydney neurologist Dr Rowena Mobbs is helping a host of retired athletes deal with major brain trauma, and is frustrated by the lack of willingness by Australia's football codes to wholeheartedly engage with medical experts on this issue.

"We don't know how big this problem is," Dr Mobbs said.

"There's this group of patients who have the sorts of trouble that replicate what we've seen in the US with American football, why wouldn't we look more closely and delve into that, and not say 'There's no issue' or 'We won't know for 40 years'?




"That's not good enough for me when I've got patients rolling through the door, one or two a day.

"It's been called a potential epidemic in the literature already, we have to do this work right now.

"The youngest person I've got concern about right now is 29.

"Why can't sports grab this positive opportunity, for player brain health from kids right through. Is this not a golden PR opportunity?"

Dr Reider Lystad, a research fellow at Macquarie University and expert in head injury), delivered a sombre warning for athletes.

"I think the major concern is the risk of dying from neurodegenerative diseases," Dr Lystad said.

"I'm not talking about CTE because we have a little bit of an issue diagnosing that clinically at this stage, but other degenerative diseases like dementia and Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. The data seems to suggest that the risk of dying from those newer degenerative diseases is about three to four times higher in former professional football players.

"That's a major concern, especially considering that generally these football players are healthier than the general population, they have less cardiovascular disease, less cancer, but still, three to four times higher risk of dying from degenerative diseases."



Former Wallaby Dean Mumm suffered two major concussions and many sub-concussive hits throughout his career, and revealed there is now a new anxiety among recently retired footballers.

"There's an anxiety among professional ex-athletes, actually I won't even say professional, ex-athletes or people that have been involved with a sport that has had repetitive head trauma," Mumm said.

"Because if you sit there and you forget someone's name, are you experiencing cognitive decline? Who knows, but that anxiety builds up, it's a little bit scary."



Originally published as Sport's pandemic: Concussion what smoking was to lung cancer