CTE has been discovered in the brain of the late legendary Australian Rules football player Graham 'Polly' Farmer, the first time the neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated concussions has been detected in a player from the code.
Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer, pictured in 2010. Credit:Tony Ashby
The discovery is revealed in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, in which Farmer is not identified. However, The West Australian newspaper has reported the identity of the prominent Australian Rules footballer whose case is detailed in the journal by Associate Professor Michael Buckland from the Australian Sports Brain Bank.
Associate Professor Buckland reported the player had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of 64 and died in his 80s.
According to the journal, the family reported anger and aggression issues, personality changes, depression and a deteriorating memory that accelerated in the final five years of life.
Because CTE (and for that matter, Alzheimer’s disease) can only be diagnosed by brain examination after death, its extent is unknown in Australian contact sports.
Nor is there any evidence as to what risk individual players who have been exposed to head injury, might have of developing CTE.
The Australian Sports Brain Bank discovered the evidence of the disease in Farmer's brain after he died on August 14 last year at the age of 84. Farmer is considered one of the greatest players to have played the game.
CTE – or chronic traumatic encephalopathy – is a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated blows to the head.
The discovery is a significant moment in how the AFL, and the game of Australian Rules football, continues to grapple with the issue of brain trauma to current and former players.
In a strongly worded conclusion to the paper, Buckland and his co-authors describe CTE as an “occupational health issue” for those playing collision sports.
“That (CTE) exists at all should serve as a call to action to recognise and research CTE and the very clear association with a repetitive head injury.
“Claims of a lack of demonstrated ‘causality’ are unhelpful, and arguably irrelevant when assessing a public and occupational health issue as CTE.”
The AFL recently announced it would be tightening up its return-to-play guidelines following a concussion. This season AFL players must pass concussion protocols five days before their next game, or be ruled out.
“The changes to the concussion guidelines for the 2020 AFL and AFLW seasons reflect our ongoing conservative approach in managing concussions at the elite level,” AFL number two and chief legal counsel Andrew Dillon recently told The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.
“The health and safety of all players is paramount and in recent years we have strengthened match-day protocols, changed the laws of the game to further discourage high contact, improved the identification of potential concussive incidents through video, and we continue to invest in research to better understand concussion at all levels of the game.”
Farmer was an inspiration for generations of Indigenous footballers.
Brain trauma can cause symptoms like memory loss, depression, dementia, confusion, emotional instability, anxiety and aggression.
These problems sometimes only arise years after the head trauma has stopped.
Farmer played 356 games of league football from 1952 to 1971 as a ruckman for East Perth and West Perth in the WAFL and for Geelong in the VFL in-between.
He is considered a revolutionary figure in the game because of how he played the ruck position and his use of the handball.
A landmark Journal of the American Medical Association study in 2017 revealed that from 111 National Football League deceased players’ brains, 110 of them had CTE.
The NFL has paid out more than $US500 million ($A760 million) across 2000 claims lodged by former players. The payout figure could reach $US1 billion, it is projected.
In mid-2019, CTE was found in the brains of two former Australian National Rugby League players, the first time this had happened.
Several former Australian Rules players are threatening to sue the league because of cognitive problems that they believe stem from on-field concussion.
They include Shaun Smith, John Barnes and John Platten.
Recently players such as Liam Picken, Matt Maguire and Koby Stevens have retired from the game due to the ongoing effects of concussion. St Kilda’s number one draft pick Paddy McCartin has not played since round 16, 2018 because of repeated concussions.
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