It was inevitable, in light of the growing evidence that there is a link between repetitive concussion and permanent brain injury, that we would hear more from former players and their families about the awful price of playing football.
Still, the story of Greg Williams was a terrible shock.
Williams was one of the greatest, toughest, and most controversial players of all time. He was also the sort of ruthless person few people could warm to.
Last night, however, in a setting that could have proved demeaning and exploitative, he showed a type of courage that moved some to tears.
On the Channel Seven programme Sunday Night, Williams was asked by Peter FitzSimons what he could remember about his honeymoon.
With his adoring wife sitting next to him and with that direct and confronting stare he gave to his taggers – except this time he’s on the verge of crying – Williams replies, “I can’t remember my honeymoon.”
Williams can’t remember because he’s almost certainly suffering brain damage, more specifically the degenerative condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) which leads to dementia.
CTE is a result of repeated concussions and Williams – with his slow foot speed and short stature – was a major recipient of these throughout his career.
Williams’ wife also confirmed that besides the memory loss there are signs of increased aggression which is also associated with the condition.
He is a Team of the Century player, Australian Football Hall of Fame inductee and Carlton premiership player. In a palatial home financed by his lucrative career he has a framed picture of the Team of the Century, which he said he purchased because he couldn’t remember being selected.
He was only half-joking because he admits to not remembering much of his time as a player.
This was an extraordinarily courageous and generous act by Williams, to go on television and be shown forgetting the middle names of his own children and being told by a doctor that his brain is exhibiting symptoms usually associated with Parkinson’s or stroke.
And the same goes for former NRL prop Shaun Valentine, who also appeared on the programme.
Indications that the game can have a devastating long-term impact on the cognitive function of some of its players have always been there but sometimes it’s the misfortunes of the superstars that can highlight sad reality.
In a previous article I mentioned the over importance placed on the body in contact sports. Physical strength is of no consequence when your head hits something hard.
This was solemnly highlighted last night when FitzSimons “interviewed” a 69-year-old former NFL player, John Hilton, who proudly flexed his still firm muscles. Unfortunately he has the cognitive function of a pre-school child, almost certainly a result of CTE.
The condition which has been found in a large number of deceased NFL players by the pioneering Boston University study centre can only be diagnosed post-mortem.
Undoubtedly if Hilton was examined his brain would show the condition’s calling card – the build up of the dark brown coloured tau protein.
Melbourne’s Deakin University is involved in the study of the effects of brain trauma on living patients. The University’s Alan Pearce was the doctor who tested Williams and Valentine. Pearce had previously tested five former AFL players, all of who showed signs of brain damage.
What are the implications for the future of the sport and the other football codes?
The soft helmets used by some footballers are useless as they do not prevent the brain from slapping up against the inside of the skull, the cause of concussion.
Concussion guidelines have been implemented, however Alan Pearce says after one serious concussion you shouldn’t play again and the head of the Boston unit believes children shouldn’t be exposed to sports that cause repetitive brain trauma until after puberty.
As a player the worst thing for your performance, while playing, is to think about the organ you’re doing your thinking with.
When asked by FitzSimons how proud he is of his Team of the Century selection, Williams says, “This is one of the biggest things for me.”
Clearly something bigger but awful is happening to him now.
I wonder if FitzSimons contemplated asking him if he now regrets ever playing the game?