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Greg Williams a sad example of the price of playing footy

Andrew Sutherland Roar Guru

By Andrew Sutherland, Andrew Sutherland is a Roar Guru


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    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?

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    The Crowd Says (42)

    • February 25th 2013 @ 6:46am
      Fred said | February 25th 2013 @ 6:46am | ! Report

      The sporting age only really begun in 100 years or so ago, with the professional era starting about 30 years ago. In this time our favorite sports have become more and more about pushing the body after the skills have been maximised.
      It is an interesting sidenote on life that is our major football codes to be mostly affected by this. Whilst soccer fans have known for years that the high speed ball on the head, an head-on-head causing concussions have been scientifcally proven to cause irreversible damage … it is ony more recenty that followers of our most popular footbal codes have realised that the same applies to their sport just as equally, and maybe more.
      For most sports fan this is no new news. It has been hidden from the mainstream news until concrete proof has been found. What wil they do now?
      Football has already begun to clean up its act. Fans bemoaned the ridulous penalties applied for shoulder charges to the head,or sling tackles. But surely the removal of such violence from the sport is the only way to keep the sport around for many more generations to come.
      We will now have to await to see if any of our former heroes will start looking for compensation from the sports they were held so highly in.

    • February 25th 2013 @ 8:54am
      Christo the Daddyo said | February 25th 2013 @ 8:54am | ! Report

      Didn’t see the story, but it is starting to become clear that professional football is having a long-term effect of player’s brains. Hard to know what to do about it though – even with the cleaning up of the game there will always be plenty of accidental head clashes.

    • February 25th 2013 @ 9:08am
      Tigranes said | February 25th 2013 @ 9:08am | ! Report

      I hope those spruiking the virtues of the shoulder charge in rugby league watched this episode.

    • Roar Guru

      February 25th 2013 @ 9:14am
      Redb said | February 25th 2013 @ 9:14am | ! Report

      “I wonder if FitzSimons contemplated asking him if he now regrets ever playing the game?”

      It’s not just Williams but all footballers all codes. Fitzsimmons would be reflecting on his own career in rugby.

      The issue of concussion is a little like smoking for many years there was ignorance of the effects now that the dangers are becoming apparent action is being taken, but people are still free to take the risk.

      The AFL has introduced an array fo rule changes to protect the head, seems they were onto something.

      • February 25th 2013 @ 9:26am
        Fred said | February 25th 2013 @ 9:26am | ! Report

        I believe soccer was the first football code to realise the damage of repeated head collisions. The NFL followed with a more comprehensive (on pro players) and dramatic report afew years ago.
        It is amatter for all sports that contain some form of physicality. Looks like sports such as tennis and golf will become even more the sports of mothers first choice.

        • February 25th 2013 @ 9:34am
          Bondy said | February 25th 2013 @ 9:34am | ! Report

          That was in 1850 you could tackle in the sport then like they do in rugby now until the law was changed and around the same time the burroughs of London use to play with a peice of rope as their crossbar also.

          Parents fortunately know which sports to play though.

          • Roar Guru

            February 25th 2013 @ 9:37am
            Redb said | February 25th 2013 @ 9:37am | ! Report


            This issue does not deserve to descend into a code war. I’ll leave you though with the potential a ‘header’ in soccer could do to the brain.

            • February 25th 2013 @ 1:47pm
              Pogo said | February 25th 2013 @ 1:47pm | ! Report

              Bang on, the header is exactly what has been implicated for that sport, especially in the era of leather balls which got extremely heavy when wet.

              • Roar Guru

                February 25th 2013 @ 1:58pm
                Redb said | February 25th 2013 @ 1:58pm | ! Report

                Soccer need to outlaw headers.

              • February 25th 2013 @ 2:05pm
                Bondy said | February 25th 2013 @ 2:05pm | ! Report


                You’d be highly suprised nowadays with our ball I remember playing with the old orange balls plenty of panels they weren’t good but the modern ones,you’d chip us for being too soft with the new HAL balls.

              • Roar Guru

                February 25th 2013 @ 2:20pm
                Redb said | February 25th 2013 @ 2:20pm | ! Report


                Unless the soccer ball is now a baloon I’m afraid there is still considerable impact especially if the ball is headed a considerable distance in the opposite direction to which it was kicked.

                a knock in header in front of the goal or deflection might be less severe. But soccer cant escape the fact that a header is dangerous to the brain.

              • February 25th 2013 @ 2:34pm
                Brewski said | February 25th 2013 @ 2:34pm | ! Report

                I imagine continuous falcons whether intentioned or not, are not that great for the grey matter.

          • February 25th 2013 @ 4:50pm
            Fred said | February 25th 2013 @ 4:50pm | ! Report

            2004 Dissertation excerpt Don Brady, PhD, PsyD, NCSP, Licensed Psychologist:

            Although soccer is perceived as a relatively safe sport (Janda et al., 1995; Jordan et al., 1996), a review of soccer-related literature cautions that its participants are at risk of experiencing serious injury (e.g., concussion) (Barnes et al., 1998; Baroff, 1998; Brady, D., 1999; Tysvaer, 1991). In 1988, the safety and related risk aspect of soccer participation was also raised by the American Academy of Pediatrics; it was their position that soccer should be viewed as a contact or collision sport. The Academy’s policy statement also reported that similar concussion rates existed for football and soccer (Dyment et al., 1988).

            Concussion rates for college ice hockey and football, along with men’s and women’s soccer, were found to be comparable to previously documented concussion occurrences when the rate of concussions per thousand athletic exposures was analyzed. The following rates of concussions were found for each sport: ice hockey (.27); football (.25); men’s soccer (.25) and women’s soccer (.24) (Kelly& Rosenberg, 1998).

            From the website ..

            Also look at:


            • February 25th 2013 @ 6:10pm
              Bondy said | February 25th 2013 @ 6:10pm | ! Report

              Its amazing you guys have virtually come here today and concluded “Soccer” problem ” Soccer”. That was a fairly heavy interview last night,most of you guys have come here and said heading a soccer ball is dangerous for major head trauma.

              I didn’t realise or understand but he was right wasn’t he Williams you can get hit 360 degrees in afl ,it must be the only football code that that happens would that be right ?,maybe gailec football .

              Finally I dont think toughness equates to being great in relation to safety.

              • February 25th 2013 @ 6:20pm
                Fred said | February 25th 2013 @ 6:20pm | ! Report

                You literally twist everything into a negative remark about soccer.

                Im stating that soccer was the FIRST sport to recognise the problem. Something the sport should be commended about. Head trauma is a serious topic for discussion in ALL sports. I even read a report today that suggested Cheer-Leading also needs to address it.

                I dont think it matters in what direct you get hit from. If the brain makes contact with the side of the skull then some amount of damage will occur.

              • February 25th 2013 @ 6:33pm
                Ian Whitchurch said | February 25th 2013 @ 6:33pm | ! Report


                Actually, yeah, association football does have a problem.


                Now, does association football has a big a problem as, say, gridiron ? I’d say no.

                As big as australian rules or rugby league ? I’d also say no.

                But enough to keep an eye on it, and have mandatory substitution and time off after concussions ? Heck yes.

              • February 26th 2013 @ 12:30pm
                Basil C said | February 26th 2013 @ 12:30pm | ! Report

                There was a West bromwich Albion striker who sued the FA in the 80s after he was diagnosed witha brain disorder. Cant remember his name (too many headers) but the old balls they used when they got wet were like cement. Obviously the new balls are better.

              • February 27th 2013 @ 3:11pm
                Basil C said | February 27th 2013 @ 3:11pm | ! Report

                This was the football player Jef Astle who died of a brain disorder alegedly caused by heading the wet old style balls…


            • Roar Guru

              February 27th 2013 @ 8:02pm
              Andrew Sutherland said | February 27th 2013 @ 8:02pm | ! Report

              Thanks Ian and Basil for those links:

              Interesting to read: “A reduced neuropsychological performance was found after minor head impacts in soccer, even in allegedly asymptomatic players.”

              And: “Astle’s was not the first case of a footballer’s illness or death (particularly in the form of Alzheimer’s or dementia type symptoms) being connected to heading old fashioned footballs, a notable example being the former Tottenham Hotspur captain Danny Blanchflower who died of Alzheimer’s disease in December 1993.”

              A verdict of death by industrial injury was recorded.

              • February 27th 2013 @ 9:15pm
                Bondy said | February 27th 2013 @ 9:15pm | ! Report

                Your going to lose more and more to association, the other codes would be overtly concerned also,i’d suggest a pick up of 15%.

    • Roar Guru

      February 25th 2013 @ 9:15am
      langou said | February 25th 2013 @ 9:15am | ! Report

      Makes a fool out of those who say the game has gone soft. The game is as tough as ever with the only real “softening” of the game in areas that will protect head high contact.

      • February 25th 2013 @ 4:57pm
        Fred said | February 25th 2013 @ 4:57pm | ! Report

        Hopefully we can say the violence has gone soft. But that we can equally say that the game has become more entertaining than ever (if that is even possible).

    • Roar Guru

      February 25th 2013 @ 9:24am
      Andrew Sutherland said | February 25th 2013 @ 9:24am | ! Report

      Good point Redb about FitzSimons as there was footage of him being blindsided by a French player. He actually told Williams he wouldn’t get tested for possible CTE b/c he didn’t want to know.