The rugby league world has been stunned this morning after an academic study found strong evidence of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy – better known as CTE – in the brains of two former NRL players.
The news comes amidst a huge shift in global sporting awareness about the serious long-term effects of head and brain injuries.
First reported in The Daily Telegraph, a joint study between NSW Health, Sydney University’s Brain and Mind Centre, and the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital saw the donated brains of two anonymous former NRL players – who both played 150 games or more – examined for signs of the brain disease.
Associate professor Michael Buckland – who authored the study’s publication in a medical journal – said they had no doubt the signs they found were clearly CTE.
“I have not seen this sort of pathology in any other case before,” he said in a statement released to the Canberra Times.
He also added that this study proved the grim truth that “Australian collision sports players are not immune to CTE”.
Growing evidence of the seriousness of head injuries, as well as legal action from retired players overseas, has seen both the NRL and AFL adopt much stricter concussion protocols in recent seasons – a stark contrast to decades past were returning from head knocks was regarded as brave, or even necessary.
Both leagues employ strict regulations as to assessing players for concussion and determining whether they can return to the field. In many cases, the final decision is out of the club’s hands, with strong financial penalties in play if clubs fail to follow the procedures correctly.
CTE is caused by repeated concussions or head injuries and is only able to be definitively diagnosed during autopsy. Symptoms of the neurodegenerative disease – which only appear several years after the injuries – include memory and logical thinking problems, mood and behaviour swings as well as a highly increased chance of suffering dementia. Links between CTE and an increased suicide risk have also been established, but are not as clear.
The disease has gained a high profile in the sporting world after extensive in the USA found alarmingly high rates of CTE in former NFL players. Several retired players have taken legal action against the NFL this decade, accusing the league of ignoring or remaining willfully ignorant of links between concussions and long-term suffering.
Evidence of CTE was also found in the brains of former players Ray Easterling and Junior Seau, who both committed suicide in separate 2012 incidents. The families of both players are still engaged in legal battles with the NFL.
The NRL is yet to comment on the findings.