Let’s get the disclaimers out of the way up front. There’s no disputing that Royce Simmons is a salt-of-the-earth rugby league character loved by almost everyone, and his walk through New South Wales to raise awareness and funds for Alzheimer’s research is an indisputably worthy event.
Last Tuesday Simmons set off from his old hometown of Gooloogong, NSW, to walk to his spiritual home, Panthers Stadium in Penrith, a distance of approximately 300 kilometres. He is scheduled to arrive there on Friday and along the way is expected to raise over $500,000 for Alzheimer’s research via a series of fundraising events and publicity for his support mission, Dementia Australia.
Daily updates on a website set up for the event paint the story of an outpouring of goodwill for the 1991 grand final two-try hero and for the cause itself.
The seeds for the walk were sown in February last year, when Simmons, then aged 61, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease following a visit to an eastern suburbs neurologist. The diagnosis provided Simmons with an explanation for memory lapses he had been increasingly incurring.
Hence the idea for the walk to help shine a light on the insidious nature of the disease, particularly the plight of family members affected by the suffering of their loved ones; to bring dementia further into the public consciousness; and to help raise funds for research.
But while many of Simmons’s past teammates and adversaries have rallied around him and lent their own time and goodwill, an uneasy logic shrouds what has been deliberately left unspoken: acknowledgment of the likely cause of his brain injury.
In announcing his intention to walk, Simmons stated that the cause of his condition was “inconsequential”. In fact Simmons has remained insistent that, while he is aware that some people may try to link his dementia with concussions suffered during his rugby league career, he has been given no evidence that demonstrates the specific cause of his dementia.
A generous interpretation might be that Simmons prefers to focus on Alzheimer’s research and leave it at that. Another view is that Simmons has, for reasons of his choosing, passed up an opportunity to use his plight to help prevent other rugby league players suffering as he is.
In doing so, an opportunity to elevate the discussion around concussion in rugby league and to place pressure on the NRL to do more with respect to minimisation of brain injury has effectively been side-stepped around.
It is true that today’s science provides no absolute certainty with respect to irrevocably linking Simmons’s condition with the number of concussions he suffered during his career. But it is also true that there is a significant – and growing – body of research that demonstrates a link between concussion in collision sports, including rugby league, and deleterious outcomes for participants.
Simmons is a contemporary of Canterbury-Bankstown forward Steve Folkes, who died in 2018 aged 59. An autopsy found that Folkes was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as a result of incurring repeated head injuries during his career. Folkes’s family later confirmed that he had been suffering behavioural and memory lapse issues, not dissimilar to those of Simmons, prior to his death.
In February this year the Australian Sports Brain Bank released its first set of findings whereby over half of the brains examined post-mortem, including a majority of rugby league players, professional and amateur, exhibited CTE.
The finding led neuropathologist associate professor Michael Buckland of the University of Sydney to express a number of concerns, including a potential link to increased risk of suicide and the likelihood that the prevalence of CTE was not necessarily a result of severe one-off concussion instances but potentially related to the length of a player’s career and the accumulation of a number of smaller sub-concussive hits over that period.
For many reputable experts such as Buckland and La Trobe University’s associate professor Alan Pearce, the science is in, yet sporting organisations like the NRL continue to utilise carefully commissioned research whereby a convenient combination of the need for more time and inconclusive data allows them to kick the concussion can further and further down the road.
What is problematic now for the NRL and other organisations, like the AFL, is that the recent public discrediting of high-profile associate professor Paul McCrory, the lead author of the Concussion in Sport Group’s consensus statement, has the potential to change how concussion in sport is addressed at a global level and to call organisations like the NRL to account much sooner than anticipated.
In the meantime, the NRL can point to a continuation of last year’s refereeing and judicial crackdown, which has seen higher numbers of players sent from the field for forceful high contact to the head, as evidence that they are taking the issue seriously.
After some early hiccups, a refined system where players suspected of being concussed are removed from the field at the behest of an independent doctor has shown to be an improvement on the previous practice of relying on club doctors.
To the NRL’s credit, head of football Graham Annesley this week admonished South Sydney coach Jason Demetriou for criticising the decision of an independent doctor to remove his player Taane Milne from the field after Milne had exhibited category one concussion symptoms.
Nevertheless, high contact is still prevalent and there is inconsistency around how transgressors are dealt with. It is not yet clear that there is sufficient deterrence to support the notion that player behaviour has changed, and the NRL has made no move to open up a conversation about tackle heights and tackle technique and how changes might lessen concussion incidences.
A lack of transparency still exists around the reporting of concussion, and outside of any obvious cases, it is very difficult for anyone to determine the actual number of head injuries suffered. What is known is that players – despite observing return to play protocols – are returning to play after multiple concussions, including Cronulla forward Dale Finucane, who recently suffered his fourth heavy concussion in ten months.
For his part, Simmons is quite entitled to take a back seat with respect to forcing the NRL’s hand on head injuries. But the manner in which the topic has been decreed off-limits speaks to an entrenched culture that exists within rugby league.
Simmons is as absolute an embodiment of the type of working-man, hard-nut, laconic rugby league character as you’ll ever meet. ‘Ratting’ on the sport that provided him with years of pleasure would be unthinkable.
What it is evident is that no amount of external pressure is going to force the NRL’s hand. With the case of Newcastle Knights player James McManus against the NRL settled out of court last year and with NRL players unwilling to join a class action against their ruling body, such as a large group of AFL players have done, no immediate or imminent pressure point exists.
If there is to be any change, if there is going to be an honest and frank discussion about the type of sport rugby league is and wants to be in the future and whether the long-term health and safety of its participants is of genuine concern or not, then that change can only be led from within the game by someone of stature.
That shift is starting to occur in the UK, where a group of players has launched legal action against the Rugby Football League. The group includes ex-England great Bobbie Goulding, who at age 49 has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia.
That Goulding has spoken out where his Australian counterparts haven’t is likely due to a greater level of community awareness of the issue in the UK, a result of the work of advocacy groups like the Jeff Astle Foundation (football) and Progressive Rugby (rugby union).
By comparison to the UK, Australia is a concussion backwater, with both the NRL and AFL adept at controlling the media narrative for their respective sports.
This Friday, ahead of the Penrith versus North Queensland Cowboys match, Simmons will once again be welcomed into Panthers Stadium as a hero.
It’s no mean effort to walk 300 kilometres over consecutive days, and once all of the backslapping is done with, Simmons will no doubt be looking forward to putting his feet up and resting his aching bones.
Far be it for this writer or anyone to suggest he add another 51 kilometres on top, but it’s worth pondering what lasting outcome may have been achieved for rugby league players of the future had Simmons elected to continue past the stadium and made a beeline for NRL headquarters.
Perhaps Simmons could have swung past Ray Price’s house to pick him up for the final stretch to Moore Park? Or dropped in at Steve ‘Turvey’ Mortimer’s place as well? Both fine men, like Simmons, heroes of the game, also suffering the debilitating effects as a result of repeated head injuries from playing rugby league.
The paradox is confusing. Go all-out to help sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia but keep mum on how best to address factors that may have contributed to or hastened the condition in the first place? It defies logic.
There is another paradox. To play rugby league at this level takes extraordinary courage and bravery. Simmons is without question a courageous man and a bona fide hero of the game. By comparison, to lead a discussion on concussion or brain injury in rugby league should be a snack.
Simmons’s walk is worthy and the money raised will no doubt be put to good use. But watch this weekend, as young men go out onto the field and continue to knock each other out, and wonder if this walk couldn’t have been so much more.