'The disease is here for Australian rules football': CTE researchers want sit-down with AFL


The professor who helped diagnose Australian rules legend Graham 'Polly' Farmer with the game's first confirmed case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is eager to present his findings to the AFL and discuss what the implications are for the sport.

There are more than 500 cases worldwide of CTE, a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated head trauma - most of them from ex-players from contact sports. Farmer's instance is the first from a former VFL/AFL player, a landmark moment for the sport in its ongoing management of brain injuries.

Michael Buckland is the founder of the Australian Sports Brain Bank, run by the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in partnership with the University of Sydney.

Michael Buckland is the founder of the Australian Sports Brain Bank, run by the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in partnership with the University of Sydney.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Sydney Michael Buckland, the founder of Australian Sports Brain Bank (ASBB), detailed the findings in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, but did not confirm Farmer - who passed away last year aged 84 - was the subject and would not do so when asked by journalists on Thursday out of respect for confidentiality arrangements with the player's family.

Buckland said the discovery should not come as any surprise to the AFL, considering CTE has been prevalent in most other contact sports.

"This disease is here for Australian rules football," he said.

Buckland said more research was needed to understand the specifics of CTE relating to Australian sports, but wanted to draw attention to the regular "sub-concussive knocks" that cause it, as opposed to full-blown concussion.

We basically are operating on the smell of an oily rag at the moment, so we definitely need more funding.

Clinical Associate Professor Michael Buckland

"From what we understand from studies of American football players, the severity of CTE diagnosed is not related necessarily to the number of concussions that player had. It's actually more closely related to the years of play," he said.

"It might be hundreds a year over many years - just like smoking, it's not one cigarette that kills you, it's just that repetitive exposure. Maybe that's the conversation we need to start having. I don't have an answer but we need to have that conversation."

The co-author of the report, Associate Professor Alan Pearce of La Trobe University, said researchers were not advocating for high-scale changes to contact sport. Most sports have refined their approach to concussion management in recent years but Pearce said much more needed to be done.

"We're certainly not saying to completely change the game. We're not wanting to undo 150 cultural years of sport," Pearce said.

Graham 'Polly' Farmer, pictured in 2010.

Graham 'Polly' Farmer, pictured in 2010.Credit:Tony Ashby

"With contact sports, there is a certain element of risk, but we need to understand what that risk is so that adult players and parents of juniors understand that risk the same way we do with boxing and combat sports as well. We're finally getting the evidence to understand that."

The AFL was aware the findings would be released this week, Buckland said, but he is yet to formally discuss them with the organisation. He is also keen to draw upon the AFL and other bodies including the NRL, Rugby Australia and Football Federation Australia for funding.

"We're not funded by them at all. We basically are operating on the smell of an oily rag at the moment, so we definitely need more funding," Buckland said.

Two rugby league players have been diagnosed to have had CTE - both of them by Buckland.

Peter Moscatt, a member of the Roosters’ 1972 grand final side, was diagnosed in November following his death last August at the age of 76.

The first to be diagnosed was the great Canterbury Bulldogs player and coach Steve Folkes. Folkes died in 2018 at the age of 59 from a heart irregularity.

Moscatt was an Easts junior who made 82 first-grade appearances for the club between 1969-75 before embarking on a number of distinguished post-playing careers, including a stint as president of the Rugby League Players Association in the early 1990s. He demanded his brain be donated to the ASBB to further concussion research.

Folkes was considered one of the toughest players of his generation, making 245 first-grade appearances for Canterbury between 1978 and 1991.

The NRL now has strict protocols regarding concussions. Club doctors and concussion spotters, both on the ground and in the bunker, quickly take players from the field for a head injury assessment if they are suspected to have sustained a concussion.

However, in Folkes’ day it was a badge of honour to play on after suffering a head knock to ensure their team wasn’t left a player short. Pearce said that "cultural" inclination was still present within the AFL and at amateur levels.

"We still see players ... saying 'I can take anything, I'll run through walls', and also trying to mask some of their symptoms because of that cultural, tough athlete mentality, because that's what's been ingrained," Pearce said.

"One of the things we need to take away from this is players need to be more aware of head injuries - if they're not quite right, and they might not get picked up by the club doctor, then they need to come off the field. And at the club level where they do not have a club doctor to help them, they need to be honest with the injury."

with Adrian Proszenko