Shortcuts / 03 August 2023

Wally Lewis and concussion

One of Australia’s greatest-ever rugby league players, Wally Lewis, is the latest sports star to speak out about a diagnosis of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) – the disease caused by repeated head knocks or concussions. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we take a look at why Wally’s diagnosis is such a big deal, what our sporting codes are doing about CTE, and what’s happening with a Senate inquiry into concussions.

Tell me about Wally Lewis.
What a legend… He was ‘King Wally’ when he played in the 1980s. He was a State of Origin hero for Queensland, and he also captained our national side, the Kangaroos.

So he’s a pretty big deal
Many Queenslanders would tell you there’s God and there’s Wally Lewis – and not necessarily in that order… 

So he developed CTE from playing league?
Yes, and last weekend’s revelation that it’s likely that Lewis has CTE was a wake-up call that even our biggest sporting heroes are at risk.

Can’t CTE only be diagnosed after death?
That’s right – it can only be definitively diagnosed after death when an autopsy has been performed and the brain closely examined. But Lewis’s neurologist Dr Rowena Mobbs – one of our top experts in the field – was able to point out the markers in his brain scans which means she’s 90% certain it’s CTE. 

What came up in the brain scans?
Mobbs compared images of Lewis’s brain with those of a normal brain. His brain has ‘valleys’, which are an indicator of brain shrinkage and brain cell loss. Alongside other cognitive tests, it means it’s very likely Lewis has CTE.

What are the symptoms?
CTE can present itself like early onset dementia, and we also know from some recent tragic cases that it can lead to quite dramatic personality changes and depression.

What cases are you talking about?
One is former AFLW player Heather Anderson – her family of donated her brain to the Sports Brain Bank after she took her own life last year at 28yo. That was the first confirmed case of CTE in a professional female athlete. And Paul Green, the former premiership-winning Cowboys coach and league player, was similarly diagnosed with CTE after he took his own life last year.

And the Senate is looking into all of this?
Yep, there’s an inquiry looking at concussions and repeated head trauma in contact sports that’s going to be handed down soon.

What are we expecting?
So Mobbs put in a submission saying she manages 180 former athletes who are showing some signs of CTE or neurological injury. She wants the federal government to mandate concussion protocols at every level.

Like what?
It would include things like not being able to return to play until you’ve been free from any symptoms for 14 days, being funded to go and see a neurologist if you get concussed, and clubs keeping public registers of even suspected concussions. It would mean players’ total exposure over a lifetime of sport is clearly recorded.

But what about the children?
In its submission, the Murdoch Children’s Institute said it wanted to be really careful about not dissuading parents from letting their kids play sports given the vast majority of concussions in kids actually happen outside of contact sports. But they want to make sure local clubs, schools and parents have the best information available to manage these risks properly.

So it’s not just about footy?
Footy’s a pretty big part of it, but the Murdoch Children’s Institute pointed to a case study of a 17yo who was hit in the back of the head with a netball – it took her 8 months to recover from the concussion. They say that it’s really that important sporting codes know how to support their players through their recovery.

What else is being done about concussions?
Sports fans would know our major codes haven’t stood still on this… For example, since 2015 there have been about 30 changes in AFL to discourage head contact. And there have been lots of new protocols in all the major codes to carefully manage players’ return if they have had a concussion.

What about former players?
It’s a good point because many players don’t start to see the effects of repeated head knocks until years after they retire. Since the Wally Lewis story broke, there’s been a lot of talk in rugby league about the code doing more to support ex-players and their families.

Like what?
Another former Kangaroo and Origin player Mark Carroll had also been diagnosed with CTE. He’s 56yo and reckons there’s an undiagnosed epidemic among former players. And he wants the NRL to be funding MRIs and brain scans for all former players of his generation so they can get help if they need it.

What about in the AFL?
There’s a class action underway in the Victorian Supreme Court right now – a group of former AFL players want compensation for the impact concussions have had on them since their careers ended. More than 60 players could be involved in the case, and they are seeking up to $1 billion dollars in compensation.

So it’s a big issue for sportspeople…
It sure is, and we can guarantee this won’t be the last time we’ll hear about CTE and concussions in sports.

Squiz recommends:

Wally Lewis’ 60 Minutes interview

Our Squiz Shortcut on concussions and sport

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