Calls for sport to ‘listen to science’ as AFL thanks Jacinda Barclay’s family for brain donation

Sport

Carlton great and mental health advocate Ken Hunter says the damage discovered in late AFLW player Jacinda Barclay’s brain shows sporting bodies “need to start listening to science” and act on already-available concussion research rather than “pacify people” with tokenistic gestures.

His comments come as the AFL acknowledged the Barclay family’s “very significant contribution to research” in becoming the first contact sportswoman in Australia to donate her brain to the Australian Sports Brain Bank, and reaffirmed its commitment “to better understanding head trauma and concussion in our game”.

Hunter, an inductee of the Australian Football Hall of Fame who won three VFL premierships and a best and fairest with the Blues, “felt incredible sadness” after learning the ex-GWS Giants star had taken her own life last October, aged 29.

Last week, Guardian Australia revealed researchers at the Brain Bank uncovered neurological degradation understood to be the consequence of repetitive head injury from contact sports. Damage of this kind has been linked to mental illness and suicidal ideation.

Hunter, 64, sustained about 20 head knocks over the course of his career, including one big one in the opening minutes of the 1982 grand final against Richmond, when he was knocked out and then came back on. He “can’t remember coming on, or anything about the game”.

In 1988, the year after claiming his third flag with Carlton, he spent a period in hospital for severe depression and in 1999 became the first AFL player to speak openly about mental health.

“My immediate thoughts were that people need to start listening to science, and to people who have been fighting for this cause for the last decade or so,” Hunter told Guardian Australia in response to the Barclay findings. “Science has proven that it does have an impact on people’s lives.

“The AFL and a lot of sports codes are saying they need to put more research into it, but all the research has really been done overseas, hasn’t it? Is it just a delaying tactic? Can’t they just be open and honest with people and just get on with addressing the issue and getting on with it, instead of delaying it any further?

“With all the evidence that’s coming out and what’s already been determined in the NFL, as to whether you can, not completely ignore it, but just put in steps to pacify people to the point that they can justify that they are doing something, to be able to keep maybe conversation or litigation at bay. The NFL have a billion-dollar fund for concussion-related cognitive problems.”

Barclay’s family have struggled to understand how her psychological state had changed so profoundly in such a short period of time, during which time she twice admitted herself into psychiatric care.

“I just felt incredible sadness,” Hunter said. “That whenever a young person takes their own life, if only they could realise that you can have a long and healthy life in front of you. But at the same time, in saying that, I can totally understand that frame of mind and going down that path because I’ve been there myself, where you don’t see any way out.”

The AFL on Monday spoke for the first time since the researchers’ findings were made public.

“The AFL thanks Jacinda Barclay’s family for their very significant contribution to research in their decision to donate Jacinda’s brain to the Australian Sports Brain Bank,” an AFL spokesperson said in a statement.

“The AFL is committed to better understanding head trauma and concussion in our game and to that end recently appointed two new heads of concussion who will, amongst other things, help guide the AFL and broader industry in research activities and investments. Jacinda was a much-loved member of the AFLW community and her family’s contribution to advancing a greater understanding of the brain is invaluable.”

Hunter acknowledges he was initially sceptical about the relationship between repeated head knocks and neurodegenerative conditions.

“When we first started to read about the NFL in the States, initially I thought it was a crock of, really. I just didn’t really understand it all,” he said. “Then more and stories started to come out about it. Someone had committed the murder and was discovered with CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy], and a lot more NFL players were discovered to have had CTE through donating their brains.”

The magnitude of the issue properly hit home for Hunter when Polly Farmer, Danny Frawley and Shane Tuck were posthumously diagnosed with the disease, and in March he made the decision to donate his brain to the Australian Sports Brain Bank.

“I wanted to know for my family if I get a Parkinson’s or dementia, is that hereditary and something they have to worry about, or is it something caused by concussions?” he said. “For a lot of players and past players, they’ve not only got to think about their health, but also the health of their family members as well.”