AFL great Matthew Pavlich’s decision to donate his brain to ground-breaking research in the field of long-term effects of concussion could have an impact greater than any of the seven big knocks he suffered during his illustrious 17-year playing career.
Who is he?
The proud South Australian is a household name in Western Australia thanks to his deeds at the Fremantle Dockers since the AFL club selected him with pick four in the 1999 draft.
Pavlich retired at the end of 2016 on 353 games (a club record), kicking his 700th goal in his final match (another club record). He is Fremantle’s longest-serving captain (nine years and sixth all-time in the AFL), led its goalkicking eight times and won All-Australian selection on six occasions in five different positions, highlighting his versatility.
This year it emerged ‘Pav’ had travelled more kilometres as a Docker than any AFL player in the history of the game. His decision to support research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is bound to travel even further as a class action by former AFL players looms.
What does he do?
The 38-year-old was an AFL Players’ Association delegate from 2007, vice-president from 2012 and president from 2015-2017. The father of three also holds a Bachelor of Science and MBA and currently presents sport nightly on Nine News Perth.
In his AFLPA role, Pavlich was instrumental in pushing the league to strengthen its rules on concussions, which included mandatory post-game testing and compulsory bans on concussed players returning to the field and playing the following week.
What did he do this week?
Pavlich announced on air during Nine’s 6pm news bulletin in Perth and in a WAtoday column on Tuesday that he is strongly considering donating his brain for research into CTE at the Perron Institute to help future generations understand the long-term impacts of concussion.
His decision came after revelations from posthumous brain scans on fellow AFL players Danny Frawley on Monday and Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer in February made him reflect on his bravery on the field and the effects it may have in retirement, particularly the potential for CTE – a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated blows to the head that can manifest as depression, dementia and other illnesses.
“It is somewhat ironic that it takes so much mental preparation and dedication to be fearless, when it is the brain that ultimately suffers when a player commits a courageous act on the field,” Pavlich said.
“Modern-day players are insanely brave. They run hard and fast. They tackle more than ever. They commit to the contest more than any other generation of player before them. Given the innumerable TV camera angles and social media where everyone is a judge, there is no place to hide.”
Why does it matter?
The AFL and NRL are two of the world’s most brutal sports. Past and present players in both codes now endure a waiting game to see if they will succumb to the effects of CTE, particularly those who suffered serious knocks to the head.
In the United States, it took years for the NFL to stop trying to disprove the link between CTE and playing the sport, despite evidence from independent research suggesting otherwise. The NFL now has a multimillion-dollar compensation scheme for former players.
In June last year, the National Rugby League was rocked when clinicians from the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, NSW Health Pathology and the University of Sydney’s Brain And Mind Centre uncovered the first evidence of NRL players with CTE.
The research was conducted on the brains of two middle-aged professionals who played more than 150 top-grade rugby league games each.
The AFL on Tuesday thanked Frawley’s wife Anita and his three daughters for making the decision to donate his brain to scientific research.
“It will ensure the findings help to provide better understanding of the disease and its impact,” league chief executive Gillon McLachlan said.
The AFL has increased penalties for actions including dangerous tackles and accidental bumps to the head in the past 10 years, while institutions such as the Perron Institute and Australian Sports Brain Bank are leading research into concussion and its effects on players in contact sports.
Perron’s nationwide research, in collaboration with Perth’s Curtin University, is worth $50 million. The institute’s Dr Lindy Fitzgerald said most people recovered quickly from a concussion but “one in five will go on [to] have continuing symptoms”.
“It’s not good to have multiple concussions,” she said. “But there is no clear cut-off in terms of how many concussions will definitely lead to CTE – we just don’t know enough about that yet.”
Currently more than 100 retired AFL players are accusing the league of failing to protect them from the known dangers of repeated collisions and of resisting calls to pay for their healthcare costs.
Several feel the AFL is more focused on helping active players than retired ones.
Since the news on Farmer, one of the legends of AFL who pioneered the ruck position, 30 people from all walks of life have contacted the ASBB to donate their brains for research.
David writes about sports and lifestyle for WAtoday.