NRL concussion crisis could be as bad as NFL
American head trauma expert Chris Nowinski fears rugby league's concussion crisis could be as widespread as the NFL, warning: "The game needs to change now or face decades of regret".
Currently in Sydney to visit the Australian Sports Brain Bank, Nowinski told The Daily Telegraph it was "possible" his researchers would eventually find the same percentage of NRL players suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) as in American football.
So concerning is the situation, Nowinski warned all 16 NRL clubs should immediately remove heavy contact sessions from their pre-season training schedules - and have the rule mandated by head office.
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The Concussion Legacy Foundation CEO pointed out that Australia's new brain bank has already found CTE in all three donated brains - belonging to Canterbury back rower Steve Folkes, Roosters 1972 grand finalist Peter Moscatt and one unnamed donor.
Bank head Dr Michael Buckland has another six brains in storage while more than 200 have now been pledged by current or retired players.
And as for how widespread Nowinski expects the problem to be?
"Great question," he said. "When I first came out to Australia, there was a lot of doubt about CTE even existing in rugby league.
"But when you come out of the gate three for three, that's a sign the disease is here.
"And while we don't know the scope just yet, we need to figure it out quickly.
"Because when I got involved in CTE research in the US in 2006, it was three from three in the NFL too.
"Then four of four.
"And within 10 years, we found 110 of 111 professional NFL players we'd studied had this disease.
"So while I hope for rugby league players we don't trend in that direction, I think we need answers because it's possible."
Despite having worked at the forefront of CTE research for 13 years - and been the undeniable world figurehead for change - Nowinski revealed he had never once been approached to discuss the issue by anyone from NRL HQ.
"Although I'm no longer surprised when professional sporting leagues don't want to meet," continued the Harvard-educated author who is also guest speaker for a CTE seminar at RPA Hospital today. "But I am consistently disappointed."
Only last week, the NRL committed $250,000 to a program which, overseen by the University of Newcastle and Spaulding Research Institute at Harvard Medical School, has been dubbed the Retired Professional Rugby League Players Brain Health Study.
The code has also strengthened its concussion protocols in recent years with Brain Bunkers, sideline monitors and strong fines for those clubs who break the rules.
However Nowinski, who also played college football and wrestled in the WWE, said more needed to be done.
"Right now (in the NRL) I'm seeing conversations around concussion," he said. "But I'm not seeing conversations around reducing brain trauma.
"And I think that's a mistake.
"Something we'll regret not taking action on.
"When you look at rugby league being three from three in those (CTE) tests, I think significant change needs to be made.
"And the game needs to change now or face decades of regret."
Nowinski suggested he would immediately ban all contact sessions at NRL training sessions.
"The biggest change the NFL made to reducing CTE risk is virtually eliminating all hitting from practice," he said.
"So if NRL teams train contact twice a week, you're eliminating two-thirds of the exposure days.
"There is no bigger change you could make to the game. And it wouldn't affect the product you see on TV."