Pressure builds to ban rugby league for kids
Rugby league should be banned for children aged under 13, according to a radical overhaul of the sport designed to protect young Australians from significant brain injury.
A group of concerned medical practitioners, led by American concussion expert Chris Nowinski, is calling on organisations like the NRL and NSWRL to overhaul their approach to grassroots football.
In Sydney this week to inspect the Australian Sports Brain Bank, Nowinski said children should only start playing the code as teenagers - and even then only once a week.
His stance is supported by Associate Professor Michael Buckland, who heads the Department of Neuropathology at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.
Dr Buckland also oversees the Australian brain bank, which has diagnosed three cases of the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in deceased footballers - including Canterbury great Steve Folkes, Roosters 1972 grand finalist Peter Moscatt and a third unnamed donor.
As a result, the leading brain expert wants laws passed that prevent children playing tackle football until they become teenagers.
"I'd encourage non-contact in anyone under the age of 13," Dr Buckland said.
"Already there are legislative changes occurring in the US to take (the decision) from the hands of the football codes, and I think enough evidence exists in Australia to take similar action.
"We don't need to collect data for another generation or two … we need to shine a spotlight on what's happening now."
Nowinski, among the world's most recognised voices on concussion, agreed. He fears the prevalence of CTE in the NRL could be as widespread as American football.
"With regards to American football, the laws to ban it say you shouldn't be allowed to play until 12," he said.
"But our educational programs say don't play until at least 14 because we've now seen nearly 500 cases of CTE in American football.
"We've also just published a study revealing that when it comes to positive tests, the driving factor isn't the number of concussions, age or what level the athletes were.
"It was simply a mathematical formula: How many years of tackle football did they play. For every year a person played football, their odds of developing CTE went up by 30 per cent.
"That very clearly explained why among players with 20 years exposure nearly all had CTE, while among those with less than five years exposure nearly all did not.
"That's what has driven our movement to ban youth tackle football."
To further his point, Nowinski questioned why young Australians were banned from using gyms until 14 but allowed to "play a sport where you're hit in the head 500 times".
"Obviously the theory with the gym is that lifting weights too early has a negative impact on the development of joints, ligaments and muscles," he said
"But why are we more protective of joints than brains?
"Right now, we don't have that same level of evidence (regarding CTE) in rugby league as we do in American football.
"But in 10 years? There's a chance we might. I mean, we've already gone three for three … it's clearly a rough sport."
As for how often teenagers should be allowed play rugby league?
"If I was overseeing youth sport, I wouldn't want kids being hit in the head more than once a week," he said.
"If you're getting hit in the head multiple times a day, that's a bad day. And you shouldn't have that day more than once a week.
"Because we know the brain recovers between concussion impacts. The enemy with CTE involves inflammation, but inflammation needs time to recover."