Call for AFL players to donate brains after Danny Frawley’s tragic death

A Victorian coroner wants AFL players to donate their brains for research following an investigation into the death of AFL champion Danny Frawley.

Frawley – a coach, commentator and captain of the St Kilda Football Club for nine seasons – died in a car crash in Millbrook in September 2019.

A post-mortem study of his brain found he was suffering from low stage chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – a form of brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head.

During his stellar career, Frawley sustained about 20 concussions, including losing consciousness, severe headaches and vision problems.

CTE, which can only be diagnosed after death, is linked to mood and behavioural changes and occasionally cognitive and memory impairment.

Frawley, 56, had a history of mental health issues, and in the months before his death, his mental state began deteriorating.

Danny Frawley after being hit behind the play at the MCG in 1988.Source:Herald Sun

Coroner Paresa Spanos said on Tuesday the evidence supported a finding that Frawley took his own life, and his condition before his death appeared to coincide with him stopping medication and stress.

Ms Spanos said there was no sign from the evidence which stressor caused or contributed to Frawley’s death.

However, she found CTE was a potential contributor to the depression Frawley suffered in the years leading up to it.

Ms Spanos also highlighted the lack of knowledge about how much CTE produces neurological dysfunction, partly because of an absence of research in Australia and internationally.

Wife Anita Frawley and daughters Keeley, Danielle and Chelsea at the celebration to honour the life of Danny Frawley in Melbourne in 2019. AAP Image/Stefan PostlesSource:AAP

“Like many players, Mr Frawley began his football career in his formative years and likely experienced head trauma while his brain was still developing,” she said.

“As such, it is difficult to evaluate the contribution of CTE to personality, behaviours, any cognitive deficits, or emotion over a lifetime.

“As CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem, it is impossible to establish at what point CTE began and whether this coincided with any changes in mood or behaviour.”

Ms Spanos recommended the AFL and the AFL Players Association “actively encourage” players to donate their brains after death to the Australian Sports Brain Bank for research into CTE.

“(It would) make a meaningful contribution to research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy and thereby improve the safety of future generations of footballers and others engaged in contact sports,” she said.

Ms Spanos commended the AFL for its support thus far of research into player health and safety.

The AFL Commission and AFL Players Association told the investigation that in the decades following Frawley’s career, significant changes were made to AFL guidelines to prevent and manage concussion and head injuries.

Both organisations also endorsed a joint initiative by the Australian Institute of Sport, the Australian Medical Association, the Australasian College of Sport and Exercise Physicians and Sports Medicine Australia contending more research is needed to understand CTE.

Frawley played 240 AFL games between 1984 to 1995.

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