AFL and Fifa must rethink concussion rules amid Paul McCrory plagiarism claims, says expert

A leading international concussion expert has said “anything Paul McCrory has touched” must be reviewed in the wake of plagiarism allegations against the Australian-based neurologist who has advised global sporting bodies on the effects of concussion.

American neuroscientist and chief executive of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, Dr Chris Nowinski, said the advice that McCrory gave to some sporting bodies that participants of collision-based sports are not necessarily at risk of developing chronic traumatic encephalopathy was damaging and wrong. He accused McCrory of “sowing doubt” about the link between head impacts in sport and CTE in a way that has substantially damaged efforts to prevent another generation from developing the brain disease.

McCrory resigned as chair of the Concussion in Sport Group in March amid earlier allegations of plagiarism in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. At the time he was quoted on Retraction Watch apologising, saying his failure to attribute third party work was an error and “ … not deliberate or intentional”.

In the wake of those allegations, his work is also being investigated by the AFL – to whom he provided research and advice for years – and he is the subject of a separate investigation by Australia’s medical regulator.

Now McCrory has been accused of 10 more cases of plagiarism, as revealed by Guardian Australia. He has not responded to repeated and detailed requests for comment.

McCrory was the lead author on four of the last five Consensus Statements on Concussion in Sport, from which Fifa and myriad other organisations draw their concussion guidelines and assessment protocols.

Nowinski told Guardian Australia that McCrory had convinced a lot of people the dangers of CTE had been overblown. “It’s obvious he’s wrong, and that will take a long time to unwind,” he said.

“Frankly, anything Paul McCrory has touched has to be reopened. Everybody he’s advised has to reopen what they’ve done, every paper he has been part of should be looked at.”

Nowinski, a former American college football player and professional wrestler who still experienced symptoms from his last concussion 19 years ago, accused McCrory of misinterpreting and accordingly misrepresenting Boston University brain injury research during his 2016 Florey Institute lecture.

During that lecture, McCrory described concussion among NFL players as “overblown” and said “the first myth [is] this idea that every hit causes some sort of brain damage; it’s patent nonsense”. He also referenced the research’s finding that 4% of NFL retirees have suffered from CTE and surmised that “the other way to look at it is 96% don’t get it”. CTE can only be definitively diagnosed at autopsy.

“Unfortunately I think Paul McCrory’s advice has done a lot of damage here. He’s been the chair of the Concussion in Sport Group, who have been sowing doubt about the connection between head impacts and CTE when it’s been accepted for 100 years in boxing.

“And when you actually look at the science – as we did – there’s no room for debate. There’s not even another alternative hypothesis … when we don’t accept this link, we are essentially sentencing another generation to developing this disease.”

CTE is a neurodegenerative condition linked to repeated head traumas. Symptoms experienced during life include cognitive impairment, impulsive behaviour, depression, suicidal thoughts, short-term memory loss and emotional instability.

In February, the Australian Sports Brain Bank reported it had found CTE lesions in the brains of 12 of the 21 donors it had examined since the bank’s inception in 2018, including three under the age of 35.

In July, Nowinski was lead-author of a study which found conclusive evidence that repetitive head impacts can cause CTE. He was in Sydney earlier this month to launch the Australian arm of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, a multinational organisation that he co-founded in 2007, and a campaign called Stop Hitting Kids in the Head, which calls for the banning of tackling in children’s sport until the age of 14. It follows news that the English Football Association will trial a ban on “heading” for children under 12.

“Our position is that, before 14, we cannot find a possible reason to expose children to CTE,” Nowinski said. “Whatever we think we’re teaching them through contact sports, we can find another way to do it.

“We’re trying to help people understand that whether you are hitting your own child in the head, or whether you’re letting them get tackled hundreds of times, their brain can’t tell the difference.”

McCrory did not respond to a request for comment.