The AFL is launching a comprehensive and independent review of the work and advice of concussion doctor Paul McCrory who for years treated and diagnosed athletes suffering concussions and other serious head injuries.
The AFL told Guardian Australia the review would be undertaken after the league was unable to answer key questions posed to it about concussion research McCrory was said to have led for the governing body, or the evidence he used to inform concussion policies.
The questions were raised earlier this month after McCrory was alleged to have plagiarised the work of another neurology researcher. McCrory has since been accused of further plagiarism, and reportedly apologised, telling the website Retraction Watch that he had requested the papers in question be retracted and the errors “were not deliberate or intentional”. He has not responded to requests for comment from Guardian Australia. He resigned as chair of the Concussion in Sport Group on 5 March amid the allegations of plagiarism.
Following repeated requests for comment and specific questions about McCrory’s involvement in their concussion policies the AFL said in a statement: “The AFL will conduct an independent review of the work, research and advice which has been provided to it by Associate Professor Paul McCrory.
“The number one priority of our code is to protect the health and wellbeing of all people who participate in our game and so we have made this decision to hold an independent review following a number of revelations in recent weeks of matters of which the AFL was previously unaware,” the statement said.
“These matters include one instance of admitted scientific plagiarism by Associate Professor McCrory and the suggestion of other instances of plagiarism.”
Last Wednesday Guardian Australia revealed that in May 2018 McCrory voluntarily “provided an enforceable undertaking to the Medical Board of Australia that he will not perform neurodiagnostic procedures, nerve conduction studies, or electromyography until approved to do so by the Board”.
A spokesperson for the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (Ahpra) confirmed that undertaking was still in effect, and would remain in force until it was removed from the public register. Asked why the undertaking was given, the spokesperson said “privacy provisions in the National Law prevent us from commenting further”.
The AFL said it would also be examining this “recent revelation”.
“While Associate Professor McCrory has no ongoing role with the AFL, was not employed by the AFL and was not the only provider of medical advice on concussion to the AFL, he was an important and long-standing adviser on concussion and he was understood by the AFL to be a pre-eminent expert in the field, including up until recently holding the position as Chair of the Concussion in Sport Group and in that capacity worked previously with many leading national and international professional sporting organisations,” the AFL said.
Associate Prof Alan Pearce, a neuroscientist who has conducted extensive research into the long-term effects of repeated brain trauma, said the decision to launch an independent review highlighted a major “credibility issue” within the AFL.
“Because since 2007 they have been claiming that they’ve been doing world-leading research and nothing has been shown to demonstrate that,” Pearce told Guardian Australia. “Is this just rhetoric to kick the can down the road? It’s a science integrity issue. It dents confidence in all concussion science conducted by the Concussion in Sport Group.”
The Concussion in Sport Group is an international body of experts who have met every four years since 2001 to provide sporting codes around the world with blueprints on how to manage head injury. The consensus statements they produce have been used to inform the concussion management policies of professional leagues including the NFL, World Rugby and the AFL.
The AFL’s concussion policy draws heavily from this document, as does its concussion policies provided to amateur and community leagues playing Australian rules football.
McCrory is the lead author of four of the five consensus statements.
The most recent statement, issued in 2016, says there is no proven cause-and-effect relationship between concussions and degenerative brain diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the neurodegenerative disease that is associated with repeated head trauma and concussion, which has been increasingly linked to contact and collision sports.
McCrory has been a high-profile public spokesperson about concussion in sport globally. He has also on multiple occasions expressed personal doubts over the relationship between concussion and CTE.
The AFL said in its statement: “The Concussion in Sport Group has provided many leading sports around the world, including the AFL, with guidance in the translation of evolving research into sport-related concussion and head trauma into practical concussion management protocols.
“As is common practice in academic institutions and other organisations in which allegations of plagiarism are made or admitted, the AFL believes it important as a matter of integrity to ascertain the status and the reliability of past research activities and outcomes, and clinical work in which Dr McCrory has been involved for the AFL.
“This independent review will be conducted by an independent senior counsel and a professor of medicine experienced in medical and medical research ethics.”
Further details of the review will be announced shortly, the AFL said.