Nov 04, 2021

Former All Black rugby player Carl Hayman diagnosed with dementia at 41

Carl Hayman All Black dementia

A legend of the game, he was once believed to be the highest paid rugby player in the world.

But now Hayman is joining a class action against the sport’s administrators after being diagnosed with young-onset dementia at the age of only 41.

Hayman’s playing career ended six years ago, but as his playing days wound down, he struggled with unrelenting headaches. 

He began to drink heavily and frequently experienced suicidal thoughts.

His behaviour escalated to the point he received a suspended prison sentence in France after admitting to charges of domestic violence.

Now, after extensive testing, Hayman has an explanation for these years of hardship. 

He has been diagnosed with early-onset dementia and, probably, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive brain condition that can only be conclusively diagnosed post mortem.

Hayman has now joined a class action claiming rugby’s management failed to protect players from the risks associated with concussion and subconcussion (repeated knocks to the head), despite having evidence of the dangers and knowledge about prevention.

There are 150 players involved in the lawsuit.

Though Hayman said he delayed seeking answers from doctors, once he had the diagnosis he felt strongly about going public with his diagnosis.

“It would be pretty selfish of me to not speak up and talk about my experience when I could help a guy in New Zealand perhaps who doesn’t understand what’s happening to him and has no support network to lean on,” he told The Bounce.

By joining the legal action, Hayman gains access to testing and, potentially, trials of new treatments that could slow the disease’s progression.

Hayman would like to see rugby players better cared for by the sport’s administrators.

“These younger aspiring players need to know what they’re getting into and there needs to be more support and monitoring around head injuries and workloads if they do decide to play professionally.” 

Hayman told The Bounce all rugby players have the potential to be affected by knocks to the head, no matter the level they play at. 

“I’ve even come across people who have been affected having just played school and university-level rugby, so it’s a conversation that needs to be happening with parents and teenagers at the very start,” he 

He believes it’s not so much the concussions that have caused his illness, but the repeated knocks to his head during games over decades.

“CTE isn’t about concussions but about the ongoing knocks in games and trainings.”

All Blacks assistant coach, John Plumtree, told The Guardian he was saddened by Hayman’s diagnosis.

“It’s really sad,” Plumtree said.

“Carl is a 45-Test All Black and he’s done a lot for New Zealand rugby. It’s a real sad situation if he’s struggling with dementia at such an early age.”

However, Plumtree believes rugby, including the All Blacks, have tightened rules around head knocks.

“Our laws now, they really protect the head,” he said. 

“It has changed a lot. There’s greater awareness around it in all parts of the organisation, from the top level down to us as coaches. We’re trying to minimise the accidents around the head as much as we can and we know the game is under pressure to do that.”

World Rugby recently hired independent concussion consultants and issued guidelines to ensure reduced contact in training.

Measures recommended include limiting full contact to 15 minutes per week, 40 minutes of controlled contact utilising tackle shields and pads, and 30 minutes of live set piece training with lineouts, scrums and mauls at a high intensity.

The recommendations may eventually be mandated.

Concerns about the relationship between dementia and knocks to the head are not restricted to rugby, but extend to all contact sports.

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