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Ex-rugby player Carl Hayman reveals dementia, probable CTE diagnosis at age 41

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Carl Hayman, a former star with the All Blacks, New Zealand's men's national rugby team, revealed he has dementia and probable chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) at the age of 41. He told Dylan Cleaver's The Bounce he has joined a lawsuit against rugby authorities that's being filed on behalf of 150 former professional rugby players. 

CTE is most often associated with American football and former NFL superstars Junior Seau and Aaron Hernandez were diagnosed with it after their deaths. There are no confirmed cases of CTE in former All Blacks players, per The Bounce. CTE is only diagnosed post mortem, hence "probable" in any diagnosis of a living patient. 

Hayman is only six years removed from his professional playing career in England and France. He retired from international play with the All Blacks in 2007 with 45 Test caps. The lawsuit is not against New Zealand Rugby since there is a law that removes the right to sue, per The Bounce. It argues that rugby's governing bodies failed to protect players despite having the knowledge and evidence. 

Hayman's rugby career 

Carl Hayman All Blacks rugby
Carl Hayman said he had only one documented case of concussion, but likely had many subconcussions over his career. (NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP via Getty Images)

Hayman began his international career at the age of 15 with the New Zealand Under-16s and estimated he played around 450 high-level matches in his 17-year professional career. He said he is "100%" certain those matches, combined with years and years of training, contributed to his illness. 

"I’ve played a phenomenal amount of rugby and taken a phenomenal amount of knocks to the head," Hayman said, via The Bounce. "CTE isn’t about concussions but about the ongoing knocks in games and trainings.”

Hayman said there were times he "probably shouldn't have played but it was expected." He played 10 months a year because of the rugby calendar and only had one documented concussion in 2006.

“Apart from that I never really had a history of concussion, but my issue is the sheer number of repetitive head knocks – subconcussions – I took during my career.”

All Blacks player shows signs of dementia 

Hayman, who has four children, said in the last years of his playing days he experienced frequent episodes of déjà vu on the field, which he later found to be a symptom of dementia. He experienced headaches that continued to get worse and had "substantial memory issues." 

Via The Bounce: 

"I was trying to get a passport for my son and I couldn’t remember his middle name, which was a significant moment. I was searching around for it in my mind for a good 25 seconds and had to go, ‘I’m really sorry, I’ve forgotten,' to the person on the phone trying to do the passport. ‘I’ve forgotten my son’s name.'

“I had temper issues, definitely, and then at this point of my life, it led down the track to what I’d consider alcohol abuse. I always enjoyed a beer with the boys but at this point I began drinking more. I didn’t know what was going on and the drinking brought a little bit of an escape for a certain amount of time. It would temporarily alleviate the symptoms somewhat but then, as you can imagine, the next day things would be back to how they felt before, if not worse. It was a vicious cycle I got caught in.”

Hayman said he experienced a bout of depression, though it was never diagnosed, and at times all he wanted was to sleep so he wouldn't experience pain. He said "100% I did" have suicidal thoughts. And his marriage broke down under all of the strain. He has also dealt with alcohol abuse and for "several years" simply believed he was "going crazy." 

Lawsuit vs. rugby authorities 

He wasn't sure about going public with his experience and said he wrestled with the decision of discovering a diagnosis for a year. Ultimately he decided it was too important and he needed to be vocal for others who were experiencing similar things. 

"There will be a lot of guys out there who haven’t come forward," he told The Bounce." We need to let them know they’re not alone.”

The lawsuit claims that the sport's governing bodies, including World Rugby, did not protect players from risks associated with concussions and subconcussions even though those bodies had the knowledge of it and the evidence. 

World Rugby did not comment on the specifics of the legal action, per The Bounce, 

“It is not easy for them to speak so candidly about their personal circumstances and we appreciate what it takes for them to do so. We care about every member of the rugby family. Player welfare is the sport’s top priority, which is reflected in our six-point plan” a spokesman told the site.

The lawsuit has nine claimants and is being filed on behalf of 150 former rugby players. Hayman said he joined the action in part to have access to testing and try any new treatments. He also hopes players are looked after better and can stand up for themselves to do so.

Former All Blacks long-time doctor John Mayhew told the New Zealand site "stuff" that the country has taken a proactive role on head injuries in the past 10 years. He cautioned immediately relating any player's illness to their sport.    

CTE a concern in all contact sports

Rugby is often viewed, rightly or not, as a less violent and safer alternative to American football. Concussions and head safety is largely viewed as less likely in rugby even though there are still comparable numbers of concussions in each sport per the few studies done comparing them.

Head trauma and CTE are a concern in any contact sport. Studies show professional male soccer players are more likely to suffer from neurological diseases, including dementia. It is likely this is true of female soccer players as well, but the studies have focused only on men. 

U.S. women's national team players, led by 99ers Michelle Akers and Brandi Chastain, helped launch a landmark study on CTE in female soccer players in 2019. And hockey players have been diagnosed with CTE post-mortem, including Steve Montador and famed New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard. 

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