‘So full of life and love, so sad inside’: how Jacinda Barclay’s death could help us understand concussion in sport

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Tall, whispering gum trees line the driveway of the Barclay property. The homestead sits nestled into the side of a gentle slope up a lightly wooded hillside. It’s a green oasis under the hot Perth sun – a bath is filled with flowering pansies, a huge stone vase bubbles with water, hanging plants trail leaves on to the deck of a yawning veranda. Paved brick pathways weave under ferns and arching foliage to a bungalow, a garage and a fire pit surrounded by old train sleepers.

This is where Jacinda Barclay grew up. She rode motorbikes over these paddocks with her friends, practised her baseball pitch and threw the ball for her dog. This veranda is where she drank wine in the evenings, laughed with her boyfriend, got bitten by mosquitoes. Under it, she confided in her mother and dreamed.

This is also where Jacinda Barclay died.

  • Two of Barclay’s uniforms. Photograph: David Dare Parker/The Guardian

Barclay was once described as the “Sonny Bill Williams of women’s sport”, which is another way of saying she had a natural aptitude for almost any game she attempted.

But Williams was never the only girl in the baseball team. He was never barred by dint of his gender from playing football once he hit his teens, or told he’d absolutely be worth $200,000 a year on the field if he were a man.

Barclay’s sporting career started early. She played tee-ball, baseball, took a tour through basketball and picked up Australian rules footy. When other girls started being funnelled into netball, she stuck with the “boys’ sports” until she wasn’t allowed to play with the boys any more. To her friends and family it seemed as though there wasn’t a sport she could not do. Others found her gender more challenging.

“I remember watching her when she was playing in the boys’ team,” says her mother, Deb Barclay. “They were yelling out on the field, ‘Don’t let the girl get you!’”

Her brother, Zane Barclay, remembers watching her play at the age of 12 or 13. “Jacinda’s in a bit of a scrummage over the ball. One of the boys had grabbed her ponytail to pull her down. And Jacinda just got up and saw red, and smacked this guy straight in the face.”

  • Zane Barclay with his sister’s signed Australian rules football. The mural was painted in her memory, with 34 representing the number on the back of her AFLW jersey. Photograph: David Dare Parker/The Guardian

When asked to describe the woman they knew, all of Barclay’s family and friends eventually use the term “fearless”. It encapsulates her training style, her determination to excel, and her belief that she could do anything she put her mind to. On Thursday night Barclay’s AFLW team, the Greater Western Sydney Giants, presented the inaugural Fearless award for selfless and courageous play, in honour of their late teammate.

“Jacinda was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever known,” says her friend and mentor Rob Novotny. “She lived with an open heart and, in that openness, she brought out the best in you.

Her childhood friend Tara Dekoning says: “She was always the one helping people do better, be better. She made everyone feel included. And if she was struggling, we always talked – she was very open with it.”

So when Barclay took her own life on 12 October 2020, it came as a terrible shock.

***

Barclay’s family and friends have many unanswered questions about her death. The Western Australia’s coroner’s findings are yet to be delivered but the questions that needle her loved ones aren’t so much concerned with how Jacinda died, but why.

Speaking exclusively to Guardian Australia, members of Barclay’s immediate family and close friends uniformly describe Jacinda, in the last few months of her life, as profoundly altered. While they accept that in some people a happy and positive veneer may obscure deeper pain, they have nevertheless struggled to understand how Barclay – so open and generous with herself, whose character and values were so consistently positive, and whose relentless energy inspired so many – could become so changed, so quickly.

Related: Jacinda Barclay was our 'rockstar' but she deserved so much more | Rebecca Beeson

It was partly in the pursuit of answers that they decided to donate her brain to sports concussion research. In some ways, they have been left with more questions.

Analysis at the Australian Sports Brain Bank by a pathologist, Michael Buckland, showed that Barclay didn’t have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – the neurodegenerative disease associated with repeated head trauma – as her family had feared.

What she did have was degradation to her brain’s white matter – rare for someone her age in peak physical condition. White matter changes have been connected to the development of mental illness and an increased risk of suicidal ideation, and have separately been observed in players after as little as one season of contact sport. But research hasn’t yet shown a clear line through all three. In the words of the concussion researcher Alan Pearce: “How does the white matter damage from repeated concussion and head injury affect mental illness?”

There was another reason why the Barclay family decided to donate Jacinda’s brain. The brain bank had no female donors who played contact sports. Even internationally, the subjects of sports concussion research have been almost exclusively male – and stepping forward for women in sport was something Jacinda Barclay had always done.

***

Deb Barclay is the kind of woman who greets strangers with a hug. She is wiry and blond, and calls the women of her acquaintance “chicky” as a term of endearment – a habit she picked up from her daughter. The warmth of her personality infuses the Chidlow house. Dotted around are little shrines to her daughter: outside, a garden grown in her memory; inside, the small collections of framed photos next to a keepsake, a vase of flowers. The most prominent of these is on a side table under the vaulted ceiling of the living room: the urn containing Jacinda’s ashes.

  • Deb Barclay with hearts placed on trees at the homestead as part of her daughter’s memorial. Photograph: David Dare Parker/The Guardian

Deb drops a large plastic tub on to the rug. She found it among her daughter’s things. It’s full of the ephemera that collects around a life, the innocuous and the mundane and the startlingly personal: scrapbooks from family holidays, printed-out emails, plane tickets, newspaper clippings, letters.

An album from Barclay’s schooldays is one of the most telling. Photo after official photo shows a gaggle of scruffy boys – and one, occasionally two girls, in the same baggy uniforms, hair yanked back off their faces or hidden by baseball caps.

“Remember you were always trying to put a dress on her?” Zane says to his mother.

Deb laughs, and recounts trying to take Jacinda to ballet class. “She came home and said, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ And I’d spent all this money on the right shoes!”

To blow off steam, Barclay and her brother would take the hours-long trip on trains and buses from their Perth hills home to the beach for a surf, or head out to the dirt tracks on the motorcycle and attempt stunts. The latter is how, in 2010, she broke both her ankles. Doctors told Deb that her daughter would never play sport again.

  • Images from family albums

For three months Barclay had both legs in casts – a huge setback for anyone, let alone an elite athlete. In the pictures, though, she still seems to be the confident, endearing young woman – holding a drink, grinning, mugging at the camera. True to form, she eventually overcame her injuries – occasionally even while still in plaster. Zane recalls her witnessing him behaving, in his own admission, “horribly” after a fight with their parents. Fury propelled her from her wheelchair, plastered legs notwithstanding, through the flywire door and on to her brother, fists flying.

***

While most Australians know Jacinda Barclay for her four years playing AFLW with the Giants, her main focus in youth wasn’t a contact sport at all – it was baseball. A right-arm pitcher, she grew up playing for local teams before making her state debut for WA in 2006. When she was 15 she was accepted into the development cohort of an international amateur baseball team, the Aussie Hearts. This was where she met Rob Novotny.

Novotny was the Hearts’ founder and sometime head coach. Despite the two-decade age difference, Novotny and his young protege struck up a fast friendship – one that would endure the rest of the sportswoman’s life. Barclay went on to play five World Cups for the Australian baseball team, and Novotny credits her right arm for propelling them to silver in Venezuela in 2010.

It was on one of these tours that she discovered gridiron, and when the opportunity arose to play, Barclay jumped at it – even though the only option was to do so in her underwear.

  • Barclay’s baseball from the 2012 World Cup. Photograph: David Dare Parker/The Guardian

Barclay’s stint in the variously named Lingerie Football League, Legends Football League and LFL Australia started with her turning up to a training session of the Chicago Bliss. She took to the sport instantly, wanting to stay in the US and play, but visa complications sent her packing. When the LFL popped up for a brief season at home in 2013, Barclay signed as a quarterback for the New South Wales Surge, leading the team to victory and gaining herself the title of best offensive player.

Quarterbacks are leadership roles and critical to offensive play. Jacinda’s elite pitching experience gave her the conditioning necessary for the forward pass but unlike, many quarterbacks, she could also run. If none of her teammates were in position to receive the ball, Jacinda would just barrel down the field herself and score.

In 2016, long after LFL Australia had folded, the Chicago Bliss coach Keith Hac was searching for a new quarterback – and remembered the Australian with impressive arm strength, athleticism and leadership skills.

Novotny helped Barclay negotiate her way to the US to play for the Bliss. He believes that gridiron was the sport in which his friend truly fulfilled her athletic potential but laments how much the titillation factor of LFL drew focus away from the players’ skill.

“It was obviously objectifying women,” he says. “There was a lot that was wrong about that. But putting that aside to watch the game itself, you could just see some tremendous athleticism. I think Jacinda was fully realised as an athlete and a leader when playing quarterback. And it is widely acknowledged that after one season she was the best quarterback in the American competition.”

The skimpy uniforms and sexed-up image rankled Barclay too. She wanted viewers to take the sport and its athletes seriously. She started wearing a black arm and shoulder support brace, ostensibly for protection – but she told her mother she wore it because it covered her chest.

“She was trying to change the uniform,” Deb says. “She used to hate having her boobs out.”

The LFL didn’t pay its players. It didn’t even provide health insurance. So Barclay decided to organise her Bliss teammates to lobby the LFL for better conditions. “I was hoping to empower the players; creating awareness, a union of sorts to activate change,” she later wrote. The LFL executive retaliated by suspending her.

In a long tribute posted to Barclay’s Facebook page after her death, Hac said what so many others were also thinking. “How can someone as full of life, love and happiness as she seemed to have, be so sad on the inside?”

Jacinda Barclay of the Giants kicks during the Women’s round three match between Greater Western Sydney Giants and Fremantle Dockers.
Jacinda Barclay of the Giants kicks during an AFLW match between Greater Western Sydney Giants and Fremantle Dockers. Photograph: Matt King/Getty Images
  • Barclay in an AFLW match between Greater Western Sydney Giants and Fremantle Dockers. Photograph Matt King/Getty Images

If Barclay had been a man, sport would have been all she needed. A few years as a quarterback for a stadium team would have set her up, financially, for life. Instead, she often found herself scraping for cash.

Under the AFLW collective bargaining agreement (2019-2022), tier one players last year were entitled to $29,856 a year. Only two players can qualify as tier one; most players – 16 a club – are classified as tier four, which came with payment of $16,263.

Barclay was a tier two player for GWS, which attracted a salary of $23,059 in 2020. Last year in the men’s division of AFL, a regular player’s minimum base payment was $110,000.

Related: Explainer: what we know about concussion in Australian sport

It’s impossible to support a life, let alone maintain elite-level physical fitness, on $23,000 a year, so Barclay – like many of her comrades in the sport – worked. She was a highly qualified diver, and did stints out on oil rigs as a life support technician for deep-sea divers living in pressurised cans for weeks at time. She did shifts as a clerk in a hospital and also worked as a labourer.

Novotny is at a loss to explain how the woman who “was like my kid sister” found herself on such a downward spiral. But he also wonders if the structural barriers that prevented her from being able to support herself as a professional athlete contributed to Barclay’s struggles in those last six months.

Giants players wearing number 34 jerseys in memory of Jacinda Barclay watch on as their team mates prepare to take the field.
Giants players wearing No 34 jerseys in memory of Barclay watch on as their team mates prepare to take the field. Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images
  • Giants players wearing number 34 jerseys in memory of Barclay watch on as their teammates prepare to take the field. Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

“As a former athlete myself, sport becomes such a big part of who you are,” Novotny says. “Shifting out of that life can cause a bit of an identity crisis for some. Perhaps – and I’m speculating – maybe she was struggling with the realisation that she just couldn’t support herself and live life as a professional athlete. If so, that would have been a particularly painful realisation when fully knowing that if she was a man of similar skill at her own club, she’d be earning hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“I am not saying that to be critical of the AFL, but rather to highlight the struggles that female athletes face everyday.”

At Barclay’s funeral, the GWS coach Alan McConnell recounted a conversation in which she had approached him and said she ought to be paid $200,000 a year. “If she had been a man, she would have been one of the richest, most famous sports stars in the country,” her fellow Giant Bec Beeson wrote in a piece for Guardian Australia.

For the first Giants game in the west this year, their round one match against Fremantle on 31 January, Deb Barclay organised a fundraiser. She had T-shirts printed. On the back: Jacinda’s GWS jersey number, 34. On the front: “What’s wrong with $200,000?”

“I was going to only print 30,” she said. “And so many people wanted them that it blew out to 110.”

She has been talking to Novotny about using the proceeds to establish a foundation for girls who are struggling to financially support their sporting careers.

A tribute to Jacinda Barclay is shown on the big screen during a moments silence, ahead of the AFLW match between the GWS Giants and Gold Coast Suns.
A tribute to Jacinda Barclay is shown on the big screen during a moment’s silence before a match between the GWS Giants and Gold Coast Suns. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP
  • A tribute to Barclay is shown on the big screen during a moment’s silence before a match between the GWS Giants and Gold Coast Suns. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

We can’t say that white matter damage caused Jacinda’s mental illness – we just don’t know that. But what we do know about the relationships between white matter damage, mental illness, concussion, CTE and contact sport raises questions. Chief among them: how do we best care for the mental and physical health of players who take part in contact sport? And what do they need to know to be truly informed about the risks?

While managing the dangers of head injury is critical to making sports safer, the focus on concussion in the conversation about CTE often misses some critical points.

Research out of Boston University has shown that it’s not the number of concussions that correlates most closely with development of CTE, but exposure to blows – the amount of time spent playing the hard-knock game.

Barclay’s contact sport career was relatively short in comparison with many men who play in the football codes at elite levels – not long enough, the hypothesis suggests, for her to develop CTE – but her brain was already showing degradation. The white matter damage found is most likely the consequence of the more insidious sub-concussive blows – hits that don’t result in observable symptoms.

Barclay did not have a substantial history of concussion. As far as her family knew, she’d only ever had “one really bad one” – while playing gridiron in Chicago. But then, she wasn’t the type to linger on her own pain.

“If she knocked her head she wouldn’t make anything of it,” Zane Barclay says. “She’d just deal with whatever it was.”

His mother agrees: “She’d just carry on.”

  • A family snapshot of Jacinda, Zane and Deb

Both Barclay’s parents are ex-military, to which Zane attributes a certain amount of his sister’s “harden up” attitude. “My dad was ex-special forces. He’s very passionate about that side of his life. Growing up around him – he was a big softie, you know, but still a tough, hard individual. Growing up around him, it was like, toughen up, harden up. You got this.”

Deb Barclay characterises it more as an ethic of hard work – “and Jacinda was a very hard worker”. (Mike and Deb Barclay divorced in 2017. Mike Barclay did not take part in this story.)

Shortly after she died, Barclay’s mother, father and brother made the decision, together, to donate her brain.

“Half of me didn’t want to,” Deb admits. “And the other half thought well, she liked helping people.”

“It was a hard decision but I feel at peace, and I feel like Jacinda would have wanted it,” says Zane. “She’s not even here and she’s still helping people, which is what she was all about. I feel like she’s made a sacrifice to be a lighthouse for other people.”

Chelsea Randall of the Crows is challenged by Jacinda Barclay of the Giants during an AFLW match between the Greater Western Sydney Giants and the Adelaide Crows in Blacktown.
Chelsea Randall of the Crows is challenged by Jacinda Barclay of the Giants during an AFLW match between the Greater Western Sydney Giants and the Adelaide Crows in Blacktown. Photograph: Matt King/Getty Images
  • Barclay playing in the rain against the Adelaide Crows. Photograph: Matt King/Getty Images

The six months before Barclay died were unusual for everyone. The AFLW season had been unexpectedly curtailed by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, and widespread lockdowns, social distancing and movement restrictions meant the future of contact sport in the medium term was uncertain.

After spending some time in Perth at the start of lockdown, Barclay flew back to Sydney in June. It isn’t clear how soon after that her mental health started to decline. According to her mother, Jacinda voluntarily checked herself into a mental health facility in Sydney on 6 August. She checked herself out nine days later. She told her mother the Giants were supporting her, and had provided a counsellor for her to talk to. On 18 August she decided to readmit herself into psychiatric care, and stayed in the facility until 31 August. The family have not seen paperwork regarding her hospital admissions; she had listed Alan McConnell, her coach at the Giants, as her next of kin.

“I’m not sure what she was doing between 31 August and 23 September,” Deb Barclay says. “All the texts she sent me seem to be happy, that’s why it’s so hard to get my head around everything.”

Jacinda arrived in Perth on 23 September and completed her 14 days of quarantine at home. Her mother thought she “looked blank”, and asked her if she was all right. She said she wasn’t and that she’d like to talk to someone. Deb began trying to organise some counselling.

Jacinda started sleeping in the room with her mother. On the morning of 12 October she woke and said she’d had a terrible nightmare. Deb commiserated, touched her hand, told her that she loved her, and left for work. It was the last time she saw her daughter alive.

The outpouring of grief was immense. For days after Barclay died, the Chidlow house was filled with people. When the coroner released her body, the family brought her back to the homestead and, borrowing from the Māori tradition of the tangihanga, laid her out for three days, slept by her, told stories, ate, drank, laughed and cried.

Six hundred people attended Jacinda’s funeral in person – held outdoors, under that giant Perth sky – and more than 2,000 browsers were logged into the live stream.

The house is much quieter now, but Deb Barclay still feels her daughter’s spirit is there with her – in the flickering of the lights, in the scarlet-breasted robin that perches on the veranda railing as the sun sinks. She may not have all the answers she needs just yet, but is hopeful that one day, they will come.

  • In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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