A segment on last night’s episode of Four Corners, and airtime on Triple J’s afternoon show Hack suggest that the issue is entering the mainstream discussion. On Four Corners Professor Jeffrey Rosenfeld suggested that any concussed player – at any level – should miss the next three weeks to allow their brain the appropriate time to recover.
In early April of this year, we at Football Nation posted a feature article on concussions in the AFL which cited the findings of the Boston University’s research into Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in deceased ice hockey and American football players, as a result of repeated head trauma. Prior to their deaths, some of these players and their families had reported symptoms of memory difficulty, blurred vision and mood swings. The findings added to the already raised eyebrows in AFL circles, with former players and doctors having previously commented on the similarity of high contact between those sports and Australian Rules football.
In the news earlier this week it was announced that AFL Players Association official Ian Prendergast is heading to the USA to discover more about CTE, insisting that it is an issue that the AFLPA needs to “monitor very closely” in order to protect the interests of its players. Prendergast will also examine the feasibility of opening a “brain bank” in Australia, similar to the one operated by Boston University’s The Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.
Meanwhile Carlton premiership star Justin Madden yesterday declared that he would be happy for his brain to be donated to a “brain bank” to uncover any trace of CTE which at this stage can only be tested for post-mortem. He joins other former AFL players to have recently weighed in on the issue, with Hawthorn legend Dermott Brereton backing calls by agent Peter Jess to establish a similar centre in which deceased brains are examined. Essendon champion Tim Watson has also said that he would be happy for his brain to be donated for research and encouraged others to follow suit.
These former AFL players weighing in on the discussion followed yet another NFL suicide, this time of legendary linebacker Junior Seau, 43, who earlier this month killed himself by gunshot to the chest. His death is reminiscent of another gunshot to the chest suicide by former NFL star Dave Duerson, who left instructions for his brain to be donated to Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, sensing that it could have been the result of repetitive head trauma that had altered his life in such a dramatic fashion. And he was right. He and over 20 other deceased NFL players have been found to have CTE.
When asked about the possible effect of concussions on his death, Seau’s ex-wife Gina admitted he had suffered concussions throughout his career. “Of course he had. He always bounced back and kept on playing,” she said. “He’s a warrior. That didn’t stop him. I don’t know what football player hasn’t.”
Her comments are eerily reminiscent of the comments that Dave Duerson’s wife Alicia made, as mentioned in our first article. “If a player took a knock, the coach would hold up two fingers and say “how many can you count?”, the player would say “three” and the coach would send them back on to the field”.
The late Jim Stynes commented on players downplaying the nature of their concussion or head injury so that they are able to stay on the ground. Richmond forward Jack Riewoldt was visibly annoyed at being substituted for concussion related symptoms, after landing awkwardly in his clash with St Kilda in their Round 2 clash last year. The next day he suggested that the doctors had made the right call, noting that he was still feeling the effects.
Another aspect of the concussion problem that the AFL has to take into account is the threat of legal action from players. There are now 2000 plus former NFL players who are currently suing the NFL for a lack of education and a lack of protection from concussion during their careers. This is a threat that has yet to appear for the AFL but its arrival is almost inevitable.
AFL football operations manager Adrian Anderson, on the subject of legal action, stated that the AFL was doing all that they “reasonably [could]”. citing their funding of research into concussion and head trauma spanning twenty years, their rule changes to protect the players and the guidelines at both a professional and community level as “proactive” measures.
It is of course important to remember that concussion is not just restricted to professional sport, it is something the AFL must take into consideration in its eternal quest to attract new people to the game, many of which are children with anxious parents.
AFL Medical Officer Dr Peter Harcourt and football operations manager Adrian Anderson discussed the concussions on a video for afl.com.au. Anderson pointed out that the AFL had been proactive with concussion guidelines enforced last year, rule changes to ensure appropriate recovery,and harsher penalties as a deterrent which would send a positive message to the wider community and amateur and junior football.
At present, the AFL guidelines on concussion stipulate that players who show any immediate sign of concussion after a collision, such as unconsciousness, confusion and memory lapse, will be unable to return to the field of play. If the effects are not as clear cut, the player will be monitored for up to ten minutes, and only if the player is given the all-clear from the club doctor will they be able to return. Should a player be deemed to have concussion, they would be assessed until the doctor gives them the all clear, unable to train or play in the interim, ensuring the brain is given time to recover before being put at risk of further injury.
There are those who point out that the AFL is a high contact sport and that is what makes it so appealing. The players are rewarded for the risk they take stepping onto the field and repeated head trauma is not the sole reason for any retired player’s actions (including the NFL players who tragically have killed themselves). This may be true; but until we can know for sure about the disease and other relatable factors, then the AFL must ensure that all steps are taken to find out.
As Justin Madden told The Age, ”I think it’s important to research this and confirm it one way or the other. It’s not going to happen overnight, it needs long-term research … it could have some connection [to mental illness] … it will be good to prove it one way or the other. It’s important for football that we do that.”
For the AFL it would appear that there is no intention of removing the physicality from the game and it is true that the game in 2012 is quicker, faster and harder than any time in its previous history. However, in order to attract players to footy, protect and educate current players, and tick all the necessary boxes to protect all participants and themselves, there are necessary changes that have been made by the AFL and will continue to be made as more evidence comes to the surface about the effects of repeated concussion and brain trauma.
As Anderson pointed out, the AFL needs to do “everything [they] possibly can to make the game as safe as possible in the confines of a modern contact sport”.
Note: You can watch the 4 Corners episode “Hard Knocks” from the ABC ivew website
Photo appears with approval and courtesy of Arj Online Images. All Rights Reserved