AFL needs to take concussion seriously, now

Performance enhancing drugs and tanking allegations might have dominated public debate over the past month but the news of Greg Williams’ memory loss, and its possible connection to episodes of concussion on the footy field, is just as shocking.

If the testimony of one of the game’s legends doesn’t make the AFL implement swift and definitive preventive measures, nothing will.

However, if the summer of scandals taught us anything, the AFL will be slow and ultimately indecisive in its actions.

The AFL spin-doctors have been working overtime, but head injuries cannot be spun like tanking.

Andrew Demetriou and the Laws of the Game Committee assert the head is sacrosanct, but here is the moment for them to prove that they are not the spitting image of America’s NFL.

According to available data, AFL players experience comparatively fewer concussions than other contact sports, like the NFL, (around six to seven per team per season) but this should not mean that head-injury prevention shouldn’t be one of the AFL’s main concerns in the long run.

Australian Rules football is developing rapidly and the increase in the game’s speed and power will inevitably lead to an increase in high-speed collisions, of increasing ferocity. The AFL should be ahead of the curve.

Highly respected Melbourne surgeon Dr. Ian Haines wrote in The Age recently, strongly advising that rule changes should include a revised number of players on the field, shortened quarters and a cap on the number of interchanges.

Independent practitioners like Dr Haines should be listened to, perhaps more so than others in the conversation, such as the agenda-driven coaches.

The AFL is a smart, copycat league. It borrows tactics, business models and even athletes from other sports. The NFL is one of its greatest influences and the AFL will be watching with interest that more than 1,500 players are suing the NFL claiming the devastating long-term effects of repeated head knocks were hidden from them.

The 2011 NFL collective bargaining agreement committed the league and the players’ union to set aside $100 million over 10 years to support research on concussion. Although, the sorry truth of the matter is that the NFL only cared for player welfare after their pockets and brand took a serious hit.

Aussie Rules is at risk of tracking down the same path.

Greg Williams says the AFL is in denial on concussion. I say, if the AFL and its clubs do not willingly act on the long-term consequence of head injuries sustained on the footy field then they will not avoid the great American tradition: the lawsuit.

The AFL’s image has been severely tainted over the past few months but swift, honest and medically driven action on the issue of head injuries will rebuild the public’s trust in the league.

It might sound strange but concussions could save the AFL’s broken image.

The medical and legal risks for players, coaches and clubs are just far to great for the sport to ignore.


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