The biggest threat to the AFL in the future may not be from another code, but rather the brain.
On the Four Corners documentary Hard Knocks aired on Monday night, David Parkin, a proud and distinguished premiership winning player and coach told of his decision to retire after being knocked unconscious.
“I was out for 26 hours and that finally convinced me that it was time to stop playing and stop punishing myself”.
Former professional footballers have often talked about their bad backs and knees, sore joints and fused ankles but as with many physical occupations these are accepted as obvious and unavoidable consequences.
Players weren’t so forthcoming when it came to highlighting the effects of concussion.
However, the recent stunning findings in the US about the degenerative brain disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in ex-NFL players have illuminated the more formidable effects of contact sport i.e. damage to the brain.
Suddenly, former greats like Tim Watson have admitted to concerns about the damage inflicted on their brains by the game.
Watson, who believes he suffers from memory loss resulting from concussions incurred while playing, has donated his brain to the Boston University which is leading the study into CTE.
There are possible legal implications too for the AFL. Currently 1500 NFL players are suing the NFL and their clubs claiming the devastating long term effects of repeated head knocks were hidden from them.
Allegedly the clubs referred to concussion as “mild head trauma” and advised the players to keep playing. To be successful the players presumably will have to prove clubs knew about the effects of concussion.
A precedent may have already been set in Australia with several AFL players receiving compensation from their clubs for affected brain function they claim was a result of head knocks.
The AFLPA has acted quickly by commissioning a study to be released later this year, which found that over half of the 600 players interviewed had suffered a major concussion, and that more than a quarter had experienced three or more concussions.
Also, the AFLPA’s general manger Ian Prendergast will be visiting Boston University and meeting with American player associations.
We’ll have to wait and see if the AFLPA’s findings will be used to give advice to the AFL, or provide ammunition for compensation claims.
The AFL itself doesn’t appear overly eager to engage in research on the topic. Instead it has looked to rule changes. It has made the head sacrosanct. Free kicks will always be given to players who receive a knock to the head, even if the contact is unintentional, or is a result of a player ducking or dropping into a tackle.
But, as the Four Corners documentary stated: changing the rules might not be enough to save the contact football codes.
When a parent allows their child to play football they are accepting the possibility that the child will at some stage suffer a physical injury.
Auskick has been a phenomenal success as a means of attracting future fans and players to the game with its emphasis on health, fitness and social skills. It has also cleverly involved the parents. But surely many will be reluctant to even allow their children get interested in the game if playing it at a higher level can lead to brain damage.
Four Corners ended their programme with: “And incidentally for those who might look to headgear for protection that might prevent some injury but it doesn’t do much to stop the movement of the brain inside the skull which is what causes concussion”.
A leading Melbourne neurosurgeon has said if a young player receives three significant concussions he should be made to give up the game forever.
If the kids themselves become aware of the dangers to the brain they may choose themselves to desert the code.