The AFL needs to do more to protect players, including investing in concussion prevention research and aftercare, a sports injury expert claims.

Players and fans say the AFL has failed to protect players from on-field harm, with inadequate insurance for common injuries.

Former West Coast Eagles recruit Patrick Bines is considering suing the Australian Football League in response to their handling of his career-ending injury in 2019.

Bines’ alleges the league provided insurance that covered him for rare and irrelevant injuries, such as loss of limbs, while not adequately covering much more common injuries like head and neck damage, leaving him and other players exposed.

The AFL has tightened its protocols considerably over the past decade, including introducing a minimum 12-day break for concussed players, and only last year introducing a mandatory medical substitute.

But Dr Kerry Peek, a physiotherapist and sports injury researcher at the University of Sydney, told Central News current AFL bodies are only thinking on the field. She said putting systems in place to protect players before and after footy shouldn’t be as hard as it’s made out to be and that the league may just have to think outside of itself.

If we want the ‘truth’ then we have to eliminate conflicts of interest.

“I think all the football codes could do more to protect players. One starting point would be to invest in independent research that focuses on primary prevention and concussion awareness and treatment. Then aftercare (post-playing career) to ensure that players are receiving the most evidence-based support,” she said.

“It is also vital that any strategies that are implemented are evaluated to ensure they are performing as intended. The key here is the independence of the research and advice. Gaining funding for sports-related research is incredibly hard in Australia through Government-funded research organisations.

“So, funding through sporting organisations makes sense, but it’s vitally important that this research is carried out with minimal influence or interference from the sporting organisation. If we want the ‘truth’ then we have to eliminate conflicts of interest.”

Bines’ call for legal action comes just weeks after former Richmond player Ty Zantuck accused his club and three team doctors of breaching duty of care in the treatment of his playing injury between 2000 and 2004.

Over the past 10 years, more than 30 active players have entered retirement because of concussions suffered on the field. The AFL world is also still mourning the deaths of both Danny ‘Spud’ Frawley and Shane Tuck, who suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.

Yet the game is expanding rapidly.

AFL Stadium

Photo – Daniel Anthony on Unsplash

In 2020 the AFLW’s Women’s Football Vision Strategy set a target of more than doubling participation in community footy in 10 years. A $2.5 billion media deal with Seven West is due for renewal in 2024.

Peek said AFL is a uniquely physical sport with huge potential for injury.

“AFL is a 360-degree contact sport, which means players are at risk of concussion from whiplash-type movements of the head when being tackled, and direct head impacts with an opponent’s body part or with the ground or post,” she said.

“It’s a very physical sport with players getting faster and stronger, which means contact between players is likely occurring with increasing force. There is also a lot of aerial play, meaning that uncontrolled contact between players is higher than in other contact sports.”

Linda Fream’s son Riley has been playing Aussie rules for 12 years. But when Riley broke his leg during a game in 2019, she felt abandoned.

“Every local game has a medic on hand, but they are inexperienced. Most of them are just students or have other qualifications. Every week we are just hoping they don’t have to get involved,” she said.

Fream is open to other rule changes like mandatory headgear, but she said the biggest priority should be equipping small clubs with trained volunteers.

“I know other clubs have ambulances ready at every game, or even St John’s paramedics. I think it would go a long way in making players and parents feel confident in the code,” she said.

Specialist consultant in risk management and injury liability prevention Dr Betul Sekendiz agrees. She says the game should have started looking ahead years ago.

“The AFL needs to proactively and closely work with sport injury researchers and medical professionals to look for ways to minimise risk of foreseeable injuries,” she said.

Jumping AFL Player

By Leigh Gazzard.

Peek thinks one of the AFL’s biggest tasks will be protecting communities, not just its high-profile stars.

“In professional sport, access to specialist doctors is much more readily available, meaning high-quality medical intervention is usually provided much quicker. In non-professional sport, including youth and child sports, players may only have access to very limited first aid. So, the awareness around how to spot the signs or symptoms of a concussion is greatly reduced,” she said.

She thinks the game’s biggest shifts should start from the bottom, rather than a trickle through from the top.

“Local footy players are at greater risk of having injuries being misdiagnosed, mismanaged, or missed altogether,” she added.

“In community sport, the referee might be a parent or other volunteer who doesn’t receive the same support to ensure that game rules are enforced correctly. Many community clubs are also run by local people who are usually unpaid, who juggle many other roles in their lives. Communication and information transfer is much harder.”