Former Brisbane Lions star forward Jonathan Brown was as tough a footballer as they come.
He was three times named the most courageous player in the AFL competition and played with very little regard for his own safety.
He admits that when he played the game, the culture surrounding player safety…well, it wasn’t all that safe.
“Anytime you have a head knock and a loss of balance you see stars a little bit, I guess that’s the brain being knocked around. I certainly had enough of those in my career, but the mentality was you try and stay out there if you possibly can,” Brown says.
“If you can continue on to play that was just culturally the way the sport was.”
Was, or still is?
Despite fresh concerns surrounding concussion and new protocols in place, the ingrained culture of players doing everything they can, at all costs, to put their team ahead of their own health is still believed to be present in the AFL.
Associate Professor Alan Pearce, a concussion expert and the Research Manager of the Australian Sports Brain Bank, thinks this is a problem today.
“We have evidence to suggest that doctors are under a lot of pressure to get players back on the field,” Pearce says.
“Let’s try to change the culture and get players to understand that they don’t have to be superheroes, or they don’t have to be using it as a badge of honour.”
Reflecting this sentiment, the AFL has introduced a 12-day mandatory post-concussion break.
But despite this move from the league to try to move past the culture of ‘play on at all costs’, perceptions of the 12-day break still need to shift, Pearce says.
“People are misinterpreting the 12 days as being let out of jail so to speak on the twelfth day but it’s actually 12 days minimum and then you go into the return to play protocol,” he says.
“An extra couple of weeks off might give (players) an extra three or four years of playing … rather than retiring at 21 in tears in front of your mates because you can no longer play the sport that you love.”
So, who or what is driving this attitude that players should be putting their safety aside for a game of football?
Brown believes players as individuals don’t want to let their teammates down, but that the media and supporters also have a role to play.
Fans and AFL commentators constantly glorify a player who recklessly goes back with the flight of the ball, which puts their head in a vulnerable position.
On the flipside, if a player pulls out of a contest because they think they’re at risk, they’re slammed for not being tough enough.
Courage is a part of footy, but pressure is often put on players to sacrifice health for a match which is something Brown believes won’t change.
“I just don’t think we can sit here and say, well we’re not going to laud players for showing a great attack on the football and keeping their eyes on the ball … that is the essence of our game,” Brown says.
“I think all we can do is protect the players regarding the rules, and obviously the protocols post an accident or an incident.”
Some of these protocols involve a SCAT (Sport Concussion Assessment Tool), as well as other tests which players undertake post a potential concussion.
But Pearce says players purposely underperform on their baseline tests, so when they are concussed and do the test again, it doesn’t look as bad which can result in a player passing the concussion test when they might not be ready to come back and play.
Players can also memorise tests in an attempt to make it easier to pass them.
“I’ve had people and ex-players come into my lab that say, ‘you’re not going to do the SCAT are you – I’ll tell you all 30 words right now’ and they just rip them off, they know these sets,” Pearce says.
“When [former player] Kade Kolodjashnij and even [current player] Paddy McCartin say ‘we memorise these tests,’ the AFL scream ‘how can they do that, they’re not doing that in good faith’, well, football players and elite athletes will do whatever they can to get back on the field.”
That players are prepared to cheat concussion tests given to them for their own benefit to prevent potential brain damage points to an immense problem in the culture of the sport.
Independently of each other, Pearce and Brown have uncannily similar stances on player protection.
Pearce says the “players need to be almost saved from themselves” – a sentiment Brown echoes when he says “you need to save the players from themselves”