Is Aussie Rules’ lack of helmets an issue?


SImon Fraser University researcher Daniel Abram applies brain shields to a high school football team’s helmets in British Columbia, Canada. Photo: SFU (CC BY 2.0)


The dangerous nature of the contact sports of Aussie Rules Football and gridiron or American football often elicits discourse over player safety. NFL players are known to wear protective padding on their bodies including helmets, whereas AFL players do not have that sort of protection – a feature of the sport often remarked on by overseas commentators.

A recent lawsuit has further raised awareness of player safety and the severity of tackles and bumps during game play. Up to 60 players have launched a class action in the Supreme Court against the AFL, as the league undertakes a $25 million study about the long term effects of concussions frequently and devastatingly experienced by retired AFL legends of the  game. The study aims to help club doctors gain a better understanding of how to identify concussions in players and possible prognoses.

One of those legends – former AFL player Danny Frawley – passed away in a car crash in September 2019, at the age of 56. It was discovered that he suffered from low stage CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy – which was linked to having received multiple hits to the head. He encountered 20 concussions during his career leading him to be admitted to hospital five to six times for treatment. Victorian Coroner Paresa Spanos found that immediately prior to his death, Frawley’s anxiety and depression was aggravated by personal and professional stressors.

The current ‘Guidelines for the Management of Sport Related Concussion – AFL and AFLW’ outlines how to diagnose concussions and player screenings, and how players can educate themselves. It also consists of the protocols the players and health staff must follow such as removal from play, initial assessment, and return to play. According to the AFL, the most recent change occurred in the return to play regulations, where the earliest a player can return to play is on the 12th day after the concussion took place (after successfully completing a graded loading program – that is, a gradual return to training – and obtaining medical clearance). The AFL concussion guidelines outline the return to play program that consists of rest, recovery and a graded return to training and play. The updated guidelines now include a compulsory minimum of a 24 hour gap to complete each step. If any symptoms occur during the return to training and play stage, the athlete must go back to the previous step and complete it symptom free.

With changes taking place in how the AFL manages concussions when they occur, is the introduction of helmets in the AFL worth it? Will it make any physiological changes to a player’s short term and long term health? According to the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, concussions are less common in the AFL compared to other tackling sports such as rugby, American football and water polo, due to a more conservative approach to management.

A study conducted in the United States found that 61 percent of 2552 retired professional American football players sustained at least one concussion during their professional careers. They further discovered that 24 percent sustained three or more during their active playing years. The result was that athletes with repeated concussions are five times more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment in contrast to retired players with no history of concussions.

The School of Sport and Exercise Science at Victoria University conducted an experiment that tested the shock absorbency in ‘padded’ helmets that could be used across various types of sports. The high contact nature of Aussie Rules Football requires helmets to not have a hard outer shell because of a possible hazard to other players. It was determined that one out of seven helmets tested abided with the criteria, with a low probability of reducing the risk of head injury consisting of the thickest padding and foam density.

Ultimately, the use of helmets in the NFL do not appear to make a significant difference in concussion rates as they occur regularly during play. Even with ‘protective’ helmets players are still getting concussed, therefore the AFL is less likely to introduce mandatory usage of helmets during game play. Yes, concussions will occur, but there currently is no padding adequate enough to protect the skull which would prevent concussions from occurring – consequently there is no definitive reason for AFL athletes to wear helmets during game play. Instead, the league should continue investing in research and adapting its management of concussion for the benefit of player health and safety.