League urged to take action as Senate concussion inquiry continues

Deremott Brereton, Leigh Matthews and Barry Hall were the serial bad boys of the league.

Known well by the AFL’s tribunal, each of these men sat on the sidelines on numerous occasions, and all three have copped lengthy suspensions for hits to the head of an opposing player.

Our understanding of the effects of head knocks and concussions on long-term health has increased substantially since the times of the two Hawthorn greats, and even since the 2011 retirement of “Big Bad Barry”.

Now, more than ever, it’s crucial to enforce the importance of stamping out any contact to the head in the game.

But there’s been few signs of change.

In only the first round of the 2023 season, three players were suspended for head-high contact, with Adelaide’s Shane McAdam copping a three-match ban from the AFL tribunal.

And in Round 2, Richmond’s Nathan Broad slung young Adelaide defender Patrick Parnell onto his head, leaving him concussed and unable to play the following week.

Broad was given a four match holiday.

In the short term, Parnell misses a week of footy, and has a number of uncomfortable days with the symptoms of concussion.

If this was the extent of the issue, the month-long suspension of Broad would make sense.

But we now know too much about the lifelong impacts of head knocks and the debilitating nature of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) to let such incidents continue across the game without extreme action being taken.

When the AFL changed its sanction process in 2005 towards a sentencing “grid”, the aim was to eliminate guesswork in handing down sanctions for inappropriate conduct, making it more objective than it was previously.

In 2014, when demerit points were scrapped for the 2015 season, the AFL was looking to simplify the Match Review Panel’s decision-making process by taking less account of previous actions when suspending or fining players.

It’s clear that the league is willing and able to make changes to the way it approaches irresponsible conduct on and off the field, but there’s been little movement in the last few years about seriously sanctioning a player who causes another to be concussed.

It’s less about intention, and more about a focus on player safety and making sure that there is no situation in which a player may consider a bump better suited than a tackle.

Serious allegations levelled by former players against the AFL around not disclosing the consequences of head knocks later in life have come about from a class-action lawsuit led by former Geelong player Max Rooke, opening up the conversation about what the league is doing in response to new information on the impact of concussions.

Speaking at a Senate inquiry into concussions Anita Frawley, the wife of the late AFL player Danny Frawley who died in 2019, urged the league to act.

A close up of a basketball game
Concussion is an ongoing issue for the AFL. Photo: JamesDPhotography (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

It seems more than reasonable to crack down on the perpetrators, especially if a plan backed by neuroscientists and former Hawk Jordan Lewis to bring in a 30-day layoff comes to fruition.

A four-week suspension for the offending player may be a little harsh, but something has to be done to stamp out unnecessary head-high contact.

It’s also important for the sport to change the rulings around careless conduct.

Sentencing since the revision of the AFL’s Tribunal guidelines in 2021, where the “potential to cause serious injury” became one of the defining factors for head-high contact, has changed.

At this point, players are being banned for actions that don’t result in concussion or serious injury to the head.

The current AFL sentencing system looks more at the outcome rather than the action when for all involved, a mixture of both would suit better.

After all, the aim is to reduce the number of incidents that could cause serious injury, and that requires outcome and action to be considered in tandem.

But there’s still no way of appropriately sanctioning these offences, as we saw in Round 1 with Kysaiah Pickett’s hit on Bailey Smith only receiving a two-week ban – despite the knock being a shoulder charge that could have left Smith out cold if he was hit just a centimetre to the left or right.

Considering the wealth of knowledge we now have of long-term effects from head knocks and the possibility of a longer stint on the sidelines for those who do get concussed, automatic longer suspensions or other solutions need to be urgently looked at by the AFL.