More concussion-related lawsuits in sport likely


James Harris

Research is making the impact of repeated head knocks from high contact sports like Aussie Rules clearer. Photo: Jimmy Harris (CC BY 2.0)

Concussion in sport is a widely known issue, which has flared up recently as the link between concussions and mental health continues to become clearer because of ongoing research.

Leagues are right to be concerned – the latest concussion related lawsuit is threatening to cost the AFL as much as $1 billion.

The landmark class action was recently launched by former Geelong Football Club two-time premiership player Max Rooke and was joined by more than 60 former players.

Each player is suing the AFL for $2 million to compensate for the damage they sustained through head trauma, medical costs and the ruining of their quality of life.

Margalit Injury Lawyers recently published a statement alleging Rooke had suffered “permanent, life-altering injuries … due to the negligence of the AFL.”

The firm also invited more former players to come forward and join the class action.

Rooke played for Geelong from 2001 to 2010, winning two premierships with the Cats and playing 135 games.

He alleges that he suffered 20-30 concussions in his nine-year AFL career.

Other notable footballers such as former Western Bulldog, Liam Picken and former vice-captain for Collingwood’s AFLW side, Emma Grant have been in the news after filing concussion-driven civil lawsuits.

Both players were forced into retirement because of the on-field head trauma they had experienced.

In 2020, former Melbourne Demon, Shaun Smith won a $1.4 million insurance payout after battling the long-term impacts of repeated head knocks.

While concussions that occur in the elite level of the game are well-reported, little known statistics involve concussions at community levels – most regularly in the juniors.

According to a study published in The Age, concussion has been the top cause of hospitalisations in community football since 2013-14, with more than two thirds of these injuries in players aged 10-19.

There was an 89 percent increase in concussions in local footy from 2012-2019.

With a greater focus on concussion and the long-term impacts it can have, it’s expected that more people who have been impacted by head trauma will come forward which will put increasing pressure on sporting leagues.

Recently, the AFL released updated concussion guidelines and introduced a five-year strategic plan with a focus on the 11 steps of the return-to-play program.

The $25 million investment will see the 12-day protocol implemented at other levels of community football, as well as provide club doctors with a greater understanding of concussion and how to manage it.

While steps like this work to improve the rules and guidelines around concussion, it may be too late as more players fight for compensation after battling concussion-related mental health issues.

This is the first major lawsuit relating to concussion in the sporting world, since the successful 2013 appeal against the National Football League (NFL) from former players who had suffered as a result of the US league’s negligence.

The payout was reportedly near $1 billion in this case, which is believed to have had a substantial impact on the sport of rugby at all levels.

Mental health is closely connected with a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) which can develop as a result of repeated head trauma from contact sports such as the AFL and NFL.

CTE is a neurodegenerative disease that can only be diagnosed once a person has died, and an autopsy is done on the person’s brain.

American football was the first to make this link back in 2017 with 99 percent of players sampled showing symptoms of CTE.

In December last year, Australia’s Senate announced a Parliamentary inquiry into the growing concerns about the link between CTE and football in Australia.

This inquiry will try to uncover further information about CTE and its link with sport, as well as look at the long-term effects of concussions.

In the last few years, former AFL greats Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer (84), Danny Frawley (56) and Shane Tuck (38) were all posthumously diagnosed with CTE.

As cases of CTE continue to rise and there is more information about the links between concussion and mental health, sporting leagues can be expected to face additional legal troubles in the future.