Neuroscientist Alan Pearce has warned that the AFL and NRL were still giving themselves “out-clauses” when it came to issues of concussion and standing down players, and that both contact sports had a lot of work still to do.
- Both the AFL and NRL have introduced measures to help with concussion this year, from a newly available medical sub to a crackdown on high contact in tackles
- Dr Pearce said more research was needed to determine whether prolonged exposure risk to head trauma made it more likely for players to have serious repercussions
- The NRL and AFL have 11 and 12-day concussion stand-downs, but Dr Pearce said there were ways for clubs and leagues to return players to training and competition early
Amid the furore in football circles over the banning — and subsequent overturning of that ban — of Gold Coast player Nick Holman for a run-down tackle on Geelong’s Mitch Duncan, Dr Pearce has spoken in a wide-ranging interview on issues related to concussion within contact sports.
“One of the things we’ve been most concerned about is exposure to brain trauma,” said Dr Pearce, an associate professor in the school of allied health at La Trobe University, and Victorian manager of the Australian Sports Brain Bank.
“What we’ve seen with the Danny Frawleys, the Shane Tucks, the Steve Folkes (ex-AFL and NRL players whose brains have been examined posthumously and found to have CTE) — it’s more about the exposure around repetitive trauma through their career.
“While concussion has been the lightning rod for this, it’s not necessarily the driver for neuro-degenerative disease that we’re most concerned about.
“The Nick Holman one, that was pretty much an accident, so they need to be thinking logically.
“If it was an intentional elbow to the head or an intentional bump that was meant to hurt, that was quite malicious, (that’s different), they should be two separate things.”
The decision to charge Holman for his tackle on Duncan being concussed led to a storm of protest from pundits, ex-players and fans complaining that the tackle had been a fair one and that Duncan’s head hitting the turf — which resulted in a concussion — had been accidental.
Dr Pearce said there was not enough information to determine whether longer exposure guaranteed more health problems for players, or whether the chances of serious repercussions increased with the number of games played.
“That’s why we are so desperate to get funding to research this and get answers for Australia,” he said.
“What we see (research) on exposure risk comes largely from the US, in American football. One of the counters to that is that rugby and Australian football are different in their characteristics … to see if that is applicable here.
“However, in saying that, we never thought we’d find a case of CTE in Australia for the same reason.
“Even a 200-gamer in the AFL — that doesn’t include games prior to the AFL. They could have been in the VFL, or the WAFL, prior to that the junior competition and prior to that the sub-junior competition.
“You can see how the years add up, I don’t think we will see another 400-gamer again, because of the potential concerns around exposure risk.”
The NRL and AFL have both signalled an increased focus on concussion — rugby league by way of a crackdown on high contact in tackles and the AFL by the introduction of a medical sub that can be used to replace players with concussion.
Dr Pearce acknowledged the work being done by both the NRL and AFL, but stated they have much more to do.
“It’s only this year they’ve brought in the 12-day stand-down in AFL, and the 11-day stand-down in NRL,” he said.
“But both codes have what I call ‘get out of jail’ clauses. In the AFL’s release (on stand-downs) they talk of presumptive concussion.
“If a player comes off and the doctor presumes they are concussed, but after further examination they say they weren’t concussed, they can either return to the field or don’t have to enter the 12-day stand-down period.
“That needs to be cleared by the chief medical officer. In the NRL, with the 11-day stand-down, the club can go to an independent neurologist or independent doctor, who may say they’ve recovered and can be returned to training or competition before the 11 days are up.
Message to fans — trust the process
Dr Pearce said the passion for the game from supporters often meant emotions spilled out on social media and elsewhere about concussion issues.
“We’ve got to think about these players as human beings, not just as (sporting) commodities for our entertainment,” he said.
“I think the codes are trying to do the right thing, and with the Holman case in particular, we’ve got to trust the process.
“Yes, he got penalised for two weeks, but the (Tribunal) then reversed that, because they could see logic (against the charge), which is why I think we need to trust the process.
“In order to protect the head we have to have some processes in place and like any process it’s not going to be 100 per cent perfect or 100 per cent in agreement with everyone.
“With this process, the natural justice prevailed. They looked at it and said no it wasn’t malicious, and they reversed it.
“I think fans are going to have to be a little more understanding and not just let emotion drive their responses, which can come across on social media.