It’s not the first time that concussions have surged as a prevalent issue amongst the footy universe and it’s highly likely that it won’t be the last.
It’s not just a prevalent issue, it’s a damning and depressing one that’s left sporting careers shortened, later lives degenerated and, in cases, cut short.
Greg Williams, a two-time Brownlow Medallist and one of the most celebrated midfielders of recent times revealed his battle with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative condition of the brain as a result of impact and trauma over time, on Seven’s program Sunday Night. Dementia goes hand-in-hand with CTE.
The symptoms are often first noticed many years after the concussions took place, as Williams told SEN.
“(I noticed it over) the last 5 or so years, I just deteriorated every year,” he said. “I’m still living well, but I’ve got a diary, I forget things, I get too aggressive at times and there’s no doubt that things are changing.”
He’s not the first former player to speak up about the long-term detriment of repeated concussive events. Former Eagle Tim Houlihan was also recently forced to retire from SANFL club South Adelaide at the age of 24.
Scott Stevens retired from Adelaide as a result of it in 2011, as did Daniel Bell who sought compensation from Melbourne after being diagnosed with brain damage at 25.
These events occurred alongside the AFL’s adoption of stricter game day rulings on concussion symptoms, infamously disallowing a visibly okay Jack Riewoldt to return to the field against St Kilda in the same year.
Therein lies the issue, though – long-term effects are not clearly visible and the early symptoms of CTE being diagnosed within a playing career are slim at best.
It allows players to forge long careers unbeknownst to the consequences, the worst of them occurring last year when Junior Seau, one of the most celebrated NFL linebackers in history, committed suicide, and studies revealed that he too was a sufferer of CTE.
The drastic nature of the impact it had on Seau is yet to be felt in the AFL, thankfully, and one hopes that it never will.
However, with concussion rates on the rise (the incidences of concussion in 2011, the latest released data, were the highest in nearly 20 years), the likelihood of it occurring as a result of CTE, though currently low, will increase with it.
According to Williams, CTE is not an uncommon post-career condition.
“I know teammates as well,” Williams said. “I go to functions and see older players, you know they’ve got problems, I know they have. And they need help, they need treatment.”
These comments, according to ABC, prompted the AFL to organise a conference on the ill effects of concussion and just what can be done to limit and prevent its occurrence.
Fellow Brownlow Medallist, current vice-captain of Geelong and AFLPA delegate Jimmy Bartel suggested making the computer-based testing more strict.
”We have spoken about it. The original baseline testing maybe needs to become more advanced,” Bartel said. ”It’s not so much how you deal with it when someone has concussion, it’s how you set the initial baseline.”
The current test, the Sport Concussion Assessment Tool 2 measures a player’s score after a head knock against their pre-season version and players have been known to intentionally worsen their scores, thus making a test under the influence of concussion appear better than it should.
Both Bartel and his current captain Joel Selwood have received multiple blows to the head over their careers – Selwood notably has made a name for himself for it – but Bartel said there was at least faith in the medical staff.
“I am very confident at Geelong because we have good staff, medical teams that take a very cautious approach. I am pretty happy with that,” he said.
Another group of club medical staff recently intervened at another club, resulting in Demon Rohan Bail being removed from contact sport for six weeks after concussion, following four weeks off for another incident during the middle of last season.
A player would naturally have full faith in their club doctors, such as Bail, but one has to wonder if it should be left to the discretion of officials to diagnose concussions and determine weeks off.
Williams suggested compulsory and temporary layoffs based on the severity and frequency of each incident.
“There are different levels of concussion and if you’re a certain level and you get knocked out there’s got to be a one-month, two-month lay-off,” he said.
“They’ve got to get treatment and they’ve got to make sure that they’re right before they come back.”
With the AFL’s conference on the way, it might be time for set amounts and severities of concussion to lead to predetermined and mandatory days and weeks away from the contact side of the game, and in the more severe cases, full clearance from medical teams – whether internal club doctors or external – to clear the player.
Alongside that, stricter and more detailed testing regimes and tracking player performance over time, even back to early draft camp records, to look for trends and patterns amongst groups and individuals would also be good options
Concussion is a serious health concern and in a contact sport, the thought of it will always linger. However, with the AFL in a strong position to make large grounds and become a true leader on the fight of it, it might at least be able to put this in the back of our minds.