AFL must urgently change how the game is trained and played, concussion expert says

  • In short: The AFL is taking greater action to prevent concussions, which advocates and former players have praised
  • What’s next: Neuroscientist Chris Nowinski is urging the AFL to do more to prevent chronic traumatic encephalopathy

An internationally-renowned advocate on the dangers of traumatic brain injuries has backed the AFL’s crackdown on head-high bumps and dangerous tackles, and is calling for urgent changes to the way footballers train and play.

American pro wrestler turned neuroscientist Chris Nowinski said he “fully supports” greater penalties for hard hits to the head during a season that has been defined by a significant shift in the way players’ brains are protected.

While the AFL has not issued an edict declaring a change in rules, the number of suspensions for dangerous tackles and bumps has noticeably increased.

This has caused some confusion among players and coaches, and ignited a public debate about the direction of the game.

Several concussion-related class actions have been filed, which could involve potentially hundreds of former players, as they seek millions of dollars from the AFL over head injuries suffered during their careers.

Chris Nowinski (navy jacket) founded the Concussion Legacy Foundation to support American athletes affected by concussion and CTE.()

Dr Nowinski said it would take time for the public to shift their attitudes towards changing the game to prevent concussions.

“What we’ve learned doing this for 15 years in the US is that everyone complains at the beginning, but then they come around to it, especially when they see their heroes suffering and very courageously taking their stories public,” he told ABC Sport.

“We absolutely have to do everything we can to eliminate both the number of head impacts and the strength of those head impacts.”

After nearly two decades “banging his head” while playing Harvard football, soccer and WWE, multiple concussions prompted Dr Nowinski to retire from sport at the age of 25. A headache ended up lasting a whole year.

He then spent the next two decades “trying to figure out how to change concussion culture” in contact sports.

Head contact at training should be avoided until kids turn 14, protocol urges

Dr Nowinski contributed to a study published last week on the link between repetitive blows to the head and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

CTE is a neurodegenerative disease found in the brains of AFL players Danny Frawley, Shane Tuck and Polly Farmer, and NRL player Paul Green.

The study examined the donated brains of 631 American footballers and found that CTE was a product of how many times the player was hit in the head and the cumulative force of those blows.

“We found that the number of hits and the strength of those hits predicted who got CTE and who didn’t,” said Dr Nowinski.

Leveraging the results of the study, Dr Nowinski is in Australia to spruik the CTE prevention protocol.

It was written by the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF), a US not-for-profit group founded by Dr Nowinski to provide support to players affected by concussion and CTE.

Chris Nowinski hopes to raise attention to CTE during his visit to Australia.()

The protocol argues if contact sports like the AFL are to meaningfully prevent CTE, they must change the way they play and train to minimise the occurrence of head hits.

For junior footballers, it recommends kids not be exposed to head contact in training until the age of 14.

“We don’t need six year olds banging heads over and over again,” Dr Nowinski said.

He said contact sports must address the issue urgently.

“We need a reinvention of how we practise. We don’t need head impacts in practise — nobody should be losing brain cells when nobody’s watching,” he said.

“I think we’re starting to get a window into how much former AFL players are struggling.”

“But I also look at this as a former professional wrestler who used to let people hit me in the head with chairs.

“We can choose how dangerous we want professional AFL to be, as long as the players’ association and the league are having an honest conversation with the players about if we keep hitting each other in the head over and over again — your future will not be good.”

Total permanent disability from playing footy

Former West Coast Eagles player Patrick Bines knows the danger of football better than most.

Signed by the Eagles as a category B rookie in 2019, Bines was playing in the reserves when he suffered a debilitating neck injury after an on-field collision.

He said he broke two discs in his neck and “messed up his neuro system”.

Patrick Bines’s footy career ended after he suffered a neck injury during an on-field collision.()

Through numerous surgeries and horrific pain, Bines was bedridden for about 20 hours a day and lost 40 kilograms.

After initially being knocked back by his insurance, last year the Melburnian received $500,000 as part of a total permanent disability insurance claim.

But the now 24-year-old still struggles with his pain daily and has not worked since the crippling injury.

He recently spoke at a CLF fundraiser where Dr Nowinski was the keynote speaker.

In a CLF video, Bines praised the AFL’s move to enforce stricter punishments for head-high contact this season.

“There is a way to go, but they’re finally recognising the serious implications of it,” Bines said.

“Footy’s one part of your life and then there’s the afterlife.

“It’s such a small amount of time that you’re in the system and there’s a whole life outside of footy with family, work, whatever it is.”

Patrick Bines supports the AFL’s crackdown on head-high contact.()

Bines said injuries will inevitably happen but the AFL must ensure there was a system that supported players long term, especially if an injury prematurely ended a career.

“We’ve seen too many times players once they finish their careers struggle so much with the effects of the game and what they’ve been put through,” he said.

“These are people’s lives we’re talking about.”

He said the AFL and players’ association needed to contribute more funding towards support measures like psychologists.

“After seeing what has happened [not just to] myself but everyone else … it’s a big gap we need to fill,” he said.

Neurodegenerative disease going to ‘keep happening’

Dr Nowinski described the AFL’s recent acknowledgement of the link between repeated head knocks and CTE as a “big moment”, following a period when the league ignored the evidence.

He was in no doubt former AFL players would continue to be diagnosed with the disease, saying it “deserves a massive level of attention”.

“We continue to diagnose cases that people haven’t heard of yet,” he said.

On Friday, St Kilda marked the third iteration of Spud’s Game, a match played in honour of club icon Danny Frawley, who suffered from CTE and died in 2019.

Danny Frawley suffered from CTE after sustaining repeated concussions during his AFL career.()

Frawley’s wife Anita said in April that the AFL must act immediately to prevent CTE among players.

Dr Nowsinki acknowledged Frawley’s family’s efforts to bring attention to CTE.

“It is great that we recognise Danny Frawley — his family has been amazing taking his story public and educating the country about what’s happened to him,” he said.

“This is going to keep happening and I hope we understand that we control the future.

“We can’t fix the past … but we need to turn off the faucet and stop creating the problem we now know is there and is coming if we don’t change.”

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