AFL Courts Danger With Suppressive Concussion Stance

Australia — It was rather telling that when Dr Alan Pearce was asked on Monday whether he would be attending the forthcoming Australian Football League concussion workshop, he replied, “What workshop?”

Over the past year, Pearce’s research at Deakin University, Melbourne has brought the struggles of several former AFL and rugby league stars to the Australian public, and so thrust sports concussion into the limelight Down Under.

The cognitive impairments and short-term memory problems suffered by the likes of ex-Carlton midfielder Greg “Diesel” Williams and Test-level forward Ian Roberts are well-documented – both have featured prominently on national television – while, more worryingly, Pearce found that their amateur counterparts are liable to exactly the same symptoms minus the corresponding level of medical care and financial security.

It is surprising then that while the wise medics and scientists of Australian Rules football come together to talk concussion this week, the man whose findings brought the entire debate to a head in Australia will be sat alone in his office on the other side of Melbourne’s sprawling concrete jungle. He may as well be on the moon.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised; we’ve seen this before, after all.

The closed-shop, suppressive nature of the AFL’s handling of the concussion debate finds worrying resonance in the path trodden by their transatlantic cousins in the National Football League for many years.

The Australian administrators have tried desperately to distance themselves from the Stateside furore, and the findings made by Boston University’s team of researchers, who have posthumously diagnosed degenerative brain disease in hundreds of former athletes.

But a brilliant investigative report by ABC’s Wendy Carlisle last week revealed the true extent of the AFL’s deficiencies. She found that their official definition of concussion was false. That their flagship research programmes only began in 2012, had collected no data as yet, and were not in their fifth year of running as the body had claimed in its annual reports. That Associate Professor Paul McCrory, the man recognised as Australian Rules’ concussion expert-in-chief, had not published an original research article in over a decade.

Carlisle didn’t have to do much digging to scrape away the façade of PR progressiveness churned out to the masses and reveal the lingering beast of rejection and denial that lurked beneath, head wedged firmly in sand.

The AFL was not best pleased by what it saw as an affront on its treasured brand. Tough, I say.

Covert conferring between those almost exclusively funded by the body itself of or by one of its constituent clubs is exactly what the administrators must avoid. The debate shouldn’t be hemmed in, restricted to the nods, murmurs and consensus among researchers voting with their grant money.

McCrory in particular is renowned in the science community for discounting ideas and methodology proposed by new research groups, on the grounds that he once undertook similar investigations with far more primitive equipment and came up with nothing. Yet his comments regarding media hype and sensationalism reek of irony given it is his views that fuel much of the coverage.

The likes of McCrory and Associate Professor Gavin Davis, another member of the AFL working group who shares the increasingly flawed logic inherent in the former’s position are emerging as little more than water-muddying mouthpieces. Davis especially has blasted the Boston research – just months after leading concussion campaigner Chris Nowinski had addressed the body and the Players’ Association – during an unsavoury radio interview with Roberts.

Funded directly or indirectly by the AFL, they tell their research paymasters just what they want to hear in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary. Their stance grows more untenable with each passing weekend, each damning report, each player that returns to football concussed, each former hero battling through middle-age with a brain that cannot cope with simple, everyday tasks.

It is no fluke that in the days after Carlisle’s report was broadcast, the AFL dished out a spin-laden press release detailing their plans to screen and scan the brains of retired players in their much-vaunted MRI machine.

The study format itself appears encouraging and is certainly long overdue. The announcement was merely another indicator of the AFL’s determination to avoid accepting the true risks posed by head injury, and so its failure to look after those its success as a sport depends upon.

By Jamie Lyall

Jamie is a 20-year-old sportswriter based in Scotland, specialising in rugby union and soccer, and with a special interest in investigating, reporting and commenting on sports concussion.

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