The days of "walking off" a concussion are long gone, but football clubs need to remain vigilant when it comes to knocks to the head. MONIQUE PATTERSON reports.
FORMER AFL great Jonathan Brown believes players need to be protected from themselves when it comes to head knocks.
Brown, who played for the Brisbane Lions, said there were serious possible ramifications from concussions, something he has personally experienced.
"I had some really bad incidents," Brown said.
"I was crook for the best part of probably three to four months - I couldn't drive a car for a few weeks and it took probably six months to make a full recovery."
Despite these incidents, Brown said his hunger to return to the field never waned.
"It didn't affect me in terms of my love for the game, my wanting to get back out there," he said.
It is for this reason Brown welcomes clubs being strict on when a player is allowed to return to the field.
"It's chalk and cheese from what it was even 15 years ago," Brown said.
"The doctors and medicos certainly didn't have as much power and control as they do now over the players."
Brown admitted he was guilty of returning to the field when he shouldn't have.
"The 2003 grand final, I probably would have missed the whole game because I got knocked out in the first minute but I played every minute of the game," he said.
Brown said his memory of the match was fuzzy.
As a father he is pleased this is no longer allowed to happen.
"Players need protection from themselves - that's why they're out there playing - they're competitive beasts," Brown said.
He said teaching players the correct technique was also vitally important.
"It's incumbent upon us to teach the kids how to protect themselves," Brown said.
"I really do think it's a failure of technique that leads to some of these incidents."
Brown said he didn't believe he had any long-term effects from the concussions he suffered during his AFL career.
"I forget the keys every now and then but I'm getting closer to 40 now," he joked.
Brown said he also made a conscious decision to keep active physically and mentally.
"If you've had head knocks you need to keep yourself really active, I think that's really important to do.
"You've got to give yourself the best chance going forward to stay sharp."
Former south-west football identity Jason Mifsud admitted he too was guilty of playing when suffering from a concussion.
The Koroit player was knocked out in the 2000 Hampden league grand final against Camperdown and went against advice from the club doctor to go back on.
"Playing coaches are not that good at taking their own advice," he said.
"If it was another player under no circumstances would I have allowed them to go back on."
Mifsud said the culture of allowing players to go back on after a head knock had improved greatly.
But he thinks there can be improved measures in place to lessen the chances of long-term effects to players' health.
Mifsud said there were at least two matches - the 2000 grand final and the 1995 grand final when he was playing for Caramut - when he should have gone off the field.
"In hindsight, both those knocks were pretty significant," he said.
"There's no doubt my judgement was impaired. The games themselves are quite hazy - it's a very slow motion affect that happens, which creates more risk."
Mifsud said when he was starting his career, the approach to head knocks was very lax.
"The notion of the trainer having the smelling salts to get you moving was very real. Moving into the early `90s and late `90s there was the approach of 'get him off the field and bandage him up and put him back on'. At least we gave him the courtesy to take him off and give him an orange and a drink and get him back out there," he joked.
"In the late `90s and early 2000s the sporting community became more conservative around head trauma."
Mifsud said he believed leagues should consider investing in a pool of medical experts who are called upon to attend games.
"If you created a pool of medical resources the league managed I think that would go a long way," he said.
In addition to that, Mifsud said he believed clubs should have a structure in place to ensure playing coaches were not allowed to make the decision about whether they were fit to return to the ground after suffering an injury.
"I would put measures in place to make sure someone had that overriding decision," Mifsud said.
Cobden's Les Sumner, who has been a trainer for more than 40 years, said he was pleased concussions were treated more seriously in 2019.
"It was once viewed as 'it's just a knock, you'll be right'. If you went off, it was said you were weak - thank goodness that has changed," Sumner said.
He said coaching staff were now more respectful of the tough decisions trainers have to make.
"As a trainer if we say to the club 'we're not letting him back on' that's down iron clad but in the past you'd say 'we don't want that player back on' but you would turn your back and he'd be back on again."
Former Carlton great John Goold said things had changed substantially since his playing days.
"Back then people were carried off on stretchers all the time," the Camperdown resident said.
Goold said he would guess that he took a knock to the head at least once every 10 games.
Hampden Football Netball League president Tim Mason said it was difficult to have a medical expert at every game.
However, he said it would be great if the AFL considered funding medical resources for country leagues.
"Obviously the safety of all our participants is of a high priority but it becomes extremely difficult to have the resources to have medical staff at each game," Mason said.
"It's difficult enough to even get trainers to volunteer their time.
"If it's something the AFL would like to come along and support, we would be appreciative of that."
Warrnambool and District Football Netball League president Michael Harrison said he believed it would be difficult to find enough doctors to attend every match.
"There's not a lot of doctors who have the time or have expressed interest in being involved in a sporting club as their doctor," Harrison said.
"In an ideal world we would be the same as the AFL but we are country football, not professional football - country clubs haven't got the resources an AFL club has."
Their comments come after football great Alan "Dizzy" Lynch revealed he will donate his brain when he dies to help specialists better understand the impacts of concussion.
The 65-year-old estimates he suffered from concussion on 15 to 20 occasions.
Lynch, who played seven Victorian Football League games with Richmond and Footscray, now struggles to hold conversations and battles with short-term memory loss.
It also comes hot on the heels of the horrific clash in a Warrnambool and District league match earlier this season that left East Warrnambool player Danny Chatfield with a fractured skull.
Another former south-west player, Liam Picken, who played in the Western Bulldogs' 2016 premiership-winning side, announced he was giving the game away as a result of his own struggles earlier this year.
Warrnambool GP Dr Phillip Hall is relieved attitudes to concussions in sport have changed.
"In the past coaches would often be swayed by others about how important it was to get that player back on the ground," Dr Hall said.
"But now things have changed and people are more aware of the risks of going back on the field."
Dr Hall said having a doctor at every football match in the region would not be financially viable.
"There aren't enough doctors to go around or enough doctors with interest in the games," he said.
"It certainly wouldn't be viable financially to pay a doctor to attend every game."
Dr Hall said trainers were an invaluable resources at football and netball matches.
He said they regularly underwent training to ensure their first aid skills were up-to-date.
"The trainers are the backbone of the medical support in the leagues," Dr Hall said.
He said the trainers took their role very seriously and were a vital asset.
Dr Hall said while concussions were a concern in contact sports, there was no evidence to show wearing a helmet was the answer.
"Helmets haven't been shown to have any benefit at all," he said
Dr Hall said there were a number of products which were being tested to see whether they would aid participants of contact sports, including mouth guards that measure the impact of head knocks.
He said correctly assessing players who had taken a hit to the head was vitally important.
In addition to that, clubs need to ensure that players get a follow-up assessment after the match.
Dr Hall said clubs should never rely on players to make their own assessment about whether they are fit to play.
"They will always say they're fine," he said.
East Warrnambool coach Danny Chatfield is uncertain of his future in the sport after a horrific head clash in the club's match against Old Collegians in May.
He suffered a skull fracture and bleeding on the brain.
Chatfield said he believed a few knocks to the head in earlier matches this year may have contributed to the incident
"I was knocked out about eight weeks ago in a pre-season match and I've had a couple of other knocks, but you shrug it off," he said.
Chatfield said he now realises he should have sought medical advice before playing again.
"I probably didn't accept that I needed to go and see a doctor and I've paid the price, but I'm lucky to be here," he said.
Chatfield told The Standard last week a series of meetings with neurosurgeons will determine his football future.
A report released by the AFL about managing concussion in the game states head impacts can be associated with serious and potentially fatal brain injuries.
"Any player who has suffered a concussion or is suspected of having a concussion must be medically assessed as soon as possible after the injury and must not be allowed to return to play in the same game/practice session," it states.
Concussion is caused by trauma to the brain and results to a range of observable signs including lying motionless on the ground, a blank or vacant look, balance difficulties or symptoms reported by the player such as headache, blurred vision, dizziness, nausea, balance problems and fatigue.
The report states the recovery time from concussion varies, but most players are well again in 10 to 14 days.
"Concussion is a relatively common injury in Australian football," the report states.
"At the elite level, the overall rate of concussion is six to eight per 1000 player hours (one approximately every three matches for a team of 22 players)."
Potential complications of concussion include:
- Higher risk of further concussion or other injuries when returning to play
- Prolonged symptoms
- Symptoms of depression and other psychological problems
- Long-term damage to brain function
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