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AFL's careless concussion calls could cost big bucks

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Concussions occur regularly in high-contact sports like the AFL (Screenshot via YouTbue)

Injury lawyers are preparing to file a class action suit against the AFL, which they say must better care for hundreds of former players harmed by concussion within the sport, writes Zayda Dollie.

EMMA GRANT was only 30 years old when she announced she was retiring from the Australian Football League (AFL).

Having played since she was a kid, by the time of her announcement, Grant boasted a nine-year professional career in AFL. The last four of those years were with the Collingwood Magpies — a club that had drafted her in 2017 and re-signed her every season since her debut.

In a practice match that took place after she was first drafted to Collingwood, Grant remarkably played each quarter of the game in a different position. She would come to be known for her versatility, playing as a forward, in the midfield, as well as in defence over the years she spent with the Magpies. The club highlighted this quality in its final press statement on Grant when her career came to an abrupt end in 2020.

On 18 January 2020, during a pre-season practice match, Grant suffered a severe concussion. On 5 February, only two and a half weeks later, she was allegedly given the green light to return to training.

Grant did not play a match for the rest of the season and in March 2020, two months after her initial injury, she officially announced she was retiring from the AFL, altogether.

According to an announcement published on the Collingwood Football Club’s official website on 25 March 2020:

'A head injury during a practice match in January ended Grant’s 2020 campaign before it began. A debilitating and prolonged recovery from concussion did not allow her to again pull the black and white jumper on.'

Grant is quoted as saying at the time:

“In the end, I made the decision to put my health first.”

After only four years with Collingwood, Grant’s AFL career had no doubt been cut short.

Grant, now 33, is suing her former club for negligence in its duty of care toward her after her concussion. Her legal representatives from law firm Margalit Injury Lawyers have stated that the club 'fell below a reasonable standard of care' and, as a result, the plaintiff 'suffered injury, loss and damage'

Grant’s lawsuit comes amid a major shift in attitude toward injury and contact sports.

Australia has always favoured a love of contact sports — from Aussie Rules to rugby league and rugby union. The risk of concussive damage and head injury in combat sports such as boxing seems obvious enough but when it comes to acknowledging the risk in other full-contact sports, as a nation, we have been slow to catch up.

A Senate Inquiry into the risk of concussion in sport is currently taking place, as pushed by the Greens late last year.

In December 2022, Senator Lidia Thorpe had stated that Australia is

“... falling behind the leadership shown by the USA and UK in this space... [and that an inquiry] will investigate practices undermining recovery periods and potential risk disclosure.”

In 2015, the American National Football League (NFL) reached a landmark concussion settlement that amassed to $1 billion and compensated some 5,000 players of the sport.

The class action lawsuit was filed as early as 2012, acquiring thousands of claims within a few years by former and current players. The main allegation against the NFL was its negligence in not protecting players from the dangers associated with concussion and repetitive blows to the head. It was found that the league deliberately ignored and concealed the risks of long-term brain damage stemming from repeated concussions in order to protect the economic value of the game.

Australia now finds itself in similar territory.

A recent headline in The Guardian'Australian sport looks at concussion like big tobacco sees smoking', titled an article by Stephanie Convery, a journalist who wrote extensively on the risks of concussion in boxing following the death of Sydney boxer Davey Browne in 2015 after being knocked out in the 12th round of a boxing match.

The inquest held into his death, as detailed by Convery, uncovered many of the problems around concussion, including that symptoms are often poorly understood and therefore go undetected.

Another issue around concussion is the lack of institutionalised safeguards and best practices in how to deal with a concussed athlete — something that could have potentially saved the life of Davey Browne, who fell into a coma and died in hospital. He was 29 years old.

'Australia, in many ways, is addicted to contact sport. We love it even though it kills us.'

Convery’s headline was, in fact, a statement heard at the Senate Inquiry. Four of Australia’s sporting codes – the National Rugby League, Rugby Australia, Football Australia and Boxing Australia – are part of the Inquiry.

Senior Research Project Officer School of Human Movement and Nutrition Sciences Dr Stephen Townsend said in his submission to the Inquiry:

'Australia, in many ways, is addicted to contact sport. We love it even though it kills us.'

Echoing the claims made against the NFL, Townsend went on to describe Australia’s history and legacy of sport and how previous attempts to raise concerns were hindered by leagues and supporters because sport in this country is ultimately 'too culturally and economically important to change'.

Margalit Injury Lawyers – the same law firm representing Emma Grant – is preparing to file a class action suit against the AFL on behalf of potentially hundreds of former players.

Principal lawyer at the firm, Michel Margalit, reportedly said in a recent media statement:

'The cost of Australian society receiving so much joy from the game is the obligation to care for our players. The time has come for change and to do what is right.'

It is evident that despite or perhaps because of our enthusiasm for sport and our nation’s dedication to preserving its legacy as a sport-playing nation, our athletes are the ones who have suffered for it.

In Emma Grant’s retirement announcement, she said that growing up in the country, she never believed she would have the opportunity to play for an AFL club.

Grant reportedly said:

"I can’t thank the club enough for the past four years and making my football dream a reality.”

It seems that dream has now ended. Not only will Grant have to readjust to life as a prematurely retired athlete, but the AFL will now also have to wake up to a sobering new reality — one in which the game’s success can no longer come at the cost of the health of its players.

Zayda Dollie is a sports journalist who believes in athlete story-telling, the redemptive power of sport and having female voices heard.

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