The AFL’s players have accepted that the days of underplaying head injuries and treating knocks as a badge of honour are gone, and that they must do their part to enforce the league’s new guidelines for the game day treatment of concussion.
AFL Players Association chief executive Matt Finnis said that while he expected players to throw themselves at the ball with no less vigour, they needed to co-operate with what the AFL hopes will be a more conservative approach by clubs to concussions this year.
The league ruled this week that players diagnosed with concussion cannot be sent back onto the ground and that club doctors would have access to video monitors on the sidelines, to help them assess players’ head injuries as accurately as possible.
Clubs were told they can now replace a player with their non-activated substitute for a period of 20 minutes, while their teammate is being assessed after a head knock. They were also provided with a broad range of guidelines for the game day assessment of head injuries, which were generated following a worldwide concussion conference in Zurich last year.
"I think we’re seeing with the players that there’s a greater awareness that they’re probably part of the solution. Under reporting about concussion or perhaps not providing full disclosure as part of the diagnosis is something which is a thing of the past I think," said Finnis on Thursday.
"Players are getting a sense that we can’t be too careful, that we’ve got to co-operate with the doctors and that if the league can adopt rule changes which go to provide that support then we think that’s a fantastic thing.
"There was a time where it was a badge of honour for players to come back on the field having copped a head knock. The guys will keep putting their head over the ball but I think it’s incumbent upon those of us who are involved in the running of the game to put the rules around it, to support it and to protect the players from themselves.
"I think we are seeing a bit of a shift in the attitude of players where they realise they’ve got to be part of the solution as well, and hopefully we see that blind courage perhaps be replaced with some more considered involvement in considering just how safe it is to come back on after a hit in the head."
Players are also enthusiastic about a proposal that would see them make a later start to pre-season, either at the start of December or January, depending on their seniority, to ensure they are able to take a genuine break at the end of the season and use their annual leave to better balance their lives.
Speaking at a breakfast celebrating the AFL’s relationship with AFL SportsReady, which provides training and workplace opportunities for players through its Next Goal program, Finnis said players needed to balance their desire to be the best athlete they could be with proper exposure to the world around them, and that they needed to be given space to do so.
"We’ve been looking at a range of initiatives around creating that space for professional development - days off during the week, but certainly the annual leave break is something we have our eye on, to make sure that the players get the chance not just to get away from the game and to travel but also spend some valuable time in business, in industry, developing in that time for life after football," he said.
"Everyone’s got a role to play in making sure we do what we can to achieve that life balance in football. If there’s clubs out there that pay lip service to this philosophy or undermine it, then they’re going to be the ones who eventually lose in this. But I’d say right now there’s a fair bit of momentum behind ensuring that when the players have down time, it’s genuine down time."