Tougher concussion protocols could be introduced for major sporting codes after a Senate inquiry called for better regulations to limit head injuries, especially for children.
It also called for stronger government action to manage concussions, and better compensation for players living with long-term injuries.
‘Concussion’ is a traumatic brain injury usually caused by a blow to the head and often associated with contact sports, like football codes.
Short-term symptoms of concussion include dizziness or nausea. Repeat or severe concussions can lead to long-term health complications, such as degenerative brain disease.
Severe concussions can lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which can cause severe mental health conditions, psychosis, dementia and suicidal ideation.
Currently, doctors can only diagnose CTE after death, by examining a person’s brain. Researchers have identified multiple CTE cases in former contact sports players.
There have been several high-profile cases relating to CTE in Australian sport.
Earlier this year, two lawsuits were brought against the AFL from former players alleging the league mismanaged their head injuries. A similar 2015 lawsuit against the NFL in the U.S. led to a $US1 billion payout.
The Senate established its inquiry to assess the evidence about the effects of concussion and to evaluate the responses of Australian sporting bodies.
It recommended more funding for research and better guidelines for medical practitioners.
It also recommended changes to prevent, manage and compensate for head injuries in sport.
The inquiry called for sporting codes to take a more “precautionary” approach to concussion by setting rules to limit head contact.
It did not make specific recommendations, but suggested rule modifications were especially important for children and adolescents and pointed to international examples such as limiting ‘headers’ for children playing soccer.
The inquiry also called for a more proactive approach by sporting codes to ensure athletes fully recover from concussion before they return to play, for example through mandatory suspensions.
Many sports already have suspension periods of around 12 days, but the inquiry heard evidence that this was insufficient. It asked the Federal Government to develop national “binding” guidelines, especially for community sport.
The Senate concussion inquiry also found injured players needed better financial compensation.
It noted that several professional codes had compensation funds for injured players, but that similar supports were not available for those injured playing community sport.
A major hurdle has been the reluctance of sporting codes to acknowledge that head injuries cause CTE. This is despite the inquiry finding a “clear” link.
Several major sporting bodies appeared before the inquiry, but only the AFL accepted the word ’cause’ was appropriate when discussing concussion and CTE. The NRL and Football Australia preferred “association” or “link”.