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Coroner recommends AFL safety overhaul

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Who is Shane Tuck? The former Richmond player who died in 2020 was the subject of a coronial investigation.
Who is Shane Tuck? 

An investigation by Victoria’s Coroners Court has recommended better safety measures to protect AFL and AFLW players, including limits on contact training sessions.

The investigation focused on the death of former AFL player, Shane Tuck (pictured above). Tuck was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated brain injuries.

It comes amid growing concern over the impacts of concussions on players’ physical and mental health.

Who is Shane Tuck?

The coronial investigation focused on the death of Shane Tuck, who played for Richmond from 2004 to 2013. He was a full-time professional boxer from 2015 to 2017.

Tuck endured several head injuries during his sporting career. This included a severe knock-out in his first boxing match, for which he was hospitalised.

Tuck’s wife said he experienced headaches and “did not appear to be himself” after a head knock.

Tuck’s CTE diagnosis

Tuck experienced a rapid mental health decline in 2019. He died by suicide in July 2020, aged 38.

After his death, doctors diagnosed Tuck with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a neurodegenerative disease linked to repeated head knocks. It can cause severe mental ill-health, and has been found across the world in former athletes who have died by suicide. Specialists can, so far, only definitively diagnose the disease after someone dies.

Tuck’s death automatically triggered an investigation by the Coroners Court. The findings were published on Monday.

Coroner’s report

State coroner Judge John Cain noted a link between CTE and repetitive head trauma, and found that Tuck displayed features that predicted the presence of CTE. This included depression and episodic memory impairment.

Cain made 21 recommendations to prevent future concussion cases among athletes. These were directed at AFL and boxing organisers, but also extended to medical and public bodies.

AFL concussion rules

The AFL was asked to consider limiting the number of contact training sessions that can take place throughout the season. Amended rules would apply to both male and female competitions.

Cain also recommended stronger powers for ‘concussion spotters’ used at AFL games. Spotters would be able to remove players from the field for a medical assessment.

The AFL has also been asked to deploy independent medical professionals at games, to support club doctors when a suspected head injury is treated.

Protective equipment

Cain asked the AFL to “take all reasonable steps” to extend the use of a special mouthguard that uses sensors to detect head impact during training sessions or matches.

The coroner urged the AFL to have at least 80% of players using mouthguard for the 2024 season, and also asked the AFL to pursue the possibility of making the mouthguards compulsory.

Standardised neurological testing for all players was also suggested.

AFL’s response

The AFL must respond to the coroner’s recommendations within three months. It has said it will “now take time to formally review” the report.

The AFL said it has already made over 30 changes to limit head injuries, and will continue to support player safety.

“The AFL is constantly investigating further changes and initiatives that involve technology and equipment trials and exploration of concepts that are directed towards protecting the health and safety of our athletes.”

Concussion lawsuit

Former players have recently brought several lawsuits against the AFL, alleging the league didn’t do enough to protect them from head injuries sustained over their respective careers.

Multiple former players lodged a class action lawsuit against the AFL in the Victorian Supreme Court and remains ongoing. This case alleges the AFL should have been proactive in preventing continual concussion injuries, and was negligent in its alleged failure to prevent head injuries.

Boxing overhaul

Cain also asked the board overseeing professional boxing and combat sports in Victoria to explore ways to reduce how often professional boxers can spar ahead of a bout.

The coroner also suggested that the board do further work to test the viability of reducing the length of boxing matches. Cain recommended a change in scoring to reduce the reward for high-impact punches.

Another recommendation was to develop a national database of all registered boxers. This could include details about a boxer’s injuries and medical suspensions.

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