Controversy in the AFL Tribunal follows a Senate report into head trauma in sport, and raises further questions about the willingness to risk bodies – and minds – for the sake of victory. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
The battleground of sports concussion
On Tuesday night, the AFL’s tribunal was in session for a very important hearing. For a sport that generates tiresome quantities of hype, in which perspective is frequently suffocated, it can be difficult to determine genuine importance. But this hearing seemed to qualify.
At the heart of it was the severe collision between Collingwood’s Brayden Maynard and Melbourne’s Angus Brayshaw, in which the flying shoulder of the former gruesomely crashed into the head of the latter. Brayshaw was knocked unconscious for two minutes, stretchered from the field, then taken to hospital. A battery of brain scans followed.
The ensuing melee was inspired by the defensiveness of Brayshaw’s mates: here was a man who had suffered several nasty concussions – he once had four in a year – and had long worn a helmet to partially alleviate the anxiety of his mother. This latest knock may well end his career at 27.
After the match, Maynard said it was terribly unfortunate but his attempted smother and subsequent collision was a “footy act” – that is, a natural and legitimate part of the game he acquitted without malice. There was near unanimity that the act wasn’t deliberate but degrees to which pundits believed it constituted recklessness. The “footy act” had to be balanced against players’ “duty of care” to each other. Here was the rub: should natural “footy acts” be harshly punished if they result in the hospitalisation of another? Or must we accept that in a high-velocity contact sport, certain injuries are inescapable – that we should neither revolutionise the game nor villainise those who accidentally clean up another?
The match review officer declined to refer Maynard to the tribunal, which prompted the intervention of the AFL’s new executive general manager of football, Laura Kane, who forced a hearing. In the four days preceding it, the footy media debated passionately. The weight of opinion from ex-players was that Maynard had nothing to answer for. “What else can he do?” said Matthew Richardson. “It’s a legal action,” said Jonathan Brown. “There’s nothing in this for me,” said current Geelong star Patrick Dangerfield.
There were, however, some dissenting opinions. David Mundy, the former Docker who retired last year after 376 AFL games, told Perth radio that had it been a teammate beneath Maynard, he would’ve likely adjusted his body in such a manner as to cushion the impact. (A biomechanist, called to give evidence at the hearing, disagreed: Maynard didn’t have sufficient time to adjust, and that “once in flight, he’s essentially a projectile”.)
Then there was St Kilda coach Ross Lyon, who told AFL360 the now ubiquitous phrase “footy act” grated on him for its simplicity. “There’s two truths running here,” Lyon said – that of a legitimate action resulting in a sickening injury.
Early on, the tribunal’s chair, Jeff Gleeson, KC, drew a border around their deliberations. “The duty of care is informed by what is reasonable, not the expectation of the remarkable,” he said. “Maynard won’t be found careless if we find he simply failed to do the remarkable.”
Which was how it played in the end. After an epic hearing – three hours of evidence, an hour of deliberation, an 1100-word verdict – Maynard was acquitted on charges of rough conduct. “We are not at all satisfied that a reasonable player would have foreseen that violent impact or the impact of the type suffered by Brayshaw was inevitable or even likely,” Gleeson said. “We accept the evidence of [biomechanist] Professor Cole that he did not believe that Maynard’s body position at the time of impact can be considered part of any conscious decision.”
Collingwood rejoiced: their hard man would play in the preliminary final and be free to play in the grand final the week after should they qualify. And there would not be, as some feared, a game-altering precedent established by a guilty verdict.
The drama of the hearing came only a week after a Senate inquiry into concussions and repeated head trauma in contact sports tabled its report. It’s lengthy, but that is largely attributable to its generous quotation of the 92 submissions it received – rather than much analysis or synthesis. It’s a fuzzy report, and even the part you might expect to be the sharpest – its 13 recommendations to government – is often vague and without time lines for achievement.
One of those recommendations is that the federal government establish a national sports injury database, with the committee accepting the inadequacy “of data on the rates of concussion in sports across Australia” and the “need for a consistent, national dataset for both diagnosed concussions and identified sub-concussive events”.
The report also recommends the federal government form a new body dedicated to researching head trauma and it encourages sporting bodies or clubs to provide player insurance that covers the consequences of concussion. A conflict emerges in this report between injured ex-players and medics who say much more needs to be done to improve duty of care, and sporting bodies who insist self-regulation is sufficient. The report largely assumes a gentle neutrality here, though it does suggest the government may assume a more muscular role in imposing a centralised return-to-play protocol for concussed players. Currently, different sports apply different protocols, and the report’s view is that such discrepancies might be usefully resolved with the government’s intervention. But how then might compliance be enforced by the government? On this, the report is quiet.
It may be the government can usefully intervene here, or at least help to provide better data. But the government’s influence is limited on matters of club and sporting culture, which is where so much of this issue rests. The report acknowledges elite players are often incentivised to disguise their symptoms, out of loyalty to teammates or fear for their careers, and that preseason testing by club doctors, to establish a baseline against which to test any future symptoms, is frequently gamed by players who “fake bad”.
The report cannot speak to how a culture that stresses dedication, team loyalty and physical courage might simultaneously coach players that their brains are sacrosanct and they should protect them without fear of cultural reprisal. In speaking with traumatised emergency workers, they often say the same thing to me: that a diagnosis of PTSD would have likely ended a career they depended on not merely for income but for self-definition, and so they forged on, hiding symptoms until they no longer could. Similar pressures are experienced by athletes who work within highly competitive, often zero-sum environments, and may feel compelled to disguise injuries lest they be cut.
Further, there remains, inevitably, contradiction between the valorisation of physical courage and sanctioned violence in sports such as rugby league and Australian rules and the relatively new attention given to head trauma. It has resulted, probably unavoidably, in confusing rule changes and irreconcilable demands.
An unknowable but I suspect sizeable percentage of contact sports fans will resent the very language and logic of the report. It is the language of bureaucracy (a new government body and centralised protocols), of technocracy (a national database), and medicine (debates about diagnostic tools). In other words, eggheads have superimposed their bloodless logic upon a deeper, more primal world of physical courage and gladiatorial spectacle – the cultural equivalent of a hijacking. The debate generated by Maynard’s tribunal hearing clearly exposed the cultural fault lines.
Ultimately, an allowance of codified athletic violence, and the players’ voluntary assumption of risk, must continue to be imperfectly balanced by an evolving regimen of harm mitigation – via improved diagnostics, rule changes, club responsibilities and legal accountability, et cetera. While those with a duty of care to players can no longer say, as they have in the past, that they had no idea about the long-term effects of head trauma, there will always remain an inherent risk for players.
I’ve thought this week of the great American journalist and historian Garry Wills’s break from boxing, of which he was once a great fan. In a 1999 essay about Muhammad Ali, he noted that even the ancient Greeks had equivocated about the sport because “it destroyed the beauty it glorified”. And he wrote of the modern fan’s “complicity in a brutal pastime meant to damage the human brain and body for our delectation. I know that people will say (I used to say it) that the sport is a celebration of timing, conditioning, mental conflict, and grace – a rougher kind of ballet, a muscled game of chess. But all these qualities would still be displayed if boxers wore head guards and larger gloves, as in amateur boxing. Under those conditions, what crowds still come would instantly disappear, because what they pay to see is the knockout, the brain-deadener, the blood drawn, the gladiatorial showdown.”
Central to Wills’s change of heart was a visit he made to an ailing Ali, where he found that, “This most articulate of men, who trained his young body as a holy thing, now lives inarticulate in the wreckage of that superb body, undone by the very skills it acquired.”
But then there is Joyce Carol Oates, a boxing fan and prolific writer on the sport, who once wrote of Ali: “Who is to presume to feel sorry for one who will not feel sorry for himself?”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 16, 2023 as "Heads and hearts".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription
Letters & Editorial