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Past players embrace AFL concussion study

Retired Australian footballers concerned by the potentially dire effects of concussion have responded in droves to a landmark study – set to involve fully funded brain scans – for the code.

A week after a questionnaire was sent to approximately 1500 former VFL/AFL footballers, asking that they record their experiences of head trauma while playing and in the aftermath, a third of those contacted have completed replies.

As part of a multimillion-dollar research project tailor-made for Australian football, experts will identify cases demanding closer attention and refer respondents for brain scans accordingly.

In a joint venture of the largest brain research group in the southern hemisphere, the Florey Institute, the AFL and the AFL Players’ Association, a letter was circulated last Tuesday to the ‘PA’s past-player database from coaching great David Parkin.

“To have over a third of our current database already jump on and complete the survey within a week… is a great result.” – Brad Fisher

The ‘PA is calling on every living elite-level retiree to participate in the initial written survey stage. AFL Players’ alumni manager Brad Fisher said the response, in the past week, from retirees from the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s was ”overwhelming”. The uptake from those more recently retired, Fisher lamented, was less so.

”The engagement from players from the ’90s and 2000s is now a focus area for us, so we’d certainly like to get as many of those players as possible,” he said. ”But to have over a third of our current database already jump on and complete the survey within a week, we think is a great result.”

Data collected in the initial questionnaire, which should only take between 10-15 minutes to complete, will be treated anonymously in analysis. Ex-players who return information that raises alarm, however, will be contacted and advised to complete a second survey that would take approximately 60 minutes. And, in a first for the code, the partners of former players will be invited to contribute to the second stage.

Florey Institute researchers and AFL medical director Dr Peter Harcourt will then determine which players should be referred for brain scanning.

The AFL Players Association’s acting CEO, Ian Prendergast, said last month that there was no limit, or expectation, on the number of ex-players who might be referred for brain scans, which cost around $1000 per hour and typically take 60 minutes to complete.

On what is a thorny issue for sport globally – NFL in the US reached an historic $US765 million settlement with 4500 ex-players last year – Prendergast said it was wise for Australian rules to be proactive.

In the next 24 hours, the AFLPA will email the initial survey to players who retired at the end of 2013. The challenge, however, is to reach the considerable number of retirees – more than 3500 – who are not registered with the association. It is estimated there are approximately 5600 living past VFL/AFL playing alumni.

”That personal follow-up of offering scanning, and also the support systems that we’ll be able to put in place for players showing possible symptoms, is a groundbreaking initiative from the AFL and the AFL Players’ Association,” the  AFLPA’s Fisher said on Wednesday.

”I’d say that if you haven’t received a concussion survey, please get in touch with us. We’ve absolutely got the best interests of your health and safety first and foremost, and we’ve [been] paving the way to look after the current and future players of our game.”

CONTACT: Brad Fisher, AFL Players Association Alumni Manager


This article was originally published in The Age and can be accessed here.