The AFL has committed to funding an unlimited number of brain scans for retired footballers as the code ramps up its response to one of the most troubling issues in world sport - concussion.
In a joint research project that the AFL Players Association’s boss is calling “world leading”, former players and their partners will be surveyed about memory and mental health problems that have struck in football retirement.
The concussion research is a multi-million dollar joint project of the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health – the largest brain research group in the Southern Hemisphere – the AFL and the AFLPA.
With a pilot testing phase involving around 12 former players now concluded, the AFLPA is set to target every one of the more than 5600 former AFL/VFL players and enlist them to participate in an initial survey.
Retired footballers deemed to be showing signs of brain trauma will be offered a second, more extensive, assessment and referred to the Florey Institute for brain scans on the advice of experts.
The initial estimate for funding the program is $3million, but in a major breakthrough for the code the AFL has effectively committed to spend as much as it takes to assess the brain function of its living alumni.
Ian Prendergast, the AFLPA’s acting CEO, told Fairfax Media he has no idea how many ex-players will show signs that warrant referrals for brain scans. But the former Carlton footballer said he was not concerned about opening Pandora’s Box on an issue that recently saw an historic compensation payout made to former NFL players in America.
Prendergast, who has travelled internationally to meet concussion experts and speak to other professional sports players’ associations about the thorny topic, said the chief concern should be ensuring that former Australian rules footballers in need of treatment for brain trauma received appropriate treatment. This was vastly more important to the game than the financial investment, Prendergast said.
“I can’t think of any sort of research project that has operated on this scale across world sport. We just need to make sure it’s done right,” Prendergast said.
“As a game, I think we have been very responsible in relation to the steps that we’ve taken on this issue. But this is a critical step now in place that will certainly provide us with much more clarity about the impact that concussion is having on our game and - more importantly - on our players. “There’s a need to find out those answers, and we’ll deal with it accordingly.”
Anxious to reach as far and wide as possible to those suffering, in later life, from the heavy hits they received as footballers, the AFLPA is launching a drive to re-engage with more than 3500 former players.
Of the approximately 5650 men who have played one or more games of AFL/VFL football, only around 2035 are registered with the AFLPA.
The first stage of the surveying will see former AFL/VFL players complete an online questionnaire that has been tailor-made for Australian rules.
In coming days, registered AFLPA members will receive an email containing a letter from former player and legendary AFL coach, David Parkin, to explain the research.
The AFLPA will offer personal assistance for those football retirees who are not confident using the internet, and those who do not have access to the technology.
The initial survey of roughly 15 minutes will provide Florey researchers and AFL medical representatives with sufficient information to determine whether secondary examinations, including brain scanning, is required.
The secondary assessment, involving the partners of retired footballers who have been identified as at-risk, is a more detailed questionnaire expected to take up to an hour to complete.
Referrals for brain scanning will be made on the basis of the second survey, with MRIs expected to cost about $1000 per hour.
The cost of the brain scans, which will take around 60 minutes, will be covered by the project.
Every step of the process will be confidentially managed by the AFLPA, but it’s anticipated a report on the progress of the project will be tabled in 12 months.
The partnership between the AFL, the AFLPA and the Florey Institute was struck in early 2013 to further the research into concussion and mild traumatic brain injury in Australia’s richest and most popular sport.
The partnership has been committed to for between 5-10 years and AFL commission chairman Mike Fitzpatrick is on the project’s fundraising committee that will work to attract the finances required to carry out the exercise fully.
As the matter of concussion in sport has gained more attention internationally, there has been a trickle of former AFL players come forward with their concerns and problems. Ex-Melbourne footballer Daniel Bell revealed to Fairfax Media in 2011 that he’d been diagnosed with brain damage linked to the multiple concussions he suffered while playing AFL and that he was seeking compensation.
Brownlow Medallist Greg Williams has detailed his memory and health problems related to concussion, while others – including ex-premiership players Dean Kemp and Chad Rintoul have received compensation payments related to head injuries that were kept confidential at the time.