AFL players comfortable with league's concussion measures

Despite growing concerns about the impact of concussion, a number of the AFL's on-field leaders believe the league is taking adequate steps to mitigate the risks associated with playing the contact sport, with many claiming players understand the "inherent risk" that comes with playing Australian rules football.

In late February it was revealed football legend Polly Farmer was posthumously diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) after suffering from Alzheimer's for the much of his later life, in what is believed to be the first case of CTE in an Australian Rules footballer.

The AFL has introduced various measures to counter head blows in recent years and a number of players told ESPN the league's research into technology such as 'smart mouthguards' needed to be married with the right attitude from players about how they approach contests - but accidents will still happen.

"The AFL is doing enough and I think the clubs are doing enough, and I think players are now starting to take a lot more responsibility [for their actions], but we play a contact sport and it will happen - we can't avoid or be scared of it," North Melbourne skipper Jack Ziebell told ESPN.

"Unfortunately things happen, but in terms of tackling and whatnot, we're always taught to tackle correctly and avoid contact with the head. We're taught to have a duty of care to your opposition, and no one ever goes out to intentionally nail someone. We play a contact sport, and sometime things happen."

Carlton's Sam Docherty echoed his North counterpart's sentiment and said there was only so much the league's governing body and the clubs could do without taking away the essence of what makes Australian rules football such a great sport to watch and play.

"I think concussion is an unfortunate part of our game. I think there's always an inherent risk in what you do, whether it's concussion or injuries - I mean, I've just been through two ACLs. I think it's really unfortunate that there are guys who are suffering as a result of concussions they suffered throughout their careers," Docherty said.

"But we've developed and changed a lot of our policies and procedures since then. I think as a player, you understand when you take the field, there's a risk that may happen to you. You hope it doesn't, but in the end that's what it is."

Despite the measures implemented by the AFL, up to 100 former players are set to be involved in a planned class action against the league.

The most notable current player to suffer repeated concussive episodes is former No. 1 draft pick Paddy McCartin, whom coach Brett Ratten said still hopes can get back to playing for the Saints.

The fact that CTE can only be diagnosed after death -- as was the case with Farmer -- means moderating and monitoring the effects of concussion on current-day players is difficult.

But according to Essendon skipper Dyson Heppell, the AFL is doing as much as it can as quickly as it can, even employing the help of HitIQ, an Australian start-up which has developed a revolutionary new mouthguard.

"We're now seeing the implementation of everyone wearing a mouthguard that can record and track any head knocks or concussions that you do get, and then be able to implement a recovery and rehab program to get you back on the park and be fully healthy before you get back out there, so you're not risking further injury," he told ESPN.

The mouthguard can record the rotational acceleration of the head and the linear g-force when it comes into contact with something hard -- like a shoulder, the turf or another head -- and the data it spits out will help doctors not only diagnose the extent of any injury, but also assist them in coming up with rehabilitation strategies specific to the hit.

It was supposed to be widely used throughout the 2020 AFL season, however the league's postponement due to the coronavirus epidemic has put a halt to those plans for now.

Star Geelong midfielder Mitch Duncan said the off-field research, combined with the clubs' medical knowledge on gameday, suggested massive strides were being taken to limit the risk of brain injuries later in life.

"[Clubs and the AFL have] put a lot of time into research and I back our doctors 100 percent to make the right decision when it comes to concussion. It's pretty stringent, and I trust the club doctors - they're really highly regarded for a reason," he said.

But while advancements have been happening both on and off the field to better understand and lessen the long-term impact of head injuries, Carlton's Docherty warned against going too far in the pursuit of a 'concussion-free' game; he told ESPN bringing in harsher punishments for accidental concussion-related contact is possibly a step in the wrong direction.

"I think the AFL does a good job of mitigating the risks with the rule changes, but I think there are times in games where things happen that are a complete accident," Docherty said.

"I don't like seeing players getting suspended for what I would deem as an accident that has had an unfortunate result, while there are actions that are also doing damage, but are not concussing someone, that don't get penalised."

Though as seems to be the case when it comes to Carlton and Essendon, Docherty's red and black-based rival disagreed.

"I think it's all relative, but I think you probably can come down a bit harder just to make sure guys are really -- in the back of their mind -- so careful and conscious of causing damage," Essendon's Heppell told ESPN.