Wednesday, September 13, 2023

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Concussion in sport: Human errors can harm players, amplifying the need to prioritise athletes' well-being

The topic of concussion casts a lingering shadow that leaves administrators, players and clubs very nervous and with a lot of uncertainty. This threat not only jeopardises the health and well-being of those involved but also the future of sporting leagues through the potential for legal battles.

Australian rules football is a physical game where heavy collisions and head contact are an inherent part of the game. You only have to look at the opening minutes of last Thursday night’s final where Demon’s player Angus Brayshaw was concussed in a collision with Magpies defender Brayden Maynard. While this looked accidental and a result of a genuine football action, it reinforces the vulnerability of players and divided the football community. Interestingly, due to the sensitivity of the topic, the AFL head office overruled the Match Review Officer and sent the matter to the tribunal.  Whilst the Maynard was ultimately found not guilty, the AFL were seen to be proactively addressing protecting players from concussion and flagged a review of the rules at the seasons end.     


As a result, and like other contact sports, players are at risk of brain injuries and developing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). This raises concerns about the long-term health and well-being of athletes, as CTE can lead to severe cognitive impairments, memory problems, depression, aggression, and even early death.


Impact on sporting leagues

In response to these concerns, sporting leagues have been implementing changes to improve player safety, such as stricter concussion protocols, better equipment, rule changes to reduce high-impact plays, and increased education for players, coaches, and medical staff. However, the ongoing challenge is finding a balance between the physical nature of these sports and the safety of the athletes participating in them. This balance is not only an ethical and moral challenge but also a significant legal challenge that could reshape the sporting landscape for all contact sports in years to come.


While the impact of concussion on individual players and their families can be devasting, the effects of concussion extend beyond the individual with sporting clubs and organisations also significantly impacted. The risks of players suing for concussion related claims is a very real threat to the clubs and leagues and should be the most important risk top of mind for administrators. Insurance coverage is one way to protect themselves against negligence claims stemming from concussion-related scenarios.


As this is a recent and developing landscape and risk is relatively unknown with potential for high payouts, insurance companies will be forced to re-assess the coverage provided and by doing so potentially posing a large shift in the financial landscape of sports. It’s now the responsibility of sporting organisations and bodies to provide comprehensive protocols and mechanisms aimed at minimising and managing concussions.


Proactive innovation to reduce risk

Rule changes that reduce the chances of collisions and increased education on the dangers of concussion are good starts, but sporting administrators must be proactive, or seen to be proactive, in researching the relationship between sports-related head trauma and CTE. They have to be on the front foot and have strict protocols in how every aspect is managed. To truly minimise legal risks, sports should strive to develop new technologies, processes, and strategies that enhance player safety and reduce the risk of brain injuries.


An incident in the AFL earlier this year underscores the urgency of taking a more refined approach to concussion diagnosis. Aliir Aliir, a player for Port Adelaide, was allowed to resume play after sustaining a concussion after a doctor’s assessment, only to later be hospitalised. This occurrence underscores that even in the top tier of professional sports, human errors can harm players, amplifying the need to prioritise athletes' well-being.


The insurers take on the concussion conundrum

If sporting organisations are prepared to leverage cutting-edge tools for concussion management, such as eye-tracking technology and blood tests that easily diagnose concussions then the approach of insurance companies and the availability of coverage they offer should be congruent.


The concussion conundrum demands an integrated approach from both sporting bodies and insurance companies, and an openness to integrating advanced technological solutions when assessing the severity, and likelihood, of concussions. Their collaborative plans hold the potential to secure the welfare of athletes, ensuring access to vital resources crucial for rehabilitation and recovery.


While the promise of technology as a tool in this field is still in its early stages, its potential could revolutionise concussion management. As the narrative continues to unfold, the goal remains constant – an environment where the safety of all athletes is first and foremost and they can have adequate insurance coverage, regardless of their chosen sport.


Matthew Head

Head of Client Service - VIC

Prior to his role as Head of Client Service at Honan Insurance Group, Matthew Head was an AFL Field umpire and officiated in 144 games over 8 seasons.

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