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Concussion - McCartin's battle belongs to the game

When the Saints ran out onto what is left of the Docklands Stadium’s grass for Round One on Sunday, they did so with some of their big names missing in action. New recruit Dan Hannebery was busy being “rebuilt” and subtly being exited from the leadership group. Jake Carlisle was smack bang in the middle of the long-term injury list, while defender Dylan Roberton’s “wonky” JLT means he will miss the entire season to combat his serious heart condition.

However, former number one draft pick Paddy McCartin was also unavailable. His absence may not have been as pressing as Hannebery or Carlisle’s to the Saints on-field hopes, but it is certainly the most frightening of the three, not just for McCartin – but for the game.

Paddy McCartin sustained his eighth concussion in five seasons in St Kilda’s final pre-season game against the Western Bulldogs. Perhaps the most horrifying element of the scary incident was that it did not appear to be a significant collision that left McCartin concussed. This is a clear indication that the previous seven concussions have had a detrimental impact, meaning he is now more prone to the effects of concussion. In the aftermath of the incident, concussion campaigner Peter Jess claimed that McCartin may have already have suffered permanent brain damage.

I will leave this part of the discussion to those who are more qualified and have a greater understanding than myself to comment on the effects of concussion. I certainly hope that approach is adopted by all who are not able to provide educated opinions on the subject. This includes a certain former player who saw it fit to instead criticise McCartin for a lack of “resilience”, in a breath-takingly ignorant comment. Especially from someone who should have a better understanding (or an understanding) of concussion due to how his own career ended.

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Paddy McCartin’s promising career to date has been plagued by concussion issues. However, this is not a problem restricted to McCartin but one the game as a whole is facing, particularly in the context of an imminent multi-million Federal Court class action. In excess of one hundred past VFL/AFL players have joined the NFL-style damages action against the AFL and its clubs that could be launched as soon as next month. The number of players involved may grow as several more are considering whether to be involved as the legal battle draws nearer.

Former Geelong and Essendon premiership ruckman, John Barnes is the lead plaintiff and claims he has developed epilepsy and memory loss as a result of being repeatedly concussed during his 202-game VFL/AFL career, and various other brain damage related symptoms.

While Barnes is the lead plaintiff, four other past players have signed up as co-plaintiffs including legendary Hawk and Brownlow Medalist John Platten who is fearing the effects of Alzheimer’s disease after experiencing an estimated 36 concussions during his career. On all 36 occasions, Platten played the following week, an option the AFL is considering outlawing.

High-flying former Demon and another co-plaintiff, Shaun Smith told Open Mike last year that his battle with depression, thoughts of self-harm, drug use and brain damage are strongly linked to the estimated 42 concussions or knock-outs he suffered in his playing days. 

Lesser known ex-Port Adelaide and Adelaide defender Brad Symes has also joined up as a co-plaintiff. Symes claims he has had at least 11 concussions throughout his league football career, however told The Advertiser that the “worst ones” occurred during his time as captain of Central District in the SANFL.  A fifth former VFL/AFL footballer is the final co-plaintiff.

In addition, St Kilda and Western Bulldogs legendary midfielder and icon Nicky Winmar is one of the high-profile players who is also involved in the case. Winmar, according to his manager Peter Jess, is suffering structural and functional brain damage post-football. The dual best and fairest winner told The Age that he endured “six or seven” head knocks throughout his career including an incident when “the doctor said [he] stopped breathing.”

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The issue extends beyond Paddy McCartin’s apparent lack of “resilience.” The court action could prove to be a landmark moment for the AFL, as was the case for the NFL after its famous US$1 billion settlement. But while several affected former players are demanding more be done, the AFL in many instances have been on the right side of the concussion divide, even before it was necessarily popular. You only need to think back to the outcry over the so-called “death” of the beloved bump when former AFL CEO Andrew Demetriou famously declared over a decade ago that “the head is sacrosanct.”

However, as the legal launch looms, the AFL has made even more changes that have come into effect for this season. The most significant of which is the implementation of concussion “spotters.” These spotters are independent doctors that analyse vision of every game looking for “concessional events” that were potentially missed by club doctors. This comes after former Sydney club doctor Nathan Gibbs claimed in The Monthly that the AFL’s official concussion figures were grossly underestimated. Gibbs believes that the reason for this is that club doctors are fined if concussed players are allowed to continue playing.

The career of one of the AFL’s most anticipated young draftees in recent times hangs in the balance, after just 35 games. But for Paddy McCartin and over one hundred others who have stood in his boots, more is at stake than just football, and that is something football is starting to understand.

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