“It’s full protection of my kids in a sport that they love. A full-contact sport without compulsory padding too, so it’s a massive comfort. It takes away our family’s emotion and also puts the decision into a real life medical situation.”
An Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report released this week showed Australian Rules has a higher rate of injury hospitalisation than both rugby codes combined, as well as soccer.
Of those AFL hospitalisations, 11.9 per cent were an intracranial injury (brain dysfunction, such as concussion) – compared to 10.8 per cent in rugby codes and 5.3 per cent in soccer.
The average concussion rate is about one every three matches across all levels, according to the AFL.
Every single injury in the YJFL for 2019, the biggest junior league in Victoria across thousands of games, was recorded. The YJFL has partnered with the University of Melbourne to collate that data and will create a report into the injuries.
The league will this season provide further training on correct tackling and bumping technique to try and reduce head injuries in 2020. The 2020 data will then be compared with the 2019 data to see what, if anything, changed.
Mr Leonard says he is more comfortable with this approach than he would be with his children wearing helmets – an issue on which the AFL offers no official guidance because it is believed headgear may encourage more risky play.
Dr Catherine Willmott, a neuropsychologist with Monash University, has worked with the AFL on multiple sports concussion studies – including a current pilot study on headgear in juniors.
“We’re trying to investigate does kids’ behaviour change with headgear– do they think they’re invincible, do they go harder at the ball, do their opposition go harder?” Dr Willmott says.
“Or does it make kids think head injuries are a really serious thing, so we need to follow the rules more?”
Researchers will now analyse children’s play in about 15 hours of game footage.
Lizzie Gregory, whose nine-year-old son Iggy has played for Prahran Junior Football Club for three years, said a group of mothers considered making headgear compulsory for their children last year.
“I would say nobody would be looking to stop their child playing … but concussion is absolutely my number one injury concern,” she said.
Dr Willmott believes the next five to 10 years will be significant for research establishing a possible direct cause-effect relationship between concussion and later issues such as CTE.
“We will have more studies where we’ve followed players for 10, 20 years,” she said.
“If I wasn’t a neuropsychologist, of course you would be concerned and think ‘god, my kids are at risk’. But the finding of this in Polly Farmer’s brain doesn’t equate to every child who plays Aussie Rules being at risk.”
Many children make quick, full recoveries from a single concussion, Dr Willmott added.
“What we do have is documented research about the value of participating in sport in terms of health, fitness and social benefits,” she said.
“We need to weigh all that up so that parents are presented with a sensible, weighted evidence in deciding for their children to play or not.”
For Ms Gregory, health benefits currently outstrip safety issues.
“As a mum supporting her child doing what they love, I just need to make sure it’s not something he regrets for the rest of his life.”
Michael is a reporter for The Age.
Anthony is a sports reporter at The Age.