New regulations put forward on the eve of the 2021 AFL season are centring the safety of players, Edward McCarroll reports. (Image source: Daniel Carson/AFL Photos)

By Edward McCarroll | @edward_mccarrol

The 2021 AFL season has kicked off this week, returning to a traditional 22-match fixture and implementing a new, controversial medical substitution rule.

Clubs will have a 23rd man in their squad, but that player will only be activated into the match if a club medical officer diagnoses another player with a game-ending injury.

Additionally, the AFL has also doubled the mandatory break for a concussion from six days to a minimum 12-day break.

The sudden approval of these rules on the eve of the 2021 season has caused commentators and fans of the game to voice their concerns over how teams may manipulate the rules.

But the AFL general council have stated they “are committed to continuing to take action to protect the safety of players at all levels of the game.”

The AFL’s commitment to concussion management has been prompted by an increase in research into how contact sport can lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in player’s later life.

The Victoria manager of the Australian Sports Brain Bank and Latrobe Associate Professor Alan Pearce said, “CTE is an emerging area that we really need to research and understand more.”

“If people want to play high-contact physical sport, they need to be allowed to understand the risk,” Prof. Pearce said.

“What we see from the research worldwide is that it’s not just concussion injuries that are leading toward long term brain damage, but it’s actually exposure to small significant knocks over the career.

“Being tackled, bumped or receiving contact to the head over many years has been identified as a link to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.”

A recent report from a Victorian coroner enquired into former St Kilda player Danny Frawley’s mental health decline before the AFL great took his own life 18 months ago.

After the donation of his brain, researchers discovered that Frawley was suffering from CTE, that is believed to be the result of repeated head injuries over his career.

With so much still unknown about the relationship between concussions and brain disease, the coroner has called for more AFL players to donate their brains to science like the late Frawley.

“We really welcome this response from the AFL, and we encourage all athletes, not just AFL athletes to consider donating their brains,” Prof. Pearce said.

“We don’t necessarily need to change the games by removing contact per se, but we need to research into how to protect the players, and this is a step in that direction.”