The Concussion Crisis in Australian Rules Football

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MELBOURNE, Australia — Australian rules football is one the world’s most violent sports. Thirty-six players careen across a massive field, where they are exposed to blindside hits and errant elbows, bruising shoulders and airborne knees. Their protection is a mouthpiece and sometimes a padded cap. Collisions can be cringe-inducing. Concussions are common.So when retired players in their 30s and 40s started complaining about memory loss, struggles with paying attention and anger management, Alan Pearce tried to help. A neurophysiologist, he began to measure the former players’ brain waves to determine if their brains were functioning properly.The players “were saying, ‘I just thought I was getting old, but I’m only 47,’” Pearce said. The Australian Football League took note. In 2015, it gave Pearce 30,000 Australian dollars (about $20,000) to help cover the cost of more tests. But after Pearce spoke on a television program about the cognitive struggles of former players, Paul McCrory, a neurologist who was once closely aligned with the league, told him he had crossed a line. Soon after, Pearce lost his lab space, hindering his research.ImageThe A.F.L. celebrated on-field violence for decades. Now, retired players are mobilizing and accusing the league of failing to protect them.CreditAlana Holmberg for The New York TimesA decade after retired American football players struggling with neurological problems forced the N.F.L. to confront its traumatic brain injury crisis, a narrative that will be very familiar to sports fans in the United States is playing out on the other side of the world. Retired players from the A.F.L., which will hold its Grand Final on Saturday, are coming forward with horrific tales of cognitive deterioration in what should still be the prime of their lives. At the same time, the league in which they endured so much damage is attempting to avoid culpability by playing down any link between head hits and brain trauma even as it tries to make the game safer by changing the rules of the sport and adding concussion protocols.More than 100 retired A.F.L. players are accusing the league of failing to protect them from the known dangers of repeated collisions and of resisting calls to pay for their health care costs.“We have retired players now in their 50s and 60s with structural damage to their brains — exactly what has happened in the States — but we have a position of continual denial from the A.F.L.” said Peter Jess, a player agent and advocate for the players. “The A.F.L. is throwing everything at this.”The A.F.L. declined to make its chief medical director, Peter Harcourt, or another executive available to discuss the league’s strategy for dealing with its retired players. In a statement, the league said it was “on the public record in acknowledging that neurodegenerative disease is associated with head trauma.”Also in the statement, Andrew Dillon, the league’s general counsel and general manager for game development, said, “The A.F.L. is committed to world-leading management of head trauma in sport.” “At every stage,” he added, “our decisions have been guided by research, and we have had a conservative approach, putting players’ health first.”ImageThe neurophysiologist Alan Pearce conducted a transcranial magnetic stimulation on the former A.F.L. player John Platten to measure his brain function.CreditAsanka Brendon Ratnayake for The New York TimesWith players contemplating litigation, Jess met informally with the A.F.L. in recent weeks, but talks st

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