We debate a lot of nonsense in football. We’ll spend hours pondering how many goals Buddy would’ve kicked if he’d played in 1991. Wars have been started from arguments about which Ablett was better – junior or senior?
That stuff is fun, it’s what keeps the season moving, and we love it. Disagreements on the small-scale stuff is a sport of its own.
Not everything is up for debate.
One thing we can all agree on is that this concussion and head trauma situation is an ugly mess and needs to be addressed, now.
I spent a couple of hours with former Eagle Daniel Venables on Wednesday.
Venables had just returned from Florida, following a month-long treatment program. It featured intense, challenging exercises. Four sessions a day, nine hours a day, for four weeks straight. Electric currents used to repair brain tissue and state-of-the-art technology designed to correct his altered vision and stop the mind-numbing headaches.
The doctors identified the areas which are damaged, and began working to stabilise, strengthen and, hopefully, repair some of the damage caused.
Essentially, he did two years’ worth of brain rehab in one month. Rehab he should’ve started in 2019.
First, let’s go back a few steps. In May of 2019, West Coast played Melbourne. It was Dan Venables’ 21st AFL game. It would also be his last.
Venables threw himself blindly into a marking contest, as so many players do every week. His head was struck by the hip of Demons defender Tim Smith then the surface of Optus Stadium.
The lights went out. Venables was ruled out for the rest of the game. He went home that night, and his head “felt like it would explode”. He took himself to hospital.
The morning after the game, scans discovered seven brain bleeds. This wasn’t a concussion, it was a traumatic brain injury.
Venables was referred by the AFL to Dr Paul McCrory, the league’s concussion adviser.
The first appointment was exactly two weeks after the game. There were semi-regular consultations for the next 12-18 months.
McCrory is now being investigated by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency. The AFL is also doing an independent review into McCrory’s advice.
During the time McCrory was treating Venables and other AFL players, he had been banned from performing certain procedures.
According to Venables, McCrory prescribed rest, along with Endep, an antidepressant often used to treat severe headaches, anxiety and sleep disorders. He was also sent to participate in a short program with a physio and psych.
The main advice given to Venables: “These things just take time.”
For the next year, his mood and physical state deteriorated rapidly. He had locked himself in a dark room, alone, and the headaches only got worse, so his dosage of antidepressants was increased by McCrory. By the middle of 2020, Venables had hit rock bottom and made the decision to cease using the medication. He researched his own treatment options and found Dr Brett Jarosz, who offered in-depth, ground-breaking options.
This is a 21-year-old. People that age should be worrying about going on dates, scrambling to finish uni assignments and nailing Tik Tok videos, not making life-altering decisions after a traumatic event.
His football career was over, his life hanging by a thread. But, in hindsight, it didn’t need to be.
The treatment he’s just undertaken in the US was game-changing.
Doctors there told Venables, had he received the treatment within weeks of his head clash, his health would be significantly better now. He might even be playing football. A heartbreaking revelation.
There will be another Daniel. In fact there are already plenty. Young players, veterans, past players, those who have suffered brain injuries, multiple concussions, and been told to ‘just give it time’, take some pills.
The game must learn from this. Change must happen.
In the past 15 years, there’s been millions of dollars invested in growing the game. Gold Coast, GWS, AFLW are brilliant things, but if this head-trauma issue isn’t treated correctly, there won’t be a game to invest in.
The start needs to be baseline testing such as brain scans for all players.
From there, if a player suffers a significant blow to the head, or is diagnosed with concussion, they have another scan and sent immediately for the treatment Venables has just undertaken.
Yes, it would be an expensive ordeal but not nearly as expensive as the class-action lawsuits that will inevitably flow if something isn’t done.
If the AFL still won’t listen, if the league won’t significantly tighten its concussion protocols, then the clubs should take control of their own players’ health, or the AFL Players Association should finally wake up and do something about this, not just show concern and offer a cuddle.
How many more lives and careers need to be put in jeopardy for this to happen?