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The AFL must make a statement with Tom Stewart’s suspension

It’s time for the AFL to take head injuries seriously, because as we have seen with the umpire dissent rule, only severe punishments will deter players and coaches from doing the wrong thing.

According to a study in 2017 based on American football, 99 per cent of tested brains of NFL players, 88 per cent of Canadian Football League players, 64 per cent of semi-professional players, 91 per cent of college football players and 21 per cent of high school players had various stages of CTE chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The most well known cases of American footballers with CTE are Junior Seau (43) and Dave Duerson (50), who committed suicide while suffering from CTE. Jovan Belcher (25) killed his girlfriend before killing himself in 2012, and Aaron Hernandez (27) who committed suicide after being convicted for a murder in 2013 also suffered from CTE, as well as Phillip Adams, who shot and killed six people before committing suicide in April of last year.

Dr Ann McKee, a neuropathologist and the director of the CTE Centre at Boston University said that CTE has been linked to a host of symptoms, including memory loss, depression, aggressive behaviour and sometimes suicidal thoughts. It is a progressive disease, and the symptoms can arise long after the hits to the head have ceased.

Yes, American Football is a different sport than Australian Rules football, but Australian Rules football is still one of the toughest games in the world. The head is knocked and jolted numerous times in every tackle and bump any player receives.

CTE has already reared its head in our game. Former Richmond player Shane Tuck was diagnosed with Stage 3 CTE after taking his own life at the age of 38, the most severe case we have seen yet in Australia.

This article isn’t about Tom Stewart and I’m not going to criticise his personality. He might be the nicest guy known to man, but his hit on Tiger Dion Prestia on Saturday afternoon was terrible. He ran straight towards Prestia once the ball was out of play and made no effort not to hit him in the head. Stewart knew he was the bigger man, and in a moment of madness he knocked out a player who was unable to defend himself.

How long should he get? I think he should receive six weeks. With the evidence and data already out there via numerous sports regarding concussion, it’s time the AFL made a statement. Not only does Prestia miss two games just in a football sense, but there’s no guarantee he will fully recover from this concussion, which is why the head should always be protected.

The way the football media approach concussion also needs to change. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard that Tom Stewart is a good bloke or that he must be feeling terrible about what he did.

Are we supposed to feel sorry for him? I’d like to think our thoughts are with Dion Prestia, who has been knocked out. Tom Stewart’s feelings don’t matter in this situation. I’m sure he feels terrible, and providing he didn’t deliberately set out to hurt Prestia, so he should. That is the absolute minimum you would expect from any kind-hearted human to feel.

The AFL, the AFL media and AFL members and supporters need to wake up and smell the roses, because not only is it incredibly dangerous for AFL players, it’s also incredibly dangerous for junior levels and those playing grassroots football.

Concussion in football can completely cripple this game. We don’t have the money that the NFL does, and a lawsuit like those seen in the US could completely destroy this game, especially after what we’ve seen and the effect the pandemic had on the league.

The AFL must do something. Now.

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