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AFL players' union to consider multimillion-dollar concussion trust proposal

The AFL Players’ Association will meet this week with concussion campaigner Peter Jess to discuss his proposed $2bn compensation fund to cover footballers who suffer from the long-term effects of head knocks.

Guardian Australia understands the meeting, to take place on Thursday, has been organised with a view to nutting out the architecture of the landmark workers compensation-style trust, into which the AFL would theoretically pay a minimum of $25m a year for the next 80 years.

High on the agenda will be the prospect of writing framework into the next Collective Bargaining Agreement as means of ensuring players are covered for concussion as a condition of employment. Under the current CBA, which is due to expire in 2022, the AFL pays $250,000 per year towards concussion research.

It comes amid a report of a new concussion court action claiming dozens of AFL players with severe illnesses linked to head knocks have been overlooked for compensation. The case reportedly centres around insurance schemes offered from 2009 making it impossible for players to claim payouts for “serious mental health conditions” arising from concussion-based injuries.

It is separate to the concussion class action against the AFL being pursued by South Australian lawyer Greg Griffin and involving a large group of players including former Essendon and Geelong ruckman John Barnes, Brownlow medallist John Platten and the recently retired Jack Frost.

It also falls in the same week a coroner handed down her findings into Danny Frawley’s death, confirming his low-stage chronic traumatic encephalopathy diagnosis and calling for more research into the lasting effects of head knocks in sport.

As revealed by the Guardian last week the proposed trust, called the concussion settlement pathway (CSP), would be available to any past, present and future AFL/AFLW or VFL/VFLW player. It is not clear at this stage whether it would also cover players competing in lower leagues.

An adoption of the fund would mean players experiencing the harmful long-term effects of both clinical and subclinical concussions could access neurological treatment and rehabilitation, income support and help with independent or supported living without having to take in legal action.

It would also mean the AFL avoids the mooted class action, though the governing body would have to agree to it being run independently.

The proposed model would be funded at “point of consumption”, meaning a percentage of revenue made from the sale of merchandise would be allotted to the trust.

Jess, a prominent concussion campaigner who is driving the class action, is pushing for it to be agreed and signed off in time for the start of the 2021 AFL season and the first $25m instalment to be made this year.

The AFL is yet to comment publicly on the CSP proposal, however is believed to be considering its merits. It recently updated its concussion protocols with the requirement that concussed players must be sidelined for at least 12 days, an increase on the six days required under last year’s guidelines.

The AFLPA declined to comment on the meeting, preferring to wait until after the meeting to consider a public position, but continues to investigate with the AFL about ways to best offer support present and past players struggling as a result of repeated head trauma.

The AFLPA did, however, provide a statement on the coroner’s report into the death of Frawley, who took his own life in September 2019, aged 56, acknowledging the recommendation that it work with the AFL to actively encourage players to donate their brains to the Australian Sports Brain Bank for research into CTE.

“We will review the Coroner’s findings in detail and will seek to meet with the Australian Sports Brain Bank as a priority to allow the AFLPA Board to properly consider this recommendation,” a spokesperson said.

“Our thoughts continue to be with the Frawley family, and those who were close to Danny, and we applaud the bravery of those of those who provided personal accounts to the investigation.

“While the finding does not produce definitive answers, we hope that it helps the healing process for those impacted by Danny’s tragic death.”

Coroner Paresa Spanos on Tuesday did not find a causal link between Frawley’s death and the presence of CTE in his brain. Spanos wrote “at its highest, CTE is a potential contributor to the depression that Mr Frawley suffered for some years preceding his death”.

“The available evidence does not enable me to determine which particular suicide stressor caused or contributed to Mr Frawley’s death,” she wrote.

The conclusion was somewhat different to that drawn in the inquest of Jeff Astle, the former England, West Bromwich Albion and Notts County footballer who died in 2002 aged 59. Astle was posthumously diagnosed with CTE, and the coroner recorded a verdict of “death by industrial disease”.

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