THE AFL would be at risk of a class action if its rules didn't protect players from head injuries like those suffered by Tom Lynch in his collision with Jack Viney, a leading Melbourne sports lawyer says.
Viney was controversially suspended for two matches by the AFL Tribunal on Monday night after laying a bump on Adelaide's Lynch last Saturday that left the Crow with a broken jaw.The Melbourne youngster's suspension sparked a sense of disbelief among some current and former players, who viewed it as an unavoidable football accident.
But Paul Horvath, the principal lawyer of specialist firm Sports Lawyer, told AFL.com.au on Wednesday that the AFL had a legal obligation to make rule changes like the one introduced this year that made players bumping liable for injuries caused by accidental head clashes.
Horvath said if the AFL did not act in this way to reduce the risks of concussion, head, neck and spinal injuries, it could face a similar class action to the $765 million suit being brought against America's National Football League by more than 4500 retired players with traumatic brain injuries.
"I think that the AFL has a legal obligation to make these sorts of rule changes for a few reasons," Horvath said.
"In the NFL the concussion injury class action has sought a settlement of $765 million and if they're throwing around those sorts of figures it means the potential is there for that in Australian sport too."
Horvath said the League had been "well ahead of the game" for some time in monitoring the injuries being suffered in football and amending its rules to help reduce the risks of those injuries.
Prominent player agent Peter Jess is deeply concerned by the concussion after-effects some former AFL players are suffering in retirement and is campaigning for the introduction of an on-the-spot diagnostic test for concussion in the AFL.
Jess told AFL.com.au the reaction to the Viney suspension reflected an existing player culture where bravery was prized above safety, but suggested this had to change.
"We're trying to get players to move away from the culture of bravery to a culture of respect and safety. We don't need gladiators, we need athletes who are complete and healthy," Jess said.
"This means that if we're serious about protecting the long-term neurological health of players then we have to change the way that we play the game.
"If we don't, we'll continue to place players' long-term welfare at risk.
"But the AFL has clearly stated its mandate is player welfare, and if it's saying that then it is absolutely compelled to make the game as safe as it can for players."
Rugby League has also moved recently to reduce the risk of head injuries to its players, with its international governing body banning the shoulder charge in February 2013.