Is AFL a dangerous sport?

Australian Rules Football, or AFL, is undoubtedly one of the most popular sports for both players and spectators in Australia. But there is no doubt that injuries are very prevalent.

With 36 players racing across the giant field, they expose themselves to tackles, hits, elbows, shoulders, and knees with very little in the way of protection to help them out.

As a physical contact sport, injuries do present themselves frequently on the playing field, which are caused by tackling, kicking, running, handballing, marking and more.

Let’s take a closer look at the game and how dangerous it actually is for the players.

Most common football injuries

Australian Rules Football is well-known for its physical body contact – just ask any physio! Because the collisions can occur from any direction and with any part of the body, the injury rates are quite high.

The most common football injuries are caused by:

  • Being tackled
  • Collisions with another player

Hospital-admitted injuries (which make up 30% of all Australian Football hospital presentations) are usually fractures, sprains or strains affecting the wrists, hands, shoulders, head or face, lower leg and knee.

The most common injury in AFL is a fracture, while the most common region of the body to be injured is the head. Which is why it’s easy to see how dangerous AFL can be. Soft tissue injuries are also very common in the hamstring, quadriceps and calf muscles.

Here’s a rundown on the most common injuries in AFL:

  • Hamstring injuries: 19.1 missed games/club/season in 2015
  • ACL injuries: 16.7 missed games/club/season in 2015
  • Shoulder Sprains and Dislocations: 11.5 missed games/club/season in 2015
  • Leg and football Fractures: 8.6 missed games/club/season in 2015
  • Ankle sprain/ joint injuries: 7.2 missed games/club/season in 2015

How are injuries sustained

There’s a reason so many of these injuries are common in AFL. It all comes down to how the sport is played. Here’s how the most common injuries are sustained on the sporting field:

  • Hamstring injuries: after pushing off, the hamstrings are at their greatest length and maximum tension. Hamstrings can reach limits of the muscle or lead to stress at deep muscle level.
  • ACL: these are commonly non-contact injuries. The game of AFL is constantly changing directions, increasing the stress of the ligaments.
  • Shoulder: these are generally caused by contact, such as going up to mark a ball and having someone intercept.

7 steps to preventing injuries on

©Getty Images

1) Preseason training

AFL players and clubs are all too aware of the possibility of injury that comes each time players step out onto that field. This is why, plenty of time and effort goes into prevention. Here are some of the ways teams train to prevent injuries:

Pre-season training ensures the body is ready to compete. Just because the season ends, doesn’t mean the players stop training.

In fact, AFL was created as a way to keep the cricket players fit and healthy between seasons. To the same merit, AFL players have to maintain their levels of fitness between seasons as well. It helps to improve their strength, flexibility, stamina, agility and balance.

2) Learning proper technique

Throughout their training, players are also taught the correct technique to use out on the playing field, which is vital in order to help prevent injury.

3) Warm-up

This is one of those life skills everyone is taught before exercising. By warming up the muscles in preparation for the game, there’s less likelihood of injury. Warmups can include jogging, running, stretching and more.

4) Checking the grounds

However, it’s not just up to the players and coaches to ensure the safety of players during the game, it also comes down to providing a safe environment for the game.

The grounds need to be checked before each and every game to ensure any hazardous items, such as broken glass, is removed before game time.

5) Fences 5 metres from boundary line

Fences also need to be at least 5 metres from the boundary line. This helps prevent any contact injuries that occur from players unable to stop before the fence.

6) Goal post padding

Goal posts are padded with high-density foam that is at least two-metres high and 35 millimetres thick. It is replaced frequently when worn or damaged to make sure it’s providing optimal protection when needed.

7) Protective gear

Finally, AFL players also need to ensure they have the right protective gear on before the game. This includes:

  • Wearing a mouthguard that is custom-fitted.
  • Protective headgear, ankle braces and thigh protectors for those who have previous injuries.

Which is more dangerous AFL or NFL?

It’s no secret that both sports carry their risks with them. Many people consider the NFL to be the more dangerous sport due to the fact it tends to be a lot more physical between players.

However, because of this, NFL players are much more protected in the gear they wear, compared to AFL players. As a result, AFL is a much more dangerous sport.

Worst AFL injuries

As you might expect, there have been many injuries over the years that AFL has been played. Here are some of the most notable ones that caused the biggest threat to life or career of the player:

  • 1954: John Coleman went down with a dislocated knee that took him out of the game for good.
  • 1972: Peter Hudson had his knee buckle under him, ending his career.
  • 1972: John Greening was knocked out and in a coma for days with a cerebral concussion.
  • 2001: Winston Abraham tore his ACL in his left knee after falling hard during a collision with James Hird. While he was on the ground for less than a minute, this fall ended his career.
  • 2001: James Snell (Geelong) broke his ankle in a game and was never able to run, much less play a game, again.
  • 2002: James Hird (Essendon) injured his face in a game after his own teammate landed on it after unsuccessfully marking a ball.
  • 2003: Tarkyn Lockyer (Collingwood) collided in the air during a tackle which resulted in a tear in his anterior cruciate ligament. This put him out of the game for 12 months.
  • 2004: James Hird injured his eye when another player hit him in the side of the face (going for the ball).
  • 2004: Dustin Fletcher managed to lose most of his teeth in a tackle. He had a mouthguard in at the time.
  • 2005: Nathan Brown had another play land on his leg, snapping both bones.
  • 2005: Jeff White got a boot to the face, which required plates.
  • 2006: Mitch Hahn hyper extended his left knee which put him on the sidelines for 10 months.
  • 2006: Trent Hentschel dislocated his right knee and needed a full knee reconstruction.
  • 2006: Tom Lonergan suffered a kidney injury and ended up in an induced coma for four days.
  • 2007: Scott Camporeale suffered from a knee injury that ended his career as it bent in the wrong direction.
  • 2009: David Hill suffered a knee injury that had him out for a season.
  • 2010: Matthew Kreuzer suffered from a knee injury that put him out of the game for 12 months.
  • 2011: James Strauss broke his leg in a marking contest.
  • 2012: Gary Rohan suffered from a compound fracture after landing awkwardly on it.
  • 2014: Gary Ablett suffered a should injury that caused him to miss the rest of the season and miss a chance to become the fifth AFL player in history to win three Brownlows.

Which sport is Australia’s most dangerous?

Adam Treloar injured his ankle in the win over St Kilda. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

According to the results from a study released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, AFL is the most dangerous sport in Australia when looking at sports injury hospitalisations.

Here’s what they found in terms of numbers presenting to hospital:

  • Australian Football Rules: 3,186
  • Soccer: 2,962
  • Cycling: 2,917
  • Wheeled motor sports: 2,737
  • Rugby: 2,621

It’s interesting to note, however, that while AFL sits the highest when you look at the injuries that actually represented a ‘high threat to life’ the stats changed:

  • Cycling
  • Wheeled motor sports
  • Equestrian activities
  • Water sports
  • Walking and running

While AFL is dangerous, it isn’t as life-threatening as some as the other sports out there, despite its high risk of injury. Although the long-term effects of concussion are still being looked into.

Life after AFL

It’s life after AFL where the full effects of the game really come to life. The effects that can come with concussions – multiple concussions nonetheless – can be felt many years after. These include memory loss, struggles to pay attention, and anger issues.

In 2015, the Australian Football League actually recognized this problem, awarding player Alan Pearce $30,000 to cover the costs of his tests. Retired played have been coming forward with their own horrific stories of cognitive deterioration.

So, what has been done about it? There have been a few changes:

  • In the past decade, there have been increased penalties for dangerous tackles after players have already hit the ground.
  • Players have also been discouraged from using their heads as weapons, which is frequently the case.
  • Cameras are now used to spot potential concussions.

Naturally, as a result, the prevalence of concussions has risen as more and more are being picked up with greater detection measures.

There were almost 7.5 concussions per 1,000 player game hours in AFL. That’s a huge number of concussions and leads to the risk of multiple concussions which can have long-term health effects for the players.

Safety considerations

While safety measures mentioned above are taken before each and every game, it’s apparent that there needs to be more in place to help protect the players on the field.

A new registry has been started to record all the serious head knocks that occur on the field in order to make it much more transparent, and also to examine the long-term effects of these hits to the head on the players.

Jess, running in collaboration with the non-profit charity Nurosafe and his own charity Sports Health Check, counts the number of concussion players listed in the AFL and soon on the AFLW on this website.

Here are the concussions for 2021 alone:

  • Jake Kelly (Adelaide)
  • Darcy Gardiner (Brisbane)
  • David Cunningham (Carlton)
  • Jordan de Goy (Colinwood)
  • Chris Mayne (Colinwood)
  • Nathan Murphy (Colinwood)
  • Levi Greenwood (Colinwood)
  • Jordan Ridley (Essendon)
  • Nat Fyfe (Fremantle)
  • Brandon Walker (Fremantle)
  • Ratchie Schultz (Fremantle)
  • Rhys Stanley (Geelong)
  • Sean Remens (Gold Coast)
  • Cameron Freeton (GWS)
  • Stephen May (Melbourne)
  • Ben Cunnington (North Melbourne)
  • Curtis Taylor (North Melbourne)
  • Camerons Haar (North Melbourne)
  • Aaron Hall (North Melbourne)
  • Tom Rock Riff (Port Adelaide)
  • Dustin Martin (Richmond)
  • Camdin Macintosh (Richmond)
  • Dylan Grimes (Richmond)
  • Max King (St. Kirda)
  • Jimmy Webb (St. Kirda)
  • Column Mills (Sydney)
  • George Hewett (Sydney)
  • Zack Langdon (West Coast)
  • Tim English (Western Bulldogs)
  • Mitch Hannan (Western Bulldogs)
  • Mei and Main were discussed twice

Considering the AFL season has only just started these numbers are staggering. Repeated concussions are the biggest threat to the permanent health of the brain and need to be noted and brought to attention.

With more measures in place to detect concussions, it’s a start to making the AFL field a safer place for players. Or at least making them more aware of the risks that they face each time they step out to play another team.

Why is AFL so dangerous?

AFL is simply so dangerous as it’s a high contact sport with very little protection for the players. Yet, despite these dangers, it hasn’t stopped more and more players from signing up and giving it a go.

While more could definitely be done to help keep places safe – and is hopefully in the works – we still have a long way to go.

Sport, by nature, comes with its dangers. It’s about weighing up the risks and making an informed decision moving forward, which is what this newly formed concussion register is helping with.

By being aware of the common risks of playing the sport, players can make more informed decisions when it comes to the playing field. This game we all love to cheer on and watch isn’t going anywhere.

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