Concussion expert Alan Pearce warns AFL players doing too much contact training after Aiden O’Driscoll retires

Glen Quartermain & Jackson Barrett
The Nightly
4 Min Read
One of Australia’s leading concussion experts believes West Australian midfielder and Western Bulldogs draftee Aiden O’Driscoll’s medical retirement is proof the AFL must reduce contract training sessions.
One of Australia’s leading concussion experts believes West Australian midfielder and Western Bulldogs draftee Aiden O’Driscoll’s medical retirement is proof the AFL must reduce contract training sessions. Credit: Supplied

One of Australia’s leading concussion experts believes West Australian midfielder and Western Bulldogs draftee Aiden O’Driscoll’s medical retirement is proof the AFL must reduce contact training sessions.

La Trobe University associate professor Alan Pearce referenced Victorian state coroner John Cain’s recommendations late last year after the death of former AFL player Shane Tuck.

“We need to take on board the coroner’s John Cain’s suggestion around limiting contact at training. Then the risk is reduced and the prevalence can be reduced,” Professor Pearce said.

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“Now it may not have stopped Aiden from having to retire, but it certainly would have reduced the amount of contact that he had in training.”

O’Driscoll suffered a significant head injury during during a pre-season training season in January in a clash with fellow WA product Aaron Naughton. The concussion was so bad the Bulldogs cancelled their practice game.

It’s a devastating blow for WA speedster O’Driscoll, the brother of Fremantle’s Nathan and Emma, who did not play an AFL game and retires just six months after being drafted out of Wesley College and WAFL club Perth.

It follows Collingwood premiership player Nathan Murphy and Melbourne star Angus Brayshaw both being medically retired earlier this season.

“The three of them can’t play AFL and (it’s the end of their) professional career,” Professor Pearce said.

“But they can’t even go out with their mates in the local league and run around and have a kick because of the risk of catastrophic injury.

“This is a whole life changing event for him.”

O’Driscoll, 18, was assessed by an independent medical concussion panel after a series of extensive investigations in “the interest of his long-term health and wellbeing”.

O’Driscoll was drafted with pick 55 in last year’s draft and did not play a game at any level for the Bulldogs.

“Following extensive clinical assessments, investigations and expert consultation that included a review by an Independent Medical Concussion Panel, Aiden has been advised to retire from contact sports in the interests of his long-term health and wellbeing,” the Bulldogs said in a statement.

“The club will give Aiden and his family all the support it can at this difficult time.”

Nathan took to Instagram to pen a heartfelt tribute to his brother.

“Hard day today seeing this happen to the little brother you grew up kicking the footy around with,” he wrote.

Aiden O'Driscoll pictured with older siblings Nathan and Emma.
Aiden O'Driscoll pictured with older siblings Nathan and Emma. Credit: Fremantle Dockers/X formerly Twitter

“Can’t explain how much this hurts for our family but health rules over anything.

“I love you lil bro and I’m sorry I can’t be there with you today.

“Footy can be great but with all great things comes times like this. Every game is going to be for you my guy.”

In a post on X (formerly Twitter), the Dockers wrote: “Sending our love and support to the entire O’Driscoll family today”.

O’Driscoll showcased his speed at last year’s AFL Draft Combine, where he recorded the year’s best 20m sprint time (2.87sec) while he also ranked No.6 for the 2km time-trial.

Professor Pearce also backed Cain’s call for independent doctors to attend all matches and make the call on concussed players.

Geelong star Jeremy Cameron has entered concussion protocols with delayed symptoms after falling heavily on his head following a marking contest in Friday night’s loss to Port Adelaide.

The Cats doctor gave Cameron a 39-second Head Injury Assessment (HIA) test on the field late in the fourth quarter of Geelong’s narrow defeat at GMHBA Stadium. Cameron remained on the field.

Jeremy Cameron of the Cats.
Jeremy Cameron of the Cats. Credit: Michael Willson/AFL Photos

“It’s another example of why we need to have independent doctors,” Professor Pearce said.

“The club doctors are doing a great job already, but they are under so much pressure.

“To have a player just push them away and be irritable. He was showing signs of concussion, irritability and aggression.

“The independent doctors would be there to support the club doctor.”

Professor Pearce, who is research manager at the Australian Sports Brain Bank, was also concerned about AFL Players’ Association research that shows a rise from nine to 12 per cent in players not reporting concussion symptoms.

“It is very concerning. The players were worried about missing the following week. For them it is about the match payments,” Professor Pearce said.

That is something we have to be addressing, but it is also a cultural issue because the players are underestimating the seriousness of this injury.

“That speaks to the fact we have got to be better at educating and changing the culture.”

Professor Pearce has also expressed concern over the future of Western Bulldogs midfielder Tom Liberatore, who has suffered four concussions in 12 months, two in as many games across 21 days.

“I would be highly concerned about four concussions in 12 months,” Professor Pearce said.

“We have seen from the research that anyone who has a lifetime concussion history of three is at risk of cognitive impairments later in life. “Two in 21 days is really concerning. We need to do better at recovery protocols.

“Why can’t we have 21 days for AFL players like we do for community players, irrespective of medical expertise?

“Doctors have to become more conservative, irrespective of class actions. This is brain health, not a hamstring or ACL. If players take an extra couple of weeks off, it can extend their careers by years. If the AFL is truly sincere about athlete health, they have to show it.”

Aiden O’Driscoll pictured at home in Northam after being drafted.
Aiden O’Driscoll pictured at home in Northam after being drafted. Credit: Justin Benson-Cooper/The West Australian

All levels of football beneath the AFL now operate under 21-day concussion protocols in line with Australian Sports Commission and Sports Medicine Australia guidelines.

The AFL still operates under a 12-day concussion policy.

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