Australia’s major sporting codes are more concerned with legal liability arising from concussions than the health of players sustaining them, the head of an advocacy body has told an inquiry.

Concussion guidelines in both professional and amateur sport are among the topics being examined by a Senate inquiry, which has received submissions from top medical and legal experts.

CEO of the newly formed charity Concussion Australia, Brendan Swan, told a hearing in Brisbane that the group had reached out to the AFL and NRL offering free education workshops, but had not heard back.

“They’re more concerned with the legal liability as opposed to the player health,” he said.

Senator Lidia Thorpe, who first pushed for the inquiry, said the AFL and NRL “have their heads in the sand” on concussion.

An NRL spokesperson said it is “committed to player safety at all levels of the game, particularly with respect to head trauma and concussion”.

“We regularly engage with medical experts from around the world to enhance and improve our extensive measures to protect players,” the spokesperson said.

The AFL was contacted for comment.

Australia behind international standards

Former rugby player Kirby Sefo stands smiling holding a rugby ball at a sporting field.
Former professional rugby player Kirby Sefo says she has got “no answers” about head knocks she received.(ABC News: Brittney Kleyn)

The inquiry heard first-hand account from former Australian rugby union player Kirby Sefo, who experienced memory loss, vomiting and exhaustion, that she attributed to repeated head knocks.

“It’s quite emotional … What everyone’s had to go through and like we don’t even have a resolution, there’s no answers,” she said.

University of Queensland paediatric neurologist Professor Karen Barlow said sporting codes were “definitely taking concussion much more seriously than ever before”, but believed Australia was still behind the level of understanding in North America.

“They can take it much more seriously by really enforcing the idea that we have to take any potential head knock seriously as a concussion, that that person, even if it’s your best player, still needs to sit out,” she said.

“It has to come from the top.”

Karen Barlow, who has copper curly hair and blue eyes, poses for a photo outside, a child's bike on the ground next to her
Neurologist Karen Barlow says Australian sporting codes should take concussion more seriously. (Supplied: University of Queensland)

Professor Barlow described the rules around resting after a concussion at an amateur level as “arbitrary” and based more on the sport than the injury.

“You should be back performing at school well or your job well or university well, before you really even entertain going back into practice contact sport,” she said.

‘I would not put my kids into contact sports’

The inquiry was told of a lack of legal precedent imposing a duty of care on sports governing bodies to players for concussion-related injuries.

Head trauma lawyer Jamie Shine drew on her experience representing hundreds of clients who have sustained brain injuries.

“In terms of the causal link between repeat head injuries and CTE, this is a continual argument raised by sporting bodies, to the point where they say there’s no conclusive evidence,” she said.

CTE is a brain condition linked to repeated head injuries, which slowly gets worse over time and leads to dementia.

Ms Shine questioned whether “this the correct standard that really should be put to deciding about safety issues, when we’re talking about is life and death”.

“These injuries are serious … I’m very concerned about repeated head trauma,” she said.

“As it stands, I would not put my kids into contact sports for the sake of getting a progressive brain illness where they want to end their lives.”

The inquiry has broad terms of reference, including probing the long-term impacts of head trauma, concussion guidelines, support offered to players, the prevalence of concussion in First Nations communities and the liability of sports associations.

It is due to report by June 21.