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Tackling class action for footballers

Greg Griffin has tackled a lot of sports issues on and off the field from being a player advocate to an agent to class actions.

Principal Lawyer of Griffins Lawyers in Adelaide, Greg has been involved in a range of sports since the ’80s, including representing South Australian National Football League clubs in defending players at the SANFL Tribunal.

He is one of the panellists at Friday’s Personal Injuries Law Conference in Brisbane. He specialises in sports law and also conducts the stand-alone Sports Advisory arm of the business, Griffin Sports.

Greg is currently pursuing the class action seeking damages in Australian courts for former AFL players suffering from the effects of concussion injuries.

So who better to talk to about the topical issue of sports concussion than someone whose involvement in sports goes back a few decades?

“Over a period of around 10 years, I was the lead advocate for two very successful clubs in the SANFL, being North Adelaide and Glenelg.  I went onto the Board of North Adelaide and was made a life member in 2001,” he said.

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“When the State of Origin games were played between South Australia and Victoria, I was the advocate on call in the event of reports in the sometimes rather vigorous contest between two football states that did not like each other. 

“It was very similar to the New South Wales v Queensland State of Origin games.”

 Greg also acted as a player agent for many of the South Australian players moving into the AFL competition.  He also played a role when Port Adelaide attempted to join the AFL in 1991. Although not immediately successful, the Adelaide Crows joined the competition and were later followed by a Port Adelaide team.

But his association with sport doesn’t stop at football. Greg was also involved with martial arts as Secretary-General to Taekwondo Australia; and he owned and operated a joint venture partnership with Tennis Australia.

His involvement in soccer is just as impressive. He became the major shareholder and Chairman of Adelaide United Football Club. In 2020 he was selected by FIFA as one of 23 football lawyers across five continents to study for the FIFA Diploma in Football Law to ensure that each continent had at least one FIFA-recognised football lawyer in the event of legal issues arising. And in 2021 and 2022 he was made the President of Adelaide City FC which was the initial South Australian team in the National Soccer League before the creation of the A-League. 

He continues to have an active legal role in the A-League, acting for several constituent clubs.

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Greg says most sports injuries are coming out of football codes, although not yet in soccer which is known for its dramatic headers.

“Sports in Australia where concussion/head knocks are most prevalent are AFL, NRL and rugby union.  Those three sports are easily the most physical contact sports that are played in the country and unsurprisingly account for the vast majority of concussions on any given Saturday or Sunday,” he said.

“The issue that you raise about soccer is very interesting.  There have been studies as to concussions arising from soccer/football from the 1970s.  There has however in respect of soccer been no challenge to any national body over a concussion suffered.

“There is a misconception that the number of concussions in soccer have diminished due to the fact that the game is no longer played with heavy leather balls, which one would have thought on a waterlogged pitch in the middle of winter would cause significant damage to any player attempting to head that ball, either defensively or offensively. 

“The reality is however that the game is more dangerous now due to the balls that are used than it was using the old leather balls.  The speed at which players can deliver a modern soccer ball into the box is much greater than was the case between 1970 and 2000. 

“It is the speed of the ball coming in that is the cause of concern for the players.  Whilst there has not yet been any proceeding brought by former soccer/football players either here or in Europe, there are numerous former players who are in exactly the same physical and mental condition as many of the AFL and NRL players who are now looking to join concussion class actions.”

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And while many AFL and NRL players are now rested after concussion incidents, Greg said rugby union had bucked the trend which may be an issue in the future.

“My experience has been that where a player was concussed a week or so before a final then any sensible club would stand them down for at least that week and most of the week after.  The reason that the AFL currently has a 12-day rest period after a concussion has been diagnosed is that the players only miss one game. 

“World Rugby used to have a mandatory 21-day break following a concussion but that was abandoned after the World Cup in South Africa in 1995 which South Africa won after the end of apartheid. 

“The reason the 21-day period was abandoned was that at the end of that event, rugby nations were negotiating with broadcasters to fund and televise Super Rugby.  It was a condition of the broadcasters that World Rugby remove the 21-day period so as to enable concussed players to return to the field of play. 

“The Irish were the voice in the wilderness in strongly opposing that but World Rugby abandoned its previous position which will be a huge issue for it in the event of a class action against them in due course.”

Greg said concussion was now a serious issue for all contact sports.

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“The AFL for example between 1980 and 2000 literally proceeded on the basis that concussions were a part of the game and made only token attempts to enforce Return to Play Protocols or to adopt the prevailing medical science that players in contact sport needed to be protected post-concussion. 

“The number of young players who are retiring due to concussion is very troubling.  There are a number of 25 to 30-year-olds who are members of the class action group.  The sad reality is, being young men, they are already affected by the concussions they received whilst playing and the lack of proper medical attention that was given to them so as to protect them from long-term damage. 

“The AFL and NRL are well aware of the concerns of parents of young players that their sports are simply dangerous and no one wants to see their children damaged playing a sport they love. 

“The participation rate in each of those sports is far behind soccer for instance, which whilst is not reflected in attendances at A-League matches compared to crowds at AFL games, has ultimately caused the AFL and the NRL immeasurable damage as the pipeline of players and supporters continues to be greatly reduced which will soon impact upon the all important broadcast deal revenues.”

Greg is hoping participants at the conference leave with a better understanding as to the importance of proper protocols in place to counter the inevitable concussions in contact sport produces.

“And if they hold positions of authority, whether they be in junior clubs or professional bodies, then the game is safer and players with continue to want to play the game their parents did.”

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