One of the greatest and most notorious players in AFL history believes the game is currently more dangerous than the ‘rough and violent’ times of the ’70s and ’80s.
Four-time premiership winner as both a coach and a player, Leigh Matthews, was right in the thick of an era when high shots, mass brawls and blatant king hits reigned supreme.
But the Hawks superstar, who won eight best and fairest medals at the club before moving into a coaching and commentary career with stunning success, believes footy is far more dangerous now than it was back in his day.
‘I believe the game is more dangerous to play in 2022 than it was in the ’70s and ’80s when it was supposed to be really rough and violent,’ the Hawthorn legend told 3AW.
That’s despite the league attempting to make the game safer when it comes to dealing with concussion, while also trying also to make the game a bigger, faster spectacle.
AFL legend Leigh Matthews might have played in what many see as footy’s wildest period – but he believes the size and speed of today’s players makes the game more dangerous than ever
This is why Matthews believes the game is more dangerous than ever.
‘It’s [the game] in a battle with itself and I think the concussion issues, there’s litigation and a class action, as soon as you start talking as a football field as a workplace, you’re in foreign territory,’ he said.
‘This century I think the game, because of the introduction of mass interchange in ’07 – ’09, in that period, it just changed the game.
‘Players now know they are going to be coming off for regular rest and play with much more energy, much more contact and more collisions.
‘I love the speed and power of the modern game, but [there is] more contact, more collisions, [and] therefore more knocks to the head.’
As interchanges began to soar in the last few years and coaches became more shrewd about implementing defensive structures, the league tinkered with rules to ensure fans were given the best spectacle possible.
More speed, more goals – but seemingly more concussions as awareness about the effects of head injuries continues to grow.
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The AFL continues to clamp down on actions that can cause head knocks, and punishes players that cause them illegally much more harshly – but Matthews says all the measures the league employs to make the game faster are almost counterproductive.
‘How can we make it safe enough that we won’t get litigated against? Because coaches’ inclinations will never change,’ he said.
‘Now with the extra tactical sub coming in, we’ve effectively got a 23 v 23 game … 18 on the field but five players ready to charge on at any time with maximum energy.
‘The game is in competition with itself … we want to minimise concussions, clearly, eradicate if we can … but yet we want this ballistic, powerful game.’
Concussion didn’t exist in the minds of footballers or medical personnel in the 70’s and ’80s.
Matthews – who played from 1969-1985 – perpetrated some of his generation’s dirtiest acts, with massive king hits on Barrie Cable, Peter Giles and Stuart Trott among the most infamous.
One king hit that left Geelong’s Neville Bruns with a broken jaw was so bad he was convicted for assault.
Leigh Matthews, who played for the Hawks between 1969 to 1985, believes the wild days of the ’70s and ’80s have nothing on current footy
Matthews (pictured with wife Deborah in 2019) said attempts to make the current game faster have seen it become more dangerous than ever
So it comes as no surprise to hear the star forward knew the physicality was just the reality of playing footy.
‘When I played, you sort of just took it on the chin that it s a dangerous game and you just take the hope that it doesn’t affect you too badly at the time…or later in life,’ said Matthews.
‘Ten years ago if we said if a player gets concussion, not necessarily knocked out, he won’t play for 12 days, that was unfathomable.
‘The game is more dangerous [despite the AFL] trying to make it safer, because the athletes are so fit and powerful they are like gladiators running around the field, running into each other at high speed.’
The 2023 AFL season kicks off on Thursday, March 16 with a blockbuster between the Tigers and Blues at the MCG.