COMMENT: The Dees failed Christian Petracca on King’s Birthday – and questions must be answered


“I’ll back in the medical staff, who are incredibly highly rated professionals that are the best in the business, that wouldn’t take unnecessary risks with a player’s health.

“I just don’t like taking pot-shots from afar at medical staff, who I think are very, very good at what they do.”

This is what Jason Dunstall had to say on Fox Footy immediately following Collingwood’s King’s Birthday win over Melbourne, after fellow panellist David King questioned the Demons’ decision to send Christian Petracca back on after a brutal knee to the ribs from Magpies captain Darcy Moore left him in considerable distress.

Dunstall’s comments are commonplace in the AFL world, from clubs to media to even the fans: to question club doctors in any way is considered sacrilege, and offenders are quickly pulled up for having the gall to even dispute any of their decisions regarding player welfare.

Coaches get prickly at press conferences when the wisdom of their medicos is called into question; former greats say over and over that they’d have trusted their old doctors with their lives back in their playing days.

And it all rings hollow when it comes out that Petracca has broken four ribs, sustained a lacerated spleen and punctured a lung, requiring surgery in hospital overnight and almost certainly sidelining him for the foreseeable future.

Petracca isn’t the first player and he won’t be the last to be unduly sent out onto the field when he shouldn’t be. Port Adelaide were fined $100,000 only last year for failing to follow protocols after letting Aliir Aliir play on despite clearly being concussed in a marking contest. In 2015, Western Bulldogs medical staff strapped up Clay Smith and sent him back out there despite a ruptured ACL, only to watch as he collapsed unprompted when his damaged knee gave out mere minutes later, because of course it did.

It’s important to be careful about what I have to say next, because to suggest the Melbourne doctors were derelict in their duties is a huge claim and an irresponsible one to make without knowing the full process behind what went on in the Demons rooms and on the interchange bench as Petracca was cleared to return.

But that’s exactly what we, as the wider AFL community, need the league to mandate the Demons reveal: the nuts and bolts, down to the minutiae, of the decision-making that allowed any player, never mind a superstar of the game, back out onto the MCG with such severe internal injuries.

Had Petracca been concussed and sent back out there, the AFL’s wrath would be swift and substantial, as it was with the Power and Aliir last year: a string of lawsuits and tragic examples of the impact a career of head knocks has on long-term mental welfare have resulted in the league, rightfully, resting on a hair-trigger when it comes to concussion. An investigation would be demanded, and the infringing club forced to comply every step of the way.

Christian Petracca suffered broken ribs and a series of internal injuries in Melbourne’s King’s Birthday loss to Collingwood. (Photo by Jonathan DiMaggio/Getty Images)

But what happened to the Demons champion is no less severe: former Dee Ricky Petterd nearly died in a similar incident back in 2007, when a cracked rib severely punctured his lung and left him unable to breathe. Club doctors saved his life by puncturing his chest wall in the rooms because they couldn’t afford the delay in taking him to hospital. That’s how serious things could have been.

To give the Demons’ medical staff the greatest possible benefit of the doubt, which is their right, is to assume they didn’t know the extent of Petracca’s internal injuries, and that the player himself did what every player does when in a bad way and assured them he was right to go. Surely no doctor in their right mind is letting a player go back out onto the field with a single cracked rib, never mind four.

Right now, in coffee rooms and on lounges all over the country, and on social media too, the Demons officials are absolutely copping it for what happened on King’s Birthday – and it’s hard to argue with the assessment.

And that’s precisely why the Demons need to be open and honest with everyone about arriving at the conclusion that Petracca could keep playing – the benefit of the doubt line might sit fine with Dunstall and those who need to keep relationships with clubs open and genial, but to the wider footy public the ‘trust the docs’ line doesn’t cut the mustard when the eye test is as damning as it is here.

Christian Petracca went down to the rooms following this contest just before quarter-time.#AFLPiesDees

— AFL (@AFL) June 10, 2024

It’s in Melbourne’s best interests, as well as those of the medical staff, to have complete transparency in this regard, or they’ll always be tarred with the brush of either failing to realise a player under their care had had his ribs rearranged and his lung punctured, or knowing but letting him go out there anywhere. Either scenario is a hideous look for a profession in which lives can literally hang in the balance.

Maybe there’s a rational explanation for how this happened that would immediately justify it. If that’s the case, then the Dees should be racing to make that public rather than hoping blind faith in the medicos will wash with the public on this one.

But even if there’s not, even if a mistake was made or a diagnosis mistakenly delivered, or if the doctors had such faith in Petracca’s own testimony that they let him be the judge on whether he could keep going, that process has to be revealed, just as the Power were made to divulge how and why Aliir was spared needing to conduct a SCAT5 concussion test last year.

Errors happen, even to the best and most respected doctors; to not acknowledge if and when they occur is how external trust is eroded. And that’s a very bad place to be in any profession.

Whichever way you shake it, Melbourne failed Christian Petracca on King’s Birthday. A public explanation of how and why won’t change what happened, but it will at least give the Demons the best possible chance at retaining the trust of the public for the next time a player’s welfare is in their hands.

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