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Former AFL star expresses concern for Jy Simpkin

Andrew Mathieson -

Concussion sufferer Shaun Smith can probably take much of the credit for changes to AFL protocols that nowadays ensures that the head is sacrosanct in physical collisions.

So it is not surprising that Smith, who joined North Melbourne the same year Alastair Clarkson did in 1987, has sympathy for his former teammate-turned-coach's concern for injured Kangaroos captain Jy Simpkin.

The Indigenous superstar was knocked out by a high bump to the head from St Kilda's Jimmy Webster in the last AFL practice match this year on Sunday.

Smith, who after joining Melbourne in 1995 was reunited again a year later with Clarkson, was first made aware by his mother three decades ago that a series of heavy head knocks was taking its toll on his mindset.

That first season at the Demons, after two years redefining his game for Werribee in the defunct VFA, now under the VFL banner, from a goalkicking midfielder to a medium-sized key forward was also when he bought a health insurance policy.

While many may attribute the concussion to Smith's uncontrollable proclivities for landing after a spectacular mark, his legal team was able to prove – three and a half years ago – the AFL had a duty of care that was lacking in his career that ended prematurely in 1998 before his 30th birthday.

The case was awarded a $1.4 million payout for damages from that insurance policy that Smith, ironically, had forgotten long after his playing days was over.

But the payout was enough for the AFL to institute change, concerned about a slew of court cases suing the organisation well into the future that has already occurred in American football to the NFL.

Smith was hoping on Tuesday before the AFL tribunal sat that Webster should have "the book thrown at him".

The AFL requested an eight-match suspension; Webster was handed seven matches.

"I've been on the receiving end of a couple of those (types of hits) and for me, it's just a coward's act," Smith said on Melbourne's 3AW radio.

"It's not tough … he could have easily avoided it.

"He could have tackled him; he could have just pushed him over.

"Not left the ground with his shoulder leading into his (Simpkin's) face."

The talk was tough, but Smith said a hefty suspension was not about retribution for Simpkin or about his own bitterness, but more on setting a new precedent so punishment for offending players was a clear deterrent to prevent further concussions.

Smith's bouts of concussion has contributed to depressive states of his mental health, as was proven in his 2020 court case.

Simpkin has alarmingly tallied up three concussion knocks inside the past 12 months, plus reportedly a fourth in his time playing in the AFL dating across his past eight seasons.

The Yorta Yorta man will miss the Kangaroos' season opener against GWS Giants on March 16 following the effects of the head-high bump from Webster.

But Smith wants the conversation to be more about adequate treatment for acquired brain injuries.

"Everyone is focusing on the hit," Smith said.

"I'm more worried about Jy's health rather than the hit.

"We've got to be better at that.

"We have got to look at the whole thing but if there is an incident, (and) there is going to be some rogue incidents … it's how we deal with it after and talking about playing round one, it's not the dialogue we want to hear."

St Kilda coach Ross Lyon had expressed a "real concern for Jy" ahead of any defence for Webster.

It is not quite abandoning a team's player, but more of acknowledging no matter what side a coach is on, the bigger picture is the long-term health of the concussed player.

While not happening in Lyon's tenure at Moorabbin, the club had experience in dealing with long-term concussions during the five seasons of handling the head of former St Kilda No.1 draft pick, Patrick McCartin, who was concussed eight times in four of those playing years.

"We understand it was going to be a significant ban, and as a coach, you don't want to lose one of your really good players, but you've got to pay a price and he understands that," Lyon told the AFL website.

"The bottom line is it was an unacceptable action on a footy field."

Webster's bump prompted impassioned responses in the public forum of the media, including from the 1988 Brownlow Medallist, Gerard Healy.

Healy, who has a background in health and well-being, reignited his belief for the AFL to introduce a red-card system that would have sent Webster off from the rest of the match but allow him to be replaced, while shortening numbers on the interchange bench.

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