Justin Clarke retires too young – a dilemma for the AFL

It was a sad day yesterday as a Brisbane Lions supporter but also a follower of AFL to hear that Justin Clarke had, after advice from doctors, decided to retire from playing AFL at the age of 22 after receiving a concussion during an intraclub game back in February. The story of how Justin Clarke got to the Brisbane Lions is a story I love. Doing Yr 12 in his home town of Booleroo in the mid north of South Australia, Justin played a couple of games for the North Adelaide U/18s where the Brisbane Lions recruiters saw enough to pick him up in the rookie draft.

The thing I like about the Justin Clarke story is that he was kind of picked from obscurity. He did not play in any of the state sides for SA he was just a country kid who loved footy and worked hard to make full use of his ability. Fellow Brisbane Lions players have said over the last day that Justin would give 100% at every training session and they knew that he would give everything he had when he ran out onto the field. He didn’t have the best kick but he knew his role in the team and I have no doubt that he would have been one of the pillars in the Lions backline for the next 10 years and would have played over 200 games. To hear him get emotional as he announced his retirement, realising that he would not be able to play the game he loved (or any contact sport at all) at the young age of 22 was hard to see.

What is even more scary is why Justin had to retire. Just one accidental head knock in an intraclub game has had such an impact on Justin’s life. Even though it happened two months ago he is still experiencing extreme headaches, dizziness and fatigue. To hear him tell the story about how he was driving to Uni and could not remember what direction to take is scary. These after effects have occurred to this young man not after repeated blows to the head like fellow Brisbane Lions players Jonathan Brown and Matt McGuire (who also had to retire because of concussion) but after just one concussion.

After Justin announced his retirement it got me thinking whether the AFL has a dilemma on its hand? Firstly, does the AFL need to compensate players when something like this has happened? It has been suggested that Justin will get $600,000 compensation but is that enough considering he could have possibly played for another 10 years. There are other players like Matt McGuire who have had to retire because of repeated concussions who are still trying to seek compensation from the AFL. The other thing that also needs to be considered is whether the AFL is responsible for any future income a player may miss once retire because of damage caused by concussions obtain playing footy. Justin Clarke is a bright young man (hoping to complete a PhD in aeronautical engineering) but has substantial damage been done to his brain to stop him from achieving this and is the game, and its administration, the AFL, responsible for this?

The second dilemma that the AFL is facing is whether they are doing enough to stop injuries like this occurring and do they need to do more? We all know that footy is a physical, tough game and for many of us it is what attracts us to the game, but is this putting players’ welfare in jeopardy? The AFL has done a lot over the years with the concussion rule, making bumps to the head an illegal practice, but is this enough? As more research is done on the impact that knocks to the head and concussion have on a person does the AFL need to make further changes to the game? If so what and how soon?

Finally, what impact will an instance like Justin Clarke having to retire at such a young age because of the effects of concussion have on kids taking up the game of Australian Rules football? When parents hear about instances like Justin Clarke occurring will they try and persuade their children not to play the game fearing that this could also happen to their child? Will parents tell their kids to play another sport where there is less chance of concussions occurring and therefore possible brain damage, rather than playing Australian Rules?

It is sad to see Justin Clarke having to retire at the age of 22 but I am so glad he has listened to what the doctors have said and that hopefully no more damage will occur. I hope his recovery is quick and that his brain functioning will return to normal. Even though a promising footy career has come to an end I hope that Justin’s dreams of becoming an aeronautical engineer are fulfilled.

All the best Justin.

About Andrew Weiss

Andrew is one of the few Brisbane Lions supporters that lives in the Adelaide Hills. He still has bragging rights over any Crows or Port supporter by mentioning the back to back to back premierships the Lions achieved in 2001-2003. After playing for over a decade for the mighty Adelaide Lutheran Football Club better known as 'The Doggies' he now spends his Saturdays running around footy ovals as an umpire, getting abuse no matter what decision is made. Coaching is probably next on the agenda as his two sons have started to play the great game of AFL. Andrew is a sports fanatic who when not watching or reading about sport is teaching secondary students about Biology, Nutrition and Psychology.


  1. Yvette Wroby says

    It’s so complex and very sad. Well written. Perhaps there should be a player insurance that both players and the league put into that can be used in such circumstances. Not that covers potential earnings but covers future medical and physical support. From my understanding, players all end up with long time difficulties, from arthritis to crap knees, shoulders etc. There needs to be a discussion for both the women’s and men’s league about a way to prepare for the future. I saw one woman injured and know she’s the kind of player that will go hell for leather in the future. And I have seen countless men injured. Those playing footy and who love the game will always be at risk of something.

  2. Dave Brown says

    Lots of questions, Andrew, and I don’t know any of the answers. Always thought of Justin Clarke as a bit of a real life Achilles Jones from the play And the Big Men Fly – plucked more or less straight off the farm (his one game for the North Adelaide reserves was played solely so AFL scouts could get a look at him) and into the big league (of course there the similarities end). Hopefully he recovers fully with no long term effects but it just reinforces why the AFL and the game more broadly must protect the head at all costs. Scott Stevens of the Crows was another footballer to retire early due to effects of concussion.

  3. Justin also has a pilots license. Will he be able to fly a plane again?
    Comments from fans who have met him are that he is just a lovely kid.
    His retirement video to lion supporters on the lions website is quite humbling.
    A tough and sad decision but the right decision for Justin.
    We all want our footballers to go in hard, we love it but we don’t think at the time of the potential permanent damage that can occur.
    Justin said he would do it all again. I hope he still feels that way in 12 months.

  4. E.regnans says

    Good one Andrew.
    It is a sad turn of events for Justin and his family and friends.
    Concussion and head injury/ brain damage can happen to any of us, of course. Most usually as a result of a fight or of a car accident.

    No one really can confidently predict the course of recovery from a closed head injury. All injuries are different. And levels of pre- and post- trauma support vary across cases.
    And then there’s luck.

    It’s a sad turn of events any time someone suffers a blow like this. There will be a few more who do so tonight. And then a few more the next night.

    For car accident sufferers, State-based registration and third party car insurance usually contributes towards compensation.
    Defining the level of compensation is fraught, though – who knows what life trajectory any of us would have taken given different conditions?

    Closed head injury is too common in this world.
    I hope Justin is able to pursue a future and can embrace whatever comes next. Thanks Andrew. Good stuff. And all the best to Justin.

  5. Thanks Andrew. All the best to Justin who retires knowing he is in the mix for the SA Wool Team.

    One of the many things that Michelle Payne’s victory has meant to people, a somewhat understated benefit, is the hope she has brought to rehab patients. She had seven months of intensive rehab at Epworth with a wonderful character called Chris Byrne. This followed a closed head injury sustained in a major fall at Sandown. The injury and recovery are described in detail in Life as I Know it which is to be released on April 13.

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