Supreme court action: Michael Greenfield is suing the Australian Rugby League Commission over the tackle which ended his career three years ago. Photo: Simon Alekna Impact: the Ben Te’o tackle that injured Michael Greenfield in May 2012.
Michael Greenfield is taking legal action against the Australian Rugby League Commission over a shoulder charge that prematurely ended his career in a landmark case that could have huge ramifications for Australian sport.
The case, which begins with a directions hearing in the Supreme Court next week, is sure to be closely scrutinised by the legal fraternity and could result in more action being taken against sporting bodies for negligence. The development comes just months after Fairfax Media revealed Alex McKinnon had engaged a law firm to explore his rights, with the advice indicating the former Newcastle forward has strong grounds for taking action against the NRL and Melbourne.
Greenfield played 38 first grade games during stints with the Sharks, Rabbitohs, Dragons and Storm. His career effectively ended on May 25, 2012, when, in his one and only appearance for Melbourne, he was the victim of a shoulder charge from then-Brisbane forward Ben Te’o. Greenfield, who has a history of neck injuries, was knocked senseless in the sickening collision. The front rower underwent surgery two months later to correct a bulging disc, a procedure that ended a promising career.
The ARLC banned the shoulder charge six months later after engaging Roosters CEO Brian Canavan to review the controversial tackling technique. Canavan’s report found there were 71 shoulder charges that season – 12 of which resulted in the player making contact with the ball carrier’s head. While shoulder charges made up only 0.05 per cent of the 142,355 tackles that season, four per cent resulted in injury to the attacking player, whose average size was four kilograms heavier and 12mm taller than a decade earlier. The report also found the average G-force of the shoulder charge – measured from accelerometer data taken from GPS tracking – was 76 per cent greater than a conventional head-on tackle (10.682 compared with 6.056).
After considering the findings, the ARLC decided to ban the shoulder charge in the interests of player safety and to prevent lawsuits. However, they didn’t act quickly enough to protect Greenfield, whose case could open up the ARLC to millions of dollars in claims from other players injured prior to the crackdown.
Some of the game’s biggest names – including coaches Wayne Bennett, Ricky Stuart, Jarryd Hayne and Aaron Woods – spoke out against the ban when it was announced.
The NRL’s judiciary and match review committee have increased penalties for dangerous tackles, such as lifting ones and shoulder charges, in recent years to discourage the practices. However, that will be of little comfort to McKinnon and Greenfield, who could use that as evidence the governing body should have acted sooner to ensure the safety of its participants.
In the US, the NFL was accused of hiding the effects of concussion for decades and reached a $765 million settlement with more than 4500 ex-players.
The NRL is yet to unveil its promised injured player’s foundation, while the players are being covered by an interim insurance policy sourced by their union.
“From a medical and player welfare side, [the shoulder charge] should definitely be outlawed,” Greenfield told Fairfax Media in July, 2012.
“As a fan of rugby league, I wouldn’t want to see it outlawed but as a player who has gone through this now, you wouldn’t want to see your teammates go through the same thing. [A ban] would probably save a lot of blokes a lot of injuries.”
Greenfield also revealed that he walked away from the game with a premiership ring, a broken neck and not much else. The former Australian Schoolboys forward made his NRL debut as a teenager and didn’t plan for a fallback option when rugby league was taken away from him. He wasn’t a part of the run-on side when St George Illawarra won the 2010 grand final but earned a ring nonetheless. He was never a big earner during his time at the top level and left without a trade or any qualifications.
“I’m 26 and not really qualified to do anything,” Greenfield said at the time. “It’s going to be hard to find someone to want to hire me.
“All I’ve got is footy and that’s it. It’s a tough one.”
Former Wests Tiger forward Jarrod McCracken was awarded $97,000 in 2006 after suing the Melbourne Storm and two players he claimed cut short his career with a spear tackle. However, Greenfield’s action shapes as a test case because it is the governing body being sued.
The NRL declined to comment.
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