Jordan Lewis of the Hawks is treated by medical staff after clashing with Bulldog Jarrod Harbrow at Etihad Stadium in 2012.

Jordan Lewis of the Hawks is treated by medical staff after clashing with Bulldog Jarrod Harbrow at Etihad Stadium in 2012. Photo: Getty Images

The times, to quote Bob Dylan, are a-changing.

Within sport, we are witnessing the growth of cage fighting, a refined form of street fighting. I like boxing when it's good. I don't like cage fighting. I can't accept the principle of a man being hit while he's down. To my eye, cage fighting is more violent than boxing, but its popularity is booming.

Meanwhile, popular sports like NRL and AFL are actively becoming less violent, in part because they have a changing audience, in part because they are being pursued by ever more vengeful litigants.

Brain injuries are a boom area in sports litigation. Last year, in the US, the National Football League paid out $US760 million ($811 million) to settle a class action with 4500 former players alleging brain injuries suffered through playing the sport. The AFL's lawyers will no doubt have noted that the former NFL players successfully argued that the NFL knew about the dangers of on-field head injuries and didn't respond adequately.

Where brain injuries are concerned, American football is a lot riskier than our game. Their players literally butt heads. (American football has an interesting history with violence. In 1905, 18 players died on the field and 159 were seriously injured. President Teddy Roosevelt, who had a son playing in a university team, called in the game's administrators for a crisis meeting. The result was the forward pass, which opened the game to more running play).

This week there has been a bonfire of publicity about the Jack Viney case. For once, the heat given off may have been in proportion to the matter being described. This was a case that went to the character of the game as directly as an arrow to the bull's-eye of a target.

What is mildly curious to me is that the AFL Tribunal didn't have to land itself, and the AFL, in this great dilemma - or, at least, not right now. You can argue that Viney's action constituted a bump. But you can argue equally well that he braced himself for a collision. Viney's action is manifestly open to interpretation.

Once the tribunal held that Viney had bumped, the next question was - what else could the Melbourne player have done? Jumped away? Jumping away is a challenge to the pride of the game and its claim to be a test of courage.

Polls showed the footy public disagreed with the tribunal decision by an overwhelming factor of nine to one. Nathan Buckley is one person I listen to at such times. As a footy thinker, he's penetrating, he's practical and his ultimate concern - passionately so - is for the game itself.

Arguing from an intimate knowledge of his craft, Buckley said that he could see no wrong in what Viney had done and would continue to coach his players to "attack the contest". But another well-credentialed coach, Ross Lyon, said that when the bump was on offer it might be time to take any "viable alternative".

The person who confused me most was Adam Goodes. He said that, at Sydney, players are coached not to bump. "The bump's been dead for quite a while." If Goodes is right, and the Swans players have not been using the bump for some time, there is life beyond the Viney decision because no one has accused the Swans of not playing hard footy during that period.

But Goodes' views were at odds with those of former teammate Jude Bolton, a player renowned for being hard but fair. Bolton thought it was a crucially bad decision for a code that is trying to compete in northern Australia with rugby league whose supporters routinely deride AFL footy as a weaker and less masculine game.

Nathan Buckley said it was wrong to him that an accidental injury should be treated the same as an intentional injury. Most AFL players, I gather, agree with that. But will they in another decade, or two, or three? And will their widows, to name one group of claimants in last year's class action against the NFL? My impression is that the class action directed at the NFL didn't distinguish between accidental and non-accidental head injuries.

Small wonder, then, that the New Yorker magazine last year ran a story titled, "Does Football Have A Future?" And it's not just the NFL, the NRL and the AFL that have this problem. There are studies that suggest soccer players can suffer brain injuries from repeatedly heading the ball.

This issue of brain injuries in sport is like a tsunami that has been building on the horizon for some time. The last wave of this size was called drugs in sport and, when it hit the AFL, it wiped out most of the 2013 season. The decision of the appeal tribunal in the Viney case is being lauded on all sides as a victory for common sense, but it's only a temporary victory. The issue of brain injuries in AFL football awaits us in the future like an avenging angel.