Pro Sports and Workers' Comp

Uneven Playing Field

The hotly debated NFL concussion settlement is little more than a stop-gap measure. Significant changes are needed for professional football's workers' comp woes.
By: | September 24, 2015

Workers’ compensation was designed as a no-fault system to help injured workers who suffer employment related accidents and injuries.

Tragically, many professional football players have been significantly impacted by legal decisions, state legislatures and team owners. Instead of a single no-fault system for receiving benefits for injuries, the professional athlete is left to negotiate amongst the systems of several states and confusing language and provisions in player contracts and collective bargaining agreements.

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As a broker, I work with a professional soccer team and have learned that most underwriters will not consider providing coverage for sports teams because the potential for claims is almost 100 percent and when a claim does happen, it is typically a large loss.

America, meanwhile, sees professional athletes as well-paid celebrities. But that only happens for a very few. For the majority of athletes, careers are depressingly short and the long-term effects from injuries last years beyond any memories of the sounds of cheering crowds.

For NFL players, remaining healthy and reaching old age is a challenge and to do so with full-mental capabilities is becoming increasingly rare.

Professional football has been built on a violent, gladiatorial nature. Time and again, words and phrases like “sacrifice” and “playing hurt” are used with no real thought as to the eventual need for knee and hip replacement surgery or the real-life consequences of hundreds of hits to the head.

Why a class-action lawsuit? Isn’t workers’ comp a “no-fault” system? Aren’t concussions work-related?

Without full access to workers’ compensation benefits, most former players will face very bleak futures.

NFL fans probably know of the recent NFL settlement regarding head injuries brought by more than 5,000 former players. Judge Anita Brody approved the uncapped settlement valued at up to $5 million per player, which applies to all players who retired on or before July 7, 2014.

But why is there any settlement?  Why a class-action lawsuit? Isn’t workers’ comp a ‘no-fault’ system?  Aren’t concussions work-related?

But why is there any settlement? Why a class-action lawsuit? Isn’t workers’ comp a “no-fault” system? Aren’t concussions work-related?

Should former players receive benefits for the long-term care needed for dementia, Alzheimer’s and CTE? Tragically, the answer typically is, “No.” NFL players sign a contract and their rights to workers’ comp are essentially waived. They then become subject to the myriad of state laws, regulations and provisions contained within collective bargaining agreements, including workers’ comp offset provisions.

For example, in some states, you have up to three years to file a workers’ comp claim for benefits after an injury. In Pennsylvania, you have 120 days after the injury for compensation to be allowed and the employer must also submit a first report of Injury.

Far too often, players who do file for benefits after retirement are denied for not having met the requirement for timely filing and reporting.

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The recent NFL concussion settlement is little more than a plug in the proverbial dyke. It does nothing in the way of prevention or care for present and future athletes who will face the horrific consequences of traumatic brain injuries. Some have called for OSHA to play an active role in addressing the injury and health issues affecting current and former players.

Without significant and substantial changes to its workers’ compensation situation, professional football will undoubtedly face additional future litigation from current and future players armed with the burgeoning scientific proof of the relationship between concussions and the assortment of neurodegenerative diseases that will follow them after retirement.

Frank Pastuck is a risk management consultant/advisor with Consumers Insurance Agency, Inc. He has 30 years’ experience in workers' compensation. Frank can be reached at [email protected]

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]