Extending worker’s compensation to professional athletes

Injured_AthleteEarlier this year, more than 111 million people watched the greatest comeback in the history of Super Bowl. As we were proud of both teams’ tremendous efforts, leadership, and competitiveness, we could never estimate the risks and dangers through which these brave actors were exposed during that game, and on a daily basis. No matter what professional sport we love to watch or practice, athletes are always at a great risk for an injury in their attempt of entertaining a larger number of fans. While the playing field is their workplace, injuries can occur at any moment.

As opposed to amateurs who usually are not in a contractual relationship, professional athletes receive a payment for their performance and act as employees, agents, or representatives of their team, company or association.[1]

Even though sport’s workers usually earn much more than regular employees, they are, generally, more susceptible to injuries, due to the physically challenging nature of the work, as well as the long hours they spent in repetitive and potentially dangerous activities. Like other employees, professional athletes can also be victims of work-related injuries, and, therefore, should be entitled to the same benefits provided by the employment and compensation regulations. In this paper, we relied on the definitions provided in the Georgia code, focusing on the meaning of an injury which requires an employee to have suffered from an accident arising out of and in the course of the employment which shall not, include a disease in any form except where it results naturally and unavoidably from the accident.[2]

The purpose of this paper is to highlight the place of sport’s workers as members of the employment community despite the specificity of their activity. The duration of their employment is limited to their performance and physical ability. The issue we are looking to resolve here is whether injured pro athletes should be allowed to earn workers’ compensation benefits until they are 67 years old, like other workers, even if their athletic careers normally would have ended more than 30 years earlier?[3] How long can a professional athlete be eligible for workers’ compensation, especially when he was suffering from an unnoticed injury?

Workers’ compensation is a benefit program created by state law that provides medical, rehabilitation, income, death and other benefits to employees and dependents due to injury, illness, and death resulting from a compensable work-related claim covered by the law. Most professional athletes playing for a team in a U.S. state are under an employment contract with that team which in turn has to provide them benefits related to their situation.

However, serious long-term sports-related injuries, such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (brain injuries), traumatic arthritis, complex orthopedic injuries, and internal injuries may not be fully detected, let alone diagnosed, for many years, at which time professional athletes might not even be aware of the process and that valuable compensation and lifetime medical care is available.

Last December, 38 former National Football League players brought a claim against the National Football League (NFL) seeking to force the NFL to recognize Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) as a covered disease under workers’ compensation has been withdrawn.[4] The case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida in Ft. Lauderdale. In the claim, they were asking the federal court to force the NFL to recognize CTE in living players as an occupational disease and pay the players benefits. The lawsuit had also asked the court to declare that the NFL players’ collective bargaining agreement, as well as state workers’ compensation laws, must recognize CTE among professional athletes as a workers’ compensation eligible disease.[5] Instead of pursuing their joint case, players finally decide to drop the claim and file separate workers’ compensation claims in individual states.[6]

To deal with these complications, states have adopted different approaches.[7] Florida specifically excludes professional athletes from the state’s workers’ compensation program. Similarly, in Maryland, in a 1983 case involving an NFL player, the court held that the injury sustained would not be considered an accidental injury within the meaning of the Maryland workers’ compensation laws. In Texas, the Texas Labor Code specifically provides workers’ compensation benefits to those for whom adequate compensation is not included in a contract or collective bargaining agreement. That is if a player’s contract has provisions to compensate and rehabilitate an injured athlete, workers’ compensation is not available. As first established in January of 2008, Texas courts upheld a jury finding that in the case of injured Dallas Cowboys lineman, Chad Hennings, workers’ compensation was a better deal because of its longer duration. Therefore, the court decided workers’ compensation benefits were available for Hennings. In 1999, a minor league baseball player in California was deemed to be eligible for workers’ compensation after his injury. In 2005, North Carolina upheld workers’ compensation rights to NFL players. In Illinois, a professional athlete is entitled to workers’ compensation with a cap on how much he can collect. In 1995, the Illinois court held that a professional football player is a skilled worker. An injury that ends his career prematurely could entitle him to weekly compensation benefits for life, despite the fact that professional football players typically have very short careers. Here in Georgia, we could not find impacting cases regarding this issue. Courts seem to rely on O.C.G.A. § 34-9-1 when it comes to compensation of players.

Thus, like in other industries, sport’s workers need to be fully protected despite their high salary or the shortness of their employment. As employees working under a contract, they are entitled to the same benefits as ordinary employees under the limits provided by the law. However, the usual retirement age in sport cannot be ignored, in the sense that a worker who is not working for a certain period cannot be compensated for an injury he would have had during his unemployment period. In sport, many players incurred injuries while in activity and sometimes ignore the gravity of such injury until many years later. It will only fair that they are compensated for their past injuries, as these were sustained while they were performing their contractual duties.

[1] O.C.G.A. § 34-9-1 (2010) defines an “Employee” as every person in the service of another under any contract of hire or apprenticeship, written or implied, except a person whose employment is not in the usual course of the trade, business, occupation, or profession of the employer.

[2] Id.

[3] Associated Press, How long should injured pro athletes get workers comp? (February 21, 2017), available at http://muscogee.allongeorgia.com/how-long-should-injured-pro-athletes-get-workers-comp/

[4] Andrew G. Simpson, Ex-Players Drop Case to Force NFL to Pay Workers’ Compensation for Concussions, Insurance Journal (December 28, 2016), available at http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/national/2016/12/28/436610.htm

[5] Gaiter et alvNational Football League et al., No. 0:16-cv-62755 (S.D. Fla., Nov. 21, 2016)

[6] The workers’ compensation case brought in federal court did not have a great chance of succeeding, according to lawyers reached after the complaint was filed but before it was withdrawn.

[7] Nick Avgerinos, Do Professional Athletes Have the Right to Workers’ Compensation? The Legal Examiner (July 22, 2008), available at http://chicago-land.legalexaminer.com/workplace-injuries/do-professional-athletes-have-the-right-to-workers-compensation/

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: