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Flag on the Play: Injured Professional Athletes Fighting for Compensation

Professional athletes are often likened to warriors and lionized for pushing their bodies to the breaking point, ignoring pain, and remaining stoic. Most accept that some injuries - sprains, pulled muscles, etc. - are part of the job. More and more, however, professional athletes are drawing a line when it comes to preventable injuries that can be attributed to the often willful negligence of the teams and leagues that employ them.

Concussions - A Risk Hidden by Leagues, Teams

Chief among the players' concerns are the long-term effects of brain trauma and concussions. Recently, even non-sports fans have become aware of the potential risks to cognitive function from playing contact sports due to a high-profile feature film and the subject was even fodder for the Presidential campaign.

But, athletes have stepped forward contending that leagues and employers have long known about the risks of concussions but hid that information from the players and the public. Recently retired players sued the National Football League (NFL) for the long-term effects they suffered due to concussions sustained while playing, alleging that the league hid research that demonstrated the real risks of head trauma. Last April, the NFL agreed to settle the suit for up to $1 billion, and the settlement was recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hockey players have claimed the National Hockey League (NHL) did not take the danger of head injuries seriously, even dismissing concerns raised by the Canadian Medical Association over concussion risks. Last July, more than 50 former professional wrestlers sued World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. for head injuries sustained during matches.

In all of these suits, the professional athletes say their leagues and teams failed to protect them from harm and that due to the negligence of their employers, these players were put at risk for devastating, life-altering conditions, such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease seen in individuals who have had severe or repeated concussions. CTE can affect cognitive abilities, impair motor skills, and cause depression and violent mood swings, which have led some CTE sufferers to take their own lives.

The courts are being asked to recognize that leagues and teams owe a duty of care to the professional athletes they employ, and hold those employers responsible when they breach that duty. As soon as the link between concussions and CTE was in any way evident, the NHL, NFL, WWE, and others should have taken the necessary steps to protect athletes. The players allege that because the league and teams did not protect them, they have every right to pursue compensation for the preventable injuries they suffered - and the potential long-term consequences they could endure.

Players Pursuing Insurers

In addition to their class action suits against the leagues for which they play, many professional athletes are also pursuing compensation from their insurers. After sustaining a devastating concussion, Carolina Panthers player Haruki Nakamura was told by the NFL he could never play professional football again. After this career-ending news, Nakamura filed a claim against his professional athlete insurance policy, held by Lloyds of London. The insurer denied his claim, and Nakamura has since filed a lawsuit against Lloyds for $3 million.

As the connection between concussions and CTE becomes more widely known, many professional athletes will likely file similar insurance claims. In fact, S&P Global Ratings has said head injuries in professional sports are a "top emerging" insurance claim issue - equating it with asbestos litigation in the 1980s and 1990s. As such, insurers will likely be scrutinizing claims from both amateur and professional athletes - and looking for ways to deny coverage.

Athlete Personal Injury Claims on the Rise

In addition to concussion trauma sustained while playing, professional athletes are also increasingly holding leagues, teams, and sports venues liable for injuries caused by slips and falls due to improperly maintained facilities. Generally, athletes are barred from pursuing such claims by their collective bargaining agreement (CBA), but a recent court ruling may have opened an avenue to pursuing compensation through personal injury lawsuits.

San Francisco 49ers running back Reggie Bush slipped on an uncovered concrete surface at the former stadium of the St. Louis Rams, severely injuring his knee. He missed the remainder of the NFL season and sued the Rams as well as the sports complex. The Rams petitioned to be removed from the lawsuit, saying Bush's injury was covered by his CBA and, as such, the team was not liable for his injuries. In a June decision, however, a Missouri federal judge held that the CBA did not apply to the case, and sent the matter back to a lower court for trial.

After the ruling in Bush's case, another NFL player filed his own personal injury suit against the Houston Texans. Former Philadelphia Eagle DeMeco Ryans claimed he tore his Achilles tendon as a result of a poorly maintained playing field at NRG Stadium. He missed the rest of the season and was let go by the Eagles after the next season. Ryans attributed the downturn of his career to the injury sustained at NRG Stadium, and now seeks $10 million in damages.

At the core of Ryans' case is the fact that players have complained about the turf at NRG Stadium for many years. In fact, Texans player Brett Hartmann suffered a career-ending knee injury after catching his foot in a seam and filed a lawsuit that settled in 2015. While Ryans' case is still pending, there is significant evidence the Texans and NRG Field may have been negligent in not heeding concerns raised about the playing surface - which led to several player injuries. If proven, these athletes could be owed compensation for these injuries that impacted their careers.

Players Owed Compensation if Employers Are Negligent

Playing professional sports such as football, hockey, and wrestling unquestionably comes with a risk of serious injury. While players understand and assume some of the risk, there is mounting evidence that some injuries sustained by players are due to the negligence of teams, leagues, and facilities. Athletes are suffering preventable injuries including career-ending traumas - and should be compensated just like other employees.

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