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Injury and Workers’ Compensation in the NFL

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Personal injury is an inherent hazard of playing football. The risk of traumatic head and brain injury, torn ligaments, and severe fractures follows all football players throughout their professional careers. The National Football League (NFL) especially places players in danger, pressuring them to return to the field as quickly as possible after an injury – often before injuries have time to heal. Now, NFL teams face a significant financial threat in the form of workers’ compensation.

Can NFL Players File for Workers’ Compensation?

Playing football may not be a typical career choice, but it is a real occupation for the 1,696 players in the NFL. As such, it abides by the federal rules of workers’ compensation. Workers’ compensation has always been an option for players and retired players in the NFL. Despite players understanding the inherent risks of playing football professionally, they can still file for workers’ compensation after sustaining an injury during work-related activities. Traditionally, an individual workers’ compensation award might cost a team about $20,000. The changing nature of claims players are filing, however, could now cost teams millions every year.

As doctors’ understandings of traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) and their long-term effects on patients have advanced, so has the number of NFL players citing this in their compensation claims. Not only are football players inherently at more of a risk of TBI than other people, but they are also at risk of a rare (and debated) condition called second impact syndrome (SIS).

SIS occurs when someone sustains a second concussion before a first concussion has fully healed. When an athlete suffers a head injury and returns to normal play without letting the injury heal, he or she risks sustaining a second head injury. Two head injuries so close together can cause brain herniation, diffuse cerebral swelling, and even death.

Another threat to NFL players is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This degenerative brain disease accrues over time from several head injuries. CTE causes dementia, depression, and erratic behavior. TBI, SIS, and CTE have long lasting cognitive and health effects on patients.

As physicians learn more about cumulative head and brain traumas and how they can lead to lifelong cognitive difficulties for NFL players, the NFL faces dozens of large workers’ compensation claims. NFL players and ex-players are using new information about their injuries to secure hefty workers’ compensation amounts, some in the millions.

Will Workers’ Compensation Claims Change the NFL?

California, the state where the most teams play, is the only state that allows players to file cumulative trauma cases for workers’ compensation. California workers’ compensation also is unique because claimants do not need to have worked for a California-based team to file a claim. Due to these lax rules, several players and attorneys have moved cases to California to pursue claims. There are currently hundreds of such players lined up for a chance to file for cumulative injury workers’ compensation claims.

As more and more players file for disability benefits and hefty workers’ compensation awards, many wonder how the NFL will respond. One response has been Commissioner Roger Goodell recently announcing a $100 million endorsement to develop new technology and research head injuries. The effects of workers’ compensation claims hasn’t only led to the NFL shelling out hefty amounts of money – it’s also led to public scrutiny of the NFL’s actions.

Today, there are several class action lawsuits against the NFL for allegations of fraud and negligence when it comes to player injuries. More than 5,000 former NFL players joined the lawsuit, accusing the NFL of hiring physicians to report injuries as less serious than they were. As the NFL comes under fire for its history of covering up injuries and faces major workers’ compensation threats to its finances, players are hoping for justice for injuries above all.