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The Inherent Risk Of Sports

In light of the recent lawsuit brought against the NFL and the concussion awareness and player safety talk that has been so prevalent of late I wanted to give my take on the subject. I was also able to talk with attorney Alicia Jessop to get a legal perspective on the issue.

Jonathan Daniel

Being a professional athlete is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Business Insider named it (technically speaking they named the profession of "Athletes, coaches, umpires, and related workers") the 14th most dangerous job last year, right behind "Grounds maintenance workers" and in front of "Operating engineers and construction equipment operators". Their list only took into account the fatality rate. When you factor in injuries like breaks, strains, pulls, concussions, tears, and the countless other types of harm pro athletes face on a daily basis, it's safe to assume that these employees would rank similarly in a list of most injured professions too.

I think the term "employee" is often lost when talking about the dangers athletes face. No one is forcing anyone to play professional sports. It's their job. Many pro athletes come from the college ranks after picking up a degree of some sort, so pro athlete isn't the only career avenue they have.

With the recent lawsuit facing the NFL, the continued talk of player safety by commissioner Roger Goodell, and the tragic suicides that have been in the news the last few years, it seems that football is the bugaboo of the sports world. But is there really more danger in football than in hockey? Is basketball safer than baseball? What about figure skating? Wrestling? Skateboarding? NASCAR?

I think going into sports the participant has to be aware of the inherent risks involved. No one is blindly jumping in with no fear of injury. At an early age kids quickly understand some pain is involved with sports. Whether it's a kick in the shin playing soccer or getting hit by the baseball in little league, there will be a risk of injury. Some kids take their lumps and continue on, while others find something else to occupy their time.

Most parents are aware, but they weigh the benefits of playing a sport against the potential for injury. My wife and I allowed our kids to play sports; basketball, football, cheerleading, wrestling, baseball, and we were lucky to have two of our three oldest kids not suffer anything too serious. Unlucky number three tore his ACL in football, but he made a full recovery and played his senior year. My youngest will be 5 in a few days, and if she shows interest in athletics we'll allow her to play.

Those that play sports on a amateur or a recreational level often face greater dangers than the pros. The equipment isn't as advanced, the playing surface isn't always as good, and the technique used by the participants isn't as honed. But every day thousands of people go out and willingly play sports regardless of the risk involved.

In 2008 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard the case, Craig v. Amateur Softball Association of America (ASAA). The plaintiff wanted the ASAA held responsible when he was struck by the softball and suffered damage to his skull.

...the Pennsylvania Superior Court affirmed and refined the common-law "no duty rule." The "no duty rule" provides generally that a defendant owes no duty of care to warn, protect, or insure against risks that are common, frequent, expected, and inherent in an activity.

...the Superior Court held that plaintiff assumed the risk of his injury when he elected to play softball: the risk was so apparent and so integral to softball that playing softball was tantamount to voluntarily encountering a known risk.

I'm not citing the ruling as a way to prove the recent lawsuit being brought by former NFL players against the league is baseless, because 1) that suit seems to be more about withholding information and 2) I'm not a lawyer. But the "no duty rule" in my opinion, just points to common sense. There is an inherent risk involved in sports.

Since I'm not a lawyer (I only play one on WCG) I spoke with attorney Alicia Jessop who founded the website Ruling Sports, which tackles the sports world's legal issues. I asked her if the above ruling could set any type of precedent for the long list of former players now suing the NFL?

"Yes, the inherent risk or "assumption of the risk" theories may be used by the NFL to defend against the concussion lawsuits currently being brought against it. The NFL could assert that concussions are inherent in the game of football, due to the sport's hard-hitting nature. However, it is unclear as to whether the NFL could successfully assert this, because it is likely that the plaintiffs would argue that sustaining the type of head injuries they allegedly did is not a risk that they assumed by playing the sport of football. Rather, they will argue that the head injuries were more serious than what is inherent in the sport of football because of the rougher type of play that the NFL allegedly tried to promote when the plaintiffs allegedly sustained their injuries."

The current lawsuit has numerous former players suing the NFL, claiming the league failed to protect it's players from brain injuries and that not enough was done to inform the players about the dangers of concussions. They also allege that not enough is being done to protect them today. I'm a little unsure to what the players are specifically asking for, so I turned to Alicia for her take on the lawsuit.

"In the current lawsuit, the players are seeking monetary damages as well as medical monitoring going forward. If they are able to prove their claims, they will not have to file another lawsuit to receive monetary damages."

Football is a tough sport. When I'm coaching I tell my team every year that playing football takes a different kind of person. We're asking these kids to hit, get hit, to tackle, and block every single play. None of those things are without danger. On every single football play there is some pain being inflicted. It comes down to love for the game and pain threshold.

Pittsburgh Steelers All Pro safety Troy Polamalu spoke on the dangers of his profession;

"People are paralyzed on a football field. People die ... You just never know when it's going to be your last moment. I was the kind of guy who would never talk to my wife on game day. Now I'm the guy who's like, 'I love you.' I want my children to know I love them because I don't know what's going to happen out there. I'm not trying to play the martyr here. I love football. It's something we choose to do. We all know how much of a gamble it is to play this game."

I do think the NFL should do more for the players that played before the era of the million dollar contract, and all indications look as though that is on the agenda. The latest CBA promised better health benefits for retired players. There are programs being added to assist with retired players, much like the programs that are in place to transition rookies to the NFL lifestyle. The NFL is aware of possible mental health issues that could affect players post retirement, and they are evaluating ways to help players cope with any problems they may have.

I think one way for the NFL to protect themselves in the future would be to add some wording to the standard NFL contract, making the player aware of the risks involved in playing football. It may seem silly to have to tell these athletes that have been playing football all through their youth that they can get hurt in the NFL, but in this litigation happy society it's smart to cover your ass. Alicia agrees that wording could be added to the standard NFL contract and she elaborates even further;

"I can definitely see this happening. Going forward, I can also see the NFL and NFLPA negotiating this type of language into collective bargaining agreements to ensure that players are aware of the risks they are assuming by stepping onto the field and also know what type of injuries the NFL will compensate them for."

While I can empathize with the former players that are suffering health issues, I have no sympathy for them. They chose a dangerous profession. They knew the risks yet they chose to play the sport professionally, and they were paid very handsomely to do so. But it's not all about the money as there are thousands of out of shape adults that play in rec leagues on a daily basis, and they do so for the love of the game. Playing sports professionally is a dream for a lot of kids, and even if those dreams can't come true the love of sports is still there.