Category Archives: Sports

Pro Athletes Need Worker’s Compensation Too

For minor league athletes especially, Workers' Compensation can be crucial.

Most of us do not associate a professional athlete’s injury with workers’ compensation. Because of pro athletes’ generous contract wages, and the relatively modest recoveries available under workers’ compensation, most fans don’t recognize that when it comes to receiving workers’ compensation, professional athletes are just like other office or factory workers who can recover worker’s compensation when injured.

Not every professional athlete, however, has a contract worth millions of dollars. Some of the athletes injured on minor league teams literally make no more than minimum wage, and receipt of workers’ compensation benefits is significant for those athletes.

Not every professional athlete, however, has a contract worth millions of dollars. Some of the athletes injured on minor league teams literally make no more than minimum wage, and receipt of workers’ compensation benefits is significant for those athletes. Wisconsin law places a cap on the amount of money an athlete can receive for his injury. The maximum weekly wage for 2012 is $1,281, yielding a temporary disability rate of $854. The right to workers’ compensation is contained in the collective bargaining agreements with the respective players unions in football, basketball and baseball. In Wisconsin, insurance companies charge employers like the Green Bay Packers, Milwaukee Brewers, and Milwaukee Bucks for workers’ compensation insurance.
Pro athletes regularly get hurt on the job, but few pursue workers’comp claims. In the ten years from 1994 through 2004 a total of 37 cases involving the Packers were litigated, and in the same period 20 cased involving the Brewers were contested. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Sunday, June 25, 2006 “Paying for Pain”) Cases that went to a hearing were even more rare : only four cases involving the Packers went to a hearing in that ten year period.

It’s a popular notion that athletes assume the risk of injury, since that is the nature of professional sports. Some states have bought into this concept and leave professional athletes unprotected.

Athletes apply for worker’s compensation largely for two reasons: vocational retraining and Loss of Earning Capacity. Many pro athletes have not completed college, or when they did, they were not scholars, so the only thing they know how to do is play sports. If they get wrecked and cannot play, they have to find a way to earn a living. Loss of Earning Capacity is measured by the player’s residual ability to earn a living considering the limitations of the injury.

It’s a popular notion that athletes assume the risk of injury, since that is the nature of professional sports. Some states have bought into this concept and leave professional athletes unprotected. In Pennsylvania recently the Courts ruled the Pittsburgh Steelers do not have to pay the attorney fees related to a former player’s workers’ compensation case, because although he clearly suffered injuries while with the team, the team argued he was not “disabled” since he continued to play for other pro teams. Pittsburgh Post Gazzette, April 24, 2012. All pro athletes are covered in Wisconsin.

NFL Concussion Suits Barred by “Exclusive Remedy”? Why can’t I sue my employer?

We get calls every day from angry injured workers who want to sue their employer for negligence. It could be an employer removing a guard on a machine, a foreman ignoring a safety rule, or an injury caused by an employer’s failure to train an employee. Many employees are genuinely and bitterly disappointed when we explain a worker cannot sue his employer for negligence and that his only “exclusive” remedy is through worker’s compensation.

Aaron Rodgers concussionIn liability suits filed by hundreds of former pro football players who suffer from concussion-related injuries, the players claim the league negligently mislead them about the dangers of concussions. Attorneys for the injured players indicate it is likely the NFL will argue that football players should be covered exclusively by worker’s compensation.

The deal cut by employers and workers in Wisconsin in 1911 still stands: Employers give up the right to common law defenses (contributory and co-employee negligence, assumption of risk) for a fixed schedule of benefits; employees give up the right to sue their employer in tort (and to recover tort-like damages) in return for worker’s compensation benefits. No matter how nefarious the employer or Continue reading

Would better work comp' law have saved Mickey Mantle's dad?

Mickey Mantle's father never lived to see his son's amazing baseball career.

Today’s post comes to us from our colleague Len Jernigan of North Carolina.

In The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood by Jane Leavy, the author goes into great detail about Mickey’s father, Mutt Mantle, who worked in a lead mine in Commerce, Oklahoma in the 1930s and 40s. Silicosis (a fibrosis of the lung caused by rock dust) was the feared disease of this type of employment. If an x-ray came back positive the employee was fired the same day and could never be hired by another mine.

“When they get sick and can’t work, we throw them in the dump heap.”

An agent for the employer was quoted as saying, “When they get sick and can’t work, we throw them in the dump heap.”

Mutt refused to go to a doctor until it was too late. He died at the age of 40 in 1952, just one year after his son became a Major League player.

Mantle’s father never lived to see his tremendous success as one of the best baseball players of all time.

The mine was closed in 1970. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) listed this job site as the most toxic waste site Continue reading

The NFL’s surprising occupational hazard: obesity that kills, PART 2

Today more then 350 NFL linemen weigh over 300 pounds.

Today’s post is the continuation in a series about one of professional football’s unexpected dangers: chronic obesity. 

In 1990, less than 70 players in the NFL weighed more than 300 pounds. Today there are more than 350 who weigh that much. All this weight adds up to higher death rates for retired NFL linemen than for the general public.

Retired NFL players are more likely to have medical conditions that go along with obesity like sleep apnea, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, and high insulin and cholesterol levels. Put these together and the risk of deadly illnesses like heart disease, stroke and diabetes is also much higher.
So retired players are increasingly turning Continue reading

The NFL’s surprising occupational hazard: obesity that kills (Part 1)

Today's NFL linemen have to be bigger than ever.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve shared some thoughts on workers’ compensation and the NCAA in a two-part series of posts. Today our colleague Len Jernigan of North Carolina sheds light on an unexpected health hazard football players in the NFL face. Football players contend with some very serious health risks, including chronic obesity – yet another reason why the NCAA’s approach to health care for student athletes deserves reexamination. 

Most people know that football is dangerous. We see reports of NFL players with every kind of gruesome injury imaginable. Even suicidal depression, it turns out, is a potential hazard of playing football. Of course playing in the NFL is both rewarding and risky.

There is one common health problem among NFL players, however, that usually goes unmentioned. We thought it was a fitting topic for our workers’ law blog because NFL linemen must embrace this condition in order to stay in peak performance. It’s called chronic obesity.

These days, to be an NFL lineman, you not only have to be fast and strong, you also have to be fat. Continue reading

The surprising history of student-athletes and workers’ comp (Part 2)

In a post last week I mentioned a fascinating recent article in The Atlantic magazine on the history and often hypocrisy of the NCAA revealed the role workers’ comp played in the history of college athletics. As it turns out, the term “student-athlete” came into play in the 1950s when the widow of a student who died playing football in Colorado for the Fort Louis A&M Aggies brought a worker’s compensation claim for death benefits. Part of the ruling was based on the argument that, “the college did not receive a direct benefit,” from the athletic program – a description that would be difficult to use today.

Under Wisconsin worker’s compensation law,the value of an employee’s meals and lodging expenses become part of their average weekly wage for purposes of compensation. These items are provided to scholarship collegiate athletes, in addition to their paid tuition.

While some may see the term “student-athlete” as having a paternalistic or even sentimental notion, the nature of modern collegiate athletics suggest otherwise. With mega-deal television contracts, huge endorsement deals with corporate sponsors, ticket sales, concessions, and host of other profit-making ventures, the fact that student-athletes cannot receive compensation can appear hypocritical on the surface. (A counter-point response, however, is that such compensation may not be feasible, given the amount of money an athletic department and university must spend to maintain and upgrade all of their athletic teams and facilities).

Under Wisconsin worker’s compensation law, the value of an employee’s meals and lodging expenses become part of their average weekly wage for purposes of compensation. These items are provided to scholarship collegiate athletes, in addition to their paid tuition. Given the money generated by these athletes for the university and their receipt of these “things of value,” a viable argument exists for worker’s compensation benefits for injured student athletes.

In The Atlantic, Continue reading

The surprising history of student-athletes and workers’ comp (Part 1)

The term “student-athlete” has a surprising history

In Taylor Branch’s fascinating article, “The Shame of College Sports,” in September’s The Atlantic magazine on the history and often hypocrisy of the NCAA, acclaimed author Taylor Branch reveals an unexpected reason behind the usage of the term “student–athlete”: avoiding worker’s compensation liability.

Due to the “special” status of a student-athlete under the NCAA, however, they are not entitled to worker’s compensation for their injuries under the law.

Collegiate athletes certainly suffer injuries during their playing careers on campus. Many of these athletes receive items of value from the university, in the form of scholarships, lodging, meals, athletic gear, etc, which, if they were called “employees,” would be part of their wages for worker’s compensation purposes. Due to the “special” status of a student-athlete under the NCAA, however, they are not entitled to worker’s compensation for their injuries under the law.

According to Mr. Branch, the term “student-athlete” came into play in the 1950s when the widow of a student who died playing football in Colorado for the Fort Louis A&M Aggies brought a worker’s compensation claim for death benefits. The Colorado Supreme Court, agreed with the college that the student was not an employee at the time of injury, using the following interesting language (ironic in the big business of current revenue-driven college athletics):

“It is significant that the college did not receive a direct benefit from the activities, since the college was not in the football business and received no benefit from the field of recreation. In fact, the state conducted institution, supported by taxpayers, could not as a matter of business enter into the maintenance of a football team for the purpose of making a profit directly or indirectly out of the taxpayers’ money.” (State Compensation Insurance Fund v. Industrial Commission, 135 Colo. 570, 314 P.2d 288 (1957))

Wow. A court may have some difficulty using those words in today’s atmosphere. Regardless, Branch’s article detailed how, since that ruling, the NCAA has continued to use the term “student-athlete” as a shield.

Check back with us on Monday to find what Wisconsin workers’ compensation law can tell us about this issue.