This is an era that is challenging the violent foundations of America’s major sporting institutions.
On a broader scale, it also is testing the extent of an employer’s responsibility to its employees.
This week, ten former hockey players for the National Hockey League (NHL) filed a federal class action lawsuit alleging the NHL failed to protect them from concussions and injuries that allegedly contribute to dementia and other brain ailments later in life.
The NHL lawsuit follows the settlement last August of a similar lawsuit against the National Football League in which the NFL agreed to pay $765 million to settle claims from former players alleging the NFL failed to protect them from brain damage caused by repeated concussions.
Off the field or rink, if an employer knowingly permits working conditions that cause employees to suffer serious injury, the employer might be investigated and perhaps even prosecuted by federal authorities. (i.e. prosecution of Massey Coal Mine official, 2012).
The Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to provide their employees with work and a workplace free from recognized, serious hazards. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration regularly investigates employers who fail to provide workers with proper safety equipment, resulting in injuries.
Why are injuries that stem from working in a mine or with heavy machinery more serious than injuries that result from playing a professional sport? Professional sports may be big business but they are fundamentally just entertainment. Shouldn’t the U.S. Department of Labor hold all employers to the same standard?
I attended hockey games in the 1990s because I enjoyed watching the skill of players on ice skates handling a hockey puck traveling 100 miles per hour down the ice. But each game featured players slammed violently against the plastic partitions and bloody battles over nothing more than macho posturing. I stopped going because it was too violent.
One of the players I watched in Pittsburgh was Bradley Aitken, who is a named plaintiff in the NHL lawsuit.
It never occurred to me that Aiken and other players were potentially incurring permanent brain damages but, according to the lawsuit, the NHL did know and still did nothing to protect the players.
The NHL made it a penalty in 2010 to target a player’s head but still permits fighting and body checking. Many hockey teams employ “enforcers” whose main job is to fight or violently body-check opponents.
“The NHL’s active and purposeful concealment of the severe risks of brain injuries exposed players to unnecessary dangers they could have avoided had the NHL provided them with truthful and accurate information and taken appropriate action to prevent needless harm,” the lawsuit says.
The players seek damages and court-approved, NHL-sponsored medical monitoring for the players’ brain trauma and/or injuries.
Bill Daly, the league’s Deputy Commissioner, issued a statement Monday: “ … [W]e are completely satisfied with the responsible manner in which the league and the players’ association have managed player safety over time, including with respect to head injuries and concussions.”
The NHL lawsuit was filed in United States District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of players who retired on or before February 14, 2013.