Hockey Faceoff Raises Bigger Questions

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?

Unnecessary Violence

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.

 

NFL Settlement Raises Legal Question

What Did the NFL Know?

The National Football League Thursday agreed to pay $765 million over 20 years to settle claims that it hid evidence about the dangers of head trauma suffered by NFL players.

Should that end the matter? Of course not. 

NFL players are employees. 

Under the General Duty Clause, Section 5(a)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) of 1970, employers are required to provide their employees with a place of employment that “is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.”

 Courts have interpreted OSHA’s general duty clause to mean that an employer has a legal obligation to provide a workplace free of conditions or activities that either the employer or industry recognizes as hazardous and that cause, or are likely to cause, death or serious physical harm to employees when there is a feasible method to abate the hazard.

 The NFL owners had a legal duty to protect the players when they became aware (or should have become aware) of the devastating brain damage being suffered by their players on the field. At that point, the NFL and NFL team owners should have acted to “abate the hazard.”  Professional football is entertainment and there are many feasible ways the NFL could have made the game safer.   

As a result of the settlement, the NFL may be able to avoid the legal discovery process which would have included the deposition of  league officials and doctors about what they knew and when they knew it.  The settlement, however, does not prevent federal authorities from looking into whether  the NFL recognized the risks and still subjected players to serious physical harm. 

To allow the NFL to bury this matter under a rug through a private legal settlement would be akin to the federal government ignoring coal mine owners in West Virginia who failed to properly tunnel or vent a coal mine that caved in and resulted in  catastrophic loss of life. 

 Workplace Fatalities

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) reported last week that  4,383 workers died from work-related injuries in 2012 – that’s  3.2 workers  per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers. In a recent press release. DOL Secretary Thomas Perez said: “No worker should lose their life for a paycheck.”

The DOL’s list of  workplace fatality statistics probably didn’t include Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher who fatally shot his girlfriend last December and then drove to Arrowhead Stadium and committed suicide in front of his coach and general manager. Or Junior Seau, a retired linebacker for the New England Patriots who fatally shot himself in the chest in at his California home last May.

 The deaths of Belcher and Seau were the latest to raise an alarm about head trauma suffered by  players on the football field. A  2012 study by Boston University School of Medicine of 35 former football players (33 had played for the NFL) found that 34 showed signs of brain disease before their deaths.  Dozens of athletes donated their brains to be studied by the medical school, which found a link between head injuries suffered in the heavy-impact sport and degenerative brain disease.