Wednesday, May 21, 2014

NFL Suits Bring Awareness

A new study on football players shows why the National Football League, and other professional sports, have been so active in workers' compensation to limit their exposure.

According to a paper published by the Journal of the American Medical Association last week, there is a relationship between playing football and having a smaller hippocampus.

The hippocampus is a part of the brain which is associated with memory - sometimes called the memory center.

The study followed collegiate football players who had a history of concussions and compared the population with football players who had no such history, and a control group of people who have never played football or soccer.

The results according to the researchers are remarkable: college football players with a history of concussions had "significantly" smaller hippocampus than the control groups, by up to three quarters the size of the non-football control group.

And the hippocampus of football players lacking a concussion history were also markedly smaller than the non-football control group, about five-sixths the size of the non-football control group.

In addition, there was a correlation between years on the gridiron and slower reaction time on tests.

What is different about this study from earlier research on brain trauma in football players is that this is the first to study relatively young athletes - collegiate players. Prior studies focused on middle-aged or older populations.

What this means is that the damage to the brain starts at a young age and likely with less relative exposure than previously thought.

The working theory by doctors and researchers is that football, and other contact-type sports like hockey, induce an inflammatory reaction that might cause cells in the hippocampus to rev into an excited state, and eventually die.
NFL suits bring attention to work place safety

More importantly to workers' compensation is that the study supports a working theory of injury that is recognized in only a few states, most notably California, to the chagrin of those with conservative views on injury mechanisms: that cumulative trauma is a real medical risk and not just a contrived legal concept.

Albeit, the study populations were small - only 25 people in each category - but the statistical relationship from such a small population should be of concern.

I have been highly critical of professional sport's jurisdictional limitations in workers' compensation legislation, and it seems that their lobbyists and supporters may have had some foresight in doing so - the big argument for AB 1309 was that California's liberal worker protection laws were being abused by out-of-state professional athletes because it is one of the very few states that recognizes the cumulative trauma source of injury.

While those with the checkbooks don't like it, it seems to me that California's law is actually in line with the science - that cumulative trauma is real, can be measured, and can result in significant, life long disability.

There are quite a few who take issue with out of state employees using California to process claims that no other state will recognize - but that's not the issue.

The issue is that the legal theory of cumulative trauma actually has some scientific merit - it's evidence based!

I'm not saying that ALL cumulative trauma claims are real. Certainly that can't be said for ANY injury. But naysayers who doubt the science need a reality check.

At least the NFL is prepared to set up a trust fund for brain injured athletes, though frankly I don't think that the $765 million is sufficient to really take care of athletes whose loss of memory is going to impair their ability to make a living after their sports careers end.

One of the issues with that pending settlement is that those who do not have a history of concussions or milder forms of dementia would not receive payouts – they would only get tests that would help doctors monitor their health and assess whether they might be eligible for payouts in the future.

And if the NFL didn't have enough labor relations issues arising out of work injuries, yesterday the Associated Press reported that a group of retired players have brought suit, again seeking class action status, against the league for either intentionally obtaining and dispensing drugs illegally to players, or being so negligent in the action as to amount to a gross abuse.

According to the story, players were not told about broken bones or other serious injuries, and were placed back on the gridiron with drugs dispensed without physician's orders or oversight and without following Food and Drug Administration protocol and regulations, sometimes for years on end.

Drugs allegedly included pain killers, anti-inflammatories, and other highly regulated pharmaceuticals. The suit says that the league actively concealed from players the extent of their injuries, the nature and risks of the drugs being provided, and that they were sent back out on to the field with serious medical conditions without being told of the injuries.

Keith Van Horne, formerly of the Chicago Bears, said he was made to play on a broken leg. Bears quarterback Jim McMahon said he had a broken neck and ankle and was just given pain medication and "pushed back on to the field."

Trainers and doctors employed by teams allegedly failed to keep required records or explain side effects of the drugs dispensed.

The spat of lawsuits and push back by the NFL in the guise of legislative activity may be viewed as meddlesome, or perhaps exploitative by lawyers bullying the league out of money, but I see this as welcome acknowledgement by anyone who follows sports that it is a job.

Professional athletes provide a service, entertainment, at the direction and control of an entity that makes money off of such service - and if the evidence demonstrates that there is injurious exposure that results in long term disability in the employees then the risk of such hazard needs to be absorbed by the employer.

Perhaps the cost of that risk gets passed along to the consumer in various forms of higher ticket prices or restricted television contracts, but that's the economy - we decided a hundred years ago that people who get hurt at work should be taken care of.

Certainly the league will argue that the player's complaints should be the sole purview of workers' compensation laws, and the players will argue that such remedies are no longer available due to the intentional concealment of known risks and outcomes.

The positive aspect of all of the attacks on the NFL and other professional sports leagues is the awareness these suits bring to the masses about the potential of work injuries and death.

Most workers don't think about workers' compensation, how it works and the affects the system will have on their lives until they get hurt at work - then it's too late.

Most employers don't think about workers' compensation, and the trauma the system can induce to a business until an employee makes a claim - then it's too late.

Perhaps a few more than the small percentage of aware workers and employers will become a little more educated on work safety, injury prevention and the affective workers' compensation system, and become more proactive as a result.

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