Crushing Blows in NFL Football Players

Every year, that special excitement around my house is due to the return of football.  Amid the exciting plays, the reality is it’s a $9.5 billion industry where men injure themselves regularly on the job.  And it is a job.  Football is a game played by men who are employed to entertain us with glorious passes, long dashes for the end zone, and crushing blows.  But it’s a job just the same with high risk of accidents on the job.

A player only has a small window within which he’s able to play and make a career for himself.  During the average 6 year career span of a football player (or 9 for a first- round draft pick), these players play hard in order to get big contracts, big bonuses, and increased playing time.  The more time on field making those big plays, the bigger their contract can swell and the more endorsements a player can collect.  But with these big plays come serious injuries.

According to the NFL Players Association, 1 in 4 football injuries will result in a torn knee.  And 50% of NFL players will require knee replacement surgery by the time they’re 50.  The cumulative effects of playing football can result in not only injuries to the spine, back, neck, and knee, but they can also produce serious head trauma and brain injuries.

Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in Football Players

NFL players will take an average of 2,500 hits to the head.  According to the National Institute of Health’s study published in the Journal of Athletic Training, each team experiences roughly 200 hits comparable to “crashing a car into a concrete wall at 40mph” every season.  In a career of 6 to 9 years, this can amount to thousands of potential blows to the head not to mention all the crushing body blows that cause other debilitating injuries.

But in recent years, former players have organized to shed light onto the dangers that cumulative head trauma can produce in football players.  "It's not as simple as how many concussions someone's had -- it's total brain trauma," says Robert Cantu, MD, co-director of Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.  “Linemen who've had almost no concussions have the majority of cases of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, because on every play they get their brains rattled, trying to block with their head.”

The cumulative effects of recurring concussions have given birth to a new field of research into a condition named chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that mimics dementia.  In both 2010 and 2011, two high profile NFL suicides reflected severely advanced cases of CTE which contributed to their deaths.

Symptoms associated with CTE include:
  • A foggy mental feeling
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Balance problems
  • Abnormal sleep patterns

With national attention on CTE, the NFL has instituted new guidelines for monitoring players’ concussions and subsequent playing time.  And to address growing CTE and dementia concerns, the league has created the 88 Plan.  Named for Colts’ tight end, John Mackey, who suffered from dementia, the plan provides for dementia and Alzheimer’s care.  Players cared for in a hospital can get $100,000 year towards their care or $88,000 a year if cared for at home.  To date, this plan has paid out almost $19 million.

Worker’s Comp In the NFL: the Case for Cumulative Trauma

Sometimes, those league payouts won’t pay the medical bills and can’t pay off the debts you’ve accumulated after a career- ending injury.  NFL players suffer a lot of trauma as a result of doing their job.  And sometimes, it’s not the big injuries you see on the television screen that causes suffering.  Sometimes it’s the cumulative traumas and overuse which wears an athlete down.

California is the only state that allows employees to file cumulative trauma worker’s compensation cases.  For this reason, football employees who experience this cumulative trauma have been filing their cases in California, even if their team was out of state.  Players file claims on the premise they played significant amounts of games in California, with injuries that continued to grow worse.

The NFL Players Association claims hundreds of players have filed worker’s compensation claims in California, hoping to obtain the benefits they desperately need. Faced with the potential for big payouts in California, the NFL Players Association reported that it became common for insurance carriers to proactively contact former NFL players with offers for small settlements to prevent future high dollar claims.

With hundreds of football claims lined up in California, it will be an interesting test case to see if the league will begin offering better benefits to injured players. And it will be interesting to see if these claims continue to be approved.  Perhaps if enough claims pay out, the league might institute new stringent safety guidelines to limit playing on recurring injuries.