September means the beginning of football season in the United States, but this year’s season has been mired in more controversy than usual. Concerns over the dangers posed to professional players by concussions and other game-related injuries have prompted legal action – along with a debate among athletes and fans alike about just how acceptable the risks faced by players are.
The National Football League recently reached a $765 million settlement over concussion injuries – but football’s not the only sport in trouble. FIFA, the international governing body of soccer, was hit by a lawsuit last month from soccer parents and players angry about the organization’s handling of concussions. The National Hockey League, meanwhile, has also faced legal action over its handling of concussions. Clearly, athletes face a risk, but what can be done?
Football: Settlements and Fights
Former National Football League players are currently fighting a $765 million settlement submitted to the Third Circuit for approval. Why would they want to oppose a settlement? The players say the deal, struck between the NFL and attorneys representing concussion victims, contains conflicts that could see many former players left out of the final award. Seven class members in all have objected, arguing that the deal doesn’t do enough to cover those suffering the effects of mild traumatic brain injuries. Allegedly, the deal would place limits on compensation for certain injuries – something the players see as inherently unfair. The problem has yet to be resolved, though the panel of judges has indicated that a decision is on its way.
Overall, the deal is a step in the right direction. $75 million of the settlement is earmarked for a baseline assessment program, an attempt to help fight concussion injuries by screening players for impairments caused by concussions during games. A further $10 million will be spent on education and prevention measures.
The fact the settlement contains provisions to reduce the number of injuries among NFL players is a good sign: greater awareness of the problem and just how serious it is should, hopefully, helps players and NFL teams work together to create a safer environment. After all, the initial problem wasn’t that no one knew players regularly suffered concussions – anyone who’s seen a football game could tell you it’s a hazard of the job – but that there was no widespread understanding of the severity of the brain injuries and their impact on players’ lives well after they retired.
Hockey: Injuries on Ice
The National Hockey League first faced legal action over concussions suffered by former players back in November 2013. A class action filed by 10 players sought compensation for medical care and asked the NHL to change its rules to help reduce the risk of injuries. Both the NHL and the NFL are struggling with that last part, trying to balance having a safer game and meeting fans’ expectations that the games won’t change too much. Football and hockey are, essentially, full-contact sports, and it’s legitimately difficult to protect players against all injuries. The NHL may need to focus on education, real-time prevention, and long-term care, rather than eliminating risk from hockey. And, since this is hockey, the (somewhat controversial) role of in-game fighting may also need to be addressed. In fact, the lawsuit specifically accused the NHL of failing to ban “fighting and body checking,” while allowing an unnecessary risk by “continuing to employ hockey players whose main function is to fight or violently body check players on the other team.”
The lawsuit was consolidated in August by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, meaning the roughly dozen or so separate lawsuits filed since 2013 will now be heard together in Minnesota.
Soccer: Children and Headers
The latest sport to face action over concussions is soccer. According to a lawsuit filed August 27 by a group of parents and players, FIFA, both within the United States and worldwide, has been negligent in monitoring and caring for head injuries among both adult and minor players. Unusually (at least compared to similar lawsuits), last month’s filing isn’t seeking monetary compensation, but is focusing instead on changing the rules – especially in games involving children.
Along with FIFA, the suit names the American Youth Soccer Organization as a defendant and is seeking an injunction covering all players under the age of 17. While soccer games currently have no rules regarding the frequency of headers (a move whereby a player uses their head to hit a ball mid-air), parents are asking that a per-game limit be imposed. The lawsuit also seeks the introduction of temporary substitutions in cases where head injuries are suspected. Current FIFA rules for professional leagues allow only three substitutions per game, for either tactical or medical reasons. This limits opportunities for players to undergo medical examinations in cases where concussion may be a factor, as managers are reluctant to use a substitution in cases where it may not be warrqanted. Allowing temporary evaluations would, it’s hoped, encourage managers to allow medical checks without affecting the quality of the game. Finally, the lawsuit is seeking medical testing for brain injuries, possibly applying retrospectively to players injured as far back as 2003.
So, three sports, three different lawsuits, but one question: what are sports’ governing bodies doing to prevent and treat concussion injuries among players? It’s a difficult question with no single answer, but these lawsuits could, ultimately, be good for the games. No one wants to see players get injured, and in cases where they do, it seems fair that care be provided even after retirement. The key seems to be awareness. No longer can managers and sports teams ignore the very real dangers faced by their players – nor, in the end, can true fans of the sport. Safer soccer, football and hockey will ultimately result in better games and better players – and who doesn’t want that?