Contact Sports and Head Injuries

take note julyWhat began in the early 21st century following the death of a famous Pittsburgh Steelers’ lineman, Mike Webster, turned into bad publicity for the National Football League. Webster’s death became a warning for the entire nation of the dangers of contact sports such as football, hockey, boxing and wrestling and the dangers of head injuries and brain concussions, even for those as young as seven years old.

Webster died after what his widow described as a personality change after his retirement from professional football. The Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Bennet Omalu performed an autopsy. From the body’s condition, reflecting considerable trauma over the years of playing football, he expected an abnormally shaped brain. The brain was removed and preserved for further study, and what was discovered was advanced chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a form of brain disease and dementia far different from Alzheimer’s, arterial sclerosis or other brain disorders. Its cause was found to be repeated trauma to the brain.

As professional athletes are often exempt from workers compensation laws, Webster’s widow had applied for disability benefits from the NFL and had difficulty winning an award, although she eventually prevailed before Webster died. The question then arose as to whether the death was related to the head trauma Webster had received during his career with the NFL. Dr. Bennet Omalu presented a professional paper to a journal on neuropathology, but the NFL secured a blockage of its publication, creating the NFL’s own panel of medical experts, most of whom were NFL team physicians, and none of whom were neuropathology specialists.

A Second Study

Another neurological study of head injuries from contact sports was conducted by Dr. Ann McKee, a neurologist at the Boston University School of Medicine. She also examined the brains of deceased NFL professional football players. {Read more} The Boston University study found that only one of the 35 deceased NFL players’ brains did not show evidence of advanced CTE, which can only be proven by autopsy after death. Her study, likewise, received resistance from the NFL and its Commissioner, Roger Goodell.

The studies indicated that it was constant head trauma (not including other types of body trauma such as knees, shoulders, and internal organs sustained in contact sports) that was causing the CTE. In some cases players would be “knocked out,” and, after a brief recovery, resume play in the same game. With the advent of “Monday Night Football” on television and football replacing baseball as the “national sport,” fans seemed to crave the violence that football conveys with head-to-head crashes.

Eventually the NFL accepted the scientific studies that CTE was being caused by multiple concussions, and a $765 million settlement with players was entered. Alan Schwarz of the New York Times followed the NFL CTE situation in a number of articles, citing, among others, the Boston University studies. However, it was soon realized that CTE was not just a problem for NFL players, but was also a common problem for college and high school athletes. According to a New York Times study at least 50 high school age or younger football players in 20 states were killed or seriously injured in concussion-related repetitive head injury syndrome situations. The same CTE conclusions were found in other contact sports, such as hockey, boxing, wrestling and even sports where head contact is not a common occurrence, such as auto racing.

The NFL’s admission of the relationship of CTE to concussions sustained in playing football was the subject of the book, League of Denial, by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. Schools have responded by warning student athletes to avoid head-butting, and the football helmet industry has responded by trying to manufacture a safer helmet, but head injuries remain a serious cause of long-term disabilities and potential liabilities for schools, colleges, amateur organizations and professional teams.

While most adjusters will rarely receive an assignment involving a famous football hero, anyone in the insurance claims field must remain aware of the hazards that may be inherent in contact sports and take those hazards into consideration in analysis of claims that are received that may involve some other type of injury. For example, was it the auto accident or fall that caused the claimant’s disability, or does the claimant have a history of cumulative head injuries in contact sports? These are the types of issues that adjusters learn how to best investigate in Crawford & Company® Educational Services classes and KMC on Demand courses.

<cite> Cal.: National Football League v. Fireman’s Fund Ins. Co., 216 Cal.App.4th 902, 157 Cal.Rptr.3d 318 (2nd Dist., 2013); the appellate court confirmed trial court’s position that the multi-state NFL was not entitled to a presumption in favor of a California venue for proceedings, simply because the NFL had members located in California.

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This article comes from Take Note, the newsletter of Crawford Educational Services. You can subscribe here.

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