Do professional athletes get workers’ compensation?
If you were asked which professions tend to have high injury rates, you’d probably think of jobs like construction work, roofing or logging. But another group with high injury rates that many people don’t often stop to consider is professional athletes.
In fact, although there are many safety measures in place to minimize injuries and fatalities in professional sports, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), professional athletes have one of the highest fatality rates of any profession in the U.S.
While professional athletes tend to be compensated quite well, what happens when they sustain a serious injury that forces them to retire early? Normally, work injuries and disability benefits are covered under workers’ compensation, but do the same benefits apply to professional athletes?
This article will explain everything you need to know about getting compensation if you suffer an injury as a professional athlete.
Common injuries to professional athletes
Many pro sports are contact sports that are sometimes violent. For example, many injuries to football and hockey players are caused by collisions.
However, all pro athletes are also vulnerable to non-contact injuries, including:
- Repetitive motion injuries like pitcher’s elbow, tendonitis, carpal tunnel, etc.
- Sprains, fractures and torn ligaments often incurred on artificial surfaces
- Turf toe
Common collision injuries include:
- Broken bones
- Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) knee injuries
Football players are particularly vulnerable to serious injury because of the violence of the game. It’s not uncommon for linemen to have multiple knee surgeries and develop serious disabilities long after retirement.
Why concussions are a serious concern for athletes
Concussions are of increasing concern in the National Football League (NFL) as well as college conferences and high schools. Many NFL players suffer multiple concussions in their careers. Until recently, the cumulative effects of multiple concussions were not well understood.
The long-term effects of multiple concussions became the focus of studies in the early 2000s. Retired players started to show common disorders, including chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), psychiatric disorders, Parkinson’s disease, and long-term memory loss.
These symptoms were first noticed in boxers and labeled “punch drunk” behavior. They are increasingly showing among retired NFL players who suffered multiple concussions during a 10- to 15-year career. Sadly, there have been some suicides after years of CTE symptoms.
The NFL has adopted protocols to improve the players’ safety. New helmet technologies have been developed in an effort to reduce the incidence of concussions. But even the best helmet designs can’t fully protect players from the injury that happens during a head collision.
A football brain injury from a concussion is comparable to injuries suffered by a passenger in a car crash. There are 2 collision injuries:
- The 1st collision is the blow to the head.
- The 2nd collision occurs when your skull (vehicle) suddenly stops, but inertia keeps your brain (much like a car passenger) moving and crashing into the inside of your skull. This 2nd collision is not remedied by helmet design changes.
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Fundamentals of workers’ compensation
Now that you have a better understanding of the serious injuries that can occur in professional sports, let’s discuss how workers’ compensation can help those who have been injured on the job.
All states have laws to facilitate a no-fault insurance system to compensate an employee for injuries or illnesses incurred on the job. Workers’ compensation laws are administered by state agencies. While there are some minor differences, the basic system is the same for every state.
The employee does not have to prove that the employer was at fault for their injury or illness.
However, if you claim workers’ compensation benefits, you are precluded from claiming certain compensation available in an ordinary personal injury case, such as pain and suffering and punitive damages.
Most states require that the injury or illness “arise out of and in the course of employment,” and you must be an employee to claim workers’ comp benefits—self-employed or independent contractors are not eligible. These 2 issues could be an area of contention in a professional athlete’s workers’ comp case.
Workers’ compensation benefits include:
- Medical expenses (including doctor’s appointments, surgeries, medications, rehabilitation, medical supplies, etc.)
- Lost wage replacement (typically two-thirds of your average weekly wage)
- Compensation for permanent or temporary disabilities
- Vocational training and education for workers with permanent disabilities who can no longer perform their previous job duties
- Death benefits for certain dependents
Workers’ compensation for pro athletes
So, with all that in mind, one big question still remains.
Do professional athletes get workers’ compensation?
Fortunately, the NFL and other professional sports teams carry workers’ compensation insurance for their employees.
However, to qualify for workers’ compensation as a pro athlete, you must be recognized as an employee. Whether a person is an employee or independent contractor is an issue relevant for purposes other than workers’ compensation, particularly federal income taxes.
The IRS has a list of job characteristics they deem to be evidence of employee status. You are an employee if:
- You don’t determine where, how and when you do your job.
- You don’t control the business and financial aspects of your job. For example, you don’t dictate how you will be paid, whether you will be reimbursed for expenses, or who will pay for tools and supplies.
- Your relationship with the party who pays you will continue after you complete a job assigned to you.
- You have employee-type benefits, such as a pension plan, vacation pay, or health and life insurance.
The IRS guidelines are not hard and fast rules for determining employee status. They are only guidelines for case-by-case determinations. This is particularly true for professional athletes, where the distinction between employee and independent contractor is cloudy.
Some athletes have a relationship with the party who pays them (e.g., team owner) that has some independent contractor characteristics and some employee characteristics.
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Applying the IRS guidelines and balancing all characteristics, it would appear that the following professional athletes should typically be treated as employees:
- Football players
- Baseball players
- Hockey players
- Basketball players
Applying the same standards, the following athletes should typically be treated as independent contractors:
- Track and field athletes
In most cases, the common characteristics that distinguish those players as employees are:
- The owners and coaches dictate the team position they play, as well as when, where, and for how long they play.
- The team owners, subject to limitations, can trade them to other teams without their consent.
- While free agency has granted a degree of freedom to some athletes, it’s no different than any other employee’s right to quit and go to work for some other employer.
Unlike many employees, pro athletes have individual contracts with team owners that are freely negotiated by the players. Along with free agency, this is a characteristic of an independent contractor relationship. But the employee relationship factors far outweigh the independent contractor factors.
Ultimately, if you’re unsure if you qualify for workers’ comp benefits or if you believe you’ve been misclassified as an independent contractor, the best thing you can do is speak to an experienced workers’ compensation attorney who knows the law and can explain your rights. Don’t just take your employer’s word for it.
Engage an experienced Georgia workers’ comp attorney
Workers’ compensation cases can be complicated, especially if you’re a professional athlete whose status as an employee isn’t clearly defined. Most employers carry insurance to cover their obligations, but too many workers’ comp claims increase the employers’ premiums and reduce the insurance companies’ profits, so they’re inclined to deny claims if they think they can get away with it.
If you are injured on the job, you need to engage a skilled and experienced workers’ comp attorney soon after your injury. Tactical mistakes are often made early in the process that can compromise your claim.