3,000 former football players suffering from various ailments that they claim are a consequence of head trauma suffered while playing the sport professionally have been locked in a titanic lawsuit against the National Football League (NFL), asserting that the league underplayed the risks associated with concussions and other head injuries.
But beyond highlighting the potential dangers stemming from football-related head trauma, the New York Times reports that the litigation may have far-reaching implications for contact sports leagues across America and the insurance companies that do business with them.
At issue is how much liability the 32 insurers associated with the NFL have when it comes to paying legal fees stemming from the litigation — and how much in claims they may have to pay out if the former players win their case. While a mammoth corporation like the NFL can bear that financial burden, high schools and smaller contact sports organizations don’t share in that luxury, and fear of litigation could lead to a race to the bottom in which insurers hike up their prices for contact sports coverage — or stop covering head injuries altogether:
“Insurers will be tightening up their own coverage and make sports more expensive,” said Robert Boland, who teaches sports law at New York University. “It could make the sustainability of certain sports a real issue.” […]
Fearful of future lawsuits, insurers may start raising premiums or excluding concussions and other injuries from their policies not just for the N.F.L., but also for hockey and lacrosse and other contact sports. As information about the link between head trauma and long-term injuries has grown, coaches, athletic directors and others will have a harder time claiming they did not know of the connection if they are named in lawsuits.
“A common misconception is that no one’s going to sue their youth league or nonprofit, but that’s not the case,” said Dan Pullen, who runs an insurance brokerage in Fort Worth that specializes in policies for teams, players and leagues. “Maybe the league isn’t negligent, but there might be $50,000 in legal claims” for a lawyer to chase.
The obvious solution would be enacting more rigorous protections for those who play high-contact sports, as well as setting higher accountability standards for sports organizations themselves. This would help spread out some of the risk that insurers bear when they cover players. But the fear and motivation induced by dollar signs could make such collaborative efforts difficult to achieve. Discontinued coverage for sport-related injuries would be the worst possible consequence of the litigation by far.
As the serious long-term ramifications of football injuries have come under increased scrutiny in recent years, there have been some attempts to promote player safety in the NFL. Over the next two seasons, the entire league will begin monitoring players’ head injuries with high-tech electronic medical records — a policy that was actually enacted as a condition of the most recent collective bargaining arrangement negotiated between current players and the NFL. The future of American contact sports might depend on continued cooperative efforts like that.