Are Injured Professional Athletes Entitled to Workers’ Comp?

Are Injured Professional Athletes Entitled to Workers’ Comp?Employment-At-Will

Workers’ compensation is meant to fit the needs of employers as well as employees. It is meant to reduce risk that would otherwise be inherent in the employer-employee relationship. For the worker, they want assurances that they will be able to support themselves financially if something work-related happens to them. For the employer, it is their responsibility to be insured and carry policies that offer peace of mind for their workers, as well as provide the assurance that they themselves will not be financially battered if their workers get hurt.

The employer-employee relationship is mostly at-will, and both sides accept risk when a worker is hired. For the employer, that risk is a new employee who otherwise may be previously unknown to the company. Their qualities are not yet discovered, such as their efficiency, attitude, productivity, etc. They may turn out to be an unfavorable employee. For the employee, their risk is that they are offering their time and resources to a new endeavor. The employment relationship is such that it may be “terminated by the employer or the employee at any time, with or without cause, with or without notice, for any reason (allowed by law) or no reason at all.”1 The relationship is also understood to mean that that both sides understand there may be a financial liability if the worker quits or is terminated.2

Classification of Professional Athletes

Are professional athletes employees? It depends what kind of athlete. In team sports, where the player is guided by a coach or manager, they are an employee. This includes “football, baseball, basketball, and hockey.”3 Athletes not considered employees are those whose profession is “golf, boxing, wrestling”, etc.4 Are athletes playing team sports at-will employees?

Professional team athletes are not at-will employees, as they are governed under their contracts with the organization they play for. They may only be “fired under the specific terms in the contract” or “for cause”.56 If an athlete gets injured on the job, it is within the scope of their contract if they are to continue to get paid.7 What if the injury was not their fault, however? For example, N.J.S.A. 34:15-7.1 states: “An accident to an employee causing his injury or death, suffered while engaged in employment but resulting from horseplay or skylarking on the part of a fellow employee, not instigated or taken part in by the employee who suffers the accident, shall be construed to have arisen out of and in the course of employment of such employee and shall be compensable under the act hereby supplemented accordingly.”8

Horseplay and Skylarking in Professional Team Sports

There are numerous instances of professional athletes getting injured or mobbed during celebrations. The athlete just won the game for the team, for instance. His/her teammates mob the player who scored the winning basket, homerun, or goal. The result is the winning scorer gets injured by their own team, through no fault of their own. Is the player supposed to run away or avoid their teammates in a successive celebration? That may not be expected. One example is a baseball player named Denny Hocking who broke his nose when his teammates pounded him on the head to celebrate. Another example is a baseball player named Jake Peavy who felt a pain in his side as the team hugged him in celebration of a playoff berth. He sustained a broken rib.9

What does horseplay or skylarking mean? It refers to an “innate sense of humor or playfulness which is expressed in a harmful or unproductive way.”10 It may include “innocent bystanders or victims who may be injured when such activities occur.”11 In such cases in professional team sports as expressed above, the players injuring the winning scorer may certainly be acting out of playfulness or humor, and all the scorer did was win the game, which does not merit an injurious celebration. The injured player is indeed a victim. The celebrations may also be classified as unproductive, as it is not necessary to tackle a teammate when reasonable celebratory actions can simply be a high-five.

Workers’ compensation is complicated when it comes to professional athletes in team sports and varies state by state. It would be worthwhile to take a hard look at whether this statute can be applied to sports situations such as these, especially if the player is not able to be paid due to injury and due to the clauses in their contract. Players could be able to sue based on these circumstances. For help with your case, it is advised to speak with an experienced workers’ compensation attorney.

1 Anonymous. “Are You Putting At-Will Employment at Risk?” Payroll+Medics Payroll | Workers’ Compensation | HR Solutions, Payroll+Medics Payroll, 19 Mar. 2018, www.payrollmedics.com/blog/are-you-putting-at-will-employment-at-risk/.

2 Ibid.

3 Anonymous. “Total and Partial Unemployment TPU 415.4 – Professional Athlete.” Employment Development Department, State of California, www.edd.ca.gov/uibdg/Total_and_Partial_Unemployment_TPU_4154.htm.

4 Ibid.

5 “Employment Law – Can NFL Players Be Fired Over Protests?” Griego Law, The Law Office of Phillip J. Griego. , 4 Mar. 2021, www.griegolaw.com/contact-us/blog/2017/11/employment-law-in-the-news-can-nfl-players-be-fired-over-protests/#:~:text=In%20the%20typical%20workplace%2C%20an,terms%20specified%20in%20the%20contract.

6 Gallagher, John A. “Employment At Will: The Most Misunderstood Workplace Principle.” TLNT, Ere Media, 10 Apr. 2013, www.tlnt.com/employment-at-will-the-most-commonly-misunderstood-workplace-principle/.

7 Bacchus, Jewel. “Do NFL Players Still Get Paid If They Get Hurt?” Sportscasting, Sportscasting, 23 Jan. 2021, www.sportscasting.com/do-nfl-players-still-get-paid-if-they-get-hurt/.

8 Anonymous. “2009 New Jersey Code :: TITLE 34 – LABOR AND WORKMEN’S COMPENSATION :: 34:15 :: 34:15-7.1 – Horseplay or Skylarking on Part of Fellow Employees.” Justia US Law, Justia, law.justia.com/codes/new-jersey/2009/title-34/34-15/34-15-7-1/.

9 Brown, Larry. “Kendry Morales Joins Long List of Athletes Hurt While Celebrating.” Larry Brown Sports, LB SPORTS MEDIA GROUP INCORPORATED, 30 May 2010, larrybrownsports.com/baseball/list-athletes-hurt-injured-while-celebrating/19686.

10 Evenson, Katyn, and LFLM Anaheim. “Workers’ Compensation Newsletter.” Aug. 2018.

11 Ibid.

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