Athletes frequently suffer injuries during games as well as during practice. Ankle sprains, broken wrists, fractured collar bones, bumps and bruises are commonplace. Trainers and team doctors keep busy by icing player injuries, taping up minor problems, and helping athletes manage pain so that they can get back out on the field or court. Recently head injuries suffered by athletes have made headlines because of the problems former NFL players are experiencing. Just a few days ago former NFL star and Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett admitted that he was suffering from a brain ailment that was likely the result of head injuries he suffered while playing football. He is one of many former football players who are now living with a myriad of brain ailments. While a traumatic brain injury is often the result of a hit to the head, the signs of a brain injury are not always immediately apparent or recognizable by the player, coach, trainer, or medical staff. As a result players do not always get immediate treatment and instead resume participating in a sporting event, running the risk of aggravating the injury.
Causes of Traumatic Brain Injuries
A traumatic brain injury is caused by a violent blow to the head. When the hit to the head causes dysfunction of the brain cells, or bruising, torn tissues, bleeding or other damage to the brain, a traumatic brain injury has occurred.
Football players are particularly susceptible to head injuries because tackling is part of the sport. Players weighing over 300 pounds are tackled and thrown to the ground by other, equally heavy players. Despite wearing helmets and other protective gear, football players frequently suffer head injuries after being hit or tackled. Football players are not the only athletes who suffer head injuries that impact the brain. Head injuries are also common in rugby, cycling, soccer, volleyball, hockey, basketball, and skiing. Each of these sports involves tackling, a ball moving at a high rate of speed, or the athlete moving at a high rate of speed.
Symptoms of a Traumatic Brain Injury
Those who experience brain injuries may demonstrate a wide variety of symptoms. The symptoms may be physical or psychological. Some symptoms may appear immediately after the trauma, while others may not appear until days or weeks later. According to facts compiled by DoSomething.org, 66% of teenagers who suffer concussions do not feel the injury was severe enough to tell an adult. Symptoms of brain trauma varies depending on the type of brain injury, the severity of the brain injury, and the general health of the victim. For mild trauma, the symptoms may include a loss of consciousness for up to a few minutes, confusion, headache, loss of balance, memory problems, concentration problems, nausea, drowsiness, and sensitivity to light or sound. If the trauma is severe, symptoms can include loss of consciousness from several minutes to hours, extreme confusion, slurred speech, weakness in fingers and toes, loss of coordination, persistent headache, seizures, vomiting, inability to awaken from sleep, agitation, and clear liquids draining from nose and ears.
A severe brain injury can leave the victim in a coma, semi-conscious state, or vegetative state. It can also result in permanent nerve damage, cognitive problems, sensory and communication problems, and leave the victim more susceptible to degenerative brain diseases such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
Legal Liability When an Athlete Suffers a Brain Injury
When an athlete suffers any type of injury during the course of a sporting event or during practice, it is difficult to place legal liability on another person or organization. While a severe injury such as a brain injury, spinal cord injury, or any injury that leaves permanent damage is devastating for the athlete and his or her family, the possibility of such an injury is generally a known risk that athletes assume when they chose to participate in a sport. In fact, athletes at all levels including student athletes, typically sign a waiver relieving the governing organization, coaches and other staff members of liability in the event of an injury. Thus, a personal injury lawsuit by an athlete based on a traumatic brain injury suffered during a sporting event will likely fail.
The exception to the assumption of risk reality for athletes is when the organization is negligent. This is the crux of the claim that former NFL players have asserted against the NFL– that the NFL negligently hid facts about the medical consequences of head injuries from players. As a result such players were not able to make an informed decision about assuming the risk of such an injury. Other instances in which an athlete may have a claim is where players are not properly supervised by staff, where players are not provided with the proper safety equipment, or where injured players are allowed to continue to play without proper medical clearance.
Even though sports organizations, schools, and the government have taken steps to make certain sports more safe, such as requiring helmets and other protective gear, head injuries remain a fact of life in many sports. Should governing organizations be required to ensure that athletes who suffer permanent, debilitating injuries have medical insurance that will cover the injured athlete’s lifelong medical care related to such injuries?