football player catching ball under the lightsThey may not do the same things you do at work, and they probably earn a heck of a lot more money, but athletes who play for professional sports teams in Ohio are employees just like you, and—in many cases—they are entitled to workers’ compensation when injured and unable to work—just like you. How many Cincinnati Bengals or Cleveland Browns actually file comp claims? Probably few. But some could if they needed to.

What Does Ohio Law Say About Pro Athletes?

The Ohio Worker’s Compensation Act says nothing specifically about professional athletes—or any other type of worker, for that matter. What says is that most employers in Ohio must provide workers’ compensation coverage to their employees.

A couple of exceptions could apply to pro athletes. If workers are members of a national union, and the union provides workers’ comp coverage, they would not be covered by Ohio comp. If a worker is considered an employee of a national or international company not based in Ohio, they would likewise not have the right to Ohio workers’ comp. For athletes, that would mean being an employee of a league rather than an Ohio-based team. Neither caveat is true for National Football League players, so Bengals and Browns should be eligible for Ohio workers’ comp.

There are efforts in the works by the Bengals’ ownership to amend Ohio law to prohibit pro athletes under contract with a major league team from filing permanent partial disability claims. Owner Mike Brown is working with Rep. Bill Seitz of Cincinnati, who wants to see an end to what he calls “double dipping” and “welfare for the rich.” For now, the amendment doesn’t seem to have much traction, but players’ unions fear this is the beginning of an attempt to strip all players of workers’ comp benefits in Ohio.

They’re Rich—Why Would They Need Workers’ Comp?

Good question. With Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow becoming the highest-paid player in the NFL by agreeing to a five-year $275 million contract extension in 2023, I can't imagine he’d ever need to avail himself of the medical benefits provided by workers’ comp. Even the lowest-paid players in the NFL far out-earn the average Ohio UPS driver. The minimum salary in the NFL is $750,000 a year for rookies, and the median salary for the 2022-2023 season was $860,000.

However, Ohio workers’ comp is not a need-based program. There are plenty of examples of NFL players with bad spending habits who suffer a career-ending injury after a few short seasons and find themselves in dire financial straits. There are also professional sports that do not pay like football does—minor league baseball and women’s soccer come to mind. For these athletes, workers’ comp might be a much-needed benefit.

Disabling and Career-Ending Injuries in Professional Sports

Concussions and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs)

Concussions are a widely discussed issue in football, but they happen in other sports as well. Repeated blows to the head, even with helmets, can lead to concussions and long-term consequences. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain condition linked to repeated concussions. It can cause memory loss, mood swings, and cognitive impairments, ultimately leading to early retirement for some players.

Knee Injuries

The high-impact nature of professional sports puts immense stress on players' knees. Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) tears, meniscus injuries, and patellar tendon ruptures are common. These injuries often require surgery and extensive rehabilitation, and some players may never fully recover, leading to early retirement or a significant decline in performance.

Back and Neck Injuries

The repetitive impact of many pro sports can lead to back and neck injuries. Herniated discs, spinal stenosis, and nerve compression are some of the issues that can develop. These injuries can result in chronic pain and can force players into early retirement.

Ankle and Foot Injuries

Ankle sprains, Achilles tendon ruptures, and turf toe are common lower extremity injuries in football, soccer, basketball, and other sports. These injuries can affect a player's mobility and agility, which are crucial for their performance. Severe cases may lead to retirement or a significant reduction in playing time.

Problems Faced by Pro Athletes Filing for Workers’ Comp

A professional athlete looking to file a claim should turn to a workers’ comp attorney as early in the process as possible. Reporting and filing deadlines can be tricky to navigate, as can eligibility requirements. Many disabling injuries are cumulative, and an athlete will get push-back on a claim for an injury getting worse over a long period.

While many professional athletes can cover their own medical bills and live comfortably off of the money they have earned, some are not in this position. They file a claim and should talk to a lawyer in Ohio about the possibility.

James Monast
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Board-Certified Workers’ Compensation Attorney in Columbus, Ohio
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