Can NFL Be Sued for Dangerous Scheduling?

The National Football League is back and if you are anything like me, that means your Sundays are booked for the next few months. As we turn on our televisions in the weeks to come, we will undoubtedly notice players from our favorite team missing games for various injuries. Of course, injuries are part of the game. The NFL is quite possibly the most vicious sport in the world. However, what if some of the injuries that occur could have been prevented if the NFL acted with more care in making the yearly schedule?

This is something sports journalist Kevin Lynch discussed recently on KNBR radio, and with the advancement of our medical studies regarding the correlation between rest and injuries I think it’s a fascinating question to discuss from a legal standpoint.

The Facts

The NFL has games scheduled on Sundays, Mondays, and Thursdays every week of the season. This year there are also Saturday games scheduled on Christmas Eve. The scenario Lynch describes is one similar to what the 49ers experienced week 1 and week 2.

The 49ers opened the season in Santa Clara with the late Monday night game vs. the Rams. The following week they traveled to Carolina to play the Panthers in a 10:00 am game. The 49ers players had roughly 5 days and 12 hours from the end of game 1 and the start of game 2. At first glance this may sound like a decent amount of rest in comparison to the typical 7 day layoff, but you have to consider the quality of rest a player would be able to get in that time period when traveling.

From being up late on Monday night after their game, traveling to Carolina, practice, warm-ups, being in a different time zone, different bed, different climate etc., the quality of rest in that shortened time period is significantly diminished. If medical studies have shown that lack of rest results in a significant increase in injury risk, why does the NFL put players in this situation every year when they could easily avoid it?

From A Legal Standpoint

What if lack of rest resulted in an injury that ended up costing a player millions of dollars in future lost wages? What if it happened to numerous players over the course of the year?

If a player was injured on the job it would most likely be handled similarly to a workers’ comp case as opposed to a personal injury case. The main difference between the two: in a typical personal injury case you can recover for things such as loss of enjoyment of life and pain and suffering. In workers’ comp you can’t.

I should admit, if this was handled as a regular personal injury case based on negligence I think there are a lot of reasons why an NFL player wouldn’t be able to recover. First of all, the NFL makes the schedule. If a player does not feel rested enough, they don’t have to play. In other words, they assume the risk when they step on the field tired. Second, I’m not sure exactly how you could scientifically show that lack of rest actually caused an injury. You would need to be able to say that if a player had another day and a half of rest he would not have been injured. In the game of football, I just can’t see how you would be able to do that.

However, for entertainment value, let’s say there was a way to take this out of the workers’ comp spectrum. Assuming a medical expert could show that an injury was caused by lack of rest, the player’s best argument would be that the NFL intentionally disregarded player safety for monetary gain.

Lynch questions why the NFL couldn’t have scheduled Seattle instead of Carolina after the Monday night game so the players didn’t have to travel across the county. The answer, from the players’ perspective, would be that the NFL wanted to maximize revenue by positioning specific matchups at specific times to draw the biggest audience. In order for the NFL to do this week-in and week-out, they knowingly put the 49ers and their players in a dangerous position that resulted in an injury. If they could show this, you open the door for potential punitive damages in order to deter the NFL from acting this way in the future.

Unfortunately, this is the NFL. Players get hurt too often, the risk of injury for a completely rested player is too great, and ultimately it’s the players and the teams that decide whether or not they are healthy enough to play on whatever day and time the NFL chooses.

Biggest Takeaway

Even though the players would not be able to recover here, Lynch still makes a great point. It’s in the NFL’s interest to protect their product, and their product is the players. As Lynch mentions, it’s also in the best interest to make games as competitive as possible and to not put one team at such a severe competitive disadvantage. Hopefully the NFL makes changes in the future. If not you will find me kneeling in protest when they announce the starting lineups until I see some changes that I am happy with.