The NFL Should Operate Like Any Other Workplace
Every draft season, teams pick hundreds of rookie football players in a highly publicized, much-anticipated event. These players receive contracts from their respective teams and sign on as employees of the National Football League (NFL).
Despite all this, public perception has never squared football players as employees. Yes, the star players of various teams attract fame for their insane paychecks — many of whom tout eight-digit incomes — but referring to the players as workers doesn’t sit right with the American public.
However, after a cursory examination of the processes involved in drafting, recruiting and hiring new players, similarities to the traditional hiring process begin to emerge. Scouts initially uncover players with talent and professional potential, witnessing the players on the field during college games. The scouting acts as a sort of application process: Players are often aware of the scouts’ presence and will attempt to perform at the top of their game to convince the scouts they are worth a second look.
The first and second-round interviews come in the form of scouting combines, pro days and other events designed to test the staying power of potentially promising athletes. For those who perform well under the pressure of these events, and especially those who rise to the challenge, the draft is the penultimate step: the de facto hiring process, followed only by contract negotiation. While the NFL tends to have more job openings than many businesses, the competition to be one of the 200 to 300 athletes drafted is enormous.
The Dangers of Slim Oversight
Despite the significant similarities between the traditional hiring process and that of the NFL and other sports organizations, the businesses themselves feature some troubling divergences. Foremost among these is the absence of health and safety guidelines within the NFL.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) imposes regulations to protect workers from potentially hazardous working conditions. Since the NFL is a business — one with thousands of employees across the states — the absence of OSHA within the league is troubling.
Missing OSHA is especially worrisome considering the plethora of diagnoses surrounding brain injuries past and current players have suffered on the field. In a 2017 study, several doctors uncovered a troubling trend: 87 percent of deceased football players participating in a postmortem brain donation program showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Of the 111 NFL players this study examined, 110 of them showed signs of CTE. Symptoms of this disease manifest as both behavioral and mood symptoms and early-onset dementia.
OSHA, for its part, intends to protect employees from these exact conditions. While job-related accidents are common and often unavoidable, OSHA seeks to limit the repeated, regular exposure to hazardous conditions in workplaces across the U.S. With more studies linking NFL players to traumatic brain injuries each year, the lack of OSHA presence in the NFL is at once worrying and unsurprising.
The Growing Concern for Injured Players
Injuries on the field are common and often televised. A player may fall, clutching his knee or cradling an arm after being hit. His teammates instantly surround him, and the field doctor and coach rush over to assess his condition. They quickly carry him off the field, and the game continues. These injuries are common in most sports, and are a risk of playing the game. After all, football is a sport in which enormous, musclebound players hurl themselves at each other for several hours, and no amount of safety gear will prevent all injuries.
Herein lies the conundrum facing OSHA and the NFL. In a football game, what can we consider a legitimate accident or workplace-related risk the players agree to by signing a contract? In contact sports — of which football is king — injuries will occur more regularly than in almost any other workplace. In some sense, this is the nature of the game.
However, with the burgeoning tide of evidence linking football players to CTE and other traumatic brain injuries — conditions that seem almost unavoidable in any players who have been in the professional leagues — it is hard to deny the NFL has been harboring a serious and systemic workplace hazard, and that its employees are paying the price. As delineated in the OSHA General Duty Clause, shouldn’t the NFL shoulder the responsibility of protecting the bodies and minds of its players?
Treating Players Like Employees
Implementing and following OSHA guidelines in the NFL would not necessarily be an easy task: In any sport with frequent physical contact, injuries are bound to occur. However, the NFL has not made many moves to protect players.
Things have certainly improved a bit from where they were some years back, but perhaps with the help of OSHA and some comprehensive guidelines, the NFL could really begin to design a game that continues in the traditions of football, but that protects its employees in a way any other business would.