On January 2, Damar Hamlin, Buffalo Bills safety and a National Football League (NFL) star, suffered cardiac arrest on the field during a prime-time playoff game, following a “routine” tackle. Millions of fans and other football players were in shock watching as paramedics brought an unconscious Hamlin off the field. Confusion ensued, and while NFL leadership wanted the players to come back to the field five minutes after Hamlin was taken to a hospital, the team members of both the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals refused to play, walking off the field. This event has led to much media coverage about the dangers faced by NFL players, who every year put their bodies on the line for glory, their careers, their fans and for team owners and the league.
While Hamlin remains in critical condition, the media conversation has been very introspective. Mainstream outlets have criticized fans for their complicity in the harm that comes to players; argued that serious injury risk is a real part of the game; discussed the trauma of the situation and criticized the NFL for dehumanizing players. However, the media largely ignored the status of professional football players as workers, engaged in labor in a workplace, creating value and earning wages, with the most spectacular profits going to the owners. Last season, the NFL raked in $18 billion in revenue, record profits that exceed earlier years and far outpace the profits of other sports leagues in the U.S. and around the world. What would it mean if we considered NFL players — who vary in their income, stardom and power — as workers, vulnerable to the demands of capital and profit motivations, with the same health and safety needs as workers in education, health care or industrial jobs?
Since NFL players are represented by their union, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), their minimum conditions are set by the terms of their democratically approved collective bargaining agreement. According to the 2020 collective bargaining agreement, the minimum salary for an NFL player is $660,000. The highest-paid NFL player, Aaron Rodgers, makes $50 million a year. Yet despite these very high salaries, in many ways, the reluctance of the NFL to take the mental and physical health concerns of the players seriously on Monday night reminds us that the NFL is an employer, an organization that seeks to maximize profit. And as the most profitable sports franchise in the world — with local teams bringing important economic activity and recreation to their communities — the NFL remains extremely powerful, even vis-a-vis its highly paid workers.
The NFL is so powerful that it successfully lobbied Congress to pass the 1961 Sports Broadcasting Act, which created various statutory protections to grant the NFL exemption from federal antitrust regulations, allowing the league to negotiate incredibly lucrative broadcasting rights as a single entity. This eventually led to the creation of the iconic Monday Night Football in 1970, the very broadcast where Hamlin was injured. Congress could curb these protections, but chooses not to, which only contributes to the NFL’s incredible political power. Despite the hazards that players face — most notably documented in the famous Harvard University research study on head trauma, also known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and premature deaths among NFL players — the NFL remains politically, culturally and economically powerful enough to curb political demands for health and safety reforms. The NLFPA implemented many new health and safety standards in recent years, including a 2010 reduction of full-contact practice sessions and 2020 adoption of improving helmet quality. Yet no one knows if these changes make football acceptably safe, because there are no OSHA standards for “helmet quality” or how workers should “practice.”
OSHA’s regulatory regime might be a way to consider creating safety standards for the NFL, but it is not a strategy without issues. First, OSHA does not regulate workplace health and safety standards in many workplaces, including professional sports. OSHA and its state-level affiliates have jurisdiction over almost all private sector workplaces, with the exceptions of family-owned farms, independent contractors and specialized workplaces such as airports or mines, which are covered by separate federal agencies (namely the Federal Aviation Administration and Mine Safety and Health Commission, respectively). Yet professional athletes could be covered under OSHA, according to public health professor Adam Finkel. In a 2018 article in the Arizona Law Review, he and his coauthors argued that NFL players are clearly salaried employees who engage in physically demanding and risky labor as a requirement of their job, and their workplaces could be regulated by OSHA. However, as Finkel told Truthout, there are a number of political reasons why this is not likely to occur: “The NFL is favored and there are a lot of industries that OSHA regulates weakly.” Finkel pointed out OSHA’s low budget, about 30 times less than the Environmental Protection Agency, with less than 2,000 inspectors responsible for monitoring 7 million worksites. OSHA also moves slowly, Finkel says. “It’s very much an uphill battle and regulation has come out sporadically in the past 50-odd years.” Thus, despite the widespread acceptance that safety conditions for football players must improve — both for the health of players and for the longevity of the game — there is little political or social will to move towards a tougher regulatory model.
And while NFL players remain at risk in their jobs, it’s important to note that the vast majority of football-related deaths occur among college and high school players, who lack union protections, health benefits and appropriate compensation (or any compensation). Jason Stahl, a former professor and founder of the College Football Players Association, is working to organize college football players to improve their working conditions and emulating the protections that the NFLPA has implemented. “In the 21st century, 24 college students have died playing football,” Stahl told Truthout. “All but one of them has happened in practice.” While Stahl’s advocacy focuses on the collegiate level, he explained, “Every year, between 10-12 high school players die as a result of an injury that happens in the game. What happened [on January 2], with an ambulance coming onto the field.… It rarely happens in the NFL. It happens all the time in high school.… I hope this shines a light on how many [people] die playing football every year, especially at the high school level.”
One thing that is clear regarding Hamlin is that this kind of injury is very rare. Most of the discussion around safety in football focuses on CTE, which is the result of cumulative head trauma. However, the tragedy, despite its rareness, brings attention to the fundamental problem of the various dangers workers face on the job. As Finkel told Truthout, “Any person can have an object hit them in the chest — this happened on national TV. Roughly 15-20 workers die in workplace accidents every day.… Anything that sensitizes people to the dangers of working is a good thing!”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that a U.S. worker died from a workplace-related injury every 101 minutes in 2021. Finkel also stressed the concurrent tragedy of workplace-related deaths. Many of these (like CTE, which shortens the life of professional and amateur football players alike) take the form of disease and premature death rather than immediate injury. There are 60,000 premature deaths each year in the United States due to workplace disease. Moreover, hazards, risks and disease from workplace-related exposures is the fifth-leading cause of death overall, according to research by Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer.
Yet the political will to overcome the power of employers — whether multibillion-dollar sports franchises like the NFL, massive ecommerce corporations like Amazon, logistics companies or food service empires — is currently lacking. Football holds a unique place in American culture, so much so that curbing the political power of the NFL’s profit-motivated machine is difficult to imagine. Jeffrey Hilgert, an associate professor of industrial relations at the University of Montreal and an expert on international workplace health and safety norms, told Truthout, “Under international labor standards, where any work poses an imminent danger to the health or safety of workers, public labor inspectors are to act with immediate executory force.” And yet, he added, “Given the cult-like worship of sport in the United States, however, coupled with the desensitization towards violence and trauma in both society and government, achieving basic respect for international standards will be difficult, yet it is not impossible.”
The tragic event of January 2 provides a mandate for all of us, football fans or not, to consider the value of workers’ health, safety and rights at work. U.S. workers remain vulnerable to hazards, disease and risks every day, even if the sight of a football player collapsing on a field is rare one. As Conor Buggy, an associate professor at the University College Dublin School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science, told Truthout, “Whether the workplace is in a coal mine, an office or on a football field, all employers should demonstrate a duty of care to their employees and value their employees as their most critical asset. When business owners/managers fail to recognize workplace risks appropriately and do not act accordingly to ensure the health and well-being of those working for them, then they are failing in their duty of care to their employees and their employees’ families.”
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