From the sudden surge of out-of-office emails to the ransacked aisles of school supplies, all signs point to the sad fact that summer is drawing to a close. If you’re a football fan, however, the end of summer isn’t all bad news: it means NFL season is right around the corner. Time to break out the jerseys, build your fantasy roster, and… review Occupational Safety and Health regulations?
Most people who follow football—as well as those of us who work in workforce compliance, for that matter—wouldn’t associate OSHA with the NFL. A recent research paper published in the Arizona Law Review asks: Why not? Why isn’t the league subject to the same health and safety regulations other employers are? After all, the authors contend, professional football players are employees of the NFL. Moreover, players contend with serious risks to their health and safety in the form of musculoskeletal injuries, heat stroke, concussions, and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.
As the authors write in their abstract, thinking of athletes as “workers” rather than “players” raises serious questions about the role of health and safety regulations and an employer’s responsibility to protect the well-being of employees:
“The athletes who participate in professional football call themselves (and the public calls them) football ‘players,’ not football ‘workers,’ reflecting the reality that as exhausting and high-pressure as their efforts are, they are ultimately playing a sport. Nevertheless, we should not forget that these athletes indeed are workers; they have trained extensively to perform their roles, they do intense physical labor as part of their jobs, they are salaried employees of National Football League (‘NFL”) clubs, and they are represented by a labor union, the National Football League Players Association (“NFLPA”). …[R]ecognizing the NFL as a workplace, governed by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (‘OSHA’) and the law surrounding occupational health and safety, can transform our understanding of the NFL and player safety. This topic has gained considerable and growing public attention, particularly regarding the recent and controversial concerns over the possible long-term risks of neurological damage in these workers.”
After establishing this premise, the paper goes on to detail all the reasons why OSHA probably won’t step in to regulate the NFL any time soon. First, sports have typically been excepted from normal workplace law requirements. Second, OSHA would need to establish new benchmarks and introduce rules and equipment that could reliably protect players from injuries—without fundamentally changing the nature of the game. Third, OSHA has already expressed reluctance to wield more authority over the league, and would face enormous political pushback if it decided to change course.
Still, argues Chris Deubert, a sports law attorney who co-wrote the paper, OSHA could regulate the NFL, and this possibility brings up interesting questions in terms of employment law and football fandom. Speaking to Deadspin, Deubert suggests that his and his colleagues’ research may someday lead to real changes on the gridiron:
“For a long time, the principal issues in [the NFL collective bargaining agreement] were around labor and antitrust laws. I’m curious to see if in the future, there are more health and employment-focused attorneys involved. I like to think that the work we were able to do will lead to new ways of thinking about these issues.”