By Prof Steve Cornelius International Sports Law Centre Pretoria University South Africa
Sport is facing a major crisis!
It has nothing to do with doping, or match fixing, or corruption, or hooliganism. No, the crisis that has been simmering for some time and has slowly begun to boil over, is the high rate of injuries in sport.
The recent conduct of Jose Mourinho, who accused his medical staff of over reacting when they took player Eden Hazard off the field for treatment, is typical of the mentality that players are expendable resources and that injuries are part and parcel of the game. Players who play with injuries are seen as heroes, despite the fact that they might be aggravating the injury. It has become the norm for sports teams to replace injured players from one match to the next. But why do sports injuries constitute such a crisis?
In occupational health and safety, the standard for assessing the injury rate amongst workers, is to consider the number of injuries that cause workers to take time off from work over a set number of total working hours. The injury rate in English professional football is 8.5 “time loss” injuries per 1,000 hours of work (i.e. injuries causing players to sit out on training or matches). If one considers only matches played, the injury rate rises to 27.7 injuries per 1,000 hours. In rugby union, the injury rate among professional players is 13.6 injuries per 1,000 hours. During matches, the injury rate goes as high as 81 injuries per 1,000 hours. The injury rate among rugby union players participating for South African teams in the Super Rugby tournament (which also involves teams from Australia and New Zealand) is 83.3 injuries per 1,000 hours during matches and 2.1 injuries per 1,000 hours during training, giving an average of 9.2 injuries per 1,000 hours of “work”.
To put these statistics into perspective, the mining sector in South Africa, which is considered to be particularly hazardous because of the immense depths at which some of the mining operations take place, has an injury rate of 2.6 injuries per 1,000,000 hours. So, if one does the maths, football and rugby players are up to 5,000 times more likely to get injured than mine workers working under some of the most hazardous conditions on earth!
What is more, the nature and severity of the injuries in professional sport is, to a substantial extent, comparable to the nature and extent of injuries in the mining industry, ranging from minor injuries to fatalities. Gold mines in South Africa reported 37 fatalities in 2013. In comparison, there were 9 fatalities on the football pitch in 2013 and there have been 6 fatalities in football thus far in 2015.
There is another alarming aspect to the injury rate of professional sportspeople. In contrast with most other industries, where the safety standards have been improving steadily over time, sport has actually shown a steady and disproportionate increase in the number of injuries that players sustain. A study in the United States has found that, in 1955, sports injuries accounted for only 1.4% of all injuries that required hospital treatment. By 2001, sports injuries constituted 16% of all injuries treated in hospitals. While it is true that the number of people actively participating in sport has increased steadily over this time, the increase in participants alone cannot account for such a substantial increase in injuries.
Similarly, a study in Australia has found that the injury rate among rugby union players, at international level, has gone up from 47 injuries per 1,000 hours in 1994/95 to 74 injuries per 1,000 hours during the period 1996-2000. Similarly, in Scotland, the number of senior rugby players, who sustained injuries, had gone up from 27% of players in 1993/94 to 47% of players during 1997/98. By 2008/09, the injury rate in Scottish rugby stood at 100 injuries per 1,000 hours. One might argue that this increase in injuries occurred because rugby union turned professional in 1995. However, the counter argument would be that professional players should be better conditioned and better trained so that one would expect a reduction in the number of injuries rather than an increase.
All this shows that sport is facing a major injury crisis that needs to be addressed urgently before sport is overwhelmed with civil litigation. Sports federations should do more to promote the safety of players so that they can avoid future claims by retired or current players.
Some sports federations, such as the National Football League in the United States, have already felt the brunt of such claims, having recently settled claims by former players for the long term effects of concussion for a total amount of US$1 billion, if legal fees and medical expenses are included. A much smaller claim by a pole vaulter, who suffered head injuries during a track and field athletics meeting in South Africa, effectively bankrupted Athletics South Africa. There are indications that former ice hockey players are considering similar claims for concussion against the National Hockey League in the United States. And experts are already sounding warnings to football and rugby to take more decisive action in dealing with concussion. Yet, this is but one aspect. It is probably only a matter of time before former athletes make the link between degenerative musculoskeletal conditions and sports injuries and institute claims against the sports federations and clubs concerned.
The conduct of Jose Mourinho, who not only accused his medical staff of over reacting when they took player Eden Hazard off the field for treatment, but also banned them from future matches and training, is simply not tenable and exposes him, his club and the English Football Association to civil claims for not taking player welfare seriously.
It is time that all sports get their houses in order and address the excessive injury rate in sport. If they do not, they may find that their very existence can be jeopardised by civil claims from former (and current) players who suffer long term effects of injury mismanagement.