Contributed by The Jernigan Law Firm
“This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Questions?” Do you remember that anti-drug commercial for the 1980s? Well, it turns out professional athletes – who spend years training their bodies to compete in the highest level of sports are permanently damaging their brains as well.
The JAMA study from earlier this year (2017) quoted that 99% of NFL players’ brains studied showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Overall, the study sampled 202 donated American football player brains (from across all levels of play). The study found that 110 out 111 former professional NFL players were diagnosed with CTE. It found that “players of American football may be at increased risk of long-term neurological conditions, particularly chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).”
According to the Concussion Legacy Foundation, CTE symptoms generally arise in a patient’s late 20s or 30s. Symptoms “affect a patient’s mood and behavior,” particularly in the areas of “impulse control problems, aggression, depression, and paranoia.”
CTE is not a new diagnosis. It was first described in 1928 by Dr. Martland in his study of boxers. At that time, he labeled the disease as “punch drunk syndrome.” In more recent studies, doctors believe that repetitive hits to the head sustained over a long period of time (years) cause CTE. The hits do not need to cause concussions to lead to CTE. In fact, it appears that “sub-concussive impacts” – “hits to the head that don’t cause full-blown concussions – as the biggest factor.”
The following professions are linked to CTE: boxers, tackle football players, soccer players, ice hockey players, and military veterans. Based on these most recent studies, many of these professional athletes would likely have an occupational disease claim under the Workers’ Compensation Act for CTE claims and medical treatment.
North Carolina Occupational Disease?
In North Carolina, an employee may develop an occupational disease related to his employment if the disease is “proven to be due to causes and conditions which are characteristic of and peculiar to a particular trade, occupation or employment, but excluding all ordinary diseases of life to which the general public is equally exposed outside of the employment.” [See North Carolina General Statute §97-53(13)].
CTE would clearly fall under this category as an occupational disease, assuming all of the above elements are satisfied. Hopefully, as medical studies progress, additional avoidance recommendations (like modified helmets) will help mitigate the trauma associated with professional football players and other occupations associated with CTE.