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Pro athletes chasing workers’ compensation for their injuries

Canadian athletes not eligible if they’re injured in a game or practice, B.C. asked to change that
Colorado Mammoth forward Brett McIntyre, front left, scores a goal against Buffalo Bandits goalie Matt Vinc, back, on June 11, 2022, in Denver. Injured players working in the US are typically eligible for workers’ compensation, but not in Canada. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

By Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter THE TYEE

Reid Reinholdt’s last play for the Toronto Rock ended with one goal and two fractures in his shoulder.

The lacrosse forward charged toward the net, moving underneath his defender to line up an orthodox, sideways shot against the Halifax Thunderbirds. He got hit and went crashing to the floor.

Reinholdt scored, but at the cost of two cracks in his shoulder and a torn labrum, the tissue that keeps the shoulder joint intact. He was benched for the rest of the 2022 season.

It’s the kind of injury familiar to many athletes. In Canada, they pay for it.

Unlike in much of the United States, Canadian athletes aren’t eligible for workers’ compensation if they’re injured in a game or practice, leaving them with little recourse when a bad game leads to lifelong injury or impairment.

Reinholdt, executive director of the National Lacrosse League Players’ Association, or NLLPA, is part of a coalition of players trying to change that.

They want British Columbia, whose workers compensation board is considering whether to cover professional athletes, to be the first province to make that switch.

“I’ve told our players, this is going to happen. It’s no longer if. It’s when,” Professional Hockey Players’ Association executive director Larry Landon said. “And from what I’ve witnessed so far, B.C. will be the first one.”

WorkSafeBC — the province’s compensation board — is in the first steps of considering whether to expand coverage to professional athletes, part of a broader four-year assessment of its policy.

Athletes have gotten private and public support from lawmakers, including former premier John Horgan, and hope making the change won’t even require new legislation.

But they’ll likely face opposition from sports organizations like the Canadian Football League, that have previously argued professional sports assumes a level of danger and aggression that would not be tolerated in any other workplace and thus should not be covered in the same way. They have also argued such a policy shift would require them to change how the game itself is played.

That league declined to take questions from The Tyee for this story.

“The CFL has no interest participating in this story at this time,” spokesman Olivier Poulin said.

Advocates for covering athletes’ injuries say the sports leagues are trying to avoid paying the required fees to workers compensation boards across the country. Employers generally fund the system, with premiums based on the injury rate.

Brian Ramsay, the executive director of the Canadian Football League Players’ Association, argues the current system means injured players’ medical costs are effectively subsidized by the publicly funded medical system.

And the roughly 50 per cent of CFL players who are from the United States, Ramsay said, may not even be able to depend on that.

“You’re limited in what you can accomplish with the rest of your life. And at 25, 26, you have a lot of your life up in front of you,” Ramsay said.

Most British Columbians hurt on the job can apply to have extra expenses, lost pay and special medical care covered by WorkSafeBC. Similar models exist across North America, part of a compromise to help injured employees and insulate employers from constant lawsuits.

In Canada, professional athletes are one of very few exceptions to that rule. A player hurt on the pitch or ice might get some recourse under their collective agreement to pay for physiotherapy or replace their salary.

But they can’t apply for longer-term coverage for an injury that affects them for life. And they also won’t get compensated for other lost income, for example for other jobs.

Reinholdt said players in the National Lacrosse League, for example, make an average of about $25,000 a year.

“If an American person got hurt and that forced them to miss their other job, workers compensation is going to look at that full picture and make them whole. But if I was injured and I missed my other job, they’re not paying me a cent,” Reinholdt said.

Unlike Canada, many American jurisdictions do cover athletes. Reinholdt, whose hometown is Pitt Meadows, currently plays for the Las Vegas Desert Dogs. Nevada law means he is eligible for coverage anywhere — including Canada — because his team is registered in that state.

Bert Villarini is a labour lawyer based in Buffalo, New York, which has similar rules. Major League Soccer players — including the Vancouver Whitecaps — can all apply to New York’s compensation board when they are injured because that league chose to incorporate all its operations in that state, he said.

New York also affords coverage to visiting athletes who happen to be injured in that state. That means, bizarrely, the Empire State will compensate an injured Canadian athlete, even if Canada won’t.

That’s not to say the American system is perfect. This month, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin was taken to hospital after his heart stopped during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Associated Press has reported Hamlin regained consciousness and was able to speak to his teammates Friday. For many, the story highlighted the danger players face during their relatively short careers and the need for professional leagues to make the game safer.

In Canada, though, athletes argue the picture is even grimmer.

Various attempts to convince Canadian lawmakers, courts and compensation boards to afford protections to professional athletes have failed. Ramsay says a push to change regulations in Alberta in 2016 was unsuccessful. So was a lawsuit filed by Arland Bruce III, a former BC Lions player who sued the CFL over what he described as “permanent and disabling” head injuries accrued over his career in the league. Two B.C. courts dismissed his application, saying it was a labour arbitration issue, and the Supreme Court of Canada court declined to hear an appeal.

That has left players associations with one remaining option: convincing lawmakers to change the rules.

In 2018, the players’ associations met with B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains, arguing their members should be treated the same as other workers and encouraged Health Minister Adrian Dix to assess what injured professional athletes were costing the province’s health-care system.

A briefing note prepared for Bains in that year suggests changing the legislation may only require changes to policy — not legislation — and encouraged the associations to contact WorkSafeBC.

WorkSafeBC spokeswoman Yesenia Dhott said covering pro athletes in the province would require policy changes, and potentially modification to the province’s occupational health and safety regulations.

Doing that, she wrote, would also bring professional athletes into WorkSafeBC’s prevention framework for mitigating injuries — something the CFL has previously argued is against the spirit of sport.

In a 2019 submission to WorkSafeBC, lawyers for the CFL said it would be “unreasonable” to require the league to pay into the worker compensation model given the inherent risks in the game.

“The CFL and its constituent owners ought not to bear the entire burden for players who have voluntarily decided to participate in an activity that carries with it inherent risk, that cannot be eliminated through regulation or best practices and who have spent decades putting inordinate strain on their bodies in order to achieve professional player status,” reads a submission signed by lawyers Stephen Shamie and Mariana Kamenetsky.

Athletes respond that other jobs — like construction, forestry and mining — are also inherently risky but still enjoy worker protections.

Landon says most professional Canadian athletes are not the jetsetters seen on billboards. Players in the American Hockey League, who Landon represents, earn about $130,000 a year on average, he said. Their careers typically don’t last longer than a decade, but their injuries could.

“Everyone thinks they make a million dollars. They don’t,” Landon said.

Sources interviewed for this article couldn’t say how common serious injuries among athletes are, but they happen often enough that they are normalized. Landon, who played a season each with the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, has five plates in his face, 36 screws and pins and his shoulders and two replaced hips. Some of the injuries are short-term others, like concussions, might have life-long consequences. “You blow your shoulder labrum, and you can’t be 100 per cent ever,” Landon said.

There’s no definite timeline for when WorkSafeBC might make any proposed changes, Dhott said, and it would consult significantly before doing so.

Some leagues, like the American Hockey League, have agreed in their contracts with players to stay neutral on the issue.

But the CFL hasn’t, and Ramsay believes it will be the main opponent to changing the status quo.

About half of the CFL’s players, Ramsay said, are Americans, who cannot claim worker’s compensation while they’re playing for a team in Canada but also don’t benefit from a single-payer health-care system when they return home.

“We’re not making millions… we’re pretty vulnerable,” Reinholdt said. “You can have the coach of the team get injured on the bench and he has workers’ compensation. But the players playing don’t.”

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