Last month, a 20-year-old US college football player, Eric LeGrand, was left paralysed from the neck down after making a tackle during a match. In another October incident in Queensland, Alex Slade, an Australian teenage amateur boxer, died days after being concussed in a state title fight. While contact sports will always carry a higher inherent risk of athlete injury, these sporting organisations must ensure that health risks to their athletes are well-managed. If not, there will be continued risks to athletes’ health, the reputation of the sport and financial liability in defending possible legal claims.

Athlete Health Risks

Australia, with its love of contact sports, has an abundance of athletes who could attest to the risks that their sports pose:

  • In 2003 former Wallaby prop Ben Darwin was forced to retire at age 27 after suffering a neck injury during a scrum
  • Former rugby league player, Jarrod McCracken, was forced to retire after he suffered neck and spinal injuries in a tackle in 2000
  • In 1996, 20-year-old rugby league player, Adam Ritson, was knocked unconscious during a tackle and was forced to retire due to complications from the injury

Legal Liability

The issue of legal liability in contact sports is complex. For example, why can two boxers participate in an activity which is considered assault outside the ring?

The short answer is that athletes give implied consent to being the recipient of any actions that occurs within the rules of a sport. Thus, with regards to being intentionally hit in the head, a boxer has implied consent, but a footballer has not consented to such actions.

This distinction has led to clubs, players and coaches being the victim of legal action resulting from sports injuries:

  • After his career-ending injury, Jarrod McCracken sued the two players responsible for the tackle; he also sued their club. The NSW Supreme Court awarded McCracken a near six-figure amount in damages, because it was ruled the tackle was made with the intention to cause injury, as opposed to simply being an obvious risk inherent to the sport.
  • In 1989, a NSW country first-grade rugby league player tackled an opponent in the head while the player was without the ball. The offender was charged and found guilty of assault, and was placed on a three-year good behaviour bond.
  • Other legal issues may arise when clubs allow injured players to return to play. Former Carlton AFL player, Adrian Whitehead, sued his old club for allowing him to return to the field of play using pain-killers; doing so, Whitehead claimed, led to permanent injury to his foot, and retirement.

Brand Risk for Contact Sports

As a result of high-profile incidents at the elite level, a significant brand risk exposure also exists at the grassroots level of sport. It can be assumed that when a serious high-profile injury occurs in a contact sport, junior participation may be affected, as parents avoid exposing their children to such risks.

When talking about the impact of a rugby scrum, Ben Darwin reported on ABC radio that “I distinctly remember thinking: 'That's exactly what a car accident feels like'… Obviously if you're a Mum, you're listening to this and thinking 'That's not what I want my son to do.'”

Earlier this year, there was also wide-spread criticism targeted at the US National Football League, after a study revealed that former professional players are suffering memory loss and dementia at a rate of up to five times that of the normal population. The ABC reported that the NFL was criticised for being slow to act regarding regulating head injuries.

Protecting athlete health and wellbeing is of paramount importance to every sport. Given the rules of contact sports are aimed at protecting the welfare of its participants, it is important that these rules are consistently enforced and reviewed as new sport-health research findings become available.

The health and fitness-related outcomes of playing sports usually far outweigh the risks. However, for contact sports that carry higher inherent risks of injury, close monitoring and enforcement of game rules should bring the residual risk down to an acceptable level.

Please note: the contents of this article provide a summary of the issue. The article does not constitute legal advice. Ensure you seek your own professional legal advice in relation to legal liability resulting from injuries in contact sports.