Although they are not conventional employees, professional athletes do sustain on-the-job injuries and are, therefore, eligible to file for workers’ compensation benefits. One big question that remains is where they are eligible to file a claim.

During the recent labor discord between the National Football League (NFL) and the NFL Players Association, one of the big battles concerned workers’ compensation rights. The issue that distressed owners most was the ability of retired players to forum shop in hopes of getting the most money in compensation.

California has long allowed retired NFL players to file workers’ compensation claims so long as they played at least one game in their career within the state. California allowed such limited contacts as a way of protecting transient workers like truck drivers, but professional athletes have been able to benefit as well. Players elect to file in California because the state generally provides higher workers’ compensation benefit payouts than many other states. Additionally, the statute of limitations is longer in California, and players are filing years after they have retired.

To prevent such forum shopping, some teams are including forum selection clauses in player contracts to ensure that workers’ compensation claims are limited to a certain state. One such team, the Cincinnati Bengals, a self-ensuring Ohio employer, recently received a favorable decision from the California Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB) that enforced such a clause. The case, Booker v Cincinnati Bengals, Case No. ADJ4661829 (May 1, 2012), held that such forum selection provisions contained in player contracts are valid and should be enforced if reasonable. The WCAB ruled that the choice-of-forum provision at issue in Booker was reasonable and effective in a case involving an NFL player who played for the Bengals and submitted a claim for cumulative injuries in California. In this case, Ohio was to be the exclusive forum for all claims.

Ohio itself has also been in the news recently as it, like many other states, is taking steps to clarify the forum in which professional athletes may bring workers’ compensation claims. An amendment to O.R.C. 4123.54 allows for coverage of professional athletes and coaches through league-sponsored policies where collective bargaining rules call for uniform administration of workers' compensation and benefits, or where the players are employees of a single-entity league and that league maintains workers' compensation coverage for its players and coaches. If proof of such coverage is provided to the administrator of the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation in either circumstance, then the laws of the state where the policy is issued are the exclusive remedy for injuries, occupational diseases and death claims by a player, coach or his/her family or dependents.

This is a brief glimpse into the interesting world of professional sports and workers’ compensation.