Not long ago, I wrote about the growing litigation of former NFL players suing for Workers’ Compensation benefits in California as a means to increase their benefits for the alleged effects the sport has on their diagnosed dementia.   Since then, the NFL has issued warnings to its current players about the long term effects of concussions and the symptoms that occur with head injuries.  They should be applauded for the move, but is it enough?

Now, HBO–the cable network–just released a fascinating news piece from its Emmy award winning sports show “Real Sports” about a direct link between concussions in football (and all sports) and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.  You can view a sample of the video here.

What is intriguing about this story is that out of the entire human populace, only 1 in 100,000 suffer from ALS.  However, in professional athletes, the incidence of ALS is much higher.  No one knew why until now.  

A group of scientists just released an article in the Journal of Neuropathology & Experimental Neurology linking head trauma to ALS symptoms.  The cause appears to be “toxic proteins” released from the brain into the spinal cord as a result of head trauma.  According to the “Real Sports” piece, these toxic proteins are the same proteins that could be responsible for dementia in former NFL players.  The New York Times has a more detailed explanation here.

Since professional athletes are exempt from the Florida Workers’ Comp Act, unless their teams opt in to coverage, I wonder if it would behoove the NFL and other professional sports franchises to accept coverage for their athletes?

Looking at the “Real Sports” piece, I can see the costs to these former athletes as devastating.  ALS is an ugly disease that erodes all of the muscles in the body–except the brain–until the person suffocates from lack of muscle strength in the lungs.  The medical exposure is huge, requiring attendant care, large prescription costs, and a drain on the emotional stability of the player and his family. 

If the NFL or other sports teams were to opt in to the Workers’ Comp system, and accepted compensibility of these ALS cases, they would find their exposure to be capped significantly on indemnity (PTD ends at age 70) and medically.  They would be immune from any other tort suits for non-economic damages such as loss of consortium, pain and suffering, and future wage loss.  They would also save money on the medical bills under the current fee schedule.  It might also be a smart public relations move to show that the NFL is not ignoring the problem.

There is still some ways to go before this may happen.  But, the medical evidence is piling up that links head injuries to long term mental and neurological disabilities down the road.  If the NFL or other sports leagues do not proactively address how they will handle such claims in the near future, these claims will force a solution onto NFL.  And the NFL might not like those solutions.