The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled last week that former Minnesota Vikings lineman Al Noga was not entitled to workers compensation, reversing a decision by the Workers Compensation Court of Appeals. Noga’s lawyers claimed his dementia diagnosis was the result of repeated head injuries sustained while he played for the NFL, and after a long, drawn-out battle, the WCCA agreed. Noga was granted total, permanent disability benefits in 2015, a decision that was reaffirmed in 2018.
But the Supreme Court negated those decisions, writing in its opinion that Noga had allowed the statute of limitations to expire before filing his claim. They further stated that the NFL had no way of knowing that Noga’s repeated headaches were the result of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which was not a recognized medical condition at the time he played ball. CTE was first described in a former NFL player by Bennet I. Omalu, M.D. and Julian Bailes, M.D. in 2002. Noga played for the Vikings from 1988 to 1992.
Al Noga first applied for workers compensation in 2001, citing orthopedic injuries. The examining physician noted months later that the former lineman had 10 orthopedic issues as well as blackouts and chronic headaches, all of which could be attributed to injuries sustained while playing for the Vikings. Noga settled that case with the NFL and its insurer in 2004.
The statute of limitations for workers comp claims in Minnesota is three years from the time the employer filed an injury report with the Department of Labor, and not more than six years from the date the injury occurred. Thus, according to the court decision, Noga only had until 2010 to file the second claim.
He wasn’t diagnosed with dementia until the following year.
Noga’s lawyers argued that team doctors were aware of his headaches and treated them with painkillers, so the statute of limitations no longer applied. Unfortunately for the injured player, the Court disagreed.
Insurance a Growing Concern
Since a rash of CTE claims began rocking the NFL in 2011, football has faced an evaporating insurance market, according to a January report from ESPN. The NFL no longer has general liability coverage for neurologic injuries, and all but one carrier have stopped offering workers compensation coverage for NFL teams. Football helmet manufacturers face a similar scarcity, according to the report.
Nor is the problem affecting only the NFL. Pop Warner Little Scholars, a nonprofit that oversees about 225,000 youth football players in leagues across the United States, was recently forced to switch insurance carriers when it’s former carrier said it would no longer cover head injuries. According to Pop Warner executive director Jon Butler, the organization was only able to find one company that would provide the coverage it needs.
Additionally, the Orlando-based Alliance of American Football announced in February that it was moving its practices to Georgia because it was unable to get workers compensation coverage in Florida. It has since ceased operations entirely, according to the organization’s website.
The issue is so severe, according to sources who spoke to ESPN, that some believe the crisis may be the death knell of contact sports. Youth participation has already dropped sharply, as parents have become savvier about the consequences of even minor head injuries over the long term. And as more insurance carriers pull out of the marketplace, it calls into question the viability of all contact sports.
“Basically, the world has left the marketplace,” said Alex Fairly, CEO of the Fairly Group, a Texas-based risk management firm whose clients include the NFL and Major League Baseball, “If you’re football, hockey or soccer, the insurance business doesn’t want you,” he said.
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