Championship veteran Dexter Blackstock of Nottingham Forest has been in the news recently. Not because of any particular on-pitch glory (in fact he’s out injured for the remainder season) but because of a law suit that may change the way footballers deal with injury.
Four years ago Blackstock suffered a serious knee injury in a game against Cardiff City. It put him out of the game for 12 months. He returned but has since suffered recurring problems that have stunted his playing time and most recently forced him into only 4 appearances in a loan spell at Leeds (which was to aid his recovery) before returning to Forest with another injury.
Last month Blackstock began the process of seeking compensation for that fateful tackle back in 2010. Blackstock is pursuing compensation from both the player, Seyi Olofinjana and his former club. The amount he’s suing for isn’t yet known but it is said to be in excess of £50,000 as the player feels the challenge may have prematurely ended his career. Blackstock’s case hasn’t received major news coverage, or been discussed widely but it may signify a shift in the culture of football.
This isn’t to say that this is the first case of a player looking for compensation after injury. As early as 1994, ex-Chelsea player Paul Elliot attempted to sue ex-Liverpool player Dean Saunders . The challenge ruptured Elliot’s ligaments and put an end to any hopes he had of an England career. The case failed and Elliot wasn’t awarded compensation, but the very fact that the case was brought to court in the first place started something. Perhaps a more significant case is that of young Manchester United starlet Ben Collett. The player, who Sir Alex Ferguson described as having an “outstanding chance in the game”, suffered a serious leg break in his debut for the Reserves against Middlesbrough. A subsequent law suit filed by the player ended in a settlement of over £4 million, most of that in projected loss of future earnings. Middlesbrough’s insurance company paid the full amount. Collett’s star studded witness stand undoubtedly helped him in receiving such an impressive amount (although he was actually seeking £16 million) as well as the fact he played for a large football club that pays significant wages. But if a young player yet to make a league appearance can get £4 million, how much could a determined and experienced Premier League player get?
These cases are few and far between. Most football players accept the fact that their career has the potential for injury. This idea of compensation for the injuries incurred during sports though is not unique to football. In America, in fact, it has become the centre of a media storm for the country’s biggest sports league. Over the past few years a large group of former American footballers have been pursuing a case against the NFL. They are seeking compensation for the brain damage they now have as a result of consistent head trauma. Recently a judge rejected a $765 million pay-out for the group, saying it wasn’t significant enough. So this is an issue we can expect to see more of in all sports. The fallout of this case, as well as general safety concerns for American football players, Lead Joel Madden to suggest a blanket rule for all those who were suffering from concussion on the field. This led to the introduction of the ‘Madden Rule’. The rule protects players and prevents them from returning to the field if a concussion is suspected.
The Premier League and Football League are undoubtedly cautious when dealing with head injuries. Often when heads clash, games are stopped so officials and medical professionals can assess the danger. However, there is no rule similar to the ‘Madden Rule’ in place. This was highlighted in November last year when Tottenham Hotspur’s goalkeeper Hugo Lloris was given approval to return to play by his own team’s physio after being knocked unconscious. There was widespread criticism after the incident leading many to call for similar measures from the FA.
The risks of head injury in particular in sports like rugby and American football are generally seen as higher because of the more physical nature of the game. It doesn’t take much though for a head injury to become serious. Lloris himself seems to have come out of the incident relatively unscathed (as of yet) but the same can’t be said for others, probably the most prominent example being Petr Čech who suffered a fractured skull after a collision with Stephen Hunt in 2008. Čech made the decision after the incident to wear protective headgear, a decision he feels saved him from another serious injury. Is this something other goalkeepers should be encouraged to do to prevent injury and potential lawsuits?
There are such a wide variety of factors that affect the ebb and flow of a match and the decisions that a player make on a football field that it is almost impossible to prevent serious injuries from occurring. The FA has a very specific and in house manner of dealing with dangerous tackles and challenges; players are often banned and fined if they’re seen to be extreme.
It’s hard to tell how a culture would develop if in every match players were risking potential lawsuit with the challenges they made. Would this in turn affect the quality of games? Footballers often have to take risks, and make challenges that have the potential for somebody to get hurt. They have to do this in order to perform for their teams, it’s their job to. This level of decision making is what has propelled them to professional status. On the other hand, as in any profession there is an expected level of personal responsibility in any industry in the way we all have to conduct ourselves to maintain a safe working environment. Most footballers manage to maintain that level of safety, but what about the ones who don’t? It makes sense that players (and their employers, the clubs) who put others in danger deliberately, or through negligence should be held accountable.
As for Dexter Blackstock, well the case is pending, so we don’t know the outcome, but if he does receive compensation it may just open the door to a more open culture of football injury compensation.
(N.b. Since this article was submitted, Dexter Blackstock has been charged with unrelated breaches of betting rules by the FA)