Reid Reinholdt’s last play for the Toronto Rock ended with one goal and two fractures in his shoulder.  

The lacrosse forward  charged toward the net, moving underneath his defender to line up an  orthodox, sideways shot against the Halifax Thunderbirds. He got hit and  went crashing to the floor. 

Reinholdt scored, but at the cost of two  cracks in his shoulder and a torn labrum, the tissue that keeps the  shoulder joint intact. He was benched for the rest of the 2022 season. 

It’s the kind of injury familiar to many athletes. In Canada, they pay for it. 

Unlike in much of the  United States, Canadian athletes aren’t eligible for workers’  compensation if they’re injured in a game or practice, leaving them with  little recourse when a bad game leads to lifelong injury or impairment.  

Reinholdt, executive  director of the National Lacrosse League Players’ Association, or NLLPA,  is part of a coalition of players trying to change that. 

They want British Columbia, whose workers  compensation board is considering whether to cover professional  athletes, to be the first province to make that switch. 

“I’ve told our players, this is going to  happen. It’s no longer if. It’s when,” Professional Hockey Players’  Association executive director Larry Landon said. “And from what I’ve  witnessed so far, B.C. will be the first one.” 

WorkSafeBC — the province’s compensation  board — is in the first steps of considering whether to expand coverage  to professional athletes, part of a broader four-year assessment of its  policy. 

Athletes have gotten private and public  support from lawmakers, including former premier John Horgan, and hope  making the change won’t even require new legislation. 

But they’ll likely face opposition from  sports organizations like the Canadian Football League, that have  previously argued professional sports assumes a level of danger and  aggression that would not be tolerated in any other workplace and thus  should not be covered in the same way. They have also argued such a  policy shift would require them to change how the game itself is played.  

That league declined to take questions from The Tyee for this story. 

“The CFL has no interest participating in this story at this time,” spokesman Olivier Poulin said. 

Advocates for covering athletes’ injuries  say the sports leagues are trying to avoid paying the required fees to  workers compensation boards across the country. Employers generally fund  the system, with premiums based on the injury rate.

Brian Ramsay, the executive director of the  Canadian Football League Players’ Association, argues the current  system means injured players’ medical costs are effectively subsidized  by the publicly funded medical system. 

And the roughly 50 per cent of CFL players who are from the United States, Ramsay said, may not even be able to depend on that. 

“You’re limited in what you can accomplish  with the rest of your life. And at 25, 26, you have a lot of your life  up in front of you,” Ramsay said. 

The current system

Most British Columbians hurt on the job can  apply to have extra expenses, lost pay and special medical care covered  by WorkSafeBC. Similar models exist across North America, part of a  compromise to help injured employees and insulate employers from  constant lawsuits. 

In Canada, professional athletes are one of  very few exceptions to that rule. A player hurt on the pitch or ice  might get some recourse under their collective agreement to pay for  physiotherapy or replace their salary. 

But they can’t apply for longer-term  coverage for an injury that affects them for life. And they also won’t  get compensated for other lost income, for example for other jobs. 

Reinholdt said players in the National Lacrosse League, for example, make an average of about $25,000 a year. 

“If an American person got hurt and that  forced them to miss their other job, workers compensation is going to  look at that full picture and make them whole. But if I was injured and I  missed my other job, they’re not paying me a cent,” Reinholdt said.

Unlike Canada, many American jurisdictions  do cover athletes. Reinholdt, whose hometown is Pitt Meadows, currently  plays for the Las Vegas Desert Dogs. Nevada law means he is eligible for  coverage anywhere — including Canada — because his team is registered  in that state. 

Bert Villarini is a labour lawyer based in  Buffalo, New York, which has similar rules. Major League Soccer players —  including the Vancouver Whitecaps — can all apply to New York’s  compensation board when they are injured because that league chose to  incorporate all its operations in that state, he said. 

New York also affords coverage to visiting  athletes who happen to be injured in that state. That means, bizarrely,  the Empire State will compensate an injured Canadian athlete, even if  Canada won’t.

That’s not to say the American system is  perfect. This month, Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin was taken to  hospital after his heart stopped during a game against the Cincinnati  Bengals. The Associated Press has reported Hamlin regained consciousness  and was able to speak to his teammates Friday. For many, the story  highlighted the danger players face during their relatively short  careers and the need for professional leagues to make the game safer. 

In Canada, though, athletes argue the picture is even grimmer. 

Various attempts to convince Canadian  lawmakers, courts and compensation boards to afford protections to  professional athletes have failed. Ramsay says a push to change  regulations in Alberta in 2016 was unsuccessful. So was a lawsuit filed  by Arland Bruce III, a former BC Lions player who sued the CFL over what  he described as “permanent and disabling” head injuries accrued over  his career in the league. Two B.C. courts dismissed his application,  saying it was a labour arbitration issue, and the Supreme Court of  Canada court declined to hear an appeal. 

That has left players associations with one remaining option: convincing lawmakers to change the rules. 

In 2018, the players’ associations met with  B.C. Labour Minister Harry Bains, arguing their members should be  treated the same as other workers and encouraged Health Minister Adrian  Dix to assess what injured professional athletes were costing the  province’s health-care system.

A briefing note prepared for Bains in that  year suggests changing the legislation may only require changes to  policy — not legislation — and encouraged the associations to contact  WorkSafeBC. 

WorkSafeBC spokeswoman Yesenia Dhott said  covering pro athletes in the province would require policy changes, and  potentially modification to the province’s occupational health and  safety regulations. 

Doing that, she wrote, would also bring  professional athletes into WorkSafeBC’s prevention framework for  mitigating injuries — something the CFL has previously argued is against  the spirit of sport.  

In a 2019 submission to WorkSafeBC, lawyers  for the CFL said it would be “unreasonable” to require the league to  pay into the worker compensation model given the inherent risks in the  game.

“The CFL and its constituent owners ought  not to bear the entire burden for players who have voluntarily decided  to participate in an activity that carries with it inherent risk, that  cannot be eliminated through regulation or best practices and who have  spent decades putting inordinate strain on their bodies in order to  achieve professional player status,” reads a submission signed by  lawyers Stephen Shamie and Mariana Kamenetsky. 

Athletes respond that other jobs — like  construction, forestry and mining — are also inherently risky but still  enjoy worker protections. 

Landon says most professional Canadian  athletes are not the jetsetters seen on billboards. Players in the  American Hockey League, who Landon represents, earn about $130,000 a  year on average, he said. Their careers typically don’t last longer than  a decade, but their injuries could. 

“Everyone thinks they make a million dollars. They don’t,” Landon said.

Sources interviewed for this article  couldn’t say how common serious injuries among athletes are, but they  happen often enough that they are normalized. Landon, who played a  season each with the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, has  five plates in his face, 36 screws and pins and his shoulders and two  replaced hips. Some of the injuries are short-term; others, like  concussions, might have life-long consequences. “You blow your shoulder  labrum, and you can’t be 100 per cent ever,” Landon said. 

There’s no definite timeline for when  WorkSafeBC might make any proposed changes, Dhott said, and it would  consult significantly before doing so. 

Some leagues, like the American Hockey League, have agreed in their contracts with players to stay neutral on the issue. 

But the CFL hasn’t, and Ramsay believes it will be the main opponent to changing the status quo. 

About half of the CFL’s players, Ramsay  said, are Americans, who cannot claim worker’s compensation while  they’re playing for a team in Canada but also don’t benefit from a  single-payer health-care system when they return home. 

“We’re not making millions… we’re pretty  vulnerable,” Reinholdt said. “You can have the coach of the team get  injured on the bench and he has workers’ compensation. But the players  playing don’t.”

By Zak Vescera, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jan 12, 2023 at 19:55

This item reprinted with permission from   The Tyee   Vancouver, British Columbia

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