Anybody who says “it’s just a game” has never experienced high school football in Texas. The pomp that goes into those chilly fall Friday nights is evident in the unified alma mater resounding from the marching bands, the spirited encouragement from peppy cheerleaders, and the fierce, unbridled talent between young men.
As local mothers and fathers watch anxiously from the stands in anticipation of the next play, they sometimes become incognizant to the dangers that exist in the process and practice their children endure to become star athletes.
The truth of the matter is that winning teams mean money. As a legitimate industry driver, a successful sports team can bring in megabucks from merchandising, tickets and concession sales. Coaches feel the pressure to collect victories, which often leads to pushing players beyond their limits. So what responsibilities do schools have to ensure students’ safety?
In recent years, Texas has made progress in taking better care of its athletes. It is one of a handful of states that limits full-contact tackling drills during practices to 90 minutes per week in an attempt to prevent injuries. Due to the catapulting number of concussions, our schools must also adhere to the same helmet standards as the NFL.
All 50 states have a sports concussion law in place. Most of the state laws contain three common tenets: 1) any athlete suspected of having sustained a concussion must immediately be removed from play; 2) the athlete may not be returned to action the same day; and 3) the athlete may be returned to action only after written clearance is provided by a licensed health-care professional.
Personal Injury Attorney Brad Parker, founding partner of Parker Law Firm in Bedford, says, “In Texas, schools have an ethical and moral duty but not a lot of legal responsibility when it comes to sports injuries.” One way in which the schools are able to avoid liability is what the law refers to as “assumption of the risk.” This means that when kids take the field or court, they accept the risk inherent in the sport. Likewise, public schools are nearly entirely immune from lawsuits.
“Parents should really get to know the coach and research to find out if the district has a well-run athletic program. They should also investigate to ensure the equipment their child is using is safe,” Parker says.
It is wise to speak with your insurance provider to determine if sports-related injuries are covered in your policy. Being specific about the sport in which your child is involved is important. For instance, many states don’t recognize cheerleading as a sport.
Don’t be shy in asking the school or the athletic organization if there is insurance coverage for your child’s injuries if they occur. If you have to sign a waiver, chances are that you will not be eligible for insurance coverage if your kid sustains an injury. In that case, you will want to move forward only if you know that your own insurance coverage will cover any injuries sustained. No matter how good of an experience a sport may be, you do not want to risk a lifetime of insurmountable medical bills because you lacked sufficient coverage.
Sprains, torn ligaments and broken bones typically heal without ongoing problems and are usually covered by insurance providers. However, severe injuries, often involving the head, neck or spinal cord, could require a lifetime of surgeries and doctors’ visits and are often irreparable. Repeated blows to the head can contribute to permanent brain damage or CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which can lead to depression, memory loss, suicidal thoughts, and weakening of brain function later in life. All it takes is one tackle or improperly executed cheerleading flip to change your child’s life forever.
Even with waivers in place, families may still have the right to file a lawsuit after a sports injury. Parker says, “Under current personal injury law, you may be eligible for compensation from other parties or sports organizations if the injuries were caused by negligence, unlawful activity or violence from other players.”
Negligence can fall under several different categories. Examples could include improper use and care of protective equipment, failure to give injured players sufficient rest, failing to notice signs of trauma and failure to insist on safety protocol during practice.
An example of unlawful action could be a coach putting a player back into action after a head injury or concussion without the necessary release from a health-care professional. “In this situation, it still isn’t assured the school would be held responsible given the wide immunity school personnel enjoy under Texas law,” Parker says.
If the other team is intentionally targeting a player with violent actions, and that player is injured, the family may have the right to seek compensation or file a lawsuit against the opposing team and coaching staff. The key here is that the violence must exceed what is expected in that sport.
Most importantly, the role of a parent with an injured son or daughter is to focus on his or her recovery. In order to find out if your case is worth pursuing, speak with an experienced personal injury attorney. This should be done as soon as possible because there is a statute of limitations in place that prevents you from filing a lawsuit if too much time passes. The sooner you talk to a lawyer and begin the process, the better your chances for a successful outcome.