Articles & Blogs

Workers’ Compensation Claims of Pennsylvania’s NFL Players

February 13, 2023
February 10, 2023

Superbowl Sunday is here! On Sunday, millions of people will tune in as the Philadelphia Eagles take on the Kansas City Chiefs in Superbowl LVII.  We will watch the game, the commercials, and the half-time show, and at the center of it all will be the players. Some of the highest paid athletes in Pennsylvania[1] and around the country will be risking injury playing one of America’s most dangerous sports.

If they are injured while playing in games or practices, Pennsylvania's professional football players are entitled to benefits under the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act (the “Act”), provided that they comply with the terms of the Act that apply to all covered Pennsylvania employees. The Act specifically includes recovery by professional athletes, defining a professional athlete as a person “employed as a professional athlete by a franchise of the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs or the American League of Professional Baseball Clubs, under a contract for hire or a collective bargaining agreement, whose wages … are more than eight times the Statewide average weekly wage.”[2]

While they are eligible for benefits under the Act, it is not often that Philadelphia Eagles or Pittsburgh Steelers players are awarded workers’ compensation benefits. That is primarily because they do not elect to pursue benefits; considering the maximum compensation rate set forth in the Act (2023’s maximum rate is $1273.00 per week), most injured players prefer to obtain benefits as provided for in their contracts.

But not all NFL players are paid millions of dollars each year or wish to rely on the provisions of their contracts, and some do seek benefits under the Act. In those cases, like in all Pennsylvania workers’ compensation cases, the burden of proof is on the claimant. The player claimant must comply with the Act’s notice provision[3] and prove that he sustained a work injury, although the injury need not be due to a sudden occurrence; it can be the result of repetitive trauma.[4]  Additionally, that injury must result in the loss of earnings, so that an NFL player who fails to prove that his injury prevented him from obtaining a job as a professional football player is not entitled to benefits under the Act.[5]

Last week, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania found that a former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker established a compensable injury and was entitled to benefits.  In Phila. Eagles, Inc. V. Acho (Workers’ Comp. Appeal Bd.), the court affirmed the award of temporary partial disability benefits related to a thumb injury.[6]  Emmanuel Acho, a sixth-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft, producer of video series titled "Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man,” and current co-host of FS1’s Speak, injured his thumb during two 2015 practices. After surgery for what turned out to be a broken thumb, Acho attempted to return to the Eagles, but the team released him, and he was never signed by another team. He did not receive any further medical treatment after his surgery until he was diagnosed with post-traumatic arthritis in 2019. Based on that diagnosis, Acho was awarded partial disability benefits from the time of his injury through September 2019. On February 3, 2023, the court affirmed that award.

The award of partial benefits to professional athletes is specifically addressed in the Act. Partial disability payments for professional athletes are reduced in two ways. First, for the purpose of computing compensation for partial disability, an athlete’s “wages” are defined as “two times the Statewide average weekly wage.”  And second, those benefits are reduced by the after-tax amount of any wage continuation, disability insurance or injury protection payments paid by the employer under a contract or collective bargaining agreement.[7]

In Phila. Eagles, LLC v. Workers' Comp. Appeal Bd. (Abiamiri), the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania also upheld the award of partial benefits to an Eagles player.[8]  Victor Abiamiri, the Eagles’ 2007 second-round draft pick and a 2009 starting defensive end, suffered a rupture of his right Achilles tendon at training camp in 2011. After reparative surgery, the Eagles continued to pay Abiamiri his regular salary and added a severance payment when his contract expired, at which point he became a free agent. In April 2012, approximately nine months after his initial injury, Abiamiri suffered a rupture of his left Achilles tendon at an Eagles practice facility. Abiamiri then sought full disability benefits for the period between his original injury and his obtaining employment outside of football, and partial disability benefits ongoing from the date of that employment, plus medical benefits, and counsel fees. The question before the court in Abiamiri was whether Abiamiri’s left Achilles tendon rupture was considered work-related because it occurred while he was rehabilitating his accepted work injury. The court affirmed the award of benefits, relying on the lower court’s finding that Abiamiri’s “left Achilles rupture was a natural consequence of his right Achilles tendon rupture, and is therefore work-related.”[9]

The determination that Abiamiri’s second injury was work-related suggests the possibility of a slippery slope in compensable injuries for professional athletes and all Pennsylvania employees. Injuries occurring in rehab are not unique to athletes; employers all over the state engage in physical therapy and rehab after suffering work-related injuries. All employers, therefore, must be aware of the potential for additional claims when their employees are recovering from initial compensable injuries.

[1] During the 2022-23 season, the base salaries of twenty-one Philadelphia Eagles players were over a million dollars as were the base salaries of twenty-seven Pittsburgh Steelers players. See,  

[2] 77 P.S. § 565

[3] Pittsburgh Steelers v. W.C.A.B, 814 A.2d 788 (Pa. Cmmw. Ct. 2002) (finding that notice to team trainer or doctor was sufficient)

[4] Id. at 793 (“It is well settled that for an injury to be compensable under the Act, it is not required that the injury resulted from any sudden occurrence or accident; it may be due to daily trauma or aggravation of a preexisting condition.”).

[5] Battles v. W.C.A.B. (Pittsburgh Steelers Sports, Inc.), 82 A.3d 477 (Pa. Cmmw. Ct. 2013) (“The claimant must prove both that the injury resulted in disability … the term disability is synonymous with a loss of earning power.”).

[6] Phila. Eagles, Inc. v. Acho (Workers' Comp. Appeal Bd.), 2023 Pa. Commw.Unpub. LEXIS 63 (Commw. Ct. Feb. 3, 2023).

[7] 77 P.S. § 565

[8]Phila.Eagles, LLC v. Workers' Comp. Appeal Bd. (Abiamiri), 167 A.3d294 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2017).

[9]Id. at 15.