Emerging Legal Issues in Sports Medicine: A Synthesis, Summary, and Analysis

Article excerpt


The recent tragic deaths of Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer and Northwestern University football player Rashidi Wheeler raise important legal issues concerning the medical care provided to athletes. Since 1990 there has been a significant increase in sports medicine related litigation.1 Because of the increasing economic benefits of playing sports, such as college scholarships or multi-million dollar professional contracts, injured athletes have a strong incentive to seek compensation for harm caused by negligent sports medicine care rendered by team physicians, athletic trainers, and others.

Athletes often encounter significant psychological, societal, and economic pressure from coaches and other team officials to play a sport despite an injury or illness.2 Injured athletes have sought recovery against their teams and team officials for requiring them to "play hurt" or for other tortious conduct causing or aggravating athletic injuries.

Alternatively, notwithstanding the athletic participation recommendations of sports medicine personnel, athletes may wish to continue playing despite the risk of harm to their health. In some instances, athletes with physical abnormalities have asserted a legal right to participate in competitive athletics or have requested various accommodations to enable their participation in a particular sport, even if doing so exposes them to a significant risk of serious injury or death.3

This Article is a comprehensive survey, synthesis, and analysis of legal issues relating to the provision of sports medicine care to youth, high school, college, and professional athletes. It discusses athletes' injury compensation claims against providers of sports medicine care and available defenses to such actions. The Article also considers the rights of athletes, with physical abnormalities to participate in competitive IMAGE FORMULA7

athletics, and the degree of accommodation that must be provided to ensure their participation. Its objective is to trace the evolution of the "law of sports medicine," to identify developing common law trends, and to assist attorneys and judges in understanding this complex and expanding area of the law.


A. Team Physician

Professional teams and collegiate educational institutions generally hire a physician or a group of physicians to provide medical care to their athletes. Many high schools also select a physician to provide pre-participation physical examinations and emergency medical care to athletes participating in interscholastic athletics. A "team physician" provides medical services to athletes that are arranged for, or paid for, at least in part, by an institution or entity other than the patient or his parent or guardian.4 A team physician may receive compensation for such services or render them gratuitously.

The team physician's primary responsibility is to provide for the physical well-being of athletes.5 Specific duties may include providing pre-season physical examinations; diagnosing, treating, and rehabilitating athletic injuries; and providing medical clearance for an athlete to play the sport. The team physician may also be responsible for overseeing all sports medicine services provided to a team's athletes and for the supervision of physician assistants, athletic trainers, student assistants, physical therapists, and nurses providing medical care to athletes.

The team physician must provide medical treatment and advice consistent with an individual athlete's best health interests because there is a physician-patient relationship IMAGE FORMULA10

between them.6 Although one of the team physician's objectives is to avoid the unnecessary restriction of athletic activity, his paramount responsibility should be to protect the competitive athlete's health. …