Football players association pushes province to allow access to workers' compensation for athletes

The Canadian Football League Players' Association, and other players assocations, are going across the country, talking with provincial governments and asking them to review their workers' compensation laws so professional athletes can get benefits.

Professional athletes in Canada are not eligible to receive workers' health benefits

Jonathan Hefney broke his neck making a tackle on Oct. 1, 2015. He has been told he needed three surgeries, but has so far had only two — one of which he paid for himself through crowdfunding. (The Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson)

In Canada professional athletes are not eligible to receive workers' health benefits.

But the Canadian Football League Players' Association, and a number of other pro sports associations, are working to change that. They are going across the country talking with provincial governments and asking them to review their workers' compensation laws so professional athletes can get benefits.

"We believe that professional athletes should be treated as every other employee," said CFLPA executive director Brian Ramsay.

He and other association representatives met Wednesday in Regina with Don Morgan, Saskatchewan's minister of labour relations and workplace safety; Gene Makowsky, the province's culture and sport minister (and a former CFLer himself); and Saskatchewan Workers' Compensation Board CEO Peter Federko.

The players association laid out its case to have professional athletes working in Canada covered by workers' compensation.

"The current exclusion policy is based on a number of assumptions that may have been valid decades ago when they were drafted, but are no longer relevant or applicable," said Ramsay.

The CFL Players' Association filed a grievance less than a week after the Supreme Court chose not to hear the case former player Arland Bruce III. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

"Professional athletes in Canada are saying, 'We have to do something no other worker in Canada has to do, and that is to negotiate with our employers over health safety and rehabilitation for workplace injuries.'"

Supreme Court ruling

This push for change comes after a 2016 B.C. Supreme Court ruling, and later a Supreme Court of Canada decision involving former CFL player Arland Bruce III.

Bruce's concussion lawsuit against the CFL was dismissed. A lower court decision said issues raised in Bruce's lawsuit were part of a collective bargaining agreement between the league and the CFL Players' Association.

Ramsay said the ruling effectively precluded professional athletes who are covered by existing collective agreements from using the courts to seek compensation when their injuries are no longer covered by team-supplied medical care and rehabilitation.

"So it has taken that remedy away from professional athletes," Ramsay said. "That was something that was previously a solution, or potential solution, for professional athletes prior [to that decision]."

In the case of the CFL, its current collective agreement with the CFLPA says teams are obligated to provide rehabilitation for a player for 12 months from the day an injury takes place.

But not all injuries can be dealt with in 12 months, Ramsay said.

Training staff attends to Jonathan Hefney on Oct. 1, 2015, after the tackle that broke his neck. (Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

He gave as an example the injury to Jonathan Hefney. On Oct. 1, 2015 Hefney was playing for the Montreal Alouettes when he made what seemed to be a routine tackle.

"Unfortunately he broke his neck making a tackle on the field," said Ramsay, who is a former CFL offensive lineman.

Hefney was told he needed three surgeries to heal the injury.

"Within the first 12 months he had only one of the three surgeries," said Ramsay. "After that first surgery he was still unable to have full use of his right arm and in fact still couldn't lift his children."

The Supreme Court of Canada declined to hear the case of ex-CFL star Arland Bruce III, who wanted to sue the league over concussion trauma. In court documents, the former Lions receiver says he continues to suffer post-concussive symptoms, including depression, paranoia, delusions and other medical issues. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Then rehabilitation stopped when his team coverage ran out. Hefney, a U.S. citizen, returned home but couldn't get health insurance because the injury was considered a pre-existing condition.

"He has since had his second surgery just this past year. And that was paid for through his own personal crowd-funding to get the finances for that," Ramsay said. "He is still waiting for the third surgery."

Ramsay said it is unfair for professional athletes to be treated differently than all other employees working in Canada.

A provincial issue: players association

He said he's had positive feedback so far from government officials.

"The room agreed this policy needs to be looked at. I think the assumptions when they were last reviewed in the provinces are not relevant anymore.

In a statement, Morgan said he and Makowsky listened to the association's concerns.

"I have referred the matter to the Saskatchewan Workers' Compensation Board," Morgan said.

The CFLPA, along with groups such as the National Hockey League Players' Association and the Professional  Lacrosse Players' Association, have now met with government officials in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

"This has to be dealt with at a provincial level," Ramsay said. "Each province is different. The goal is to allow professional athletes to be treated just like every other worker and not have to negotiate health safety provisions and not have to negotiate rehabilitation for injuries suffered in the workplace."

The CFLPA will next take their concerns to Manitoba and Quebec in the new year.

"We continue to stress the same points — that professional athletes are workers and their employers have a responsibility to injured players and that the public health-care system should not be the default provider of care and rehabilitation for injured players."