Mixed martial arts (MMA) and other combat sports inherently present injury risks for the athletes who choose to participate. Along with the risk of soft tissue injuries, facial injuries, and broken bones, this includes the risk of concussions and other types of traumatic brain injuries (TBI).
According to a recent study conducted by the University of Toronto, more than 30 percent of MMA fighters likely experience traumatic brain injuries. The study examined 844 fights in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and concluded that nearly 13 percent of the fights ended in knockouts and the other 21 percent ended in technical knockouts (TKOs), in which the referee stopped the fight due to significant head trauma. The UFC responded to the University of Toronto’s findings by stating that the study was “somewhat flawed” and that it intended to release its own study in partnership with the Cleveland Clinic, but it seems virtually beyond dispute that many fighters – regardless of the specific percentage – suffer concussions during combat.
Another study, published by BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine in 2018, found that approximately 24 percent of amateur and professional MMA fighters studied had suffered concussions, with most fighters suffering multiple concussions. The study also found that, in the aggregate, MMA fighters experience about four concussions per 100 minutes of combat. The study also concluded that “[n]o risk factors for a concussion were shown to be significant,” meaning that all fighters were essentially at equal risk for suffering concussions regardless of their pre-fight medical condition.
In boxing, there is evidence to suggest that athletes suffer concussions in 13 percent of all bouts that are promoted. A systematic review study published in the Journal of Athletic Training in 2006 found that female athletes had the highest prevalence of concussions in taekwondo, though this study was published before MMA’s rise into the mainstream.
As an MMA fighter, boxer, or other combat sports athlete, what do these statistics on concussions in combat sports mean for you? As a willing participant, it is important to be aware of the risks involved, and it is also important to be aware of the symptoms of concussions so that you can seek medical treatment when necessary. Medical researchers are continuing to study and learn more about the long-term health risks associated with concussions, and current research suggests that suffering multiple concussions – particularly in short succession – increases the risk of chronic effects significantly.
Ultimately, however, the bigger question for many combat sports athletes is: When can you seek financial compensation for a concussion? When can you have your medical expenses covered? If you are forced to retire due to the effects of brain trauma, when can you seek compensation for your loss of earnings from future fights?
None of these questions are particularly easy to answer. But, with that said, there are a few common misconceptions that we can dispel right away:
The fact that MMA fighters, boxers, and other combat sports athletes elect to participate in their chosen sports voluntarily does not automatically make them responsible for their own injuries. For evidence of this, it is not necessary to look farther than the NFL concussion and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) litigation. Our firm has successfully represented multiple retired NFL players in lawsuits against the league – even though these players clearly chose to pursue professional football careers.
To be clear, some athletes do put themselves at risk unnecessarily, and when they do, they may in some cases be deemed to assume the risks involved. But, this is not universal among MMA and other combat sports athletes, and concussed athletes will be entitled to pursue claims for financial compensation in a variety of different scenarios.
Liability waivers are commonly used by leagues, fight promotions, training gyms, and other facilities. While these waivers are generally enforceable, there are a number of issues that can render liability waivers legally unenforceable. So, while it is true that signing a liability waiver may prevent an athlete from pursuing a concussion claim in some cases, those who have signed waivers should not assume that they are without legal recourse.
On the reverse side, there are those who believe that concussed athletes who are not pulled from fights should be entitled to financial compensation, regardless of the circumstances involved. Typically, the reasoning for this argument is along the lines of the fact that everyone involved is profiting more than the fighters, so these individuals and entities can – and should – reimburse fighters when they get seriously injured.
While this idea is nice in theory, from a legal perspective, it does not hold up. The parties’ financial arrangement is not particularly relevant to the apportionment of liability – particularly when all parties have the ability to negotiate in an arm’s length transaction. While it may seem that league owners and promoters have an ethical responsibility to compensate fighters whose careers are cut short due to traumatic brain injuries (TBI), this generally does not provide a legal basis for fighters to seek financial compensation.
With these considerations in mind, when can fighters and other combat sports participants file claims for sports-related concussions? Ultimately, fighters’ rights will be determined based upon the specific facts and circumstances involved in each individual case. Generally speaking, however, potential grounds for seeking financial compensation can include:
Given these potential claims, if you are a combat sports athlete and you are experiencing symptoms of a concussion, or if you have been diagnosed with a concussion (or multiple concussions) as an amateur or professional fighter, what should you do?
First and foremost, if you have not already seen a doctor, you should do so promptly. As indicated above, concussions from combat sports can have serious and long-term ramifications, and you need to make sure you receive appropriate medical care as soon as possible.
Second, you should discuss your situation with an attorney. While we wish we could provide a simple, straightforward answer for all combat sports athletes, the fact of the matter is that individual fighters’ rights need to be determined on a case-by-case basis. At Berkowitz Hanna, our attorneys have significant experience representing athletes in concussion lawsuits. If you have questions, we encourage you to contact us for a free initial consultation.
Would you like to speak with an attorney about the possibility of filing a concussion lawsuit? If so, we encourage you to get in touch. To speak with one of our sports concussion attorneys in confidence, call us directly, or request an appointment online today.