Can COVID-19 infected football players or coaches sue their schools or conferences for negligence?

Learn why FBS college football players and coaches may not have any recourse against their school or conference if they're infected with or have long term consequences caused by COVID-19.

Could COVID-19 infected FBS college football players or coaches involved in the 2020 season hold their schools or conferences liable for negligence?

By Zach Scott Gainous, Esq.


August 21, 2020


College football is big business. It helps to fund scholarships for thousands of college students and other college programs, directly and indirectly employs thousands of people, and generates millions of dollars in revenues for the colleges and universities, conferences, media outlets, networks and broadcasters, and the college towns and communities. There are also non-economic impacts, including the enjoyment and entertainment value it brings to fans, as well as the potential for personal growth or development that college football players can gain as a result of playing the game. As a result, shutting down or cancelling the college football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic will have far reaching consequences for millions of people.


So far, some FBS conferences and schools have cancelled or postponed their 2020 college football seasons this fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Two of the Power Five FBS conferences, the PAC-12 and the Big Ten, two of the Group of Five FBS conferences, the MAC and the Mountain West, and three independent FBS schools, UConn, UMass, and New Mexico State have all cancelled or postponed their participation in the 2020 college football season. All but three of the FCS conferences have cancelled their 2020 football seasons. Other FBS schools and conferences have not followed suit yet. The SEC, ACC, and Big 12 and their schools have all chose, as of now, to play their 2020 college football seasons this fall with modified schedules.


Very few, if anyone, wants to cancel or postpone the 2020 college football season. However, there are understandable reasons for doing so. Unfortunately, the odds of a college football player, coach, or personnel getting infected are not zero. In addition, reports and some studies seem to show that even young people who are healthy and without any underlying conditions can still have serious health complications if they're infected with COVID-19. In addition to the often discussed unfortunate breathing issues, patients young and old are also having other serious symptoms and complications. These include blood clotting issues that are resulting in strokes, heart attacks and heart damage, amputations or loss of toes, fingers, legs, and arms, disabilities, and unfortunately even death. There is also not enough data to be able to know if other long term consequences will result from COVID-19 infection.


The FBS schools and conferences that have cancelled or postponed their fall 2020 college football seasons so far, are doing so they say, because of the risks to player and personnel health and safety caused by COVID-19. There are no doubt other factors at play in deciding to cancel or postpone by these schools and conferences that are unrelated to the COVID-19 risks, including issues relating to college players and amateurism and employment. However, there is certainly some amount of risk from COVID-19 to those college players and coaches whose schools and conferences play the 2020 football season. This brings up the question of whether the schools and conferences who are choosing to play could be held liable for negligence if their players, coaches, or personnel are infected with COVID-19 this 2020 season.


The FBS schools or conferences who choose to play their 2020 college football season would not likely actually be found liable for negligence, as long as they take reasonable precautions to prevent infection and spread. Liability for negligence would be determined by whether a school or conference acted reasonably by choosing to play football during the 2020 college season. Whether a FBS school or conference acted reasonably is determined based on what the majority of similarly situated reasonable FBS schools or conferences did in comparison.


What about FCS schools and conferences? Why not compare the reasonableness of FBS programs and conferences choosing to play to all of the FBS and FCS schools and conferences? There are significant differences in general, and especially in the financial resources and practical abilities of FBS programs and conferences to prevent COVID-19 infection and spread, compared to FCS programs and conferences. As a result, it's not likely that FCS programs and conferences are similarly situated enough to FBS programs and conferences, and therefore the reasonableness of an FBS school or conference will likely only be based on comparison to the majority of fellow FBS school of conference.


As of now, most of the FBS conferences and schools are choosing to play their 2020 seasons and are apparently implementing similar safety protocols and precautions to prevent infection and spread. As a result, it's not likely that any of the FBS schools or conferences choosing to play the 2020 college football season this fall would be held liable for negligence if any players, coaches, or personnel became ill, disabled, or died from COVID-19. However, should a majority of FBS schools or conferences choose to cancel their 2020 college football seasons, that would make it more likely that those minority of schools and conferences that choose to play would be liable for negligence.


If you want any additional information on liability to pro or college athletes or football players, coaches, or personnel from COVID-19, including if you need legal advice or representation as a college or professional athlete or coach, please call us at 615-671-4301 or contact us at The Fruitful Firm anytime.

Zach Scott Gainous is a sports attorney and entertainment lawyer in Nashville, and the founder and managing attorney of Nashville sports law firm The Fruitful Firm. Zach regularly provides legal expertise, advice, and representation to college and professional athletes, sports stars, coaches, executives, and personnel.

Disclaimer: This article or post is not and should not be considered or used as a substitute for legal advice or the hiring of an attorney. You should always carefully seek out legal advice and representation from a qualified attorney to assist you with your legal matters and issues.

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