Is there a point where employers become liable for a
professional athlete's depression post-retirement, and how much
was the 'workplace' responsible? Tim
The challenges of being a professional athlete in the modern era
are considerable. Recently, former Olympians Ian Thorpe and Grant
Hackett endured intense media scrutiny as they battled ongoing
issues to do with depression and drug addiction.
Late last year, English cricketer Jonathan Trott left the Ashes
tour to return home to England after suffering from a long-standing
stress-related condition. He became the third cricketer from
England to depart a tour in recent years with a stress-related
illness, following batsman Marcus Trescothick and Michael Yardly.
Tragically, former NRL player Ryan Tandy recently ended his life
after failing to adjust to 'life after football'.
The perks of being an elite athlete are well known by the
sporting public and the highs are celebrated and cherished by fans.
Away from the limelight, it is not as well known that psychiatric
injuries of all types occur amongst professional athletes. It is
often the case that these injuries are concealed from the employer
(club and team).
Whilst most professional leagues and clubs have implemented
policies to assist athletes with psychiatric problems during their
employment, a broader issue being considered is whether a duty of
care exists between an employer and employee post-career.
Post-retirement – a novel duty of care
It is questionable whether any duty is owed to an athlete once
they retire or become unemployed by their sporting employer in a
situation where there is no longer an employer-employee
Pursuant to common law in Australia, a novel duty of care can be
established in cases where a pure psychiatric injury, such as
depression, has been suffered as a result of someone's
negligence. The scope of this duty is to avoid causing pure
This area of law poses the question of where the line is drawn.
In terms of establishing a duty, the relationship between the
parties is merely one factor that is considered, potentially
opening the doors to athletes suffering in retirement, for
Whilst indeterminacy becomes an issue with the potential to open
the floodgates to cases of athletes suffering depression, it is
incumbent on the sport and players/athlete associations (unions) to
take into account issues such as privacy (intrusion of the media)
and the requisite duty of care when negotiating agreements and
Swimming Australia and the rapid 'downward spiral' of
its major stars in the past few months is a case in point. Ian
Thorpe was recently taken to a rehab centre after being found
disoriented in the streets of Sydney. It was revealed back in 2012
that he battled depression during his early swimming career. His
autobiography states that he was able to hide the illness from
coaches and team-mates –despite it being so debilitating at
times that he contemplated suicide.
An important factor to consider here is the workplace
environment of the athlete and whether such an illness has stemmed
from the workplace environment? Is there a point where his
employers become liable for his depression and associated
Nathan Bracken, who was forced to retire as a cricketer in 2011
from a chronic right knee injury that left him with a permanent
disability, took legal action against Cricket Australia on the
basis that there was no protection or system in place for players
whose career was curtailed by injury. It is the position of the
author that potential courses of action may eventuate in the near
future concerning athletes who have suffered loss associated with
psychiatric illness resulting from the playing/workplace
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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