Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (“CTE”) is the brutal, degenerative and incurable brain disease linked to repeated head trauma. Cases of the disease are linked to basically all contact sports and mixed martial arts is no exception with the list of known cases steadily growing.
If you are a combat sports trainer and your athlete develops CTE and it can be proven that your training methods played a role can you be held legally liable? The analysis would differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and based on the specific facts but there is no reason given the correct fact pattern that the answer could not be yes.
Trainers owe a duty of care to their athletes. They have to take reasonable steps to prepare them for the task at hand and be mindful that un-needed harm is not part of the training process.
Other than potential death, brain damage and chronic variants of it like CTE are the greatest harm you can expose your fighters to. If you are a trainer and are not familiar with this get started now. Some quick research will teach you that mileage matters (number of hits matter and number of years exposed to hits). Here are some quick articles just for starters:
- Study Shows Mileage Matters When It Comes to Brain Health and Contact Sports
- CDC Finds Mileage is the “Greatest Risk Factor” in Developing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy
- Study – Mileage (More-so Than Concussions) Predict Long Term Brain Risk in Contact Sports
- Study – Mileage is One of Biggest Factors for Brain Trauma in Boxing
- Subconcussive Impacts – Frequency and Magnitude Matter
The takeaway is simple. The fewer hits to the head your athletes take and the shorter the duration of their career exposure to hits the better. Every hit matters. Every time training involves an intentional hit to the head there better be a damn good reason behind it to avoid a negligence analysis. The best analysis I ever heard about hits to the head and CTE is that it is akin to cigarettes and lung cancer. Everyone has a number as to how many they can have before the point of no return. The number is secret and different for everyone. No matter who you are less is better.
There is caselaw holding combat sports coaches liable for negligent teaching. To take one simple example this BC case found a coach responsible for negligently teaching a heel hook and in doing so provided the following concise summary of the duty of care and standard of care a coach owes a combat sports athlete
 Mr. Sinnott admits that Mr. Ingalls owed a duty of care to Mr. Parker. That duty was to take reasonable care that Mr. Parker would not be injured during Mr. Ingalls’ course of instruction. Mr. Sinnott notes, correctly, that Mr. Ingalls was not an “insurer” guaranteeing that Mr. Parker would not sustain an injury while training.
Brain injury is no exception to this simple principle. If you are exposing your students to training that does not recognize the reality of how CTE is acquired a negligence action could be in your future.
If you don’t care to listen to an ambulance chaser listen to decorated UFC veteran Max Holloway who, after this past weekend’s record setting striking performance at UFC Fight Island 7 provided the following wise words explaining why he has abandoned all hard sparring:
“Save y’all chickens right here,” Holloway said following his lopsided decision win over Kattar (h/t Clyde Aidoo of MMA News). “You guys only get one brain. Save it. You guys don’t need to do it. You sparred enough. You trained enough. You know how to punch someone. You know how to slip a punch. Why even take unnecessary damage before the main game, you know? That’s just the way I think. And everybody who keep telling me that I should be training, no! I been training, baby!…Please, protect you guys’ head. If I got to tell an up-and-comer coming: be smart. Figure out a way of taking less damage. You want to be in this game for a long time.”