A Severe Injury Brings Concern, and a Call for Insurance

Published: July 18, 2007  |  Source: nytimes.com
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CLEVELAND, July 19 — While the storm clouds were still forming, before they eventually rained out competition Thursday at the Dew Action Sports Tour event here, Ryan Nyquist searched for a silver lining. He tried to think of something positive that might result from the injuries sustained by Stephen Murray, a fellow professional bicycle motocross, or BMX, freestyle rider.

“If what happened to Stephen, if some good came out of it, it would be amazing,” said Nyquist, 28, alluding to the possibility that medical and Disability insurance, and other benefits, may be provided the way they are in other professional sports leagues.

Murray, 27, was injured June 22 at the Dew Tour event in Baltimore. During the finals of the BMX dirt-jumping competition, he attempted a double back flip during the final set of jumps. He flew off his bike in midair, falling more than 10 feet and landing on his head. The impact broke three Vertebrae in his neck, and he is paralyzed below the shoulders.

His condition has caused other athletes to consider the life-altering consequences of what happens when things go wrong in action sports. And it has renewed calls to create an association to assist athletes in dealing with such catastrophic injuries.

Since the X Games began in 1995 and brought these sports to the mainstream, no top professional action-sports athlete in BMX freestyle, skateboarding or freestyle motocross had ever sustained such a serious injury in competition.

Although risky, the double back flip had become Murray’s signature move. A native of England who settled in Corona, Calif., he had pulled the maneuver successfully over the years, including in 2001 when he won a gold medal at the X Games.

Since his crash, Murray has had two operations and spent nearly a month in the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore. Last week, he was moved to Craig Hospital in Denver, a facility that specializes in rehabilitating patients with spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries.

Murray’s competitors have had him on their minds. Nyquist, who won the dirt jumping event in Baltimore, said he was so shaken up after Murray’s fall that he did not want to finish the competition.

Other athletes expressed disgust with NBC, which owns the Dew Tour, for not providing insurance in case of serious injuries.

“NBC is trying to do good things to raise money to help him out, but it shouldn’t even be an issue at this point, because he should have been insured by the event,” Pierre-Luc Gagnon, a professional skateboarder on the Dew Tour, said. “How are we putting our lives on the line at every stop like this and they can’t even have insurance for us in case something terrible like this happens? It’s garbage.”

On the Dew Tour and at the X Games, athletes are considered independent contractors. But proof of medical insurance is a prerequisite for competing, said Wade Martin, the president and general manager of the Dew Tour.

Martin said the Dew Tour would be willing to assist an athletes association in providing group insurance, similar to what exists for professional athletes in baseball, football and hockey.

But he added that athletes must lead any initiative, and that they had not yet shown they could run an association effectively.

Over the years, several attempts to organize action sports have failed. The latest, Pro Riders Inc., is modeled after Players Inc., the for-profit sports-marketing company run by the N.F.L. Players Association.

Murray was a leader in the group, but the organization has not yet created group insurance.

Any effort faces skepticism from athletes who remember how previous attempts to organize were undone by infighting and conflicts.

“I think this has to be born, and I’ve said this to the athletes in many cases, this has to be born from within their group,” Martin said. “We can support it, but they have to show that they want and can organize themselves and create uniformity as an organization before we can attach ourselves to such a group.”

Many have been encouraged by the way action-sports athletes reacted swiftly to organize benefits and fund-raisers to help with some of Murray’s mounting medical expenses, and to assist his wife and two young children.

The Stephen Murray Family Fund, stephenmurrayfamilyfund.com, was created days after his fall. Several benefits have already been held near Murray’s home. And the Dew Tour has organized an online auction, at charityfolks.com/astdropsin, with autographed items donated by athletes.

The spirit of cooperation extended to competition Friday during the dirt-jumping finals at the Dew Tour. The athletes wore black T-shirts with “Stay Strong” printed on the front and Murray’s name on the back.

Nyquist won and pledged his $15,000 in prize money to Murray.

It was not only a generous gesture, but for action sports, it was also a sign of unity.

By MATT HIGGINS
NYTimes.com