With Super Bowl LVII just five days away, the Philadelphia Eagles are flying high, but their multiyear workers’ comp battle against a former linebacker turned national media personality has been shot down.
On Feb. 3, a three-judge panel on the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court affirmed a workers’ comp award to Emmanuel Acho, who played for the Eagles from 2013 to 2015, when a thumb injury ended his career. A sixth-round pick out of Texas in 2012, Acho played in 20 regular season games during his NFL career, starting two.
Since retiring from the NFL, the 32-year-old has become an Emmy-award winning broadcaster. Acho was a host on ABC’s The Bachelor ‘After the Final Rose'”‘ special in 2021 and is currently a lead NFL analyst on Fox Sports 1. Acho also runs a nonprofit, Living Hope Christian Ministries, that built a hospital in rural Nigeria and is the author of the book Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man.
Acho injured his thumb while practicing for the Eagles on Aug. 11, 2015, but it didn’t keep him out of a preseason game against the Baltimore Ravens 11 days later. Unfortunately for Acho, he fractured the same thumb during a subsequent practice and needed surgery. The Eagles then released Acho who, per an injury settlement, received three weeks of pay. The team re-signed Acho that November but this thumb remained symptomatic and, a couple of weeks later, Acho was cut again. Acho then auditioned for NFL teams, but as summarized by Judge Patricia McCullough on behalf of the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, “he could not play at his pre-injury level” and no team offered him a contract.
Acho filed a workers’ comp claim petition in 2018. Although workers’ comp policies vary by state law and severity of injury, they allow an employee who is injured on the job and unable to work to collect a sizable portion of salary over time. In exchange, the employee usually waives the right to sue the employer over the injury.
Acho’s claim led to varying assessments by physicians. As retold by Judge McCullough, Dr. Gregg Vagner reviewed an MRI, a CT scan and past records of Acho’s thumb in Feb. 2019. Vagner testified that Acho had suffered a “Bennett’s fracture,” which entails joint displacement after a fracture heals, post-traumatic arthritis and decreased thumb function—and that those problems related to the 2015 injury. Vagner also concluded that Acho’s condition would interfere with playing in the NFL. The Eagles presented the testimony of Dr. Donald Leatherwood, who examined Acho in Sept. 2019. Although Leatherwood agreed with the finding of a Bennett’s fracture and post-traumatic arthritis, he “could not substantiate [Acho’s] subjective complaints of weakness and pain with objective clinical findings, and therefore did not opine that [Acho] had any functional impairments that would inhibit his ability to play in the NFL.”
A workers’ comp judge, Stephen Harlan, concluded that Acho was owed partial disability (dollar amount not indicated) from the time of his injury to Sept. 2019, when Dr. Leatherwood determined Acho was fully recovered. Harlan reasoned that the injury had rendered Acho “unable to perform his pre-injury linebacker job.” The Eagles, recently valued by Sportico at $4.6 billion, objected and appealed to a worker’s comp appeal board. As described by Judge McCullough, the team argued that Judge Harlan’s decision “was not based on substantial, competent evidence, was not reasoned[,] was arbitrary and capricious[,] did not acknowledge evidence that [Acho] was capable of playing football within three weeks after his injury” and relied on “incompetent medical testimony.” The board denied the appeal. The Eagles then petitioned for judicial review.
Acho, the Eagles argued to the court, failed to establish his release was due to his thumb injury. McCullough disagreed, highlighting that Acho “stopped playing football immediately after his injury” and had surgery on his thumb within two days, after which the Eagles “immediately” released him. Although Acho was later cleared to play, his thumb remained “tender, weak and sore” and he could only practice with a “heavily bandaged hand.”
The Eagles also insisted it can’t be “assumed” Acho’s failure to land another NFL job was a result of injury. McCullough didn’t concur, writing that “any detraction” from the level of play needed to play in the NFL “tarnish[ed] and ultimately eliminate[d] [Acho’s] prospects.” She also stressed the Eagles did not “meaningfully controvert” evidence of Acho’s previous “success and ranking as a professional linebacker and/or special teams player.”
McCullough was equally unpersuaded by the Eagles attempting to debunk Dr. Vagner’s testimony. The team insisted Vagner failed to substantiate his opinions with medical records, among other alleged objections. The judge disagreed, noting that Wagner is an experienced orthopedic surgeon and hand specialist who treats high-level athletes and who relied on MRI results and other materials when assessing Acho.
Although every workers’ comp case features different facts and every state features different workers’ comp laws, Acho’s situation is a positive sign for retired players who contend their careers would have continued but for injury.