Advocating for Worker Health and Safety in the NFL
When Buffalo Bills second-year safety Damar Hamlin collapsed in Paycor Stadium in front of a nationwide Monday Night Football audience, fans everywhere held their collective breath as medical personnel administered CPR for 10 minutes.
Like everyone watching in that moment, Sean Sansiveri ‘05, was scared for Hamlin. Unlike everyone other than the paramedics on the field and the doctors and nurses at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, Sansiveri had a direct hand in helping save Hamlin’s life.
As general counsel and head of business affairs with the National Football League Players Association and its for-profit subsidiary, NFL Players Inc., Sansiveri has spent the past 13 years working to improve health and safety for the players he serves.
“In 2013 we [the NFLPA] negotiated with the NFL to implement something called the Emergency Action Plan, which requires each team’s medical staff to take the necessary steps to prepare for a catastrophic event,” Sansiveri said. “As part of that standardized EAP, we created procedures for advanced airway management; specifically, facilitating the actions necessary for a player who needs to be intubated on the field, and that's exactly what happened with Mr. Hamlin.”
Sansiveri began his current job in 2010, serving as corporate council and handling licensing deals that now generate $2.75 billion in revenue. But within his first few months, he could see a clear need in upgrading the NFL’s health and safety standards.
As a former Big Red football player whose collegiate playing career cut short due to a devastating leg injury that has resulted in five surgeries over the years, Sansiveri, decided to take action.
“One of the first things we did was write a letter to [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell saying the League had an obligation to articulate the standards being applied to protect players in the form of a comprehensive concussion protocol,” Sansiveri said.
But he didn’t stop at just writing the letter. He went on to write the protocol.
“We wrote it in 2011 but negotiated it for almost two years,” Sansiveri said. “We finally won those negotiations and implemented the Protocols in 2013. And the health and safety progress really just snowballed from there.”
In the time since, Sansiveri and his group at the NFLPA have put measures in place to standardize physician credentials across the league; implement a prescription drug registry program; design state-of-the-art infectious disease prevention standards; advance numerous novel diagnostic tools and treatment interventions; manage a $250 million research portfolio; and install the emergency action plans that saved Hamlin’s life.
A native of nearby Elmira, Sansiveri and his twin brother, Adam, CALS ’05, were both recruited heavily by several NCAA Division I schools to play football and run track. He credits his mother with pushing them to attend an Ivy League school, and his father for getting them both to attend Cornell.
“Cornell was the number one choice, early decision for me, but my brother was really exploring all the Ivy League schools and on his last Harvard visit, my dad said to him, ‘You know, if you go to Harvard, I can't go to both of your games and your meets because you'll be playing at the same time. And Cornell is a lot closer. So my dad kind of guilted my brother into not going to Harvard and coming to Cornell instead,” Sansiveri said.
Knowing from his early high school days that he wanted to be a lawyer, Sansiveri gravitated to the ILR School, but acknowledges that as an undergrad he didn’t have the same passion for the labor movement that he does today.“Once the NFLPA came on my radar, then it connected all the dots with ILR and really opened my mind toward organized labor,” Sansiveri said. “Early on, my pitch was that the NFLPA should affiliate with the AFL-CIO and all the affiliated unions on the national, state and local level. They needed to change the conversation away from millionaire athlete versus billionaire owner and make it about impact on local economies. What happens to stadium workers and hotel workers if the NFL cancels games? We leveraged all that in partnerships with the AFL-CIO, Unite Here, SEIU, AFT, the steelworkers and it has worked out great.”
Sansiveri’s interest in health and safety extends away from the NFL. He sits on the Board of the American Brain Foundation, and was recently honored by the foundation and the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation for his advocacy for brain health. He’s also worked with Miach Orthopaedics to identify an innovative repair for anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries, leading to shorter recovery times with fewer long-term complications.
When he isn’t at his full-time job, or attending board meetings, Sansiveri is writing. A member of the Writer’s Guild of America he has created, written and sold scripted TV shows for NBC Universal, Apple TV+, WGN American, Endeavor Content and Hulu.
“If there’s one thing I took away from Cornell and the ILR School it was my work ethic,” said Sansiveri.
“I came from a public high school in Elmira, and I was shocked by how smart people were when I arrived here. As a result of that, I decided to work three times as hard as everybody else.
“I learned to work hard,” he said, “and I think that’s carried on through my entire professional life.”
Read more about ILR School faculty research, teaching and outreach on workplace health and safety issues: https://www.ilr.cornell.edu/#safety.