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States seek to limit comp for pro athletes

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Despite the spotlight on their positions, professional athletes are covered under state workers compensation systems and, like average workers, must contend with legislative proposals to limit the comp benefits they receive.

While professional sports leagues oversee most of the activities involving their teams, in the player-team relationship the team is the employer, said Nathaniel Grow, associate professor of legal studies at the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia in Athens.

“Each team has under each state’s respective workers comp law the legal obligation their state imposes on employers of that state to provide workers comp for their employees,” Mr. Grow said. “Within that, the players have the benefit of potentially having that financial security. If they get hurt, the team then has insurance that covers them in case of catastrophic injuries and avoids any lawsuits over alleged negligence.”

In professional sports, the teams cover all the injury costs, and the policies they buy generally have very large deductibles, said Alex Fairly, president of Amarillo, Texas-based Fairly Group, a private risk consulting firm that works with professional sports teams.

“The culture in (workers) compensation in the sports world is that there are very few insurance carriers that want to insure professional athletes,” he said. “The capacity in the insurance marketplace is extremely limited. In general, there is not an insurance company out there covering these claims. There is an insurance policy and the carriers process the claims, but the terms of the coverages are such that most of the money ... comes from the dollars of the teams and the leagues.”

In recent years, legislation has attempted to limit workers comp coverage for professional athletes. For instance, California passed a law in 2013 that prevents athletes from other states from filing workers comp claims there. “What would happen was that a football player from, say, the Miami Dolphins could file a workers comp claim in California, asserting that the injuries he sustained while playing games against the 49ers, Raiders, or Chargers contributed to his disability,” said Mr. Grow.

Other state laws also address comp coverage for professional athletes. Highly paid professional athletes in Michigan are limited from collecting wage differential benefits. In Massachusetts and Florida, professional athletes are not categorized as employees. Florida law prevents workers from filing workers comp claims in other states for injuries incurred while working outside of Florida.

In Illinois, Senate Bill 12, a package of 13 bills that was jointly introduced in January by Illinois Senate Republicans and Democrats in agreement with Illinois Senate President John J. Cullerton, D-Chicago, and state Sen. Christine Radogno, R-Lemont, would, among other changes, cut off workers comp benefits for professional athletes at 35 years old. The bill is an attempt to help balance the Illinois budget.

“Illinois law currently caps workers’ comp benefits at around $775 per week. The most a professional athlete would stand to gain would be around $40,000 per year or around $1.3 million for the 32 years from 35-67. Realistically, then, the cost savings to the teams would be a reduction in their workers comp insurance bill based on the reduction in this long-term potential exposure,” said Mr. Grow.

While the executive director of the National Football League Players Association, DeMaurice Smith, has publicly spoken out against the bill, Chicago’s major sports teams — including the Bears, White Sox, Bulls, Cubs and Blackhawks — sent a letter to the Illinois Senate in January expressing their support for the legislation.

In Illinois, injured workers can collect wage differential benefits for workers who are unable to earn as much as they did prior to the injury. These workers are compensated for the difference in pay until age 67. Mr. Fairly noted the law was not written with professional athletes who earn a substantial amount of money in short periods of time in mind. The career span of a professional athlete is much shorter than in other fields, and this reform would adjust the law to reflect this, he said.

“In my opinion legislation like (S.B. 12) makes that benefit in the professional sports world fair,” said Mr. Fairly.

Aside from S.B. 12, there has also been attention on professional athletes and workers comp because of a recent NFL concussion injury lawsuit settlement. Former NFL football players sued the league in 2009, claiming the NFL was aware of the risks associated with repetitive traumatic brain injuries and failed to warn and protect players against the long-term risks.

The settlement covers over 20,000 players, and registration for former players began in February. Current NFL players were not included in the settlement.

"What's coming to light is the lack of treatment for head injuries that have been prevalent in the NFL,” said Los Angeles-based Aaron Swerdlow, counsel at Gerard Fox Law P.C. “The power struggle between teams and coaches, who want players to get back in the game or recover quickly from a head injury or a concussion, and the players whose medical needs might require them to sit out a week or two — the statistics are pretty damning about how often players that have head injuries go unreported or untreated. For example, one-third of all concussions are left off NFL injury reports,” he said, citing a 2014 investigative report.

The NFL denies wrongdoing but will pay former players based on age and qualifying diagnosis, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and deaths involving chronic traumatic encephalopathy.