States, Ex-Players Trying to Level Playing Field on Workers Comp

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Reggie Williams‘ movements are as labored as his breathing.

While others walk the halls of the state Capitol with apparent ease, the 58-year-old former Cincinnati Bengals linebacker struggles to get around. He has a crutch under each arm, and his strides are uneven because his right leg is three inches shorter than his left due to surgical complications from injuries sustained during his 14-year career.

A raised scar runs down the middle of his right knee, which has been operated on 24 times. It’s so swollen it’s hard to tell where the top of the knee begins and the bottom of his thigh ends, so disfigured that there appears to be three large broccoli heads beneath the skin. Williams, the NFL’s Man of the Year in 1986 and Sports Illustrated’s co-Sportsman of the Year in 1987, normally keeps the knee covered, but on this sunny April afternoon he repeatedly raises his pant leg and exposes it to cringing legislators. His hope is that the reality of his situation will persuade them to vote no on AB 1309, a bill that would prevent major- and minor-league athletes in all sports from filing workers compensation claims in California if they played or ended their careers with clubs outside the state.

The fight over workers comp reform for pro athletes isn’t new. It has taken place in Florida, Arizona and Louisiana, to name a few states. The battle in California is significant, however, because it’s often regarded as the state of last resort, meaning out-of-state players who weren’t informed of their workers comp rights by their teams — or who had physical or cognitive issues surface after the statute of limitation lapsed in their home states — could have their cases heard in California, one of only nine states that recognizes what’s known as “cumulative trauma,” wear-and-tear injuries or conditions sustained from their jobs.

Proponents contend that AB 1309 would close the “loophole” that allows active and retired athletes to “double-dip” by filing claims in both their home state and California, sometimes without ever having actually played in California. Opponents counter that the bill would retroactively wipe out hundreds, if not thousands, of pending cases and deny medical care to athletes who paid into the system during their careers.

The issue is particularly acute among California team owners, whose workers comp costs sometimes are two-thirds higher than their out-of-state colleagues. Local NFL owners contend the discrepancy puts them at a competitive disadvantage because they’re left with less revenue for expenses like coach and player salaries, facility upgrades and team travel.

Some background: Each year the NFL and the union meet to estimate the costs for workers comp. That figure is then averaged among the 32 teams, with each receiving an equal credit (also known as a benefit) against the salary cap. For simple math, say the estimated cost is $32 million; each team would receive a $1 million credit.

The problem is that clubs in Ohio or Texas might spend only $500,000 on workers comp while franchises in California might spend as much as $4 million. That’s a net loss of $3.5 million for the California owners, who argue that if player costs are going increase across the board in things like salaries, retirement benefits and medical care, the expenses should be shared evenly by clubs — particularly when it comes to workers comp, which is among the largest expenses.

“It’s a fairly big competitive issue when year after year the California teams are spending so much more on workers comp,” said a high-ranking official for a California team. “If a player spends most of his career on a team outside the state, we shouldn’t be paying his workers comp claims.”

Reggie Williams shows off the damage done to his knee from his days in the NFL. Jim Trotter/SI

The official admitted that workers comp is one of the talking points when his team is weighing whether to sign an out-of-state free agent who might be at the end of his career but could still contribute for a year or two.

“We’re less likely to bring in a guy like that (under the current system), and that’s what we’re trying to take off the table,” said the official. “We don’t want California teams to not be a destination for some players because of workers comp. It doesn’t mean we wouldn’t sign him, but it certainly enters into the equation.”

The simple solution is to pool the workers comp credits and pay claims as they’re awarded (a claim does not guarantee an award, by the way). But out-of-state owners have been unwilling to accept such a proposal because it would mean less money for them. And with potentially two more franchises settling in Los Angeles through expansion or relocation, it’s understandable that California has become the latest battleground in this fight.

Still, critics contend AB 1309 is too drastic. They say it not only would retroactively erase legitimate cases in which teams failed to notify players of their rights before the statute of limitations lapsed — like with Williams — but also prohibit athletes who spent a significant majority of their career with California clubs from filing claims if they ended their careers with out-of-state clubs.

The aggressiveness of the bill stems from accusations that the system is being abused and bogged down. In a March op-ed piece in the Orange County Register, bill co-sponsor Curt Hagman (R-Chino Hills) wrote that “when the state of California pays six figures to an injured out-of-state millionaire, fewer resources are available for the average worker, who often desperately needs assistance to make ends meet.”

The reality is that workers comp awards are paid by employers, not individual taxpayers.

Hagman also said during a public hearing that players get lifetime medical care. That is not correct. Only vested NFL players get post-career coverage, and it terminates after five years.

Assemblyman Henry T. Perea (D-Fresno), who introduced the bill and chairs the Assembly’s insurance committee, also has said the system is “broken” and “abused” and claims by out-of-state athletes have cost taxpayers “hundreds of millions of dollars.” The union points out, however, that individual taxpayers don’t pay awards; that a presiding judge in a recent case stated that athletes accounted for only 5 percent of his caseload; and that athletes paid $171 million in California taxes last year (visiting athletes are taxed when they compete in the state).

Perea declined interview requests for this story over a two-week period.

How serious are owners about reforming workers comp? In Louisiana, Saints owner Tom Benson supported an unsuccessful bill that would’ve deducted workers comp awards from a player’s salary on a dollar-for-dollar basis. In Tennessee, owner Bud Adams’ Titans have filed cease and desist orders against at least two dozen retired players — including notable stars Eddie George and Frank Wycheck – because their contracts precluded them from filing in multiple states for the same injuries or conditions.

Retired fullback Lorenzo Neal is among those who has filed in California. The four-time Pro Bowler played for seven teams over 16 years, including five with the San Diego Chargers. Yet despite being a lifetime California resident — he still resides in his hometown of Fresno — he’d be ineligible for workers comp under the bill because he ended his career with an out-of-state club. He says people shouldn’t be surprised that players don’t file claims while they’re still capable of being employed by a team.

“Let’s be real,” he says. “You don’t want to file a claim while you’re still playing because teams will use it against you and you won’t have a job. Just like with concussions, guys still try to get back on the field because they want to stay employed and you only have so many years that you can play the game. So, yes, you see guys go out on the field and play because they love the game, but you also understand what happens if you don’t play.”

A league spokesman says there are remedies for retired players beyond workers comp. For instance, Aaron Jones, who played nine seasons for three teams, is receiving $9,000 per month for life from the NFL’s disability program. And Chad Brown, who spoke in Sacramento against workers comp reform, is receiving $6,000 per month in NFL disability benefits while still being covered by NFL insurance and has $300,000 in an NFL-funded Health Reimbursement Account.

But what about players like Williams? He spent 14 years with the Bengals before retiring in 1989, did not file for workers comp in Ohio because, he says, he wasn’t notified of his rights, and now can’t get affordable healthcare because of pre-existing conditions. He says he turned to California only after learning decades later he could file for cumulative trauma in the state. If he won an award it would be paid by the Bengals, and not a California club.

“I’m not here to tell you there aren’t any abuses of the system, but I am here to tell you there are many players who are worse off than me, and the severity of my knee is only going to get worse,” Williams says. “I’m going to have to live with it regardless of anyone’s decision. The question is, is a judge who will listen to a fair hearing and at least provide some assistance and (and hold accountable) my former employer, for whom I played faithfully for 14 years. You’ve got to have a forum. If California is not the forum and there are no other forums then there’s nothing left for me other than the ultimate unfolding of Obamacare.”

It’s possible that AB 1309 could be passed in a weaker form. For instance, the sides could grandfather in some current claimants so they maintain their existing benefits, or phase out their benefits gradually instead of abruptly terminating their cases. The ultimate irony remains that if the bill passes as currently written, Williams and other athletes would have to turn to government assistance in covering their medical costs. In that case, taxpayers would be the ones fitting the medical bills.

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