New State Law Favors Wealthy NFL Owners over Damaged Ex-Players

Thursday, October 10, 2013
Former Detroit Lion Zack Follett suffered a neck injury in 2010 and retired the next year at age 24.

Maybe now the National Football League (NFL) will see fit to reward the city of Los Angeles by giving it a franchise after the state of California provided a huge windfall for its billionaire owners at the expense of former players.

Assembly Bill 1309, signed by Governor Jerry Brown Tuesday, tightens up the state’s workers’ compensation rules, which have made California a magnet for out-of-state former football players seeking help with medical conditions linked to their hand-to-hand combat on the field.

California was one of the few states that allowed people to collect workers’ comp for cumulative trauma injuries that may not have been evident at the time of retirement. That could include joint and muscular problems, but most prominently opened the door for claims related to concussions and other brain-related maladies, like Alzheimer’s.

The state also allowed claims by athletes who played for non-California teams, but visited on occasion for games or training. That covered most professional athletes.

The Los Angeles Times reported that more than 3,400 former NFL players have filed the workers’ comp claims in California since 2006. Most of them were from out of state. Taxpayers are not on the hook for the money, which mostly comes out of the pocket of employers and their insurance companies. So California’s new law is a windfall for team owners and their insurers.

These savings could likely dwarf, over the long haul, a settlement the NFL made with former players in August. That deal, considered a bargain by most observers, commits the league to paying $765 million to 4,500 men who had sued in federal court, claiming that the league had suppressed information about the dangers of head trauma.

Those claims are also the subject of a two-part PBS Frontline documentary entitled “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.” The first part aired Tuesday and the next part is scheduled for October 15. The series investigates what the league knew about the dangers from head trauma and when it knew it.

The issue has been discussed for years and was beginning to make headlines in 2007, even as the league denied any links between its violent sport and the deteriorating mental conditions of the men who played it. But it received national attention when a greatly diminished former All-Pro linebacker Tiaina Baul “Junior” Seau Jr. killed himself in 2012, three years after retiring.

There was speculation that the popular Seau had suffered head injuries during his career with the San Diego Chargers and a subsequent study of his brain by the National Institutes of Health found evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).  

Although the NFL successfully settled the biggest lawsuit it faced, other suits have been filed and more are certain to come. The league has made numerous changes to its rules in an effort to make football safer, but there is no getting around the dangers inherent in a game where warriors smash into each other with frightening ferocity. Violence is at the heart of the game.

It remains to be seen if the California legislation, which affects only profession football, baseball, soccer, hockey and basketball, will be challenged in court. Organized labor was among its opponents, fearful that the ban on out-of-state filers could eventually be applied to a broad range of occupations, including sales people, truck drivers and flight attendants.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

NFL's Concussions Settlement Deal Is a Long Way from the End of the Story (by Thom Loverro, The Guardian)

Dig Deeper: Investigating the NFL’s Concussion Crisis (by Jason M. Breslow, PBS)

California Gives a Huge Payoff to the NFL (by Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times)

California Limits Workers’ Comp Sports Injury Claims (by Ken Bensinger and Marc Lifsher, Los Angeles Times)

Ex-Pro Athletes Flock to California for Workers’ Comp, Even if They Rarely Played in State (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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