We have long noted how the generous benefit structure in California encourages professional athletes to file claims long after their careers are over. These athletes need not play for teams based in California: just playing a few games in the state over the course of their careers opens the door for generous lump sum payouts and, more important, lifetime medical benefits. There is indeed "gold in them thar hills."
Marc Lifsher of the Los Angeles Times does a great job summarizing the impact of California comp law on professional athletes. Since the 1980s, $747 million has been paid out to 4,500 players. That is apparently just what's been paid - the $3/4 billion may not reflect what's been reserved for future medical payments.
California's statute is uniquely generous. It allows anyone injured while working in California to file a claim in the state. Even if the worker has been paid under another state's comp system, the door remains open. Professional athletes may settle out claims for a few hundred thousand dollars, but they may also secure lifetime medical benefits: given the concussed brains and frequent musculoskeletal injuries that are a routine part of professional athletics, the lifetime medical bills may be enormous. Finally, California has a worker-friendly definition of cumulative trauma, so a professional athlete need not prove a specific body part was injured during a game in that state.
A number of the lawyers specializing in these claims are former athletes. Mel Owens, a former Los Angeles Rams line backer, represents a number of out-of-state athletes filing claims. "California is a last resort for a lot of these guys because they've already been cut off in the other states," he says.
Lifsher describes the situation of journeyman tight end Ernie Conwell, who played for two out-of-state teams, including the New Orleans Saints. During his 11 year career, he underwent 18 surgeries, including 11 knee operations. He filed for comp benefits in Louisiana and received $181,000 to cover career-ending knee surgery in 2006. He also received $195,000 in injury-related benefits as part of the players's collective bargaining agreement. But the claim in Lousiana only covered his knee injury. So he filed a claim in California to deal with ongoing health problems that affect his arms, legs, muscles, bones and head. A California judge awarded him $161,000 plus future medical benefits. The payer in this case, the New Orleans Saints, has appealed.
Wrong Solution to a Real Problem
There is little question that retired players face formidable physical and mental challenges resulting directly from their athletic careers. But the question on the table is whether California is an appropriate forum for delivering extended benefits for professional athletes. Part of the rationale for continuing this gratuitously generous program is the fact that athletes pay state taxes on their incomes for contests in California. But given the fact that income taxes have nothing whatsoever to do with comp, this is a specious argument. The taxes paid do not support California's workers comp system.
Ultimately, the solution to the problem of long-term injuries to professional athletes must be removed from California and relocated to where it belongs: in the labor agreements between professional sport teams and their athletes. The first step in this process requires an act by the California legislature to shut off the spigot, so that out-of-state athletes are no longer allowed to file comp cases in the Golden State. Immediately following this, the players will have to put the issue of life-long benefits for retired players on the bargaining table. This may seem obvious to those of us on the outside, but there is a reason why it may not happen: collective bargaining tends to focus on the needs (and greeds?) of today's players. Once out of the game, players - other than those joining a broadcast network - simply disappear.
As is so often the case, it's all about the money: money the owners want to preserve as profits; money the current players want in their own pockets. While management and labor are undoubtedly sympathetic to the former players, the latter are out of the limelight, struggling day by day to function with compromised bodies and brains. They paid the price. Someone should step up and negotiate a reasonable settlement. It's time for this particular form of California scheming to come to an end.