Pro Athletes Fight Limits on California Workers’ Comp

By LAURA OLSON | April 17, 2013

Former professional athletes who have battled countless injuries since they left the game on Monday criticized a bill in the state Legislature that would restrict players from collecting workers’ compensation benefits in California.

NFL football playersTwo dozen former players, including San Francisco 49ers defensive player Dana Stubblefield and Reggie Williams of the Cincinnati Bengals, appeared at the state Capitol to speak against AB1309, which they said was an effort by team owners to avoid paying them for legitimate injuries.

“(Players) paid into the system and now they want to take the system away from us,” said Ickey Woods, who grew up in Fresno and was a running back for the Bengals.

California is one of nine states that allow professional athletes from out-of-state teams to seek workers’ compensation awards, which are paid by their employers. A bill by Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, would allow only players from California teams to claim workers’ compensation and would shorten the filing period for claims.

Proponents of AB1309 say out-of-state players abuse California’s broad workers’ compensation rules by filing claims here even when they have received awards elsewhere. Allowing non-residents to use the system increases costs for state taxpayers, they say.

“Professional athletes have every right to file for workers’ comp benefits – but they should do so in their home state or in the state where they were principally employed,” Perea said in a news release promoting the bill.

The California Labor Federation and Consumer Attorneys of California are backing the players and opposing the legislation. They argue that some injuries athletes suffer while playing may not be apparent for years, particularly ailments resulting from repeated stress or injury.

California law has broad limits on filing workers’ compensation claims, based on when a player knew of the injury and whether they were properly notified of their compensation rights when they retired.

Under Perea’s bill, workers’ compensation claims would have to be filed within a year of an athlete’s final game or of a physician diagnosing the condition, whichever is later.

Opponents said narrowing California’s rules is unfair to players who paid income taxes for games played within the state and should be allowed access to California’s compensation system.

“What we want is a fair look at where the injury took place and whether or not that player deserves to be compensated under the NFL’s compensation system,” said DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the National Football League Players Association. “This isn’t a case where anyone here is seeking a land grab.”

Several of the former athletes leaned on canes as speakers went to the lectern. Williams recounted how he’s had 24 operations on his right leg, which were not paid for by the Bengals or the NFL.

“The denial of care that the billionaire owners are putting on players that help make the game as popular as it is is really one of the most embarrassing things about the game today,” said Williams, who lifted his pant leg to show his swollen, scarred knee.

A dozen of the state’s professional sports teams, including the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Lakers, and several insurance companies are backing the measure.

Revising California’s law would help craft some needed standards for how and where workers’ compensation claims should be handled, said Jason Kinney, who is representing the NFL, NBA and other professional sports associations.

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