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California overreacts to NFL workers’ compensation loophole


For years, the NFL has complained about the ability of injured players to pursue workers’ compensation benefits in California based on limited connections to the state. Now, California is in the process of closing the loophole.

And, as government often does when trying to fix a longstanding problem, California may end up going so far in the other direction that an equally unjust outcome arises.

On Thursday, the California Assembly passed a bill that restricts the filing of workers’ compensation claims by pro athletes. The measure, approved by a vote of 61-4, now moves to the California Senate.

The NFLPA previously has mobilized to oppose the effort. A memo sent to all player representatives, alternate representatives, and NFLPA Executive Committee members on Wednesday explains that the bill contains multiple objectionable provisions. First, the bill requires players to work at least 90 days in California to receive benefits. Second, the bill prevents California residents who play for out-of-state teams to receive benefits. Third, the bill prevents players who spent less than eight years playing for a California team and who finished their careers with a non-California team from receiving benefits for the cumulative trauma of playing pro football.

Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, the bill will apply retroactively, wiping out pending claims that would have resulted in benefits under existing law.

The NFLPA memo contends that supporters of the bill believe the workers’ compensation claims from out-of-state players place a “heavy economic burden” on California, even though the costs are paid not by the taxpayers but by the employers. (That said, a flood of claims creates a burden for the state, since the claims have to be processed and litigated.) The NFLPA memo explains that, under the new NFL labor deal, the money to pay the benefits comes from the players’ total share of the revenue.

The NFLPA memo also points out that, in 2010, pro athletes paid more than $161 million in state income tax. Of course, the pro sports leagues also generate millions in tax dollars and economic activity. And with California hoping to lure Super Bowls to the new 49ers stadium in Santa Clara and one or more NFL teams (and Super Bowls) to a new stadium that would be built in Los Angeles, the incentive to do what the sports leagues want is clear.

Still, it’s one thing to erase opportunities for abuse; it’s quite another to push the pendulum too far in the other direction, limiting and eliminating otherwise legitimate claims. Here’s hoping that the legislators focus on crafting a fair outcome, and not simply the outcome that the NFL and other leagues are able to finagle.