The National Football League’s controversial injury legacy conjures images of powerfully built linebackers and fleet-footed running backs hobbled by years of brutal contact at the line of scrimmage.
Few pause to consider the humbler kicker.
Yet over the last six years, 64 former kickers and punters have filed claims for serious head or brain injuries against their former teams, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of California workers’ compensation data. The full article is found here.
Among the filers is NFL Hall of Fame placekicker Jan Stenerud, who starred for the Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings, as well as all-pro performers like Morten Andersen and Norm Johnson. All told, state records show 109 total claims, from 82 different punters and placekickers, since 1990. A list of all claims by NFL players is here.
The Times analyzed the claims in light of a strong push by the NFL to pass legislation in the state that would severely restrict such filings, which have proven exceedingly expensive for teams. One study by the NFL found that every claim, which must be paid for by teams or their insurers, cost on average $215,000 to resolve.
The bill, AB 1309, is expected to appear for a Senate vote in Sacramento on Tuesday; it already passed the state Assembly by a 61 to 4 vote. The bill would permanently bar athletes who never played for California teams from filing claims for cumulative injuries.
In-state athletes also would be excluded if they were on a California team for fewer than two seasons or if they spent seven or more seasons on non-California teams. The bill applies to football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey and soccer, and would relieve the NFL, in particular, of significant long-term exposure for the care of ailing former employees.
Over the last six years, more than 70% of claims, by athletes from all major pro sports leagues, came from players who would have been prevented from filing by such legislation. Among kickers, 55 of the 64 never played for California teams.
And nearly three-quarters of claims brought since 2006 have alleged brain injuries, which can develop into serious conditions like dementia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – all of which are extremely costly to care for.
The claims by kickers and punters, while a small portion of the nearly 3,500 head trauma claims filed by football players in the state, are a stark reminder of the violent nature of the sport.
“Every roster has a special teams guy who calls himself a ‘punter hunter,’” said Mel Owens, a Laguna Hills workers’ compensation attorney specializing in athletes. In other words, said Owens, a former linebacker for the Los Angeles Rams, a player who makes a point of drilling the kicker on punts and kickoffs.
“Those guys get laid out every time they kick the ball, year in and year out,” Owens added, noting that the hits rarely are seen, because the television cameras follow the ball downfield, far from where the kicker or punter typically gets hit. Here, Philadelphia Eagle punter Sav Rocca gets hit so hard his helmet flies off.
In addition to the California legislation, the NFL on Thursday agreed to pay $765 million to settle lawsuits from more than 4,500 former players and their families who accused the league of hiding information about the risk of brain damage from playing the sport.