Deion Sanders, critic of NFL concussion suits, seeks workers’ comp
During the pregame show before February’s Super Bowl in New Orleans, Deion Sanders shared his thoughts about the thousands of former football players filing concussion lawsuits against the National Football League.
“The game is a safe game,” the television analyst and Hall of Fame cornerback said. “I don’t buy all these guys coming back with these concussions. I’m not buying all that. Half these guys are trying to make money off the deal.”
What Sanders didn’t say was that more than two years earlier he had filed a workers’ compensation claim in California, alleging head trauma and other injuries incurred while playing for the Dallas Cowboys.
The case is pending, but in November 2010, Sanders was determined to be 86% disabled by the Division of Workers’ Compensation, case documents show. Four doctors who examined the former star diagnosed more than a dozen medical conditions, including cognitive impairment and behavioral/emotional disorder. The review also said Sanders suffered from arthritis and “arousal disorder,” a sleep impairment.
Sanders is one of a host of current NFL employees, including at least six other NFL Network analysts and dozens of assistant coaches and team personnel, who have made such claims, The Times has found.
The filings from its own employees underscore the depth and complexity of a head injury problem that the NFL is trying hard to put to rest. As the league opens its season this week, it’s pushing legislation in Sacramento that would halt most workers’ comp claims by athletes. That would dramatically limit its financial exposure to concussions and other brain trauma, which have been linked to dementia and other debilitating illnesses.
Last week, the league agreed to pay $765 million to settle federal lawsuits filed by more than 4,500 former players and their families. Those suits alleged that the athletes were not properly informed of the risks of brain injury in professional football.
By some estimates, it could cost NFL teams significantly more — perhaps as much as $1 billion — to resolve the nearly 4,000 workers’ compensation claims pending against them in California, many of which allege brain trauma.
“Those kinds of cases are driving their concerns,” said Frank Neuhauser, executive director of the Center for the Study of Social Insurance at UC Berkeley. Resolving the most serious cases, involving dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, “can be millions of dollars and can involve 10, 20, 30 years of medical care and income support.”
The legislation, AB 1309, is expected to face a state Senate vote in the next few days, after passing the Assembly in May. If approved and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, it would exclude professional football, baseball, ice hockey, basketball and soccer players from making most new claims if they did not play for California teams.
The filings by Sanders and other NFL employees were found by The Times as part of an analysis of state workers’ compensation data. It found that since 2006 almost 4,400 athletes had filed claims here alleging serious brain or head injuries, with nearly 80% of them coming from former football players.
More than 2,300 former football players with claims in California are also plaintiffs in the federal concussion lawsuits, the Times analysis found. Among them are numerous athletes who committed suicide — including Dave Duerson and Ray Easterling — and were subsequently diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a severe brain disease linked to repeated blows to the head.
Sanders could not be reached for comment. His agent, Reed Bergman, said he had no comment, as did Sanders’ workers’ compensation attorney, Mel Owens. A spokesman for NFL Network also declined to discuss the claims.
In addition to Sanders, four former players who now serve as on-air talent for NFL Network — Brian Baldinger, Bucky Brooks, Willie McGinest and Darren Sharper — have claims pending that allege head or brain trauma. NFL Network analysts Marshall Faulk and Michael Irvin also filed such claims and received cash settlements from their former teams in 2011.
At least 43 current NFL assistant coaches or front office personnel have also made injury claims against their former teams, the Times review found. Among them are New York Jets assistant head coach Anthony Lynn, New England Patriots linebackers coach Pepper Johnson and the senior personnel executive for the Green Bay Packers, Alonzo Highsmith.
All but three of those filings, which were made in the last six years, allege brain or head trauma, among other injuries.
An additional 15 former players now working for NFL teams, including the general manager of the Oakland Raiders, the offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings and the defensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans, made workers’ compensation claims in California before 2006, data show.
Filings against former teams by current employees are not unique to football. Three analysts for pro baseball’s MLB Network, for example, have filed injury claims in the Golden State in recent years.
Under current California workers’ compensation law, athletes who played as little as one game in the state have been allowed to pursue injury claims against their former teams. Claimants are evaluated by doctors and, if they are found to be disabled, may receive financial compensation as well as medical care.
Although workers’ compensation is administered by states, it essentially functions as a private insurance program. Awards are paid by employers or their insurance companies, not taxpayers. Employees who are injured at work may file for workers’ compensation, but they cannot sue in civil court.
California is one of a handful of states that recognize so-called cumulative injuries, incurred over time, a category that includes brain trauma. It also allows some players to file years or even decades after their careers are over, because of a notification provision that most teams failed to follow. That has made it the forum of choice for retired athletes in recent years.
“All of our efforts have focused on dealing with the principal focus: dealing with the California problem,” said Brook Gardiner, a labor attorney for the NFL. With $10 billion in annual revenue, the NFL is by far the highest-grossing sports league in the U.S.
Gardiner said the league commissioned a study last year that found that each pending claim cost it, on average, $215,000 to resolve.
The NFL, which has been joined in its lobbying efforts by five other major sports leagues, has argued that the claims clog the courts and could raise workers’ compensation insurance rates for other businesses. That message has been embraced by legislators; in May the Assembly voted 61 to 4 to pass the bill.
But workers’ compensation experts say the athlete claims wouldn’t affect the premiums of other companies because rates are set on an industry-by-industry basis. Football injuries, for example, have no bearing on premiums paid by construction contractors.
And although the volume of athlete claims has risen substantially in the last half-dozen years, the Times analysis found that claims by out-of-state athletes represented about 0.5% of all claims filed since 2006.
Meanwhile, critics of the legislation point out that California’s Franchise Tax Board collects more than $200 million a year in income taxes from professional athletes, a substantial portion of which comes from those who play for out-of-state teams with games or practices here.
“There’s no other state I know of that gives players a chance to make their grievances heard,” said Ned Ehrlich, associate general counsel for the NFL Players Assn. “It’s a shame we have to fight over something like this, because it’s so minuscule compared to the amount of money NFL teams are bringing in.”
Times staff reporters Armand Emamdjomeh and Marc Lifsher contributed to this report.
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