California gives a huge payoff to the NFL

Earl Campbell, Hall of Fame running back for the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints, filed for workers compensation in California for injuries that have put him in a wheelchair.
(AFP/Getty Images)

Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday signed a bill giving the National Football League an enormous break -- at the expense of players who get hurt, sometimes devastatingly, entertaining the fans. He should be ashamed.

The measure (AB 1309) may have been the most dishonest bill to come through the state Legislature this year. It was the product of relentless lobbying by the major pro sports leagues, especially the NFL, which unabashedly misrepresented its effect to the soft-headed state legislators who sponsored and passed it.

As I reported in March, the leagues’ pitch was that retired pro athletes — many of them from outside the state — are ripping off California’s workers’ compensation system for hundreds of millions of dollars. They maintained that these athletes could obtain workers’ compensation judgments in California even though they hadn’t played for a California franchise, and that this was wrong and unfair. They suggested that this was a huge cost to California taxpayers.

Lets unpack these assertions in bulk: They’re pure disinformation.


Here’s the truth. Under California law, you can file a workers’ comp claim if you can argue that you suffered an injury in California, even if your employer is located elsewhere; it’s a rare pro athlete who doesn’t occasionally play an away game against a California team.

More important, California is one of the few states that allow workers’ compensation for “cumulative trauma” injuries, those that build up over time. That would include knee or back damage from years of blocking and tackling, or neurological damage from repeated concussions. Let’s be clear: You don’t get injured only in home games. When the Packers played the 49ers in San Francisco last month, a few Green Bay players got racked up. Under California law, they may have suffered compensable injuries.

So it’s not surprising that athletes would turn to California’s system to obtain redress for injuries they can’t get compensated for any other way. What’s important, however, is that this process doesn’t cost California taxpayers or business owners a penny. A California workers’ comp judgment is paid by the insurer of the worker’s employer -- in the case of a player whose home team was the Cincinnati Bengals, the Bengals’ insurer pays.

The pro leagues don’t like this, because they know they face enormous financial exposure from cumulative injuries, especially head injuries; if enough claims are filed, their insurance premium might go up or they may have to cover the bill themselves. So they’ve moved heaven and earth to wipe out opportunities for player compensation.

The NFL probably figured it couldn’t get the California bill passed if it told the truth. So it sacrificed the truth.

Who benefits from Brown’s poor judgment in signing this bill? Not the taxpayers -- they’re not on the hook to begin with. Not the ballplayers -- their opportunities to win compensation for injuries they suffered on the field got narrower. If the measure survives a challenge in California courts, workers in many other industries should look out. Truckers from other states who drive into California could be next, or oil field workers, or utility linemen. Once you start handing out bennies to one category of employer, where do the handouts end?

The pro sports league owners will make out like bandits from this bill. They’re millionaires and billionaires. They’ve been playing California like a harp for years. But this bill is by far their greatest score. That the state Legislature and Brown played along is disgusting.

DATABASE: Injury claims by professional football players