Workers’ comp: WC for professional athletes
Donald T. DeCarlo
Professional athletes are generally covered under workers’ compensation and are entitled to team benefits in many cases that are an offset against any workers’ compensation payments. There are some statutory and case law exceptions to the general rule, and the laws vary by the state and the sport involved.
Jockeys and professional boxers are the classic examples of athletes with workers’ compensation coverage issues in many cases. The jockey or professional boxer may be considered an independent contractor with no employer to secure their workers’ compensation benefits.
Professional football players (and baseball players) in a majority of states are covered by workers’ comp laws. The National Football League (NFL) players have experienced many injuries not only during their careers but also on retirement. NFL 1990 stats show that more than one-third of the 645 players with careers between 1940 and 1986 retired with injuries. Two out of three retired NFL players live with permanent injury.
The following is a summary of significant laws in several states that address football players. Many states, however, do not have specific provisions for professional football (or baseball) players.
* Texas (Dallas Cowboys). Texas Labor Code specifically applies to “certain professional athletes.” The statute states that “a professional athlete employed under a contract for hire or a collective bargaining agreement who is entitled to benefits for medical care and weekly benefits that are equal to or greater than the benefits provided under this subtitle may not receive benefits under this subtitle and the equivalent benefits under the contract or collective bargaining agreement. An athlete covered by such a contract or agreement who sustains an injury in the course and scope of the athlete’s employment shall elect to receive either the benefits available under this subtitle or the benefits under the contract or agreement.”
* California (San Francisco 49ers & San Diego Chargers). To date, no specific legislation has been enacted regarding pro athletes and workers’ comp. But in a case involving a minor league baseball player, the California Court of Appeals reaffirmed California’s generous interpretation of the workers’ comp statutes as applied to professional athletes. In Bowen v. Florida Marlins (1999), the court concluded that a player who lived in California and who signed his contract in California was entitled to benefits under the state’s workers’ compensation act even though the contract was signed by a team outside of California and approved by the commissioner of baseball in New York.
* Maryland (Baltimore Ravens). No specific state statue, however, a 1983 case titled Rowe v. Baltimore Colts, held that an injury sustained by a professional football player as the result of legitimate and usual physical contact with other players, whether under actual or simulated game conditions, cannot be said to be an accidental injury within the meaning of the Maryland Workers Compensation Laws.
* Florida (Miami Dolphins & Tampa Bay Bucs). Florida statute specifically excludes professional athletes from the state’s workers’ compensation program. But in Rudolph v. Miami Dolphins (1984), the District Court of Appeals of Florida ruled that the provision of the collective bargaining agreement obligating a professional football team to provide each player with statutory workers’ compensation benefits or guarantee equivalent benefits to them was applicable only when the team voluntarily obtained coverage under the state’s workers’ compensation laws or otherwise guaranteed equal benefits and hence, did not contractually obligate the team to provide athletes with those benefits when it did not elect to waive the coverage.
It is my belief that professional athletes should receive workers’ comp benefits. Artificial legal barriers should be addressed by statute. If some reasonable standards are not established to provide coverage for professional athletes, then we can expect a continued proliferation of costly litigation, i.e., suits against team doctors, promoters, or sports venues.
Donald T. DeCarlo is a partner in the law firm of Lord, Bissell & Brook in New York. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
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