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The Future of Workers' Compensation Benefits for Professional Athletes: How Illinois is Changing the Game By: Andrew Balland
A recent Illinois State Senate proposal could cause an uproar among professional athletes if other states adopt similar legislation. On January 11, 2017, the 100th Illinois General Assembly introduced Senate Bill 12 to amend the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act. [i] The bill, sponsored by Republican State Senator Christine Radogno as part of the “state budget compromise,” [ii] seeks to lower the cutoff age at which professional athletes can receive disability for work-related injuries by more than 30 years. [iii] While the bill remains on assignment, [iv] its passage could drastically affect the Chicago sports market’s desirability, particularly for oft-injured athletes like football and hockey players.
Section 8(d)(1) of 820 ILCS 305/8 currently awards workers’ compensation benefits to all Illinois employees accidentally injured at work. [v] As it stands, any employee is entitled to receive disability benefits equal to two-thirds of his or her salary until the age of 67, or five years after the date of one’s injury, whichever is longer. [vi] If Senate Bill 12 passes, professional athletes would only be able to recover benefits until the age of 35, or five years after the date of their injury, whichever is longer. [vii]
The bill’s language suggests the legislature finds it unfair to compensate athletes for longer than the expected length of their athletic careers. Senate Bill 12 would only allow professional athletes to recover for the “expected remaining duration of the employee’s professional sports athletic career,” which the legislature sets at age 35. [viii] This mark is a rebuttable presumption, however, because Senate Bill 12 enables the employer or employee to “successfully prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the expected remaining duration of such employee’s professional sports athletic career has a shorter or longer duration” (emphasis added). [ix]
Patty Schuh, a spokeswoman for Senator Radogno, defended the bill claiming that “[e]veryone knows a professional athlete does not work in that career [until] age 67.” [x] In addition, all major Chicago sports clubs—the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs, and White Sox—endorse Senate Bill 12, [xi] likely because it substantially decreases the amount teams would have to pay their disabled athletes. Facing criticism from pro-athlete organizations, the owners of the Bears released a statement to the media saying the team “supports changes to the system that protect athletes’ rights under the workers’ compensation system while acknowledging athletes are not competing professionally until age 67.” [xii]
Despite the support from team owners, the NFLPA is leading a charge against the bill, hoping to use the free agent market to signal other club owners and states to avoid seeking similar legislation. [xiii] DeMarurice Smith, the NFLPA director, took to a Chicago sports talk show to denounce Senate Bill 12: “I will tell you from the bottom of my heart that this union will tell every potential free-agent player, if this bill passes, to not [go] to the Bears.” [xiv]
The NFLPA also released an article challenging the bill’s legitimacy and explaining the disparate impact it will have on employees of the same organization. The Association contends that the legislation will not affect the state budget because every Illinois worker “has the right to file and receive lost-wage benefits, which has [no] impact on taxpayers in the state” because the teams, as employers, pay workers’ compensation benefits. [xv]
The NFLPA questioned the bill’s fairness because it could subject employees of the same organization to unequal treatment. [xvi] “A 23-year-old rookie running back tackled into the sidelines in his first pre-season game [could strike] a 23-year-old coach” causing career-ending injuries for both employees, yet the coach would have “access to benefits through age 67, but the rookie would see his capped at age 35.” [xvii] This situation, to the NFLPA, is inherently unfair. [xviii]
Other players’ unions have joined the NFLPA in opposing Senate Bill 12. Bob Foose, director of the Major League Soccer Players Union, agreed with the NFLPA, calling the bill “a money grab by the owners” that will not benefit the Illinois taxpayers. [xix] Foose thinks it’s a mere “attempt by the teams to shirk their responsibilities under the workers’ compensation laws and to treat athletes differently than any other worker.” [xx]
Foose’s assertion suggests the Chicago sports teams lobbied the State Senate because they were tired of paying their players’ disability. Certainly, the bill targets athletes without scrutinizing any other industry to determine the average age at which employees can no longer work. Even if the owners are simply catching a windfall, the players’ associations are ready to resort to lobbying efforts of their own. Per TSN, the unions representing the NHL, NFL, MLB, and NBA hired the Signal Group and Nicolay & Dart, a Chicago lobbying firm, to combat the law’s change. [xxi]
While the future of Senate Bill 12 is unclear, it might only be the beginning of a political and legal battle between owners and players. If another state was to adopt a similar measure, the workers’ compensation issue could become a national debate. While the states have the authority to regulate workers’ compensation benefits, one could see how disparate treatment of athletes among the states could affect interstate commerce. Indeed, Congress has not been shy about exercising its power under the commerce clause to regulate professional sports in the past; [xxii] however, the question remains whether Congress will intervene this time around, or will Congress leave this decision to the states?
[i] Bill Status of SB0012, Feb. 8, 2017. http://www.ilga.gov/legislation/BillStatus.asp?DocNum=0012&GAID=14&DocTypeID=SB&LegID=98855&SessionID=91&SpecSess=&Session=&GA=100
[ii] NFLPA, The Importance of Workers Comp & Facts about Senate Bill 12, Feb. 8, 2017.
[iii] Bill Status of SB0012.
[vi] Levi Deiss, Title: Senate Bill 12 - Proposed Workers' Compensation Reform, Feb. 9, 2017.
[viii] Bill Status of SB0012.
[x] Tom Goldman, NFL Players Union Works To Block Illinois Workers’ Comp Bill, NPR, Feb. 15, 2017.
[xiii] NFLPA, The Importance of Workers Comp & Facts about Senate Bill 12.
[xiv] Emma Baccellieri, NFLPA To Steer Players Away From Bears If Illinois Passes Law Limiting Disability Benefits For Pro Athletes, Deadspin, Feb. 4, 2017. http://deadspin.com/nflpa-to-steer-players-away-from-bears-if-illinois-pass-1792002975
[xv] NFLPA, The Importance of Workers Comp & Facts about Senate Bill 12.
[xix] Christian Araos, MLS Players Union joins NFLPA in opposing Illinois Senate Bill, Empire of Soccer, Feb. 8. 2017.
[xxi] Rick Westhead, NHLPA joins fight against change to Illinois workers’ compensation law, TSN, Feb. 15, 2017.
[xxii] Christopher Beam, Interference! Why is Congress always meddling with sports?, Slate, Dec. 9, 2009.