Who Should Pay the Medical Bills of Retired NFL Players?

I don’t think there’s a better sportswriter working regularly right now than Sally Jenkins, whose sportswriter father, Dan Jenkins, is personally responsible for my decision, more than a quarter century ago, to attend law school: his sportswriting was so strong, so funny, that it made it obvious that I would have been out of my league if I had instead followed my interest in sports and gone into sports journalism. In this piece here, Jenkins – Sally, not Dan – thoroughly reviews the question of medical care for seriously injured football players, when the care is required decades after they stop playing professional football. What is most interesting to me is that the NFL is defending claims – using statute of limitations and other arguments – that threaten to force the costs of such medical care into the great empty space that lies in between disability coverage on the one hand, employer provided health insurance on the other hand, and workers compensation benefits on the third hand (I know that’s a weird, three-handed person, but if you think about it, the whole idea of a hugely profitable industry like the NFL leaving its employees to bear their own health care costs, when they stem from employment, is at least as bizarre and odd as that image). As Jenkins explains, the NFL denies the vast majority of disability benefit claims under its disability plan, and team owners and the NFL itself are aggressively disputing workers compensation claims filed by former players (i.e., former employees) alleging serious physical injuries from their playing days and accompanying massive medical bills. As Jenkins also explains, if there is no coverage for these medical bills through either of those systems, the only other place for those former employees to turn is Social Security disability or Medicare. And this isn’t just Jenkins talking, or the sales pitch of lawyers for the former players: “a 2008 congressional research report on NFL disability” backs up her reporting on this issue.

Whether people generally understand it or not, and whether the NFL and team lawyers and other representatives quoted in Jenkins’ article know it or not, most lawyers are aware of the general, historical basis for workers compensation schemes, and of the underlying tradeoff on which they are based: in exchange for abandoning the tort system as a means of remedying employment related injuries, employees are given an essentially assured, but limited, recovery for injuries caused by their employment. The NFL players discussed in Jenkins’ article thus either are entitled to workers compensation benefits (or should be, absent gamesmanship by the NFL of the type depicted in her article) for their injuries, or their injuries must be deemed to fall outside of the scope of the workers compensation system, with the former players allowed to seek recovery in the court system from the NFL and their former teams for the injuries from which they suffer. There really is no other appropriate understanding of the proper operation of the intersection of the judicial and workers compensation systems in this context, unless the NFL is going to step up to the plate (I know I am mixing my sports metaphors here) and accept responsibility for the medical care under its disability plan.
 

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