SBJ/May 11 - 17, 1998/No Topic Name

Panel rules pro players are working stiffs

A recent workers’ compensation decision in Illinois could leave NFL owners reaching for their checkbooks.

The Illinois Industrial Commission ruled April 21 that a professional football career is no longer considered to be a temporary job held by players who within a few years will have to seek new employment. Instead, the commission ruled that NFL players are skilled workers who are entitled to workers’ compensation rights—and many wages lost in the event of a career-ending injury.

That ruling forces the Bears, and possibly other NFL teams, to pay up when former players file workers’ compensation claims.

"The Bears have tried to distinguish themselves from any other employer, but the Illinois courts are not willing to buy into that argument," said Kim Presbrey, the attorney for former Bears tight end Cap Boso. "Corporations like the Bears are not paying what they are legally supposed to be paying.

Bears officials were not available for comment.

The ruling comes as a part of the commission’s decision to order the Bears to pay Boso an $18,000-a-year lifetime annuity after a knee injury forced the 35-year old to retire in 1992.

Boso hurt his knee after being tackled during a game on Sept. 29, 1991,against the New York Jets. At the time, Boso’s annual salary was $225,000, and he was signed at the same salary for the 1992 season. Boso received his entire 1991 salary and was paid $65,000 for the 1992 season.

After knee surgery, the Bears released Boso, who in February 1992 took a job as a football coach at Butler University. After a year, Boso quit coaching, citing knee problems. In 1993, he found employment as a real estate salesman, earning $376 per week.

The commission initially awarded Boso $353 per week for the duration of his disability, a decision that was upheld by the Cook County Circuit Court.

According to the filing, lawyers for the Bears argued that because the average career of an NFL player is eight years, disability payments should be limited to the remaining duration of a player’s career.

The commission, however, rejected the argument, ruling that the Illinois law "creates no exception for occupations such as professional athletes which are limited in duration." The ruling drew on a precedent setting case filed against the Bears in 1995 by former lineman Ted Albercht.

Sports lawyers said the litigation is part of a trend by teams to avoid paying workers’ compensation claims, but the NFL Players Association has lobbied hard to stop legislation that would limit liability.

"The NFL Players Association has been aggressive in exercising their rights under the workers’ compensations acts, but other sports haven’t been as aggressive," said Gil Gordon, a Chicago-based attorney who represents former NFL players in workers’ compensation litigation. "Other sports are coming aboard, but they are a few baseball and hockey players, but we are representing 10 football players for every other professional athlete."

Not all athletes will be as successful as Boso.

Along with California, New York and Connecticut, Illinois is considered to have liberally interpreted workers’ compensation laws, while states such as Florida and Indiana have more conservative laws.

"Indiana is the worst," Presbrey said. "It’s the Bangladesh of workers’ compensation. If you get hurt here, you can forget about it."

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