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Defensive backs make most injury claims against NFL teams

September 02, 2013|By Ken Bensinger
  • San Francisco 49ers safety Ronnie Lott, right, slams into Miami Dolphins receiver Mark Clayton during Super Bowl XIX in 1985. Lott is one of hundreds of former NFL defensive backs who have filed injury claims against their former teams.
San Francisco 49ers safety Ronnie Lott, right, slams into Miami Dolphins… (Associated Press )

California workers’ compensation data show that, when it comes to football, defensive backs are more likely to file injury claims than any other position.

Since 1990, defensive backs – a group that includes safeties and cornerbacks -- have filed nearly 1,100 claims in California against their former National Football League teams for injuries suffered on the field. The pass coverage specialists, known for speed, also led all position groups in claims for head and brain injuries with more than 820 filings. A full list of all claims by former football players is here.

The frequency may seem surprising, given the fact that DBs typically do not engage in heavy contact on every play. But because they often make tackles at high speed, they often are involved in some of the most explosive hits in the game.

In light of pending legislation supported by the NFL that would severely restrict filings by athletes, the Los Angeles Times analyzed 3.1 million workers’ compensation claims made in California since 1990. The research found that professional athletes from the NFL, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Assn. and the Women’s National Basketball Assn. have made roughly 4,400 claims for serious head or brain trauma since 2006.  

The analysis highlighted the high rate of claims by DBs; linebackers made 773 claims in the same time period, of which 568 included brain or head trauma allegations.

Ronnie Lott, the legendarily fierce safety, has a claim pending against the four teams he played for, including the San Francisco 49ers. Wide receiver great Art Monk once said that Lott hit him so hard it “pretty much messed me up for my career.” His claim, which is awaiting a hearing, alleges widespread injuries, including head trauma.

Then there’s Steve Atwater, who gained notoriety as a big hitter for his manhandling of Christian Okoye, a 260-pound running back known as the Nigerian Nightmare in a 1990 game. Atwater filed a claim against his former team, the Denver Broncos, last year. Alleging brain, face, head and neck injuries, his claim is pending.

California, because of several unique aspects of its law, has over the last six years become a venue of last resort for such filings by injured former athletes who cannot make such claims elsewhere. The claims can be costly for all professional sports teams, which must pay them out of pocket or carry pricey workers’ compensation insurance.

But no league faces more financial risk for the injuries than the NFL, which faces some 4,000 pending claims in California. Brook Gardiner, a labor lawyer for the league, said that an internal study found each claim, on average, cost $215,000 to resolve.

Under the proposed legislation, AB 1309, such claims would be halted almost immediately. The bill passed the Assembly in May and is expected to face a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Advocates for the players argue that if they cannot file for cash compensation or medical coverage in California, many will be forced to fall back on taxpayer-funding public programs such as Medicaid and Social Security Disability.

Players excluded by the bill “who do not have private health insurance will become a burden on the state or federal system,” said Ron Mix, a hall of fame former NFL lineman who works in San Diego as a workers’ compensation attorney specializing in making claims for athletes.

State claims data shows that defensive players have filed more claims than those who played offense. On the offensive side of the ball, claims were more evenly distributed. Offensive lineman, wide receivers and running backs each made over 625 claims as a group, while quarterbacks made just over 175 filings, with 118 including allegations of head or brain injuries.

If the bill passes Tuesday, it will go before Gov. Jerry Brown, who will have 12 days to sign or veto it. If signed, it will go into effect starting Sept. 15.

In a separate action, the NFL on Thursday agreed to pay $765 million to settle hundreds of federal lawsuits filed by former players who claim the league hid the risks of concussions from them. 

ALSO:

Brain injuries a big problem for NFL in California

Kickers, punters file brain injury claims against NFL in California

Full list of injury claims by football players in California since 1990

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