The National Football League’s increasingly visible injury legacy has become a topic of national debate, one that threatens to cast a lasting shadow over the country’s most popular, and profitable, sport.
Far less attention has been paid to the physical woes of other athletes, but a review of injury filings in California suggests that professional athletes of all stripes walk away from their sports with nagging and often permanent injuries.
Over the past two decades, more than 2,500 claims have been filed by former baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer players against their former teams in California’s workers’ compensation system.
In the past six years, more than 940 of them -- among them stars such as two-time baseball most valuable player Juan Gonzalez and basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- have made filings alleging serious brain and head injuries.
The claims were isolated as part of a Los Angeles Times analysis of more than 3 million filings made to the California Division of Workers’ Compensation. Last month, The Times published a searchable database of claims by football players, and now it's being updated will all other major team sports.
Although the total number of claims from all other sports combined is significantly smaller than those made by football players, which number nearly 5,000, the data are a clear indication of the lasting toll professional sports leave on all athletes.
They also help explain why Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Assn., the Women’s National Basketball Assn. and Major League Soccer joined the NFL in a push to pass legislation in California that would seriously restrict such claims in the future.
That bill, AB 1309, easily passed the Legislature this month and is now on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. If he signs it into law, it would preclude all athletes who played for non-California teams, as well as many California athletes, from making claims for the most serious types of injuries, incurred over time and known as cumulative trauma.
The leagues, as well as their insurers, say the claims should not be filed in California. However, the players unions in each sport retort that such claims are generally not permitted in other states due to narrow definitions of cumulative trauma or expired statutes of limitations.
Organized labor worries that the measure potentially opens the door for future legislation that could deprive workers in other industries of their ability to file here. Because teams and their insurers pay the entirety of costs of successful claims without a dime of taxpayer money, unions argue that the bill would amount to a huge handout to billionaire owners of professional teams.
Unlike civil lawsuits, which workers cannot file against their employers for workplace injuries, workers’ compensation awards are strictly limited in size and scope and may include lifetime medical care. Still, spread across thousands of injured players, the costs can mount quickly.
For example, former baseball all-star Cliff Floyd received a $102,500 settlement from the San Diego Padres for injuries to the brain, face, neck, shoulders and numerous other body parts this past April, documents reviewed by The Times show. Floyd, who retired after the 2009 season, now works as a television and radio analyst.
Overall, more than 900 baseball players, including many minor-leaguers, have made claims in California since 1990, The Times’ data show. Of them, at least 460 allege cumulative head or brain trauma, which has been linked to conditions including dementia, chronic traumatic encephalopathy and Alzheimer’s disease.
Since 2006, WNBA players have made 87 filings in the state, while professional soccer players have made 51 claims in that period. Although it’s not known for its jarring physical collisions, an increasing number of soccer players are alleging head trauma.
Among them is former U.S. national soccer team star Eric Wynalda, who filed in 2009 claiming cumulative injuries to a host of body parts including his head. In 2011, he won a $127,500 settlement paid by the Chicago Fire of the MLS and the Charleston Battery of the United Soccer Leagues. Settlement figures do not include attorney fees.
Claims by former stars garner the most attention and tend to be held up by the sports leagues as evidence that California’s system has been too generous to people paid millions of dollars to play sports.
But a substantial majority of the claims come from athletes who never made anyone’s all-star list, enjoying relatively short careers and frequently earning the league minimum. Hundreds more were filed by people who never made it to the big leagues, earning little better than the minimum wage in the minor leagues, including Arena Football, the XFL as well as minor-league baseball and hockey, data show.
Even in professional sports’ lowest levels, however, the contact is hard and the physical toll apparently very real. During his career, defenseman David Cousineau skated for teams such as the Las Vegas Wranglers, Phoenix Roadrunners and Long Beach Ice Dogs, earning just $650 a week toward the end of his five-year career.
The rangy Canadian never saw a minute of NHL ice, but his workers’ compensation filing in California details a string of traumas to his head, shoulders, back and legs. In 2010, Cousineau won a $68,000 settlement from his last two teams, agreeing to permanently forsake all future claims and to cover his own medical expenses in exchange.
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