NFL: Injuries Come With The Job

On any given Sunday this season, dozens of National Football League players will get injured.

Some will shrug off their pain. Others will need extensive treatment or a visit to the operating table. And then there are a few professional football players, inevitably, who will suffer career-ending injuries.

Add up the toll over a 16-week season, and, in the words of John Yarno, a former lineman for the Seattle Seahawks, "Every single player every year is hurt."

There is little doubt that pro football creates major health problems for its players. What's less clear, however, is who should assume responsibility for those problems: the players themselves, or the teams who employ them?

Workers' Comp Can Be Limited

Tension between players and teams over medical care has long been a fact of life in the NFL — and one that is increasingly becoming a matter of for lawmakers and courts.

The odds are, the NFL's workplace health issues are downright murky compared to the office where you may be reading this. And increasingly, they are only being resolved by lawyers.

Take a recent Pennsylvania court case, in which former Pittsburgh Steelers tight end and special-teamer Mitch Lyons has been suing to receive greater workers' compensation benefits.

Lyons played for the Atlanta Falcons and Steelers from 1993 until 1999, when he blew out his knee on a kickoff return, ending his career. He had been making $400,000 a year for the Steelers, but is now receiving $117 a week in workers' comp, because of a 1993 Pennsylvania law specifically limiting benefits received by athletes in the four major U.S. team sports — football, baseball, basketball and ice hockey.

Lyons challenged the law — but lost a July decision in which Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court stated that football players, essentially, make a tacit deal to accept the possibility of injury, saying they "willfully hold themselves out to risk of frequent, repetitive and serious injury in exchange for lucrative compensation."

Are Injuries Part of the Game?

That doesn't wash with Lyons' lawyer, Edward J. Abes of Pittsburgh, who is appealing the ruling — and says the law only came about because of lobbying by the Steelers.

Similar workers' compensation restrictions on pro athletes exist in other states with multiple pro teams, including Florida and Texas.

"There's not a rational basis to distinguish a certain limited number of professional athletes and limit their workers' compensation benefits," says Abes, who says Lyons is being denied equal protection under the state and federal constitutions.

Besides, adds Abes, "Other employees for the teams — the head coach, some members of the front-office staff — make more money than some players. Suppose they're in their car driving to the practice field, which is a couple miles away from Heinz Field here. If they get injured, they're covered by workers' comp."

For his part, Lyons has not commented since the July decision, but has said he "made plenty of money in the NFL" and is pursuing the case for "the principle and the people this will affect years from now."

And Lyons isn't the only former player engaged in workers' compensation litigation right now. The Virginia Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case in which former Washington Redskins' center Jeff Uhlenhake sued to receive an award for an ankle injury suffered in 1997.

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