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.

The Redskins have sought to deny the claim, saying Virginia law makes it clear that injuries have to be "unusual and unexpected" to be worthy of workers' compensation, and that in football, injuries are just part of the game.

HIPPA Pointers

But if some players want teams to take more responsibility for injuries, others have been seeking greater latitude when it comes to medical care — and might find it thanks to the application of a federal law.

One of many new wrinkles in the NFL injury game has been brought about by Congress' Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPPA. Starting next year, players will have the right to keep their injury status private. That means the league's weekly injury reports — in which players are termed "probable," "doubtful," and so on — will become illegal.

"There's no way that a coach will be able to hold a press conference to announce a player is sitting out the next three games with a torn ligament," says Dr. Pierce Scranton, a former team physician for the Seahawks whose book, Playing Hurt: Treating and Evaluating the Warriors of the NFL chronicles his 17 years with the Seahawks.

Having the right to refuse being part of the weekly injury report could give players an additional bargaining chip when dealing with teams — and could continue a league-wide trend Scranton observes in which players, in the last decade, have increasingly chosen their own doctors.

But Scranton also blames ownership for the lack of trust between employer and employee in when it comes to football medicine, particularly those teams which have entered into financial agreements with hospitals in which local medical centers essentially bid for the right to treat the players — and to advertise as such.

The Tennessee Titans, for instance, have a long-term agreement with Baptist Hospital in Nashville, widely reported to be worth $43 million. That type of deal could create a conflict of interest, if it pressures team doctors to primarily look out for the interests of their employers, and inflame players' long-standing fears that they are not being properly treated and rushed back into action too quickly.

"There are a lot of doctors that are doing it because they are damn good doctors," says Scranton. "But the perception by the NFL Players' Association, the players and agents has been, 'Who are we going to trust here?'"

'Walk Away Early or Limp Away Late'

More and more, players and their kin are simply putting their trust in the legal system, with medical lawsuits becoming almost as much a part of NFL life as coaching changes.

Former Jacksonville Jaguars lineman Jeff Novak won a $5.35 million malpractice suit against his former team doctor in July. And Kelcie Stringer, wife of former Minnesota Vikings lineman Korey Stringer, is suing the club for $100 million over her husband's death from heatstroke at training camp last summer.

But short of legal recourse, every player still must balance the thrills and payoff of playing in the NFL with its risks — including the possibility of debilitating pain and degenerative arthritis later in life. Is this any kind of a way to make a living?

For a few, the answer is no. Star running back Robert Smith retired from the Minnesota Vikings in 2001, at the age of 28, after a season when he led his conference in rushing and could have a reaped a big free-agent contract.

"Better to walk away early than limp away late," was Smith's succinct explanation for his retirement, during a Monday Night Football interview.

That kind of foresight seems like the exception to the rule, however — especially in a sport where players are conditioned to take things one week at a time.

"To compete at that level and to win is almost an addictive drug," says Scranton. "It is a wonderful high to be in a screaming stadium and to win. They can't see past that."