8-22-11; Hut One, Hut Two, Hut What??? You can’t pay college football players if you understand the maze of U.S. human resources laws and rules including workers’ compensation coverage/cost

We read the news out of the University of Miami where another college football scandal has erupted just prior the first kickoff of this season. A convicted Ponzi-schemer named Nevin Shapiro pled guilty and basically ratted out any number of players to whom he provided lavish gifts as a “booster.” On August 16, 2011 in a jailhouse interview with Yahoo Sports writer Charles Robinson, Shapiro made good on his promise for the revelations exposing a lack of NCAA oversight which apparently allowed his illegal and unethical behavior to continue unimpeded for years. Thus far 72 athletes are alleged by Shapiro to have received "impermissible" benefits from him between 2002 and 2010. Various news outlets have speculated if the claims are true the NCAA could impose the death penalty on the Miami football program

One amazing thing we saw mentioned as a method to “cure” or end this problem is to make the players “professional” and give them a weekly or monthly stipend on top of tuition, room and board. Some members of the college sports press bring this concept up occasionally. As veteran defense attorneys, we want to make it clear the thinking on this concept is about as nutty as one can consider.

Please first note college football players are already given lots of “compensation” at a relatively high cost to the schools they attend. Schools like Notre Dame, Nebraska and Northwestern invest something like a quarter-million dollars just in tuition, room and board for each of their four-year scholarship athletes. On top of that, Division I schools provide trainers, travel, equipment, orthopedic surgeons and related facilities. While we hate to consider the possibility, there may be a crazed claimant attorney out there somewhere who could make a compelling argument the players are not as “amateur” as that title might otherwise indicate.

What is the problem with giving the kids a few bucks on top of all of it to keep them happy and possibly lower the chance future scumbags like Nevin Shapiro will tempt them? Well, human resources, including workers’ comp, benefits are a concern that could rapidly destroy college university budgets. If you made all of the football players at Northwestern “professionals” by giving them a salary of, for example, $500 per month, wouldn’t they be entitled to all the other rights and benefits of all university employees? Shouldn’t they have a right to pension coverage under ERISA? Wouldn’t they be similarly covered under ADA and FMLA? Would they be entitled to 100% coverage under workers’ compensation of all football-related medical problems—not just while they are athletes but for the rest of their lives? Would they get TTD? Would colleges and universities have to provide vocational rehabilitation? Would the injured player be entitled to permanent partial disability for loss of use of the leg, arm and foot?

Learn a lesson from Da Bears—WC in IL is Wildly Pricey when it comes to Football

Please note the Chicago Bears used to fight their workers’ compensation battles with very poor results. For one example, we remember a great player named Ted Albrecht who was a star tackle for the Bears. He was drafted in 1977 and played 5 years through the 1981 season. In 1982 he was injured in training camp doing exercises and never played again. He eventually retired and claimed his retirement was due to on-field injuries. The Bears asserted a football player could not reasonably have expected to hold his position for the foreseeable future. Ted Albrecht began a travel agency and worked as a sportscaster and earned about $80,000.00 annually—this was about 40% less than what he made as a football star. Albrecht claimed a wage differential award but it was denied by the Arbitrator, IIC and circuit court. They all felt a PPD award was appropriate. Nevertheless, the Appellate Court reversed and held Petitioner had a reasonable basis for assuming continued employment as a professional football player, ignoring testimony from the Bears general manager that the average career of an offensive lineman is less than 10 years. Despite solid income in his post-football career pursuits, in Albrecht v. Industrial Commission, our Appellate Court ruled he was entitled to 2/3 of the difference between what he was making as a Bear and the lower amount he was making as a travel agency owner and sportscaster for the rest of his life. If he is still receiving those benefits, we assure you it could have added several million to his post-Bear income.

At present, it is our understanding the Chicago Bears don’t truly “fight” their workers’ compensation claims any further—we haven’t seen any litigation from them in years. It is our understanding they basically budget for it and settle the exposures at the end of each player’s career.

Minimum WC Benefits in IL would be Expensive for College Programs

Along with all the HR rights outlined above and more, a “professional” college football player who would be moderately to seriously injured playing for or against any school at a game in Illinois would be entitled to our minimum benefits for amputation, total and permanent disability and death. That weekly rate is currently $466.13. For example, a 20-year-old halfback who suffered a significant injury and would be adjudicated totally and permanently disabled would receive no less than $466.13 weekly for life. On an annual basis, that benefit totals $24,238.76. Assuming a sixty-year life expectancy, the full undiscounted cost of such benefits is $1,454,325.60. On top of that amount, Illinois employers are required to contribute to a fund that pays COLA increases.

College football players could similarly make claims for “loss of trade” that is now so popular in Illinois “china doll” construction industry where virtually every claimant lawyer is now seeking six-figure benefits for the slightest elbow or knee surgery by claiming the worker is shut out of a lucrative trade even though the construction industry is at a complete halt in our state. We are seeing million-dollar demands for fractured ankles and elbow surgeries that completely heal—those are the sorts of injuries that happen every day on a Division I football field.

Please also note the injured football player would not have to be on an Illinois team—these benefits would apply to any injury occurring in our state regardless of which team the injured player was on.

In summary, we want our readers to understand the concept of paying college football stars might sound good but we hope the NCAA and the college presidents who run it understand they continue to get a pass on the human resources legal labyrinth in this country and they are best served to stay as far from it as possible.