COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – The Cincinnati Bengals in recent weeks drafted a new non-playing member to its team: a state lawmaker working with the NFL team to limit the monetary damages its athletes can recoup if injured on the job.
An amendment drafted by Rep. Bill Seitz (R-Cincinnati) would prohibit professional athletes contracted with a major league team from filing a permanent partial disability claim over work-related injuries or illnesses. If passed, the measure would affect other Ohio teams, like the Blue Jackets and Crew in Columbus, the Cavaliers and Guardians in Cleveland, as well as the Cincinnati Reds.
Critics like the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) accused the Bengals – whose ownership is working with Seitz on the measure – of attempting to “strip all players” of their workers’ compensation benefits. If passed, athletes would foot the bill for their treatment.
“Simply put, it is an attack on your rights as an American and a player covered by the CBA (collective bargaining agreement),” the NFLPA told its members in an email. “They are doing this to increase their profit.”
Seitz dismissed the NFLPA’s argument, saying his proposal is “far more modest” than how opponents have described it. The measure is intended, he said, to prevent athletes from “double dipping” on benefits, often while earning million-dollar salaries from their team.
“In a league in which the minimum salary for a player is now $795,000, and in which there are players actively playing for over $1.7 million per year while collecting permanent partial disability from the Ohio Workers Compensation Program, this modest reform is certainly warranted,” Seitz said in an email.
How does permanent partial disability work in Ohio?
In Ohio, employers must purchase workers’ compensation insurance for all their employees. But unlike most U.S. states, that insurance cannot come from a private insurer; it must be bought from the state’s Bureau of Workers’ Compensation or provided in-house.
The Cincinnati Bengals, like most large employers, took the latter route. A self-insured employer, the Bengals are on the hook for administering athletes’ injury claims – including those alleging permanent partial disability, which the bureau defines as “residual impairment resulting from an injury or occupational disease.”
In recent years, Seitz said active athletes and their attorneys are increasingly filing claims – including ones against the Bengals for bruises and simple sprains – that fail to meet the criteria for a permanent partial disability. Doing so burdens the state’s resources, he argued.
“Each filing triggers a medical exam, then a review and decision by the Bureau, and finally – usually when the player’s attorney does not agree to the lack of an award – a hearing officer must review the evidence and make a determination,” Seitz said.
Generally, the amount awarded for permanent partial disability claims is minimal, according to Phil Fulton, a workers’ compensation attorney in Columbus. Ohio’s awards, in terms of their monetary value, are some of the lowest in the U.S., he said.
“Nobody’s getting rich off a permanent partial disability award, and really, for our football athlete who’s making good money, these are really small awards,” Fulton said.
Effect on future medical problems could be ‘troublesome’
Whether it’s an ACL tear or hip reconstruction surgery, active athletes have one year from the date of the injury to file for workers’ compensation benefits. All claims expire after five years – unless a permanent partial disability award is made or treatment is rendered, both of which extend a players’ eligibility for benefits by another five years.
That’s why lawyers occasionally file for permanent partial disability claims – to prevent the statute of limitations from expiring and leaving athletes without covered treatment, Fulton said.
Eliminating the permanent partial disability awards as a recourse could be “troublesome,” Fulton said, pointing to the likelihood that professional athletes develop health conditions related to their employment down the line, like arthritis, that require medical treatment.
“If their claim is over with, you’re just now shifting responsibility for payment of treatment of those things to their own personal health insurance or Medicaid or Medicare or to the public,” he said.
Seitz, however, said a provision of Ohio law already allows athletes to reset the five-year statute of limitations, regardless of whether a permanent partial disability claim exists.
“A visit to a doctor to seek treatment has exactly the same effect,” he said.
Obtaining that treatment is easier said than done, an Ohio attorney who specializes in workers’ compensation said. Sports franchises may deny said treatment, and for athletes filing a claim against a prior employer – for instance, a Dallas Cowboys player filing over an injury sustained while on the Bengals – they must find a physician in their new state who is willing to become certified with the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation.
Seitz’s original plan to get the amendment tucked into a larger workers’ compensation budget bill failed, but his office said the lawmaker continues to legislate the measure. At least two other Republican lawmakers have signaled their support, Seitz said.
The Cincinnati Bengals did not respond to NBC4’s requests for comment.