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California workers' comp pays big to pro athletes, most who played for out-of-state teams

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By The Los Angeles Times
Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, 6:48 p.m.
 

SACRAMENTO — ­ In his seven-year career with the Denver Broncos, running back Terrell Davis, a former Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, dazzled fans with his speed and elusiveness.

At the end of his rookie year in 1995, he signed a $6.8 million, five-year contract. Off the field he endorsed Campbell's soup. And when he hung up his cleats, he reported for the National Football League Network and appeared in movies and TV shows.

So it may surprise fans to find out that in 2011, Davis got a $199,000 injury settlement from a California workers' compensation court for injuries related to football — despite the fact Davis was employed by a Colorado team and played just nine times in California during an 88-game career, according to the NFL.

Davis was compensated for the lifelong effects of multiple injuries to the head, arms, trunk, legs and general body, according to California workers' compensation records.

He is not alone.

Over the last three decades, California's workers' compensation system has awarded millions of dollars in benefits for job-related injuries to thousands of professional athletes. The vast majority worked for out-of-state teams; some played as little as one game in the Golden State.

All states allow professional athletes to claim workers' compensation payments for specific job-related injuries — such as a busted knee, torn tendon or ruptured spinal disc — that happened within their borders. But California is one of the few that provides additional payments for the cumulative effect of injuries that occur over years of playing.

A growing roster of athletes are using this provision in California law to claim benefits. Since the early 1980s, an estimated $747 million has been paid out to about 4,500 players, according to an August study commissioned by major professional sports leagues. California taxpayers are not on the hook for these payments. Workers' compensation is an employer-funded program.

A major battle is brewing in Sacramento to make out-of-state players ineligible for these benefits, which are paid by the leagues and their insurers. They have hired consultants and lobbyists and expect to introduce legislation next week that would halt the practice.

“The system is completely out of whack right now,” said Jeff Gewirtz, vice president of the Brooklyn Nets — formerly the New Jersey Nets — of the National Basketball Association.

Major retired stars who scored six-figure California workers' compensation benefits include Moses Malone, a three-time NBA most valuable player with the Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers and other teams. He was awarded $155,000. Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin, formerly with the Dallas Cowboys, received $249,000.

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