Senators vote with Benson in workers comp dispute

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Senators on the labor committee narrowly sided Thursday with New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson over the NFL players in a dispute about how workers compensation claims for professional athletes should be calculated.
The bill by Rep. Chris Broadwater, pushed by the NFL team owner, would calculate workers compensation for professional athletes based on recent earnings, not future possible wages.
The NFL Players Association said the proposal would lessen the amount of workers compensation the Saints pay in injury cases. Saints officials said they're seeking the new provision to stop repeated lawsuits over workers compensation claims.
The Senate labor committee voted 4-3 to advance the House-backed proposal to the full Senate for debate. Committee Chairman A.G. Crowe, of Slidell, cast the deciding vote.
Players receive only per diems during offseason workouts and training camp. Under the bill, workers compensation benefits could be based on per diems — rather than the full annual value of a contract — if injuries occurred in the offseason, giving a player far less money depending on when the injury happens.
"If this bill passes the Legislature, the only person in the state of Louisiana that you're going to help is Tom Benson," said Alton Ashy, a lobbyist for the NFL Players Association.
Supporters of the proposal said it would pay athletes' workers compensation under the same rules that other Louisiana employees have.
Chris Kane, a contract attorney for the Saints, said state appeals courts sided with the team in six of seven workers comp lawsuits between former Saints players and the team. He said Broadwater's bill would put state law in line with case law.
"We're trying to pass this law to stop litigation, not to hurt anyone. They are very well-protected," Kane said.
Kane said permanently injured players receive several types of benefits that total hundreds of thousands of dollars for a rookie and more for long-time players.
Opponents of the bill said players hurt in the offseason shouldn't get any less for their injuries than if they got hurt in a regular season game. They said the proposed change could discourage professional athletes from coming to Louisiana.
"If I go to a state who I know that workers comp will adversely affect my rights and my health benefits beyond my playing career, then that's something I would look at to decide whether or not it makes sense for me to go play in that state," said former NFL player Kevin Mawae, a past president of the players association.
Sen. Barrow Peacock, R-Shreveport, suggested he wasn't sure why professional athletes were relying on workers comp benefits.
"Workers comp is for the little man," said Peacock, who voted for the bill.
Mawae said it was inappropriate for lawmakers "to get caught up in the numbers game." He said professional athletes have expensive medical needs and don't necessarily have lifetime health care coverage.
"I'm a worker, just like you are," he said.


MELINDA DESLATTE, Associated Press

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