In a close vote, a Louisiana Senate committee backed Saints owner Tom Benson’s financial interests Thursday by advancing controversial legislation that delves into professional athletes’ injury pay.
The legislation’s sponsor, state Rep. Chris Broadwater, said House Bill 1069 is necessary because state law is unclear on how athletes should be compensated when they are injured on the job. The NFL Players Association countered that HB1069 would hurt low-profile athletes who accept a small weekly stipend for a chance at making the cut and result in Benson keeping more of his profits.
The debate has exploded into a national issue with union officials fearful that what becomes state law in Louisiana could spill into other states with professional sports teams.
At issue is how workers compensation should be calculated in an arena ripe for injuries. Professional athletes’ pay can vary from month to month. They get stipends for mini camps, organized team practices and training camps. Fatter game checks don’t start hitting the mailbox until the season starts.
The Saints backed HB1069 to compute workers compensation on the rate of earnings at the time of injury. That calculation could exclude the bigger paychecks that arrive during the season. Earnings that could have been made but for the injury would not be considered.
An amendment added Thursday — in the spirit of compromise, according to Broadwater — purports to give athletes a bump by including their signing bonuses in the calculations.
The bill would not affect any of the medical and injury benefits NFL players are entitled to under the league’s collective bargaining agreement. It would pertain to additional wage-loss benefits injured employees in Louisiana can receive under state law.
Debate on the bill was fierce and often personal.
“If this bill passes the Legislature, the only person in the state of Louisiana you’re going to help is Tom Benson. One man,” Alton Ashy, a lobbyist for the NFL Players Association, told members of the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee.
Chris Kane, outside counsel for the Saints, said the franchise isn’t requesting special treatment. “We’re just asking that Louisiana treat professional athletes just like any other employee,” he said.
The vote to advance the bill was 4-3, with the chairman breaking the tie.
Hours later, Gov. Bobby Jindal took a pass when asked whether he sided with Benson or the team’s quarterback, Drew Brees, on the legislation. Jindal said Thursday he feared getting in trouble with his son, who is a sports fan.
“We’ll look at the bill when it gets to our desk. Nobody’s talked to us about the bill from either organization,” the governor said.
Broadwater said he only filed the bill after seeing legislation that would calculate workers compensation by dividing a player’s annual salary by 52 weeks.
That proposal, Senate Bill 159, currently is stalled.
After reading SB159, Broadwater phoned the Saints franchise and offered to file competing legislation. “They didn’t approach me and ask me to file it. I approached them,” he said.
Broadwater said the issue needs to be resolved because courts are struggling with how to rule when litigation arises. “We are trying to come up with a reasonable compromise. (We’re) not trying to hurt the players,” he said.
Former Saints player Ernie Conwell, who now serves as regional director for the NFL Players Association, said the bill will hurt players by boxing in their eligible compensation.
“Imagine (Saints coach) Sean Payton, Drew Brees both in a golf cart between practices. That cart gets hit. They both get injured. Drew Brees is going to be based on a weekly training camp stipend for his work comp benefit, but the coach is going to get completely covered because he’s not an athlete?” Conwell said, adding “It’s just not right.”
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