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Here are two things you can count on in professional sports - careers on average are very short, and within that small window of time athletes get hurt. Those two realities have collided in the Illinois legislature on the issue of workmen's compensation. Lawmakers are considering a bill that would reduce workers' comp benefits for pro athletes in the state. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Illinois is a place of distinction. It has the most nuclear power plants of any state. Twinkies were invented in Illinois. And it's the only state in the union where professional athletes can claim a workers' compensation wage differential until the age of 67. OK, about that last one. Here's what it means.
In Illinois, if you get injured on the job and you're forced to take a lower-paying job, workers' comp law says you can collect about two thirds of the difference between what you made before the injury and after. That's the wage differential. Illinois allows injured workers to claim it until the age of 67. That's considered the average end to a working life - most working lives.
PATTY SCHUH: Everyone knows a professional athlete does not work in that career till the age 67.
GOLDMAN: Patty Schuh is a spokeswoman for Illinois Republican Senator Christine Radogno. Radogno is sponsoring Senate Bill 12. It singles out pro athletes and says sorry, guys. Since you don't work in your job until 67, we're not going to pay that wage differential until you're 67. We'll pay until you're 35. The major pro sports teams in Illinois, all in Chicago, wrote a letter supporting the bill and noting that pro athletes in the NFL, NBA, baseball and hockey play on average three to five years.
This means many are done well before 35, which makes the proposed cutoff at 35 seem kind of generous until you talk to the NFL Players Association. The NFLPA hates Senate Bill 12. Remember, football players are very likely to get injured and need workers' comp. George Atallah is a union executive.
GEORGE ATALLAH: Let's just call it what it is. They are trying to set a limit on the ability of professional athletes to gain and earn a benefit for an injury that they suffered at work. And that's not something that, frankly, the union takes kindly to.
GOLDMAN: The union is ready to act on its anger. Here's NFLPA President DeMaurice Smith on Chicago's "670 The Score."
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "670 THE SCORE")
DEMAURICE SMITH: I will tell you from the bottom of my heart that this union will tell every potential free agent player, if this bill passes, to not come to the Bears.
GOLDMAN: Smith and the union say Senate Bill 12 will cut off injured athletes' medical benefits at 35. Not true, says Chicago Bears general counsel Cliff Stein. Injury care will not change. But Stein says reducing the wage payments to athletes will tighten up an overly generous workers' comp system.
CLIFF STEIN: Since 2005, no other teams in any other state have paid more money in workers' compensation claims, settlements and awards than the teams in the state of Illinois.
GOLDMAN: Adding to this, some athletes who play and are injured in Illinois but don't live there still make workers' comp claims in the state. Cliff Stein can't provide an exact number, but he says it's been growing. Reducing workers' comp wage payments for pro athletes will save teams money. The Chicago Tribune reports it could be as much as $1.7 million per athlete. But the Bears' Cliff Stein says if the teams only cared about that they'd push to completely get rid of the athletes' payments. Michigan did that. A handful of other states set workers' comp limits for athletes.
Senate Bill 12 remains a work in progress, a small part of a comprehensive package of proposed reforms. NFL teams can start negotiating with free agents next month. Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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