Northwestern Football and the Workers Comp Back Story

I.I.I. chief actuary James Lynch brings us  an intriguing  tale of workers comp and college football:

The most interesting story in workers compensation these days is playing out, quietly, on the sports page. At least the insurance part is quiet.

You’ve doubtless heard that Northwestern University football players were recognized as employees by an arm of the National Labor Relations Board and earned, tentatively, the right to form a union. The news made The New York Times front page, among others, and merited editorials in The Times and The Wall Street Journal.

Less prominent in the stories is what the players want: workers compensation – or at least some system to pay for the injuries they suffer on the field.

The players, petitioning as the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA), aren’t shy about wanting comp-like coverage. Here’s the second paragraph of their petition to the NLRB (pdf):

Faced with the serious risk of concussions and long-term injuries, the Players seek to bargain over health and safety issues like other employees protected by the [National Labor Relations] Act.”

And they make it clear, in the next sentence, that they aren’t out for money, at least not primarily:

CAPA will not jeopardize the Players’ eligibility by bargaining compensation not permitted by National Collegiate Athletic Association rules, but can bargain additional financial support and protections within the existing NCAA rules, and will speak for the Players as the NCAA landscape continues to evolve.”

The seminal takedown of the NCAA is Taylor Branch’s long, long, click-only-if-you’re-stranded-at-O’Hare opus in The Atlantic magazine’s September 2011 issue. In Branch’s telling (scroll down – wayyyy down – to ‘The Myth of the Student-Athlete’) it was precisely because the NCAA feared workers comp that it fought against classifying athletes as employees. The term student-athlete, he writes, was invented in the 1950s after a widow filed for a workers comp death benefit after her husband died from a head injury he got playing football.

Northwestern is appealing last week’s ruling. If the union gets what it wants, it will likely mean the players could be covered under Illinois’ Workers Compensation Act, like other Northwestern employees.

Northwestern is a private university. Public universities – being state entities – don’t always fall under a state’s workers comp laws. Take, for example, the University of Alabama, a powerhouse program I happened to Google. Its employees are covered by The University of Alabama On-the-Job Injury/Illness program – not part of the workers comp system, but governed by similar principles.

The most interesting what-if discussion I’ve seen on the topic comes from – where else? – Bleacher Report.

(Full disclosure: I used to live about 50 yards from Ryan Field, where Northwestern plays. Talk about noisy neighbors.)

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