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The New Orleans Saints Honoring Devon Walker Contrasts with Growing Workers Compensation Battle in Louisiana

Devon Walker and Sean Payton

Last weekend, the New Orleans Saints honored Devon Walker with a one-day contract. For those that don’t know, Walker, a player at Tulane University, suffered a life-altering spinal injury early in the 2012 season, and is still limited to a wheelchair with paralysis from the neck down.

That honorary player contract from the Saints came on the same day that Walker, a former walk-on and Louisiana native, graduated from Tulane with a degree in biochemistry. Tulane, and the New Orleans community, had come together to raise private funds for Walker’s medical needs, including $300,000 raised for “Devon’s Den”, which paid for necessary improvements to Walker’s family home.

New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton, and other members of the organization, were involved in previous fundraising efforts, including participating in an event, First Down Divas, where proceeds went to Devon’s Den. “Devon’s character, determination, intelligence and work ethic are everything that we look for in a New Orleans Saint when we sign a player. This is the least we can do to recognize Devon and these attributes that we want all of our players to have,” Payton said on Saturday.

At the same time this event was taking place, the New Orleans Saints were embroiled in a political fight over workers compensation for injured football players. Yesterday, the Senate labor committee narrowly approved sending to the full Senate a bill, lobbied by Tom Benson and the New Orleans Saints, that would codify how weekly wages are calculated for professional athletes in Louisiana. Last week, the Louisiana House approved their version, HB1069, that seeks to calculate an athlete’s wages based on how much they were being paid at the specific time of the injury. (the original language of the bill is here). The NFLPA came out last week and told agents to advise their players of the potential consequences of signing with the Saints.

The bill would “substantially reduce workers’ compensation benefits for players injured at any time other than during the 17 weeks of the regular season. In other words the bill, if passed, seeks to provide a lower benefit for a player injured in OTA’s, mini-camps, training camp or even post-season,” according to an e-mail sent to agents by DeMaurice Smith.

This is because of the nature of the way players are compensated in the NFL, with game checks in season, but substantially lesser amounts of pay for participating in training camps or the postseason.

Chris Kane, an attorney for the New Orleans Saints, told USA Today that six different appeals court rulings in Louisiana have determined that average weekly wage for athletes should be calculated at the time of injury only, saying “[i]mportantly, this law is not new.”

That’s partially true, but the law would be new and would slam shut the arguments by both sides about how a football player’s wages should be calculated. That interpretation, consistent with the bill, was applied in a case like the one where Danan Hughes filed over a decade ago. However, Shad Meier, former Tennessee Titan who signed with New Orleans in 2005 prevailed in another case when the opposite view was adopted, and was awarded $34,050 in supplemental earnings benefit. If the Saints’ view prevails, it would mean that any injury that occurred outside the regular season would result in minimal workers compensation for football players.

Also, let’s be clear here: the workers compensation payments are funded by the team, not public coffers, so this is to save Benson money, not the state. According to article 12, section 2 (iv) of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, workers compensation payments made by the teams are included in the “benefits” that are credited to the teams before the salary cap is finalized.

Am I cynical enough to believe that the Saints put on the weekend ceremony involving a paralyzed college player for public goodwill while pressing politically to largely reduce workers compensation liability? No, I think people genuinely were touched by his story and his strong drive to overcome his paralysis. Former Saints wide receiver coach Curtis Jackson, who appeared on Good Morning America today with Walker, was hired as Tulane’s head coach just prior to the tragic injury. There is an ongoing relationship with the school and team that share a city, and the Walker one-day contract was a culmination of a series of events.

Like two ships passing, though, these two things, honoring Walker while fighting over workers compensation, contrast greatly. At the Walker charity event last year, Saints assistant Joe Vitt said, “[w]hen something bad happens to a good player, when something bad happens to a good person, the one thing about football is, we all stick together.” In the case of a tragic event like Devon Walker’s injury, that may be true.

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Is it true, though, if a player suffers the knee injury that moves him from just good enough to play special teams to no longer capable? What if a young player, like Walker, is injured in training camp of his rookie year, and never gets to the regular season? There are other avenues where players can get additional compensation (or compensation in lieu of relying on workers comp): one time severance payments, injury protection, extended injury protection, though some of these have either vesting requirements or require that the player have been on the roster at the end of the previous season or have future years remaining on an existing contract.

Drew Brees has come out in vocal opposition to the proposed law. Drew Brees has made millions of dollars, but he’s sticking together for good players who don’t get to that second contract and have something bad happen.

The legislation, meanwhile, continues on. Actions speak louder than words, particularly when those actions are backed with a checkbook and political lobbying.

 

 

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