Injuries, Part 2 – The Cold Truth

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Quote of the Day: “A word to the wise ain't necessary – it's the stupid ones that need the advice.” — Bill Cosby

This is the time of year for injury settlements and, unfortunately, injury grievances to follow.

Injuries to marginal players represent a completely different story than injuries to front- line players. Once these players are injured, word given from the head coach and general manager to the Cap manager/negotiator typically goes something like this: “Get that guy out of here.” The NFL is a hard and cold business; when marginal players are no longer serving a role in practice and, more importantly, taking up a roster spot, it is time for them to go.

In these situations, the players are waived/injured, meaning they are available to be claimed by any team in the league, which they never are. After the 24-hour waiver period, they revert to the teams reserve/injured list, separated from the active 80-man roster. They then remain on that list until such time as when they are waived, meaning they are sufficiently healed. That time frame may be a few days or it may be the entire season, depending on the injury. When the “Get that guy out of here” mandate comes, that is usually a signal for an injury settlement. I would call the agent, explain our medical staff’s estimate of the time frame for the injury, and try to work out a settlement for that amount of time. If the time frame for the injury is contained in the preseason, the amounts are miniscule and outside the Cap.

In the event the time of injury runs into the regular season, the amounts get larger and count against the Cap. For instance, if a player with a minimum first year split salary – rookies beyond the third round usually have “splits,” meaning a different (lower) salary if they are not on the active list – is $195,000 and a settlement is reached now for four weeks – one week of preseason money (approximately $900 per week) and three weeks of regular season money – the player would receive 3/17th of his $195,000 salary, or $34,412 with such amount counting against the Cap. The three-week threshold is vitally important to players as it represents a credited season for pension purposes.

The key information in these situations comes from the team doctor – in our case at the Packers it was Dr. Pat McKenzie, a trusted friend who had the players’ best interests always in mind. Sometimes agents put full trust in what the team doctor says. (I was always to put the agent in touch with our doctor to eliminate the middleman.) At times, however, agents will want a second opinion and we will then negotiate from there. When teams and agents cannot work out a settlement, a more aggressive step may be taken: an Injury Grievance.

Injury Grievances come in all shapes and sizes. Some are quite legitimate and we would continue, as with the injury settlement, to negotiate a settlement. In other cases the team is caught by surprise as the player never appeared injured and/or barely received treatment while with the team (this occurred many times while I was with the Packers). It was very frustrating to receive a grievance from a player that was just trying to get his last shot at some income from football, knowing that there was no true playing future. The union does not have any minimum qualifications for filing an injury grievance, so there are a fair share of frivolous cases. Although grievances require a Cap charge of half the amount of the player’s salary, these are the type of grievances that we would let idle without trying to settle prior to the hearing date, usually a year later.

Preseason was typically the time of year I became a first-year student in orthopedic medicine. I learned all about MCLs, lateral meniscus tears, chondral surfaces, patellar tendonitis and, of course, everything about how long a hamstring, calf, quad, ankle, or foot sprain or strain took to heal.

With all the bickering between teams and agents on healing times and settlement amounts and team doctors’ opinions versus player doctors’ opinions versus neutral doctors’ opinions, this suggestion seems warranted: why not have an “Injury Panel” of respected sports medicine doctors approved by the NFL and the NFLPA to mediate disputes between teams and players and hand down swift and binding mediated opinions as to the cost and disposition of these injuries? The panel would save the teams, the players, the agents and the union (which handles all the injury grievances for the players) a lot of time, money, and aggravation. I have floated it in a couple places without gaining much traction, as the haggling over injury settlements appears to be a tradition that will continue.

Injuries are the name of the game this time of year in the NFL, if not all times of year. Coaches and staffs prepare for many scenarios, but usually don’t prepare to lose a lot of players. If there were a medical and training staff that could greatly reduce the incidence of injured players, they would be the true executives of the year in the NFL.

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