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Report: Wealthy Athletes Apply For Workers’ Comp

August 14, 1996

SAN DIEGO (AP) _ The state program for workers disabled on the job has attracted claims from California’s wealthiest former athletes, including Joe Montana and Bo Jackson, a newspaper reported Wednesday.

Hundreds of former athletes, including some who only briefly played in California, are attracted by the lump-sum, tax-free benefits of the workers’ compensation system, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

``They are workers like everybody else,″ attorney Ron Mix, formerly with the San Diego Chargers, told the newspaper. ``I can’t imagine they should care what the public thinks because they have an absolute right to it.″

Mix, who has represented dozens of athletes in workers’ compensation cases, estimated his clients who played in the 1990s each received an average $50,000 to $70,000 in benefits.

Critics argue the system was designed for wage earners who work in dangerous jobs and lost income if they couldn’t work. Sports superstars are usually paid whether or not they play.

``Workers’ compensation and professional sports is an anomaly,″ said William Titelman, a lawyer who represents the Pittsburgh Steelers. ``This was intended to apply to the family bread winner being sidelined and unable to make a living.″

California administers an $8 billion workers’ compensation system that handles 260,000 claims each year. Litigation involving claims end up in the workers’ compensation appeals court, and the cases drag on for years.

Most of the athletes’ claims end up in that court.

The Union-Tribune found 151 former San Diego Chargers filed 310 claims for hundreds of thousands of dollars since 1990, according to state Division of Labor Relations records. They include former quarterback Dan Fouts and local television personalities Billy Ray Smith and Gill Byrd.

Many baseball players also filed claims. Forty-five former San Diego Padres, including Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers, Cy Young Award winner Randy Jones and Garry Templeton _ filed a total of 62 claims.

San Diego’s professional players are not alone in taking advantage of the workers’ compensation system. Also filing claims were former 49ers quarterback Montana, and ex-Raiders Jackson and Jim Plunkett.

Athletes are treated like any other employee in California. Nearly a dozen other states, including Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Texas, impose tough restrictions on how professional athletes can collect compensation.

California lawmakers considered changing the law, but the issue was ultimately dropped.

``If you change the law for a Joe Montana, you change the law for an average worker,″ said state Sen. Steve Peace.

But is Joe Montana an average Joe?

The former San Francisco and Kansas City quarterback, who was once the NFL’s highest-paid athlete, earned $13 million in one four-season period with the 49ers.

Montana recently filed workers’ compensation claims in Santa Ana for assorted football injuries that date back to 1979.

``Joe is pretty beat up,″ said his lawyer, George Hill, who would not reveal how much Montana is seeking in benefits. ``He’s had 10 or 15 surgeries on his back, knees and elbows.

``The biggest concern with Joe is not the money, it’s his health and medical care. It could cost millions of dollars later on.″

Fouts, another former star quarterback, earned millions while playing for the Chargers between 1973 and 1987. He filed claims in 1993 for injuries going back to his rookie season even though he is now a TV commentator for the 49ers.

Fouts did not return phone calls.

Mix said he has only lost one case _ one involving Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas.

Unitas ended his 18-year pro career with the Chargers in 1973. Mix told Unitas, who injured his knees in the 1950s, to file for workers’ compensation in San Diego instead of his home state of Maryland, where the laws restricted athletes from collecting benefits.

Unitas lost the case, but Mix said it wasn’t a big problem for the former Baltimore Colts star.

``John is doing all right financially,″ he said. ``It doesn’t make any difference.″

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