The head of the National Football League Players Association accused the Washington Redskins ownership today of seeking to undermine its union contract and urged Virginia lawmakers to reject the team's attempts to avoid paying workers' compensation to players who are injured on the field.
Executive Director Gene Upshaw told members of the House Commerce and Labor Committee that players should be allowed to work out their differences at the bargaining table with Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder and other executives.
"This body has more important things to do besides finding special legislation that would benefit one person -- just one -- and he doesn't even live in the state," Upshaw said, referring to Snyder, who lives in Maryland. "I have never seen any legislation drawn so narrowly . . . that helps one person make more money."
A lobbyist for the Loudoun County-based team responded, saying that Redskins players make more than $500,000 a year on average and that they are abusing state workers' compensation laws to collect benefits twice for the same injury.
"These individuals say they are injured" and receive substantial benefits from the team, said Ralph L. "Bill" Axselle Jr., a lobbyist and former state delegate. "Then, after they retire, they claim permanent disability. The issue is they are misusing the system."
Under Virginia's compensation law, employers pay employees a percentage of lost income and medical costs for virtually any workplace injury. In exchange, the law puts a limit on the payout to injured employees. Every public and private employee is covered.
Legislation filed Friday on behalf of the Redskins would leave players covered by workers' compensation laws, but would allow the team to reduce payments by the amount of salary and benefits a player received after he was injured. In most cases, that would reduce the workers' compensation payments to zero, attorneys for both sides have said.
The Redskins donated a total of $18,500 to the Republican and Democratic legislative caucuses at the end of last month, and dozens of lawmakers initially signed on as patrons of the legislation. But today several said they were taking their names off that list because they are no longer certain how they will vote on the measure.
Those withdrawing as sponsors of the House bill include Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, and House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem).
"Since there is some question about what the bill does, I'm not going to be a patron on it until I know what's really going on," Griffith said.
Upshaw's appearance in the General Assembly was the beginning of what the players association said would be a lobbying effort featuring well-known names from the NFL. Several people, including some lawmakers, made a point of shaking hands with Upshaw, a famed former Oakland Raiders offensive lineman.
In the lobby outside the committee room after the hearing, opposing lobbyists, lawyers and public relations specialists squared off in loud, heated exchanges.
"No player in the Redskins locker room is aware of what Snyder's trying to do here," Upshaw told reporters after the hearing.
Replied Norman D. Chirite, the team's general counsel: "This is not a Dan Snyder issue. This is a Redskins club issue. We just believe it's an abuse of the system." Chirite said the team is merely trying to end that abuse.
Redskins officials say players have insurance coverage for injuries under their contract, but Virginia allows them to collect workers' compensation for the same injuries after they leave the team. He said current and former players on the team have filed more than 700 such workers' compensation claims since 1997. The claims cost the team about $2 million a year, more than any other NFL team, he said.
"It's not unsubstantial in terms of money," he said. "A lot of money is wasted by the filing of claims."
Chirite said the NFL's collective bargaining agreement allows management or the players association to pursue legislative or judicial solutions to disputes about workers' compensation. He said 13 states have passed similar laws that allow sports teams to reduce payments to players.
Player representatives disagreed, saying that there is a binding contract between the union and the NFL covering workers' compensation and that the team is trying to circumvent that contract.
Richard Berthelsen, the players association's lead attorney, called the proposed Virginia legislation a one-of-a-kind attempt to undo such agreements.
"Contracts, the last time I checked, are entitled to a sanctity," he told committee members. "You don't take a contract you make with people and decide that a provision you don't like you take to the legislature."
Player representatives also accused Redskins officials of launching their legislative assault quietly and after postseason play got underway. Upshaw was invited to speak today after telling lawmakers that he would be flying Wednesday to California for the Super Bowl and then on to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl, making it impossible to attend future meetings of the General Assembly.
"They waited for the team to be on the other end of the field. It was an end run," said Doug Allen, the assistant executive director of the players association. "We figured it out, and here we are."