Legislation filed in Virginia today on behalf of the Washington Redskins ownership would virtually exempt the team from paying millions of dollars to its players for injuries suffered on the field.
Senior Democrats and Republicans in the General Assembly have lined up behind the measure, introduced just before today's deadline for new legislation.
The bill was introduced in the House and Senate a week after the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the Loudoun County-based Redskins must pay a former offensive lineman for an injury to his ankle, a closely watched case that fed the team's interest in legislation.
The bill was filed barely two weeks after the Redskins organization made $10,000 and $8,500 contributions to the Republican and Democratic caucuses in the General Assembly. They were the first contributions the team has made to legislators since a computerized system monitoring donations was set up in 1997. The team also gave in-kind contributions of $15,000 on Dec. 8 to Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), which involved use of the owner's box at FedEx Field for a fundraiser.
The half-page bill will generate intense lobbying efforts by the Redskins ownership and by players, who vowed today to descend on Richmond to oppose the team-sponsored bill.
At stake is the financial relationship between the National Football League and its players, who have been waging similar battles over workers' compensation in other states. In dispute are such issues as whether a football player -- paid hundreds of thousands of dollars or more to smash and twist his way past opponents in a televised spectacle -- is the type of "worker" meant to be compensated.
"It's a dispute between the millionaires and the billionaires," said Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William).
Under Virginia's compensation law, employers pay employees a percentage of lost wages and medical treatment for virtually any workplace injury in exchange for capping the total payouts to the employees. Every public and private employee is covered.
Redskins players also are covered by disability insurance policies, provided by the team, that supplement the payments required by the state.
The court case that the Redskins lost involved Jeff Uhlenhake, who played for the Redskins from 1996 to 1998. The center sprained his left ankle in a game Sept. 28, 1997, when a player fell on him.
After the state workers' compensation commission set a disability rate for Uhlenhake in 2001 that could have entitled him to several hundred thousand dollars, both sides took the issue to the state Court of Appeals. The team said Uhlenhake's ankle injury was not covered by workers' compensation laws because players -- unlike other covered employees -- are almost certain to be injured in their work.
But the Supreme Court agreed with the appeals court, which had held that compensation should not be waived for those in high-risk jobs such as "coal miners, steel workers, firefighters and police officers."
The legislation would allow the Redskins to reduce workers' compensation by the amount of salary paid to the player after an injury.
In almost every case, lawyers for both sides said today, workers' compensation payments would be reduced to zero because the salaries of NFL players are so high.
More than two dozen House members -- Democrats and Republicans -- have signed on as sponsors of House Bill 2747. Nine of the most senior and influential senators are backing Senate Bill 1323.
Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said football players don't need the extra benefit of workers' compensation.
But Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) said passage of the Redskins bill could lead to exempting other professions with high-paid employees.
"It says that, based on your money, an employer doesn't have an obligation to an employee. That's a horrible precedent," he said.
Staff writer R.H. Melton contributed to this report.