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NFLPA meets with Capitol Hill lawmakers on issues of player health and safety

DeMaurice Smith, the union’s executive director, met Thursday with members of Congress on player-safety issues (David J. Phillip/Associated Press)
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Representatives of the NFL Players Association were on Capitol Hill for a series of meetings Thursday with members of Congress focused primarily on the sport’s health and safety issues.

“We go up probably four times a year and meet between eight and 10 members,” said DeMaurice Smith, the union’s executive director. “They’re football fans. They’re parents. They’re obviously people who have constituents who care about issues. The issues range from health and safety in the NFL to what our opinions are on the health and safety of football on the collegiate and youth level, issues related to fantasy football, issues related to commissioner discipline, domestic violence. But I would say predominantly the interests were about the health and safety of football participants.”

Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) and Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) were among the lawmakers who met with the NFLPA representatives Thursday.

The health-and-safety topics discussed involved not only issues at the NFL level, union representatives said, but also the example being set for younger players.

“We talk about a lot of issues,” Smith said. “We raised the issue of the league’s new chief medical officer that they recently hired, issues about concussion protocols [and] whether they’re being followed, whether we’re seeing any trends in injury data as it relates to concussions or other serious injuries, and then finally a lot of conversations about youth football.”

NFL officials have said this year that the league has had a 35 percent reduction in the number of reported concussions suffered by players over a three-year span. League leaders have said attitudes toward head injuries are changing among those within the sport after the emphasis that has been placed in recent years on improved procedures to identify and treat concussions suffered by players.

Smith said Thursday he believes the NFL’s concussion policies increasingly are being followed. But he also said the league cannot be considered to be cooperating fully with players on injury-related issues at a time when there have been recent clashes over issues such as workers’ compensation. The union opposed proposed legislation in Louisiana, supported by the New Orleans Saints, to potentially limit workers’ compensation benefits for professional athletes, and has opposed similar legislation in other states.

“If you’re asking the blunt question of is the league doing all they could be, the answer is no,” Smith said. “Let’s take the issue of injury care, for example. Our players have to file for workers’ compensation when it comes to any injury that they are seeking medical care for. I can’t say that the league is doing everything they can when one of their owners introduce legislation to take away workers’ comp benefits from professional athletes. So no, you can’t say that they’re doing everything that they can.

“Do I think that there has been a better dialogue between the union and the physicians’ committee? Yes. Do I think that there’s been stricter adherence to the concussion protocols? Yes. But at the same time, I tie that adherence to the vigilance of the union. It’s been a couple of years but you remember we brought several collective bargaining oversight cases against teams or doctors where we felt that the concussion protocols weren’t followed. We haven’t had nearly as many this year as we’ve had in the past. But I think that’s because of the vigilance and I think it’s because of the adherence. But we strive toward a goal that we haven’t achieved yet.”

UPDATE (3:20 p.m.)…

Jeff Pash, the NFL’s executive vice president of labor, said by phone Friday afternoon that the league complies with state laws regarding workers’ compensation.

“We couldn’t take workers’ comp from players even if we wanted to, and we don’t,” Pash said. “Do you have to file a claim to get workers’ comp? Well, yes. That’s how it works everywhere. The only thing we have been involved in, which I think is entirely appropriate, is trying to avoid so-called double dips…. We’re subject to workers’ comp statutes in every state and the CBA requires us to provide that in every state where the statute precludes that.”

Pash said the league and union have worked well together on issues of player health and safety.

“I do think there has been a lot of good accomplished working together on a whole range of issues related to health and safety,” he said, “from concussions to the medical timeout to independent medical consultants to return-to-play guidelines…. This is one area where a lot of good work has been done on a joint basis. It has helped to make the game better and safer. I know there are a lot of areas where we differ but this is one area where we have worked well together.”

Pash said he does believe the union should reiterate forcefully to players that they should not hide any concussion symptoms from team personnel, as Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins acknowledged doing during a recent game.

“One area where the union could really help is to encourage players not to hide symptoms,” Pash said. “The union and union leadership can have a more persuasive message to players than the league can. I know the union believes players should not hide concussions. It simply needs to be repeated. It needs to be emphasized when we have a teachable moment like we’ve had. I’m not saying they won’t do it. The union’s voice could be persuasive and powerful there.”