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After the Fall
As the number of injured professional athletes rises, compensation is finally catching up.
Posted: February 1, 2001
It started as just an ordinary preseason game. But one play made it anything but ordinary. The Oakland Raiders were playing the New England Patriots on August 12, 1978. Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley ran a slant pattern across the middle that left him an easy mark as he reached for an overthrown pass. Waiting for him was defensive back Jack Tatum, who considered himself the hardest hitter in football, meaner than the Chicago Bears' Dick Butkus, and the greatest outlaw to wear Oakland's villainous silver and black. Tatum considered two alternatives. "I could have attempted to intercept," he recalled in his book They Call Me Assassin, "but because of what the owners expect of me when they give me my paycheck, I automatically reacted to the situation by going for an intimidating hit." He once said, "My best hits border on felonious assault." Tatum's shoulders met his prey full bore, breaking the third and fourth vertebrae in Stingley's neck.
"I wasn't expected to live," Stingley says today. A trainer with good intentions but poor technique yanked his helmet off while he lay on the field. His head was not immobilized as he was wheeled off the bumpy Oakland Coliseum field "like a bouncy figure on a string." After two weeks in the hospital he had developed "all the respiratory complications that are so common with these injuries. It wasn't until November, three months later, that I was out of the woods." The incident left him a quadriplegic. Stingley, then 26, was a first-round draft pick out of Purdue five years before. What would become of him?
Stingley's injury was devastating, haunting, final. But it was also the exception. Few of the 17,000 men who have played in the National Football League since 1920 have been crippled for life. But football -- and other professional sports -- are rife with serious injuries that end careers and affect the quality of players' lives.
Since March 1999, serious injuries have leveled prominent athletes in the four major American team sports: basketball, football, baseball and hockey. Jayson Williams, the New Jersey Nets' power forward in the second year of a six-year contract worth $85 million, broke his foot in practice last spring while attempting to come back from a broken leg the year before. His money was guaranteed, but not his career: he retired last June. That same month, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young announced his retirement after enduring the effects of a fourth concussion suffered the previous October. Last March, Atlanta Braves right-hander John Smoltz succumbed to a torn medial collateral ligament in his right elbow after being disabled twice in 1998 and twice again in 1999. The 33-year-old missed the entire 2000 season. During hockey's Eastern Conference Finals last May, as Eric Lindros, the Philadelphia Flyers' two-time all-star, crossed the New Jersey Devils' blue line, Scott Stevens clocked him with a shoulder-to-head check. Lindros fell, his head bounced on the ice, and he suffered his sixth concussion. The fate of his career is still uncertain.
The Stingley injury had such lasting significance in the NFL that the compensation for active players who suffer a "total and permanent" disability is now commonly known as "the Stingley benefit." But what happens to other injured NFL players, and injured players in other sports? Ultimately it depends upon the kind of contract they signed, their length of service, and the sport they play.
NFL contracts are never guaranteed. A player who, say, signs a five-year deal for $30 million, with a $9 million signing bonus (bonuses are typically about a third of the value of the contract), and has a career-ending injury in his first preseason game after signing, will get to keep his signing bonus, which is guaranteed. But he will not get the dollar value of the full contract, although he has the option of filing an injury grievance to get a settlement on top of his bonus.
Ex-New York Jets wide receiver Al Toon, who had signed a three-year, $4.2 million contract nine months before, retired in 1992 after one too many concussions. The Jets paid him the remainder of his $1.375 million salary for the 1992 season. Players like Toon, who left the game because of injuries but were not disabled to the degree that they couldn't pursue other vocations after their careers, receive what is called a line-of-duty disability. (Players injured more severely, who are unable to pursue other work after their injuries, receive the higher, career- ending disability payout -- the "Stingley benefit.") Toon's temporary disability payout was a microscopic $600 a month in 1993, the first year after his injury. It then went up to $1,000 a month in 1994, and to $1,680 a month from mid-1994 through 1997, and then it stopped. (In the NFL, line-of-duty disability payouts expire after four years.) Fortunately, Toon, 37, now living outside Madison, Wisconsin, is not only able to work but is flourishing. He has a real estate license and a degree in economics, and he invests in real estate, hotels and fast food franchises. "The retirement plan doesn't kick in until 55, [but] you can take it early at 45," he says. "I'm not relying on that."
Though sidelined in October 1999 with his fourth concussion in three years, Steve Young received all of his $7.5 million salary for that year. Young underwent a series of medical tests but was never placed on injured reserve. Upon announcing his retirement the following June, he also drew a $1 million roster bonus from San Francisco. Because of the years Young played, from 1985 to 1999, he can apply for a line-of-duty benefit of $4,070 a month. He has four years to apply but has yet to do so. In addition, he receives $160,000 annually in severance pay.
While contracts are not guaranteed, the increase in benefits by the NFL Player's Association shows an understanding of the dangers inherent in the sport. By 1993, NFL players who had totally disabling, degenerative conditions were covered by the pension plan. Former Oakland center Jim Otto, who is on permanent degenerative benefits for various injuries, receives $110,000 a year for the rest of his life. This standard benefit is paid to players 12 years out of the league, or younger than 45, whichever is the latter. Before 1993, inactive players with disabilities were receiving just $1,000 a month. Since 1993, players who were active at the time of their injuries, like Stingley, get $234,000 a year for life.
"In years prior to 1993, they [the NFL] would simply not recognize the football causation [of injuries]," says Miki Yaras-Davis, the Player's Association director of benefits. "Darryl Stingley was the reason we always looked at total and permanent active [benefits]. He was the first one that had such a dramatic, televised incident."
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