By Chris Emma–
(CBS) The NFL Players Association has been loud in its words against Bears ownership, but it won’t matter much come this critical free agency period.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith recently expressed his displeasure for proposed workers’ compensation legislation that would lessen a part of the current protections and benefits for athletes. Under Illinois law, most injured workers can claim disability benefits known as a “wage differential award” until they’re 67 years old; the new bill would lower that age threshold to 35 for athletes.
The proposal has been supported by the Bears and Chicago’s four other major professional teams.
Smith came forward on 670 The Score with strong claims regarding the bill.
“I will tell you from the bottom of my heart that this union will tell every potential free agent player, if this bill passes, to not come to the Bears,” Smith said on Feb. 3. “Because, think about it, if you’re a free agent player and you have an opportunity to go play somewhere else where you can get lifetime medical for the injury you’re going to have, isn’t a smarter financial decision to go to a team where a bill like this hasn’t passed?
In a follow-up appearance on Feb. 7 on 670 The Score, Smith clarified his position.
“There are other teams where workers’ comp is worse and better,” Smith said. “I’m not singling out the Bears.
“We’ve fought a bill like this in Louisiana, we fought a bill like this in North Carolina.”
Additionally, Smith promised to include the details of workers’ compensation legislation or proposals with each of the NFL’s 32 teams on the NFLPA free agency report. These reports include the vital details for each organization.
The Bears are entering a vital offseason in which they hope to become a contending team after a 3-13 season in 2016. Free agency will be an essential piece to that puzzle. Smith’s threats against the Bears sound dangerous.
One NFL agent who represents multiple Bears players dismissed Smith’s words while acknowledging his position to defend players. Smith even stated that his intent was to fight for every penny available. Only 13 states offer wage differential.
Another agent who represents multiple Bears pointed to the extreme situations of workers’ compensation, which represents a terrible situation. Countless other factors are in play when a player is evaluating his NFL future.
“It’s something that’s in the back of your mind, but I’d be lying if I said it’s No. 1 on the list,” the agent said. “No one plans on getting hurt and it’s tough to convince guys to consider the worst-case scenario when choosing their next home.”
Essentially, players set to be paid aren’t considering a sudden end to their careers in the prime of it. The agent suggested that extreme legislation could become a factor, though the proposals in Illinois are similar to those enforced in other NFL states.
Big-ticket NFL free agents — many of whom the Bears could pursue this offseason — aren’t factoring in the workers’ compensation details of each possible offer.
Cliff Stein, the longtime general counsel for the Bears, recently spoke to the Chicago Tribune about the NFLPA’s claims.
“I can say right now that not one time in my 22 years (of contract negotiating), on either side of the fence, has any player or agent ever looked (deeply) into, ‘What are the worker’s comp laws in your state?’ ” Stein said to the Tribune. “Maybe once or twice I had an agent ask about the state income tax. But that was it.”
Bears general manager Ryan Pace will soon be looking for upgrades to his roster, and many are needed. Quarterback will soon come to the spotlight, while improvements in the secondary are important. They also need better at receiver, tight end and a stalwart at the 5-technique would be great.
Despite the strong claims from Smith and the NFLPA, the Bears will be able to operate this offseason without interference.