The League

Peter Schaffer
NFL Agent

Peter Schaffer

Agent and professor of sports law

Can't Make the Club in the Tub

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The National Football League is the most exciting, popular and successful professional sports league in the history of sports. This is a result of the game's strategic sophistication, the tremendous elite athletes who play it and of course the speed, and violence which make NFL player's modern-day gladiators. The players are now larger, faster and stronger than ever before, and thus the collisions are more violent, dangerous and exciting. However, this excitement comes at a price.

On every down, players are at risk to suffer significant, long term and some times catastrophic injuries. The question for players, such as Jason Witten of the Cowboys and others, every week comes down to how to survive, succeed and thrive in the league and at the same time have a body healthy enough when to enjoy retirement.

There is nothing more frightening or sobering then seeing pictures or videos of the great warriors of the 60's, 70' and 80's like Jim Otto of "00" fame with the Raiders or the great Earl Campbell. Both noted warriors' bodies were brutalized and destroyed by years of combat and inferior medical procedures to the point that neither man can function on his own or lead a normal life. No amount of fame or fortune is worth that. The difference for today's NFL players, and for that matter all athletes and patients, is that the medical technology of the 21st century makes the likelihood of career or life-ending injury that much less.

The NFL, or "Not For Long League" as it is commonly referred, is different than all other major professional sports in that the vast majority of players do not have guaranteed contracts like their contemporaries in the other sports. This means a player is only as good as his last play or season and is never afforded the luxury of an off game or season. Players feel the pressure to make the team every day, every play and every game. The old saying still rings true to day that "you can't make the club in the tub."

Players have to perform today and are very weary of being labeled a chronic complainer or injury prone or a guy with a low threshold of pain. All players in the league are subtly or directly made aware that if they cannot hold up and perform for 16 weeks and playoffs then the teams will find younger, cheaper, and healthier replacements for their jobs. This is a matter of fact that is ingrained in all players' minds and hearts 365 days a year. A player's financial future is often times related to his durability and ability to play through pain.

Yet this is also a critical factor in making sure that the players make the correct decision between pain and injury every day of the week. A player can play with pain that's part of the NFL. Injury is different, though; especially one that can be not only career-diminishing but catastrophic in nature. Coaches, many of whom sincerely care about the health and well being of their players, are in the conflicted position of winning each and every week, with only 53 man rosters. The need to have healthy players is very important to the continuity and success of the club and sometimes the future well-being of the players is sacrificed.

Player and team rights and rules are governed by the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement, "the CBA." This document affords numerous rights to the league's players. The most important right to the player, even more so than free agency, pensions etc. are those of a player's right to a second medial opinion, a player's rights to a surgeon of their own choosing and a player's right to know as much about his medical condition as the team and its medical providers. It is known but not fully understood by the causal fan that the team provides all medical care and treatment to its players including doctors, trainers and rehabilitation therapists etc. These medical providers are selected not by the players but by the team who also compensates them.

The inherent conflict of interest between the team, the player and the medical care providers is clear and has been a problem since the days of Jim Thorpe and Otto Graham. The medical care providers must answer to the team president, general manager or head coach, as it is these people who determine whether or not the medical care provider will continue in his employment and services to the club. Many times when a coach asks the team doctor or trainer if a player can play, it is not as much of a question as a command to the medical care provider. The medical provider has to decide between his own pecuniary benefits derived from the team (by pleasing the coach) or his Hippocratic oath to provide his patient with the best medical advice and care. Sometimes these principals do not mesh and the player is the loser.

The question of whether a player can or can not trust the team medical care provider is controlled also by article XLIV of the CBA. This provision requires the teams to provide all information concerning a potential significant aggravation of an injury to a player that the team knows. Al Wilson of the Broncos has recently brought an article XLIV claim versus his former team the Broncos for returning him to play a mere 3 days post near catastrophic neck episode without the team giving him full and complete disclosure about the risks of returning to play after suffering a cervical neurapraxia (temporary paralysis) incident with an abnormally small spinal column. The ruling from the arbitrator shall be forthcoming, but the hope is that the mere initiation of such a claim for the first time against a team will motivate all teams to err on the side of full disclosure to players in future situations.

As stated above, players also have the right to a second opinion and a surgeon of their own choosing. This is an area which can assist the player tremendously in making the correct decisions. Sometimes teams pressure players, especially the younger ones with no financial security, to use team doctors. Sometimes they don't have a "real" choice. It is not only the player's responsibility to know his rights and protect himself, but also that of his legal representatives.

One of the toughest tasks and a major area of concern for a player representative is assisting in these decisions from thousands of miles away. The key is helping players understand the difference between pain and injury. Making the right call can affect a player's career and contract. If a player suffers an injury in which surgery is the only option, yet the timing of the surgery is not definite, then a thorough examination of the pros and cons of the surgery, the timing and re-examination of the player's contract is in order before deciding on when to have the operation

Both player and agent to must know their rights and their leverage. To hear Saints Tight End Jeremy Shockey complain about being misdiagnosed during training camp by the team doctor a few weeks ago begs the questions - where were he and his agent in obtaining their CBA-granted second opinions if they had any issues or concerns? Sure, the conflict of interest exists, but all players and agents are aware of it today.

Players also feel a tremendous amount of peer pressure from the locker room culture. This pressure can both be beneficial and detrimental. The locker room environment fosters a tough-guy mentality where players can be motivated to play better, harder and longer than they ever thought possible. However, this mentality (through its tremendous testosterone driven motivation) can also pressure players for the sake of their manhood or teammate's admiration to play when it is not in their best interest.

At the end of the day, the pressure to play through pain and into injury is as commonplace in the NFL as fans that wager on the games or play fantasy football. No one wants to see their heroes crippled like Earl Campbell or Jim Otto, but at the same time everyone relishes the opportunity to see their stars perform feats of heroic proportion on HDTV every fall Sunday. But players and their representatives need to know their leverage, the player's contractual and health situation and then do what is best for the player for that game, that season, and his entire career while at the same time helping the team that employs him to succeed.

By Peter Schaffer  |  October 29, 2008; 5:56 PM ET  | Category:  Medical , NFL Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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