Rookies in fine (print) mess with insurance companies
By Darren Rovell
High-profile college football players often take out insurance policies in the event a career-ending injury precludes them from signing a lucrative NFL contract. A typical one-year policy covers a player from August of their senior season through the following August, or the time when the player signs his first professional contract.
That's why player agents and insurance brokers were confused when some insurance underwriters informed them earlier this week that signing an injury protection letter that teams distribute to rookies at mini-camps this weekend could void their disability policy.
"There's nothing to protect a player in the event of a car accident, something like that, and that's why you want the disability policy," said Ralph Cindrich, a veteran agent who represents Washington State defensive tackle Rien Long, the Outland Trophy winner who was drafted by the Tennessee Titans in the fourth round. "So, yeah, this is a pretty big deal. And to come with so little warning, well, that's troubling."
The letter, designed by NFL teams to ensure that rookies will be guaranteed their previous market value in the event of a career-ending injury sustained on the practice field, range from paragraphs to pages, depending on team preference. Most refer to the player as an "employee" of the professional team.
Disability policies signed in college stipulate that the insurance terminates upon the signing of an employment contract. A team, in good faith, would pick up the price for an on-the-field career-ending injury, however the player's college disability policy typically would cover off-the-field accidents that were career ending.
"These players are not NFL players until they sign their actual contract to play," said Jim Padilla, an insurance broker with Chicago-based Near North Insurance who began informing player agents of the possible injustice on Wednesday. "I think companies are just using this as an opportunity to cancel their policies early, and that is very bad business."
Padilla said he obtained a letter from one player who had disability insurance through the NCAA's program that stated, through the NCAA's underwriter ASU International, that coverage would be terminated upon him signing the injury protection letter.
"These players have to be proactive," said Mark Idelson, senior vice president of ASU International. "We're not purposely trying to penalize them, but the bottom line is that the policy wording is the policy wording."
Idelson said it is possible that a player could amend the college disability insurance language.
"I'm no legal scholar, but I have a hard time with (the insurance companies') position if they're suggesting that signing an injury protection document makes you an employee of the team," said agent Pat Dye Jr., who represents Calvin Pace, selected by the Arizona Cardinals with the 18th pick in Saturday's draft. "To me, that's a pretty weak legal position, and I don't know that it would hold up in court. It just appears to be another way for insurance companies to wiggle off the hook."
Executives at one underwriter, Pro Financial Services, changed their stance on Friday. Earlier in the week employees told brokers that signing the injury protection letter would void their policy holder's college disability insurance. In its place, they offered to supplement what the teams offered with non-occupational insurance, which would cover the athletes if they sustained career-ending injuries off-the-field up until the point they signed their original contract. The premium for the four-month, off-the-field package was $2,000 premium for each $1 million in coverage, said Brian Burns, chairman of the company.
But Burns changed his mind after looking at various injury protection letters and determining that "what they are signing is not a player's contract."
For some top NFL draft picks, including the No. 4 overall pick Dewayne Robertson, signing the injury protection letter will not affect them.
"We've pretty much got an understanding with the Jets already that they will pay the average (signing bonus) of the third and the fifth overall picks (in the first round)," said Robertson's agent, Hadley Engelhard. "That's more than the disability policy was worth anyway. Of course, if I didn't have my agreement, or if I was dealing with another player who wasn't the fourth guy picked, it would matter to me."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. ESPN.com senior writer Len Pasquarelli contributed to this story.
Once a matter of course in the NFL, so-called "injury protection agreements" have suddenly become an issue of contention with some high-round draft choices, especially those selected by the Arizona Cardinals.
For a second straight year, the Cardinals will be without their first-round choice at the rookie orientation mini-camp this weekend, and a dispute over the language in injury protection agreements used by the franchise is the reason. The representatives for both of the Cardinals' first-round choices, Penn State wide receiver Bryant Johnson and Wake Forest defensive end Calvin Pace, advised their clients against signing the agreements.
"Given the language they use, it's just too risky," said agent Joel Segal, who represents Johnson. Bryant will attend all the classroom sessions, he'll observe the practices from the sideline, but he won't participate in any on-field activities."
Pace likewise will not take part in any physical drills until the matter of injury protection is resolved and, if recent history is any indication, it could be a while. The other Arizona choices, five in all, are expected to participate, because the injury protection issue for them is not as great, given where they were chosen in the draft.
The Cardinals' first-round choice in 2002, defensive tackle Wendell Bryant, also balked at the injury protection agreement used by the club. Bryant missed mini-camps, much of training camp, and the dispute clearly soured contract negotiations. Bryant was the second-to-last first-round choice from the 2002 draft class to reach a contract accord.
The injury protection letters are intended to ensure that rookies who have yet to sign their first NFL contracts will receive a market value deal if they sustain an injury while participating in football-related activities. But there is no standard language that is used throughout the league and, in the past few years, disputes over the injury protection agreements have increased.
Safety Lamont Thompson, a second-round choice of the Cincinnati Bengals, missed considerable mini-camp time in 2002 before his agent and the club finally reached an understanding on injury protection. New York Giants 2002 third-round choice Jeff Hatch, an offensive tackle from Pennsylvania, declined to sign the team's injury protection letter and missed a few days of a mini-camp as well.
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