Illinois S.B. 12 and Its Effect on Current and Former Pro Athletes

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By George Pappas, Staff Writer

The Illinois State Senate has proposed a bill that would end disability benefits for professional athletes at age 35. S.B. 12 would add a provision to the Workers Compensation Act that specifically singles out professional athletes who would otherwise receive permanent partial disability benefits until the age of 67. Any other permanently injured worker in the state of Illinois can claim these benefits for the term of their natural life, which is set at 67 years old.

The legislation is sponsored by Illinois Senate Minority Leader Christine Rodogno (R-Lemont) and is being pushed by the McCaskey family, the owners of the Chicago Bears.[1] S.B. 12 also has formal endorsements from all five major Chicago sports franchises — with the Bulls, Blackhawks, Cubs, and White Sox joining the Bears in arguing that athletes do not expect their playing careers to last until age 67 and therefore should not be entitled to disability benefits until then, either.[2]

“We do know this: No players play in their athletic career in their usual and customary line of employment until they’re age 67,” said Bears general counsel Cliff Stein. “And if they take another job after their athletic career is over in the state of Illinois, they will be entitled to wage-differential benefits if they are injured doing that job.”[3]

Stein’s reference to the “wage-differential benefits” is a major point of contention with this bill. Under the current Illinois workers’ compensation act, workers who sustain a career-ending injury are eligible for permanent disability benefits based on two-thirds of the difference between their pre- and post-accident salaries. So, if an athlete who was making $100,000 per year becomes injured and can no longer compete takes a job making $70,000 per year, then the current system would pay them $20,000 per year in permanent disability benefits.

Seeing as this bill will only affect professional athletes and no other specific sectors or workers, proponents of the bill would have to find a way around the Equal Protection Clause. They may look to Lyons v. W.C.A.B. (Pittsburgh Steelers Sports, Inc.) (2002). The court held that the workers’ compensation statute, Pa. Stat. Ann. tit. 77, § 565, limiting the amount of partial disability benefits received by professional athletes did not violate equal protection (U.S.C.A. Amend. XIV) under the rational basis test; professional athletes willfully held themselves out to a risk of frequent, repetitive, and serious injury in exchange for lucrative compensation.[4]

Additionally, states such as Florida and Massachusetts have longstanding legislation that has excluded professional athletes from their workers’ compensation system for years.[5] Many other states have limited the degree in which professional athletes are eligible for workers’ compensation benefits.[6]

S.B. 12 defines “professional athlete” as any individual whose employer is a professional athletic team that is based in Illinois, including, but not limited to, any professional baseball, basketball, football, soccer, or hockey team based in Illinois and who derives the majority of his or her income from playing athletics for the team.[7] Proponents of the bill note that lowering the benefits age from the current 67 years old to 35 would alleviate the fiscal burden on businesses and taxpayers.[8][9]

Teams must pay into an insurance fund that is then used to provide medical and disability benefits to employees who sustain serious injuries on the job.[10] This provides players a level of financial security, as most if not all will sustain significant injuries throughout their playing careers — injuries that can have lifelong effects on their wellbeing.

While proponents of the bill are excited about the fiscal benefits it may bring the owners, others are not to keen about these changes. Empire of Soccer’s Christian Araos gave his opinion on the bill: “Very simply, it’s just a money grab by the owners, the teams. It’s not going to save the taxpayers any money. … It’s an attempt by the teams to shirk their responsibilities under the workers compensation laws and to treat athletes differently than other workers.”[11]

NFLPA Director DeMaurice Smith agreed with Araos’ assessment: “Its only effect is to hurt people who get hurt for a living,” Smith also said that “[i]t’s just cheapness. It’s just being cheap,” describing the team owners backing a bill that would limit their responsibilities to the players they employ.[12]

This bill would not have a significant effect on MLB players, as they have guaranteed contracts, and under their CBA, the teams must cover players’ full medical care for any baseball-related injuries.[13] However, who this will affect greatly are players in the NFL and MLS who either do not have guaranteed contracts or do not make the lucrative compensation of players in other leagues.

The median salary for an MLS player in 2016 was $117,000, and the average salary was $316,777.33.[14] While that does seem like a nice salary to the average person, in the world of athletics, this is quite low. The NFL has the next lowest average salary at $2.1 million.[15] With respect to the Chicago Fire of the MLS, 15 of their 26 players earn less than the median salary.[16]

Though NFL players have a decent average salary, players face a greater chance of sustaining a career-ending injury on the playing field as compared to other sports, but the players’ contracts are not guaranteed. What this means is that a team can cut a player at any point after he has suffered a serious injury without the obligation to pay the remainder of that player’s contract.

The debate continues to rage on as proponents and opponents of the bill exchange heated responses with neither side backing down. One player’s representative has promised strong repercussions if S.B. 12 is passed. “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. “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?”[17]



[1] Chris Emma, NFLPA Director DeMaurice Smith Attacks Bears’ Backing Of Illinois Workers’ Comp Bill, (February 3, 2017),

[2] Dan Wiederer, Bears confident support for workers’ comp changes won’t affect free-agency efforts, (February 11, 2017),

[3] Id.

[4] Lyons v. W.C.A.B. (Pittsburgh Steelers Sports, Inc.), 803 A.2d 857, 112 A.L.R.5th 757 (Pa. Commw. Ct. 2002).

[5] Nathaniel Grow, Major League Baseball and Workers’ Comp, (February 8, 2017),

[6] Id.

[7] 100th General Assembly State of Illinois 2017 and 2018.  SB0012. Introduced 1/11/2017, by Sen. Michael Connelly.

[8] Joseph Zucker, MLS Players Union Speaks Out Against Illinois Workers’ Comp Bill, (February 8, 2017),

[9] Cory A. DeCresenza, Illinois Senate Proposal to Limit Workers’ Compensation Benefits to 35 Years of Age, (January 27, 2017),

[10] Grow, Major League Baseball, supra.

[11] Zucker, MLS Players Union, supra.

[12] Emma, NLFPA Director, supra.

[13] Grow, Major League Baseball, supra.

[14] Zucker, MLS Players Union, supra.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] news services, NFLPA will sway free agents from joining Bears if bill passes, (February 5, 2017),

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