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NFLPA chief says the union is launching a campaign to defeat Saints-backed workers' comp bill

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NEW ORLEANS - The NFL Players Association is launching a campaign aimed at defeating the New Orleans Saints' bid to change state law pertaining to workers' compensation claims by players.

NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said legislation which was pushed by Saints owner Tom Benson, and which passed the Louisiana House of Representatives on Wednesday, "specifically targets professional athletes, to take away or limit their workers' compensation benefits."

The legislation aims to calculate workers' compensation benefits for pro athletes based only on recent earnings, while the NFL's collective bargaining agreement has a formula that also includes future earnings. Multi-year NFL contracts typically have significant annual raises built in, and are paid primarily during the 17 weeks of the regular season, while off-season pay consists primarily of per diems.

Under a worst-case scenario, the NFLPA said, the legislation could cause a player's workers' compensation benefit to be based on per-diems if the player was hurt during preseason, rather than the much larger, annual contract.

"Our union exists to protect the rights that are constantly under attack by owners who don't need the money, but they simply want the money," Smith said.

When contacted about the legislation and Smith's statements, Saints spokesman Greg Bensel said the club had no comment.

The bill is sponsored by state Reps. Chris Broadwater, R-Hammond, and Cameron Henry, R-Metairie. It passed the House by a 56-32 vote and next heads to the state Senate for consideration.

Pro athletes "shouldn't get some special privilege to calculate their benefits on what might happen in the future," Broadwater added after the debate. "All I'm saying is: Treat these workers like every other worker in the state and it's not fundamentally unfair."

Broadwater said the bill brings Saints players in line with how workers' compensation claims are handled for all other employees in Louisiana. He said pro athletes are currently the only people employed in Louisiana who have benefits calculated based on future earnings.

The legislation deals with "any professional athlete," meaning it would affect the NBA's Pelicans, also owned by Benson.

House lawmakers debated the matter briefly before passage.

Broadwater said the bill was primarily pushed by the New Orleans Saints and seeks to clear up the issue of how to calculate an average wage for a workers' compensation claim.

Rep. Pat Connick, R-Marrero, who opposed the bill, said it would disregard existing contracts held by NFL players and would negatively affect players.

Broadwater said seven lawsuits involving the issue have been decided in Louisiana appeals courts, and that six of the rulings agreed with the language in his bill.

However, NFLPA associate general counsel Ned Ehrlich noted that all six rulings which were favourable to the Saints came in Jefferson Parish, where team headquarters are located. The ruling favourable to the player came in Orleans Parish, where the club's home stadium, the Superdome, is located.

"There is one parish where there have been decisions counter to the law," Ehrlich said. "They're trying to take advantage of an incorrect decision, and that's why we're pushing back, obviously."

Smith said the bill is simply a vehicle for the Saints to save money by changing state law in order to subvert the NFL's collective bargaining agreement.

"What conclusion are we left with, when we start off knowing that no team loses money on workers' comp, no state — no citizen — loses money on workers' comp, but we have owners who constantly are trying to change the law to hurt players who they know are going to get hurt in this system?" Smith said.

"We're going to be asking Saints fans to call (Reps. Broadwater and Henry) up and ask them why they want to sponsor legislation to hurt their players," Smith added. "We're going to ask our current players to weigh in on the fights about why an owner wants to hurt the benefits that are lawfully entitled to their players."

___

Associated Press writer Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, contributed to this report.

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