Posted: Thu January 31, 2013 11:02PM; Updated: Fri February 1, 2013 11:29AM
Jim Trotter

DeMaurice Smith chastises NFL for lack of player safety

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Demaurice Smith
DeMaurice Smith is hoping for some amendments to the NFL's 2011 collective bargaining agreement.
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NEW ORLEANS -- The NFL Players Association challenged the league's commitment to player safety on Monday, going so far as to call some teams' behavior "reckless" when diagnosing and treating players.

Executive director DeMaurice Smith, speaking in a second-floor conference room at the downtown convention center, pointed to Chargers physician David Chao as an example. He said Chao has been found liable of medical malpractice twice and was the subject of a DEA investigation involving pain-killer prescriptions.

Chao, who did not immediately return a text message, was cleared in the investigation last September. However two months earlier he reportedly was found liable of negligence and fraud in a malpractice case. It was the second time in five years he had been found liable of negligence.

"I'm not a doctor, and I don't play one on TV, but it seems to me that the players of the National Football League deserve to have a doctor who has not been found liable of malpractice," Smith said.

Player safety was the theme of Smith's State of the Union -- or State of the Players -- address. In an hour-long presentation, he identified player-safety concerns and amendments the union would like to the 10-year collective bargaining agreement that was ratified in 2011. Among the issues, the union wants:

• Independent concussion experts on the sideline of every game. The league announced Thursday that it, indeed, will have "unaffiliated neurological advisors" on the sideline of all games beginning next season, but a union source was wary, adding: "The devil is in the details."

• Each team's medical personnel to be credentialed. It's unclear what that would entail, but Smith would like comprehensive background checks on each staff member to be presented to the union for review.

"Instead of us engaging in a world where we have final say or they have final say (on who is hired), I'd like the process to just start with "what do you know?", then we go from there. But our view and America's view is that an employer has an obligation to provide as safe a workplace environment as possible. We want to make sure that the issue of accountability remains an issue that we can rely on."

Smith expressed concerns with whether physicians who are employed by the team -- or have sponsorship arrangements with teams -- would put the players' health ahead of the club's desire to win.

• Stop teams from requiring players to sign liability waivers before receiving the pain-killer Toradol. (The league has instructed its teams to end the practice.)

"I cannot think of a more repugnant practice than a doctor forcing a patient to waive liability before he gives medical care," Smith said. "That is the subject of a grievance (against the league). While I hope that the league will make sure that the teams that have done that will withdraw (that requirement), we are prepared to fight for the things that we need for our players."

• Several amendments to the CBA, including the addition of a neutral Chief Safety Officer to oversee the health, welfare and safety of the players. That person would hear appeals for whether teams were negligent in their care. He or she also would have the authority to "remedy the deficiency" and impose financial damages if necessary.

A league spokesman said Thursday was the first time the union has mentioned a CSO.

Lastly, the Players Association wants the league to use the $100 million credit for health and safety research to be award to Harvard University, which would then conduct a comprehensive study on short- and long-term health issues affecting 1,000 retired players.

The money was set aside as part of the last collective bargaining agreement, but the sides must jointly agree on how to spend it before the funds can be released. The league previously recommended using the National Institutes of Health, but the union balked because the study would not be specific to NFL players.

Smith says the Harvard project would be "transformative" because of its breadth and depth. It would focus on medical, legal and ethical issues confronting players.

"Our hope is that we move beyond just a conversation about safety that focuses on what the next fine is going to be, what the next hit will look like, whether there's going to be a kickoff," said Smith. "The issue of safety in the National Football League is a bigger issue than the myopic issues that we sometimes are forced to talk about. Where we need to be is engaging in a transformational discourse of what it means to be involved in a sport where we know injuries are the necessary and foreseeable consequence of what happens. We need to move beyond where we just think of football as something of a guilty pleasure. And we certainly can't ever -- and we will never allow -- ourselves to get to a point where football is something that's practiced by a group that some people refer to as gladiators. That's not our mission."

Players are skeptical of the league's stated concerns about player safety because it locked out officials to start the season, pushed for an 18-game schedule during the labor negotiations, and failed to follow what it claims are proper protocols when dealing with concussed players during the season. Late in the season the union polled all 32 teams and asked players to rate, among other things, their trust in the club's medical staff on a scale of one (complete) to five (not at all). Seventy-eight percent of an unspecified number of respondents said not at all.

"A healthy level of distrust is probably necessary," says union president Domonique Foxworth. "If you put the 4s and 5s together it's over 90 percent. We had a meeting with the league last Friday, and I made it very clear to them that it's very difficult for both of us to collaborate and do our jobs and move the ball on a lot of issues because of the level of distrust created by the actions that they've taken. Being in New Orleans is a perfect place to talk about actions that they have taken to cause our players to lose trust with them. Not that it was extremely high before, but it's low now.

"The other things that I talked about were the referees and the 18 games, and our players see that and lose trust. Our players need some safeguards in every single aspect of our (collective bargaining) agreement because they don't feel that they can trust that the league won't exploit any power (it has)."

An NFL spokesman said commissioner Roger Goodell would address some of the union's points of contention Friday during his State of the League press conference. Stay tuned.

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