NFLPA & Bengals At Odds Over Workplace Benefits. Could Affect Team’s Free Agency

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A Saturday night tweet by the NFL Players Association accused the Cincinnati Bengals ownership of “attempting to strip all athletes in Ohio of their workers’ compensation benefits.” The tweet continued that the move “could impact our entire membership.”

A letter sent to the players followed up with more details. Allegedly, the NFLPA is claiming that the team’s ownership is asking the Ohio legislature to “strip Bengals and Browns players of their workers’ compensation benefits that all other employees in the state of Ohio are entitled to for the injuries they suffer at work.” The letter added that this is all being done to “increase their profit.”

According to a report from Ben Baby of ESPN, Mike Brown, owner of the Bengals, is reportedly “seeking to introduce legislation that would limit professional athletes who have been under contract for five or more years from obtaining permanent partial disability compensation.” The players association is concerned that athletes could be forced to pay for their own medical care at increased rates from what would otherwise have been available under Ohio’s current workers’ compensation laws.

There are currently 18 Bengals team employees currently seeking workers’ compensation, according to data provided by the NFLPA.

The NFLPA recently ranked the Bengals as the 27th of the 32 NFL teams for overall working conditions. While there isn’t a lot of available data on how much stock free agents place in these rankings, there’s no question that players are taking their long term health more seriously and factoring it into career decisions.

Historically, many NFL players have had their careers involuntarily cut short due to injuries. However, several high profile players, like 49ers star Patrick Willis or the Panthers’ all-pro linebacker Luke Kuechly, have recently voluntarily retired far earlier than ever expected in consideration of their overall health. With NFL free agency set to begin this Wednesday March 15, players looking for a new home may strongly consider working conditions of the available franchises in their decision making. The Bengals, coming off an AFC championship loss in their 2022 campaign and a Super Bowl loss in the 2021 season are expected to be big players in this year’s free agency. If Ohio law were to become less favorable to player health, the Bengals may have trouble stabilizing a roster that is so close to winning the franchise’s first championship.

While the Bengals currently do not utilize the Ohio workers’ compensation fund, the proposed legislation could still limit the team’s liability to injured players or personnel. The NFLPA further warned that work related injury claims could expire after five years from the date of the injury if the new legislation passed, even if the players changed teams.

Bengals owner Mike Brown has long been derided by the Bengals fan-base for being more concerned with turning a profit over putting a championship caliber team on the field. That reported penny pinching has extended beyond on field considerations too. Team ownership filed a lawsuit against former players who filed a workers’ compensation claim in California instead of Ohio, as the players currently live in the Golden State.  

The Bengals aren’t the only team that would be affected by the legislation. Four other teams of the four major sports leagues, including the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, NHL’s Colombus Blue Jackets, MLB’s Cleveland Guardians, and the Bengals division foe Cleveland Browns could all see their free agent prospects dwindle following any changes to Ohio’s workers comp laws.

This is an ongoing story, as the Ohio general assembly is currently meeting. More information on any proposed legislation will be available soon.