The high cost of winning

An insurance company has been paying ex-Cowboys workers comp, but Jerry Jones insists it's not his problem

It has been almost a decade since Randy White got paid by the Dallas Cowboys to hit someone. It has been almost 15 years since Billy Joe DuPree caught a Roger Staubach touchdown pass. And it has been nearly 20 years since John Fitzgerald proved himself the master of the shotgun snap.

These three men, and dozens more who shared the field with them during the 1970s and '80s, are living legends, reminders of a time when Tom Landry and his hat strolled the Texas Stadium sidelines and an oilman named Jerry Jones was spinning pigskin dreams in Arkansas.

These players devoted their professional lives to the Cowboys and its owners, and they sacrificed their bodies to a game that paid them well, but nowhere near the millions that players take home today. They did not sprint from the field toward retirement--in some cases, they hobbled, racked with injuries to their necks and knees, to their backs and ankles, to every bone in their battered bodies.

They may have played in another decade, but their pain exists very much to this day. And for their suffering, 47 former Cowboys who played for Dallas between '81 and '87, the frustrating years when the Super Bowl was just out of reach, have been receiving workers compensation benefits--benefits they earned, and benefits they may soon have to fight to keep. That's because Jerry Jones doesn't believe he has to live up to the agreement of his predecessors.

In 1982, when Clint Murchison and his family owned the Cowboys, the team purchased workers compensation insurance to help pay "comp" claims filed by players injured in the line of duty. Rushmore Insurance Company now claims that since 1990, it has paid more than $1 million in claims for these ex-Cowboys, moneys that the company says Jones should have repaid Rushmore. Some of the players, including Hall of Fame heroes Tony Dorsett and Randy White, have collected a few hundred bucks; others, including local legends Harvey Martin and Bob Breunig, have received thousands for their job-related injuries.

These players have collected because their NFL players' contracts guarantee them workers comp benefits during and after their playing days. They have collected because the players' union long ago fought for their rights, battling team owners who even now try to get out of their legal obligations by taking players to court. Most importantly, they have collected because workers compensation has been the law for almost a century.

But now, Rushmore is in Dallas federal court alleging that Jones, who bought the Cowboys in February 1989, has refused to abide by his obligation to reimburse Rushmore for covering these former players. In a suit filed last January, Rushmore alleges that the Cowboys owe more than $750,000 to Rushmore for claims paid to the likes of Breunig, White, Dorsett, and other heroes and has-beens who want to be reimbursed for injuries suffered while wearing the silver and blue.

But Jones insists that when he bought the team in 1989, he purchased only the Dallas Cowboys, not its old problems and obligations. Jones claims the Cowboys' deal with Rushmore died long before he bought the team. The Cowboys' owner doesn't want to pay Rushmore a nickel--even though U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis has already ordered the Cowboys to fork over the money in a default judgment.

Rushmore's complaint against the Dallas Cowboys offers more fuel to those who say Jones will do anything to keep from paying former players workers compensation, especially to those who left the team before he purchased it. In 1994, Jones even sued 16 former Cowboys for comp claims, demanding they pay him a million dollars--even though several of these ex-Cowboys were nearly broke.

"Jerry Jones doesn't think players deserve workers comp," says Richard Berthelsen, general counsel for the Washington, D.C.-based National Football League Players Association. "But football players don't give up their rights as Americans when they become NFL players."

Jones' attorneys say that's ridiculous. They say Jones lives up to his obligations--Rushmore just isn't one of them.

The Rushmore lawsuit is a rather complicated matter that features everything from interpretations of business law to brawls between attorneys to bungling in the Cowboys front office.

But at its core is the simple issue of how much a football player's pain is worth, and who will pay for it.

Two decades ago, most football players didn't file for workers compensation even though they had a right to collect it. They thought if they filed a claim against their former team, they'd be excommunicated--no more reunion invites, no more coasting on the glory days.

Owners and coaches told players that there was a difference between pain and injury, and that they were being paid a good wage to play a dangerous sport--even though in 1981, the average NFL salary was $90,000, or $660,000 less than the average player makes today. Players left the game as cripples and addicts, and owners simply said, Hey, you knew what you were getting into.

"And players sort of believed that," says Pete Gent, former Cowboys wide receiver and the author of 1973's North Dallas Forty, which vividly chronicles the good ol' shoot-'em-up-stitch-'em-up days. "They were just kids. They're holding on from week to week, and they don't want to make waves. You file for workers comp, you piss the team off."

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