Amid outcry from conservatives and Republican senators, the National Football League announced last week that it was not and would not pursue a partnership with the Obama administration to market the Affordable Care Act, the health reform law President Obama signed in 2010. The White House has sought partnerships with sports leagues like the NFL and NBA and with other organizations to market the law, largely because the timing of those leagues’ seasons and the demographics they reach are crucial to the law’s ultimate success.
But just because the NFL won’t partner with Obama to inform its viewers of the law’s many programs, the largest of which go into place in 2014, doesn’t mean the league and its players won’t benefit from it. In fact, Obamacare has a chance to redefine health care options for former NFL players while providing massive public relations relief to a league that has drawn criticism for how many of its veterans face health troubles after their careers. Soaring health care costs and major medical problems that don’t surface until years later, in fact, remain among the biggest challenges many NFL players face when their careers end.
Former players who played at least three NFL seasons receive five years of health insurance paid in full by the league once they retire. After that, however, they are on their own, forced to pay for health insurance out of pocket. Even for players at the top of the income ladder, that causes problems: their careers leave them with an array of injuries and ailments that often qualify as pre-existing conditions. More than half of the NFL’s players are hurt each year, according to injury reports, and the cumulative effects lead to lifelong problems. NFL players are four times more likely than the general population to suffer from neurogenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and ALS and five times more likely to develop arthritis, according to the Washington Post. One of every four will eventually need joint replacement surgery. They are also at greater risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses. That often leaves players without access to insurance that covers knees, hips, backs, or other joints, former players told the Post.
And while it’s easy to notice the players who command megamillion-dollar contracts during their careers and wonder how they could struggle to afford insurance and medical care when their playing days end, the average football player commands a salary well below the seven-figure mark. The average career, meanwhile, is only 3.9 years long, according to the NFL Players Association. Many of them, as the Post detailed in May, end up undergoing dozens of surgeries and spending the rest of their lives on medication to treat ailments and injuries. The most common procedures aren’t cheap: the cost of a hip replacement ranges from $10,000 to $125,000, average knee replacement costs exceed $25,000. Even for players who have come of age during the big money boom, those expenses get costly. For players who don’t make millions or for those who played before those contracts became the norm, the costs are often unaffordable.
“If a retired player is employed by a company that does not provide medical benefits…it may be difficult and costly for him to obtain his own health insurance, depending upon the injuries he sustained as a player,” a 2008 Congressional Research Service study said, adding that when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana sought health insurance after his career, the “lowest estimate he received was $106,000 per year, because he was considered to be in a high-risk group.” Most players simply can’t afford the costs of long-term care without the sizable, steady paycheck they received during their careers. For players who access insurance through a new employer, those costs aren’t necessarily a problem. But many of them do not, and according to the same study, the chronic injuries can leave many of the players unemployable in the type of jobs that provide health care.
Obamacare, however, includes fixes to both of those problems that could benefit former NFL players. The most important fix is its guaranteed issue clause, which prevents insurers from denying health coverage based on pre-existing conditions, opening the door for players who already suffer from injuries that insurance companies wouldn’t cover before. Players in the worst situations who can’t afford health care could access health coverage from the state-based exchanges Obamacare created, expanding the health care options that were available to them before. The law could ultimately improve access to health care for thousands of NFL veterans.
The NFL, whose teams have fought legal battles for years over health care and workers compensation, and the NFLPA have created grant and aid programs to help retired veterans with injuries like joint replacements and brain trauma, and its disability program provides assistance to retired players injured during their careers. But players have said those programs fall short of adequately addressing their needs, and eligibility varies by program, and they aren’t as comprehensive as actual health insurance.
The NFL may have backed off a partnership with the Obama administration because of conservative outcry, even if few of those causing a ruckus would have quit watching football because of a few commercials. Or it may not have actually participated in real discussions about such a partnership at all. Either way, millions of the NFL’s fans and potentially thousands of its players will benefit from Obamacare, even if the league itself doesn’t say a word.