As the Houston Texans are left to wonder what they were or weren't told by safety Ed Reed about a hip injury that required surgery earlier this offseason, the NFL is taking a huge step toward eliminating such questions.
Eight teams, including the New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers, are participating in the first stage of what the league calls "electronic medical records" reporting starting this offseason. EMR will be a comprehensive database for information on player injuries that a league source said will help eliminate troubling disclosures after an acquisition such as the one brought up in the Reed case.
All 32 teams are expected to use the database by 2014.
"What you should have in this system is a way for any team interested in signing a player – with player permission – a chance to access his records so there aren't disclosure issues," the league source said.
However, there are those on the player side who believe this will only cause athletes to be less trustful of teams' medical evaluation systems and less likely to report injuries in the first place.
"I would advise my clients to seek outside doctors and not report anything to the team if they're going to share information," an agent with more than 20 years experience said recently. "There are obviously some injuries that everybody is going to know about. But I don't want everything my player does to get reported to every team. No way."
The NFL Players Association has declined to discuss the EMR system.
At issue is a change in the way player medical history is reported. Under the collective bargaining agreement that began in 2011, the onus is on players to report any and all medical information. If a player doesn't give a full history, teams have grounds to hold a grievance against the player for some or all of the money.
Prior to the latest version of the CBA, the onus was on teams to get the information. If the team discovered after signing a player that there was an unknown problem, that was a problem for the team to deal with and it had to honor the contract.
The Reed case is an example of the difference. Reed, 34, had arthroscopic surgery earlier this month to repair a labral tear in his hip. Reed signed a three-year, $15 million contract, including $5 million guaranteed, with Houston this offseason after playing his entire career with Baltimore. If Reed had problems with that hip and didn't disclose the problem, the Texans could fight for some or all of the $5 million.
The Texans didn't immediately respond with comment, but Reed was the team's biggest acquisition of the offseason. Owner Robert McNair said earlier this month that the surgery wasn't considered serious and Reed is expected to return for training camp.
[Related: Ed Reed, Brian Cushing out for Texans' OTAs]
Currently, the Miami Dolphins and former offensive lineman Artis Hicks are in the midst of a reported $1.2 million injury grievance over this exact issue. The Dolphins maintain that Hicks, who was put on injured reserve in September and never played a game for Miami, failed to disclose information about a neck injury from earlier in his 10-year career.
"He had an MRI on his neck and the result came back negative, there was no damage," agent Peter Schaffer said. "If the result of the test was negative, why should he have to report it?"
More so than deciding responsibility in regards to injury disclosure or discovery, Schaffer said the bigger problem is the time required to settle grievances. He said he expects the Hicks case, like most, to take nearly 18 months to be resolved.
"In most cases, you have a young player who doesn't have any money, he's hurt and the team says, ‘You can take a $100,000 [settlement terms] now or wait for 18 months to see if you get $300,000 or $400,000 [contract money],' " Schaffer said. "In almost every case, the player is going to take the money now. … It's a really bad system where there's no penalty on the team for filing a grievance. They don't have to pay interest on the money. They don't have to pay legal fees. They don't have to pay a penalty if they're wrong. Why should they pay at all?"
As for EMR, Schaffer said it's largely irrelevant.
"It's a system for the lazy teams," he said. "The good teams are going to find out about injuries. The good teams do their homework. They find out what's wrong, they make the phone calls. They know. This is for the teams that don't want to do the work."
As for Hicks, the Dolphins declined to discuss the case. However, Miami has been in this situation before.
In 2001, the team drafted quarterback Josh Heupel in the sixth round out of Oklahoma. Prior to the draft, the team claimed, Heupel did not disclose a wrist injury he had suffered in college. That included Heupel going to a doctor under an assumed name and paying for his visit in cash, the team eventually claimed in the grievance. Heupel, who never played for the Dolphins and is currently Oklahoma's offensive coordinator, could not be reached for comment.
"Tracking [injury] information is incredibly difficult," a Dolphins source said. "Even if you have permission from the player to get medical information from another team, it can be very hard to get exactly what you need to make a proper evaluation."
EMR is designed to eliminate all of that. The system has been designed with multiple firewalls and different access levels, a league source said.
"For example, you have ways that people can input some information, but not see any other information," the source said. "Say you have a therapist who does some rehabilitative work on a player. He or she will have access to put in the information on what treatment was given. You may have a doctor who saw the player for a shoulder injury. That doctor can get access to a certain amount of information pertaining to the shoulder injury or whatever the players allows them to see, but that's it.
"This has been very thoroughly designed and researched to protect players and teams."
The league also believes this will be a useful tool for players who are seeking post-career treatment or filing for disability claims.
Again, some agents scoff at that.
"The NFL isn't doing anything to help a player with his disability claim. Don't fool yourself," the aforementioned agent said.
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