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When Greg Oden sprained his right foot in the Portland Trail Blazers' Oct. 27 season opener, fans and management surely cringed. The young center – who the Blazers signed to a two-year, $8 million contract during the summer of 2007 after drafting him No. 1 overall out of Ohio State – was already coming off a major knee injury that cost him his entire rookie year.
Perhaps the Blazers, already having coughed up some $4 million in dead money to Oden last season, are thankful that his current foot injury will only cost $400,000 or so, assuming he's back within two to four weeks, as expected.
Because his new injury looks minor, Oden doesn't make our list of most expensive sports injuries for the year. His Portland teammate Raef LaFrentz takes the award for hauling his $12.7 million salary to the trainer's room with a shoulder injury, most likely out for the season. Right behind him: Washington's Gilbert Arenas, a high-scoring forward making over $11 million annually who's expected to miss about half the year following knee surgery.
All of these highlight the risk of big money signings. Multi-year contracts worth seven or eight figures are a product of the free agency era, which began in some form for most major sports in the mid-1970s. Early on, owners had little trouble hedging themselves with insurance.
But the sheer magnitude of injuries to big-money players, along with the unpredictability of when it can happen, has mostly sent insurance companies running and hiding. It's now almost impossible for management to get a policy on a player contract, at least past the first year or two of a long-term deal.
"It's just hard to put together an actuarial table that makes sense," says Marc Ganis of Chicago-based Sports Corp. Limited.
So owners, always desperate for wins and drawing cards, bite the bullet and pay up. Take the 50 most expensive injured baseball players – the equivalent of two full rosters – for the just-completed 2008 season. Led by a pair of Los Angeles Dodgers, pitcher Jason Schmidt and shortstop Rafael Furcal, they cost MLB owners a combined $227 million this year. That's $47 million more than the combined cost of two average healthy rosters.
Remember when $2.3 million was a hefty annual salary for a player? That's what $28 million man Alex Rodriguez got for his one stint on the 15-day disabled list in May. But most troubling for owners is the risk they need to take on pitchers, where the strain of uncorking 90-plus mile per hour fastballs greatly increases the propensity for injury compared to everyday players. Three of our five most expensive baseball injuries this year are pitchers: the Dodgers' Schmidt, the Braves' John Smoltz and the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter. All three "earned" at least $9.3 million in dead money this year.
Sign a pitcher to a long-term deal at your peril, especially since insuring his contract, when possible at all, usually comes with every out clause under the sun, so to speak.
"It usually excludes his arm, his elbow and his shoulder," Ganis half-jokes of a typical pitcher policy.
Headlining the NFL dead money makers, of course, is New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, now spending the season rehabbing an injured knee after being knocked out of the season opener. The Pats will give up $7.3 million for his 76 passing yards this season, though there are probably few hard feelings for a guy who has already led them to three Super Bowl titles.
Much of the same might be said of NHL dead-money leader Sergei Gonchar, who helped return the Pittsburgh Penguins to a measure of glory with a run to the Stanley Cup finals. But the $5.5 million defenseman has a dislocated shoulder this year, likely keeping him out until March.
No signs exist indicating that clubs plan to be more cautious with contracts. In the cutthroat world of pro sports, the competition for talent is too great. Better to draft that high-priced rookie and cross your fingers that he doesn't sprain his other foot next month.