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Despite union criticism, Bears don’t fear free-agent freezeout

With free agency set to begin March 9, the Bears aren’t worried that their support of a workers’-compensation bill — or threats made by the NFL Players Association — will scare away players.

“There is no realistic fear there,” Bears general counsel Cliff Stein said Friday. “We have a really strong relationship with agents, and we’re very transparent. Anytime any question would come up, we would show all the facts.

“The truth of the matter is, agents aren’t really going to listen to what [NFLPA executive director DeMaurice] Smith says in that regard.”

Smith said last week the union would steer free agents away from the Bears because of their support, alongside Chicago’s other five major pro sports teams, of Senate Bill 12, which proposes changing the maximum age at which pro athletes can draw “wage differential” workers’ compensation from 67 to either 35 or five years after their injury occurred.

The Bears walk out to the field prior to the start against the Packers. (Getty Images)

NFLPA director of external affairs George Atallah said if a player were offered the same contract by the Bears and another team, “the better play” would be to choose the other team because it “has not made an attempt to take away your ability to earn lost wages if you get hurt.”

In a rare move, the Bears countered with Stein hours later.

A former player agent and Bears negotiator, Stein painted Illinois as the nation’s most generous state regarding workers’ compensation.

He said each year since 2005 and on the aggregate, no other state’s pro teams have paid more money in workers’-compensation claims, settlements and awards than Illinois. He said that Illinois topped the next-closest state by 41 percent and that professional players from other states even file for workers’-compensation benefits in Illinois.

Stein said Illinois still will be the state with the highest payout for professional-athlete claims even if the limit is reduced from 67 to 35. As a negotiator, Stein said he never was asked by an agent about workers’-compensation law as it pertained to a free-agent offer. If an agent were to ask in the future, Stein said it would be a “recruiting benefit for our club.”

Asked if Illinois had among the most generous workers’-compensation payouts, Atallah demurred.

“It’s a tough qualification for us to make,” he said. “But remember, we didn’t bring the fight to change the law.”

Currently, athletes who file for career-ending or serious injuries can be awarded wage differential compensation — two-thirds of the difference between their pre-injury and post-injury wages. That number is capped at $1,075 a week and can be paid out until an athlete turns 67. Illinois is the only state that extends such athlete benefits until that age.

If the bill passed, a player could receive benefits past 35 if he successfully argues his career would have extended beyond that age. A team could argue the opposite.

Athletes still could apply for “total disability” if their injury prevents them from working again. Stein said the new bill, sponsored by Christine Radogno (R-Lemont), won’t affect medical treatment.

Only 13 other states have wage-differential benefits, and they all have caps, provisions that eliminate workers’ compensation for professional athletes or don’t have pro teams.

“My question back to those clubs is, ‘Why would you want to be part of that group?’ ” Atallah said. “ ‘Why would you want to be lumped into other organizations that have made a concerted effort to try to take away the rights of their players?”

The Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission, which resolves disputes, has handled 417 cases for professional athletes in the last 10 years, officials said.

In the last four years, five NFL players filed for wage differential, according to NFLPA policy counsel Joe Briggs. All five reached a settlement rather than go to final judgment. Stein said the Bears have averaged about two players per year in the last decade.

The union wants the bill quashed one of two ways, Atallah said.

“For the NFL to call the Chicago Bears and tell them to stop this,” he said, “or for the state senator to pull this bill on behalf of the Bears and the other professional-sports teams who essentially wrote it for her.”

Neither seems likely.

NOTE: The Bears signed tight end Justin Perillo, who had one start and 20 appearances with the Packers the last three seasons. He spent time on the Bears’ practice squad last year.

Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley.

Email: pfinley@suntimes.com