Mark Slipock, owner of The Law Offices of Mark Slipock, APLC, has been representing retired professional athletes in California Workers’ Compensation claims for over a decade. Mark is a former NFLPA Certified Player Agent (1995-2001) and has been a member of the California State Bar since 1997. Mark is also a member of the Workers' Compensation Section of the California Bar.
AA: Give us a broad overview of the law practice you established to represent disabled professional athletes.
Mark Slipock: We represent retired professional athletes in the State of California in regards to Workers' Compensation claims. Basically, what that means is that, when players retire, some of them have orthopedic or neurological problems that just won’t go away. These players are entitled to file for benefits related to the disability. We help them obtain these benefits.
AA: Why did you decide to handle these types of cases?
Mark Slipock: For me, I was always going to be a sports agent. In college and law school I always had internships and jobs in the sports agent field. When I graduated from law school, while I was trying to establish my agent practice, I was also practicing law. I was handling Workers' Compensation claims for non-athletes. Eventually, those two worlds started to merge. I would run across retired athletes and when they found out what I did, I just started building up a practice for the retired athlete Workers' Compensation deals. Eventually this type of work just overtook my agent business and I decided to do this for a living.
AA: What is it like working with professional athletes in respect to disability and the Workers’ Compensation claims?
Mark Slipock: It’s actually pretty eye opening. When players are in the game and in that limelight it’s different. They feel unbeatable and on top of the world. I get that because I used to deal with athletes all the time who were in the prime of their careers. When you deal with athletes whose careers are over, a lot of these guys are a wreck, physically. They have trouble getting out of bed at age 35. Many of them have physical, neurological, and emotional problems. And at the same time, a lot of these guys are not financially well off and didn’t finish their education. So it’s actually a bit humbling because you’re helping someone transition to a different phase of life. By helping them obtain monetary and medical benefits, I feel like I am helping them move into that next stage of life, and that’s rewarding for me. Plus, I get to hear a lot of cool stories along the way and that’s always fun too.
AA: How has your prior experience as a former Player Agent helped you in your current occupation dealing with Workers' Comp claims and the retired athletes that you work with now?
Mark Slipock: It has actually been really helpful. When I was an NFL agent, once a year I would have to go to certification meetings and they would discuss Workers Compensation claim issues. So I always felt like I had an understanding of that. Besides that, I always understood how players dealt with teams when they were injured. I would have to negotiate an injury settlement with the team and I would have to get second opinion medical exams when we would have to go that route, so I always had a good understanding of that realm. If I had not been an agent, I would not be familiar with contract negotiations, injury settlements, and a lot of the specific verbiage that goes along with being an agent.
AA: What is your opinion on how retired professional athletes are treated by their former professional sports teams and the NFL in general?
Mark Slipock: I have a lot of opinions on that. I don’t mean to get on my soapbox, but I am going to say this: it is pretty eye opening how teams treat players once they retire. There are teams that help us with these claims that are a lot friendlier than other teams. The teams that you would think are combative in contract negotiations with the players when they are first coming in are the teams that are very hard to deal with on these types of claims. So there are definitely certain teams that are better than others.
I’ve always found it interesting that a player gives his heart, soul, and body to a team, plays hurt, and shoots himself up with painkillers to play. But when they’re saying, “fix me up” at the end, the team fights it. So I understand why people are angry. In the media, there has been all this stuff about the league not helping players and I think that is a second slap in the face for a lot of these guys. Just for your clarification: when a player retires with Workers' Compensation benefits, he can file for them both through the state and through the NFL. A lot of guys do, but a lot of them don’t qualify for the NFL benefits and those are the guys you see on TV limping around who can’t get their NFL money. To me, that’s even worse because the league knows that these guys are giving their bodies to the games and getting concussions, and the league knows they have an obligation to these guys. They are finally starting to accept the responsibility, but we have been fighting for that a long time. Personally, I am glad things are moving in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go.
AA: It seems like when a player is holding out on a contract they are made to seem like they are in the wrong, but teams can cut players and not be required to pay them anything even if they get injured.
Mark Slipock: Right and then they paint these guys in a bad light when they try to obtain benefits for banging up their body on a permanent basis. They paint them as greedy and that’s the part that really sticks with us. It’s a dichotomy that exists and I just see guys that are chewed up and spit out and it is tough to deal with.
AA: What are the biggest issues facing retired athletes these days in terms of their disability?
Mark Slipock: The head issues. You read about it in the media and it is number one right now. The neurological/head issues that are plaguing these players are big right now. It is not uncommon for guys in their thirties and forties to tell me they are having memory loss, problems with migraines, and problems with light-sensitivity. They can’t drive and they can’t hold down a job. Now with all the new medical information that is coming to light, these different types of problems are being linked to head injuries, which are making that the hot-button issue right now. Medically, we are not where we need to be in order to be able to tell a guy that in fifteen years he is going to have Alzheimer’s. We are not there yet, but we are getting there.
AA: Do you find that professional sports organizations are open to speaking/working with you or do they seem apprehensive?
Mark Slipock: The relationship between the attorneys representing retired athletes and the teams is not a cordial one. Even though teams have Workers' Compensation insurance, and the claim is processed though insurance agencies, the money that is recovered comes out of the teams' pockets. Whether you are considering football, baseball, or any other sport, it is costing these owners money and they don’t like that. There is a backlash that has started where the NFL teams are trying to get out of these liabilities by offering up new legal defenses. There’s litigation going on in California, in which the Bengals and Dolphins have led the charge, which is leading teams to fight back. Where teams used to just grin and bare it, they are now fighting back. They don’t want to pay players when they retire and it is becoming more contentious by the day. It is a more litigious environment now.
AA: What is your opinion of the protections collectively bargained by the various players associations regarding disability?
Mark Slipock: The collectively bargained rights that the players have in the NFL are a little bit at odds with what we do. Players come out to California to file Workers' Compensation claims because often by the time they find out that they have these rights, they have lost them in terms of the statute of limitations running out in other states. In the collectively bargained agreement, it says that you need to arbitrate your rights to Workers Compensation rather than file and go through the state system, and that has led to a lot of problems. For example, in Florida, players are statutorily exempt from collecting Workers' Compensation like normal workers can. They have to go through arbitration and we have found that that process is more generous for the teams and less for the players. When players find out they can come to California and file for compensation, a lot of them take advantage of that.
AA: From your experiences working with numerous disabled former professional athletes, what insight can you provide to the aspiring and current professional athletes in this area?
Mark Slipock: Number one: If any team ever recommends that you get surgery, you get another opinion. I have seen too many instances when players listened to the team and the team doctor without getting a second opinion and went along with surgery, only to never be the same again. I have seen that dozens of times. Players need to understand that when their livelihoods are at stake, they certainly should get a second opinion from outside the sports organization.
AA: What are your ultimate career goals and where do you see your practice in 5 years?
Mark Slipock: In 5 years, I fully expect to still be representing athletes and helping them transition out of their playing careers and into a healthier future. My career aspirations remain the same. I enjoy running my boutique agency and I have never really had any plans to expand or become the biggest guy around, but I have definitively carved out a niche for myself. I enjoy what I do and I enjoy whom I work with. I plan on doing what I have been doing for the past fourteen years and god willing, I will for another fourteen years.
On behalf of Access Athletes, we would like to thank Mark for taking the time out of his busy schedule to participate in this interview. If you would like to contact me, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.