NBA Star Lance Stephenson’s Treatment Echoes America’s Lack of Protection for Injured Workers

Lance Stephenson was injured in the course of his work, and cut loose by his employer. He's not the only one.

We don’t write about sports a great deal here on Flavorwire, but consider this: you’re an employee who has hurt yourself in the process of carrying our your work. Instead of offering you treatment, your employer just cuts you loose. You’re left with no income, no compensation for your injury, and facing the prospect of trying to rehabilitate yourself on your own.

So it went this week in the NBA for New Orleans Pelicans guard Lance Stephenson. Stephenson was once considered a potential star, but lackluster play, questionable decision-making, and a peripatetic career trajectory have seen his light dim over recent years, so much so that he was the last player to make the Pelicans’ roster at the start of this season. (The number of players on a team’s roster is limited by the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement.) Despite this, his play has been one of a few highlights for a team that has started the NBA season 0-6; behind megastar Anthony Davis, who has been putting up outrageous numbers in a bid to make something of what’s already looking like a futile campaign, Stephenson has probably been the Pelicans’ second-best player — until he suffered a groin injury a couple of days back.

The Pelicans reacted to the news by simply leting Stephenson loose. The contract he signed at the start of the season was non-guaranteed, meaning that it could be terminated at any time, and Stephenson’s injury will require surgery and a two-month rehabilitation period afterwards. The Pelicans clearly decided that they couldn’t wait for him to return, cut their losses, and signed another player (Archie Goodwin, if you’re wondering) to fill Stephenson’s spot on the roster.

The press release announcing the team’s decision assured us that there were “no hard feelings,” and made sure to note that Stephenson has been invited to carry out his rehab at the Pelicans’ training facilities, “if he wishes to do so.” None of this, changes the fact that Stephenson is now teamless, income-less and saddled with an injury that means he won’t be able to carry out his trade for at least two months. His fellow players are aghast at the way he’s been treated, and rightly so.

People tend to scoff at the amount of money sports stars make, but in doing so, they tend to forget that the players in question are rarely skilled at anything beyond their sport, and have a very short window to make the money that will (hopefully) last them a significant portion of their lives. If you’re LeBron James, then great, you’re making nearly $31m this year, and probably orders of magnitude more than that from endorsements, etc.

If you’re Lance Stephenson, you were going to make $1.2m this year. Except, now you’re not. Apparently the amount of money the Pelicans paid Stephenson before his injury amounts to just over $100k, before tax. That’s good money for a couple of months’ work, by your or my standards, but Stephenson is 26, never finished college, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever sign anything beyond another non-guaranteed contract again. When the NBA had a lockout a couple of seasons ago, one of the reasons that the players eventually caved to owners’ demands is that a surprisingly large number of them were living paycheck-to-paycheck. (Stephenson, for instance, left the Indiana Pacers — where he enjoyed his best years — for the Charlotte Hornets in 2014, because even though both teams were offering the same money, the Hornets deal would pay him more up front.) This is unsurprising when you consider that many come from poor backgrounds, they’re given little guidance as to how to manage their finances, and on average will last in the league until their early 30s, if they’re lucky.

But anyway, if this piece were just about Lance Stephenson, you wouldn’t be reading it on Flavorwire. The thing is, Stephenson’s treatment is a prominent example of a very American phenomenon. The contracts that many workers in this country sign — if they sign contracts at all — are the equivalent of the NBA’s non-guaranteed contracts. It’s common for either party to be able to end the contract, without notice and without any restriction on the reason for termination. It’s also common for a worker’s health insurance status to depend on their employment. For every Lance Stephenson, there are 100 workers who were injured in the course of their minimum wage job and promptly cut loose. Many of them may never work again. There are protections for injured workers, but these vary from state to state, and are often manifestly inadequate.

This is unusual, to put it politely. Most other first-world countries — and, indeed, many non-first-world countries — offer labor law protection against the termination of contracts in unfair circumstances, state-funded assistance for injured workers, and publicly-funded healthcare. In my native Australia, for instance, legislation provides that “An employer must not dismiss a worker because of a work related injury within six months from when the worker first became unfit as a result of the injury.” Injured workers are entitled to compensation above and beyond the coverage they’d already receive under Medicare, the state-funded public health insurance program.

It always amazes me, to be honest, how few Americans are aware how unusual their healthcare “system” is in comparison to the rest of the developed world. And so, on Election Day, it pays to think about how America has managed to veer so far from first-world orthodoxy (and decency) in its treatment of the sick and injured, and how the inadequacies of American healthcare — often presented under the rubric of “freedom of choice,” as if the freedom is of benefit to anyone beyond employers — might be remedied.