Protecting College Athletes Ought To Be A Slam Dunk

April 25, 2013 Current Commentary Comments Off
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When University of Louisville sophomore Kevin Ware stepped onto the court for the NCAA men’s college basketball “Elite Eight” game against Duke University, a lot of money was at stake.

A victory could increase the already-hefty $40 million Louisville brings in from its basketball program annually, and it certainly wouldn’t hurt the earning power of Louisville coach Pick Pitino, whose current $5 million salary makes him the second highest paid coach in college basketball.

One payday that wasn’t in play, however, was Ware’s. Win or lose, Ware would earn nothing from that night’s game. But he was set for an even bigger loss, as he suffered a severely broken leg that could permanently derail his basketball career.

March Madness is over – with Ware’s team taking the ultimate tournament win without him – but Ware is just beginning a long process of recuperation. I hope his broken leg will at least serve to focus attention to an equally broken system of so-called amateur college sports.

Though they work long hours and put their own safety and future careers on the line in the service of an extremely profitable industry, college athletes still lack the basic protections granted to other workers.

The New York Times, MSNBC, and The Daily Show were among the many outlets that addressed this issue in the aftermath of Ware’s injury. The NCAA, which keeps individual college athletic programs on tight regulatory reins, claims that players must be protected from the corrupting influences of commercialism. To do this, it holds on to all the commercial benefits of their work.

As I have written before, the NCAA does not have a problem with student athletes’ hard-earned reputations being used for profit. To the contrary, the organization brings in billions of dollars each year, largely through media agreements, including a 14-year, $10.8 billion agreement with CBS. But the NCAA does not pay athletes, does not allow colleges to pay athletes beyond providing scholarships, and even prevents athletes from receiving money from outside endorsements.

The NCAA and its supporters claim that college athletes receive something far more valuable that any media endorsement: a college education. Yet according to a recent study from Drexel University’s Sport Management Department and the National College Players Association, even top players often still pay part of their tuition out of pocket. The study estimated that, in a free market, men’s basketball players in the six BCS conferences would on average earn $715,000 more in their college careers than what they actually receive in scholarships.

It is possible to argue, as many do, that those lost potential earnings are simply the price college players willingly pay to enter an arena where they can attract the attention of professional scouts. But as Ware’s gruesome injury highlights, college sports can put an end to some athletes’ prospects, rather than bolstering them. In those cases, students walk, or limp, away from their experiences with nothing to show but broken limbs – and lingering medical and tuition bills.

Louisville provides insurance for varsity athletes, which will supplement the Ware family’s private coverage so that he will not have any out-of-pocket expenses for his immediate medical care. The NCAA also has a catastrophic policy to pay for costs over $90,000. However, neither Louisville nor the NCAA covers former college athletes. If complications from Ware’s injury last longer than his college basketball career, he will be on his own.

Perhaps the biggest problem with that lapse is that, in many cases, an injury is what puts an end to a student’s athletic career. That was what happened to Kyle Hardrick, a former basketball player at the University of Oklahoma, whose mother testified before a Congressional panel on college athletics in 2011. After Hardrick injured his knee on the court, he lost his scholarship, and his family had to pay $10,000 out-of-pocket for an MRI. Most student athletes receive renewable one-year scholarships, which give schools the opportunity to dump them if their skills deteriorate, even if the cause is an injury sustained while bringing in money for the school.

A recent California law takes on this problem, requiring schools that generate more than $10 million in annual media revenues from athletics to continue the scholarships of injured athletes. The law also requires these schools to cover deductibles for all injuries that occur during practice or games. This is a good start, but other states have been slow to follow suit.

The NCAA’s claim that college athletes are just regular students who happen to play sports for the joy of competition is, in the case of the big-money sports at least, a pure fiction that makes possible the most blatant exploitation. Since college athletes do not have employee status, they cannot file for workers’ compensation, take out disability insurance or negotiate for better terms.

Ware is expected to be able to play again, though it is anyone’s guess whether he will ever perform at the level he might have reached had it not been for his nationally televised injury.

Here’s hoping that through his misfortune, Ware will at least score some points against college athletes’ true opponent: the NCAA.


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