By Nele Popp

The open secret no one talks about: the gambling with the players health (care)

College sports is a big part of American pop culture. Not only are games in college leagues broadcasted, players are also featured in movies and many high school movies feature the struggle for sport scholarships. College players are admired, celebrated and often envied. To receive a sport scholarship, to be part of the college players, is one of the most desired things among high schoolers. While I did the research for this article, I found so many websites that deal with the application process, that give tips on what to consider and list the pros of sport scholarships. Many of them also point out that these don’t offer a “full ride”, a grant that covers all the costs for the whole undergraduate education and that an academic one should be considered by parents as an alternative choice, as well. Nevertheless, many questions do not even arise or are answered, for that matter. What happens when players injure themselves? Do they have insurance? Do they have to provide insurance themselves or is it provided? Who pays for injuries with long term consequences? 

The popularity of college sports is mirrored in the money they make. The Big Ten Conference earned more than $700 million in 2018. In 2010 the Southeastern Conference managed to make a profit of more than $1 billion. The money comes from ticket sales, merchandise, licensing fees but mainly TV contracts. Each school makes an annual profit of roughly $40 to $80 million each year. College sports is big money. However, the University of South Carolina, with a $83,9 million income only spent $1 million on medical expenses like insurances, health care and medical treatment. Players muster millions of dollars for their institutions but they don’t even have to pay for their players’ insurance. They only have to ensure that the players have one. Players spend approximately 40 hours per week on the field, training, playing games or traveling to games. It is a full-time job, yet college sports lives on “amateurism”. 

College players are not employees. The concept of college sports is based on amateurism, despite the amounts of money college sports generate annually. Hence, they are “student athletes”. The term athlete grants them some kind of proficiency, but the status as student often prevents them from a guaranteed, free access to health care in a way they would have it as a player employed in e.g. the NFL. As a player in one of the national leagues’ teams you are eligible for workers’ compensation, an insurance that provides medical benefits and wage replacement for people injured at work. However, in college sports the universities have no legal or financial obligation to treat injuries resulting from college sports. In the 1950s, a widow of a college player who died from a head injury that he got during a game sued the NCAA, National College Athletic Association, for compensation. This was denied based on the concept of a “student athlete”. In another case a player became paralyzed after an injury. At first the university paid for the medical bills, however they eventually stopped. When the player tried to sue, the case was denied because he was “recruited” as a student and did not have to pay taxes for the financial aid he received. There are no provisions in place that insure the treatment of injured players. Furthermore, it is really hard for high schoolers that apply or are recruited for sport scholarships to get an insight into the school’s health care and injury management policies. They don’t have to publish it. The only exception is California. 

Another point is the revoking of scholarships. Contrary to popular beliefs, many scholarships are only given out on a yearly basis and do not offer a “full ride”. They are extended according to physical and academic performance. When players injure themselves and their health for the next season is questionable, universities can revoke scholarships. With the revoking of scholarship students can lose their health care and additionally to the cost of the tuition fees have to face costs for medical treatment. This is a problem especially for students from low-income families. They often rely solemnly on the health care provided by the school: doctors and trainers paid by the institution. 

One of the articles recalls the story of Stanley Doughty, who experienced a severe injury on his spine that was not discovered until his first physical in the NFL. He had dropped out of college after his junior year to pursue this career in the NFL, but he could not play for his team due to his injury. After they discovered the injury he could not get back into college either, even though he only missed 12 credits for his degree, or even get surgery provided by the university. He ended up without a football career, no college degree, no insurance but with a disability and pain for the rest of his life. The NCAA has in fact a catastrophe fund that covers medical bills that exceed $90 000 but Doughty was not eligible, his bills were not high enough. 

The only way of protecting players and guarantee them full access to health care and protection from consequences long-term injuries cause, is guaranteeing the player’s employee status and hence, making them eligible for workers’ compensation. However, there are other improvements. Apart from the fact that schools in California have to publish their health care policies, the state issued a new bill. Every school that makes more than $10 million has to cover insurance for low-income students. Furthermore, they have to pay for all costs caused by injuries that resulted from college sports and additionally have to offer alternative scholarships for people with career ending injuries.

Illustration: Maria Ekstrand

Nele Popp is an exchange student from Germany. She studies English and History and currently tries to figure out what to do with those passions. Don’t ask her about topics she is interested in, as she can rant ages about the oddest things.

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