Opinion - Final Four players should strike

Without NCAA reform, drastic action is needed

Louisville guard Kevin Ware, a Conyers, Ga. native, suffered a horrific tibia fracture against Duke University. His injury has renewed a national debate regarding student-athlete rights in college sports.

Last Sunday, Louisville Cardinals sophomore guard Kevin Ware leapt into the air to block a three-point attempt from Duke’s Tyler Thornton during the first half of an NCAA tournament Elite Eight matchup.

The Conyers, Ga., native landed awkwardly on his right leg, which snapped under his own weight. On national TV, he writhed in pain near the sidelines as his bone protruded from his skin. His teammates wept. Coaches nearly vomited. Spectators remained in shock hours after the game ended.

Louisville eventually won the game 85-63, advancing to the Final Four matchup that will be held this weekend at the Georgia Dome. But the team will be without Ware. Doctors say it could take up to six months before the former top prospect can walk — and about 18 months before he can even contemplate a return to basketball.

While the degree of Ware’s injury is exceptional, the situation is all too common. Young college athletes risk injury playing sports for an education and the unlikely chance that they’ll go pro. Meanwhile, a billion-dollar industry has built itself around these players. TV stations, businessmen, and athletic departments reap fortunes while many athletes — who, according to one recent study, are each worth upward of $250,000 per year — receive some tuition and a jersey.

Every year, the NCAA tournament makes piles of cash for seemingly everyone except the players. During the 2012 NCAA tournament, CBS and Turner Broadcasting generated more than $1 billion in combined advertising revenue. (A 30-second ad during the Final Four can fetch as much as $700,000). March Madness now pulls in more advertising money than any other postseason athletics, including professional sports.

It’s not just the college nonprofit association and television networks that are receiving an outlandish cut. If Louisville wins the NCAA tournament, head coach Rick Pitino will pocket an additional $325,000 in bonuses, on top of his $3.9 million base salary. The Big East Conference, to which Louisville belongs, should take home a generous share — last year it received $27 million for its teams that made the NCAA tournament. City officials estimate that Atlanta will enjoy a $70 million economic boon. And then there’s another $12 billion in expected gambling bets and the $4.6 billion the NCAA makes annually from licensed merchandise.

Every year, schools recruit thousands of college athletes like Ware and often provide them with athletic scholarships. Players, sometimes at the sacrifice of their studies, train for countless hours, punish their bodies, and dedicate their college years to sport without direct financial compensation. In exchange, they sometimes get a free education and all the immeasurable perks that come with being a college athlete, including prestige.

If a college player gets lucky, he or she could eventually go pro. In most sports, however, less than 2 percent actually make it to the big leagues.

The effects on athletes’ bodies during those years can be devastating. Although some universities help players cover health care costs, the NCAA doesn’t require schools to do so, leaving many athletes few alternatives besides relying on their parents’ medical plans (if their parents have coverage). Some colleges opt against awarding multiyear scholarships to avoid getting saddled with players who might get injured or underperform.

Louisville won’t drop Ware, mostly because of his injury’s high profile. Most athletes don’t receive the same protection as the Louisville sophomore, however. The NCAA does have a catastrophic injury insurance program, which includes a $90,000 deductible, but it only applies to a tiny percentage of athletes, such as those who lose a limb or suffer permanent physical damage during an athletic event.

“The NCAA policy is very different from how it works in the business world,” says David Dranove, a health care economics professor at Northwestern University. “The NCAA prohibits schools from offering benefits to athletes that exceed what they offer their other students, except those associated with sports training, such as access to facilities ... and because the athletes are not employed by the school they have no rights. If they are injured, they get no workers compensation or disability insurance.”

Such policies affect players participating in athletic programs of all different sizes. Former University of Oklahoma forward Kyle Hardrick and his mother paid $10,000 out of their own pockets for medical bills related to his torn lateral meniscus during the 2010-11 basketball season. In 2009, Colgate University rower Erin Knauer told the New York Times that she had racked up $80,000 in medical expenses that stemmed from back and leg injuries. While many school officials have responded by saying they’ve set protocols for informing students about insurance coverage, it catches many by surprise. And still, it’s not always fair.

Critics have long called for players to be fairly compensated and treated by colleges and the NCAA. The timing of Ware’s injury, just days before the Final Four, has forced the issue back into the national spotlight. Former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, who in 2009 filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA, thinks that schools should split TV revenues with former and current athletes. The still-pending case looms heavily over the NCAA’s future.

There has been progress: Last October, California passed legislation that requires some universities to give academic scholarships to all athletes who sustain career-ending injuries. Those schools must also cover insurance deductibles and premiums for poor student athletes. But some schools, including the University of Connecticut, are fighting similar proposals. An NCAA plan in 2011 to give athletes a $2,000 stipend for living costs was tabled after more than 125 schools balked at the proposal. Meanwhile, players are prohibited from making money off their own images.

Despite growing awareness about player rights, it’s highly unlikely that sweeping reforms will take place in the immediate future. Those playing this weekend won’t receive a dime. The strongest statement NCAA athletes could make would be refusing to play unless changes are made. Say, going on strike and demanding some form of compensation before they walk on the court.

It’s hard to imagine players taking such radical action. But given that they’re risking their long-term health without receiving anything more than a scholarship, while others are making billions of dollars, it’s the kind of action that could trigger needed change. It’s an injustice to let the exploitation continue.