Kevin Ware’s unfortunate leg injury in Louisville’s Elite Eight game against Duke has been a convenient chance to pile on the NCAA. Among the accusations is that it is possible, even likely, that Ware will both lose his scholarship and be stuck footing the bills for a long recovery. Much of this fear is based on outdated ideas about the NCAA’s rules regarding medical care.
Every school is different, but there are patterns when it comes to how injuries and rehabilitation are paid for. Most student-athletes, especially at high major colleges, are covered by two insurance policies. Students are required to have health insurance, either through personal policies or through a group plan provided by the college. Athletic departments also have student-athlete injury insurance.
According to Louisville’s 2011–12 student-athlete handbook, the most recent available, the student-athlete’s health insurance is the primary insurance and the school’s injury insurance is the secondary insurance. That means claims are first submitted to the athlete’s insurance, then remaining expenses are submitted to the school’s injury insurance. Here is the section of Louisville’s handbook regarding payment of medical expenses:
The ULAA shall assist in the payment of sports-related conditions that occur during the academic year. Sports related conditions include traumatic internal injuries, musculoskeletal injuries, dermatological conditions caused by protective equipment, heat illness, traumatic dental injuries, and traumatic eye/ear injuries providing the student-athlete take proper documentation from the athletic training room to all his/her appointments including, but not limited to, Jewish Hospit-
al/Frazier Rehab Institute, diagnostic testing facilities, team physicians, etc.
This is fairly standard procedure. Based on this language, it is highly unlikely that any athlete at Louisville ever pays any of the out-of-pocket costs associated with an injury suffered while representing the school. Most deductibles, co-pays, and other fees are likely handled directly by Louisville. The UL athletic department also requires student-athletes to fill out a form authorizing the athletic department to file insurance claims on the student-athlete’s behalf, including against the athlete’s own primary insurance policy.
Could Louisville’s policy go further? Absolutely. The NCAA’s Bylaw 16.4, which covers medical expenses, allows virtually any medically justifiable expense. It does not require that expenses paid for by the school be related to injuries suffered during intercollegiate practice or competition or during the academic year. Louisville may not be obligating itself to pay those expenses, but does so anyway unless the student-athlete was truly at fault for a injury or illness that has nothing to do with athletics.
The NCAA rule will become even more permissive on August 1 when Proposal RWG–16–4 takes effect. Part of the deregulation package passed in January, it reduces the laundry list of permissible medical expenses to this single sentence:
An institution, conference or the NCAA may provide medical and related expenses and services to a student-athlete.
The current version of the rule already permits services like room and board during the summer so an athlete can rehab on campus, premiums for health insurance policies, and fundraising for an athlete who suffers a permanent disability. Since at least 2004 and definitely 2008, there has been no real NCAA barrier to a school picking up the tab for any medical expense at any time for any student-athlete and even some recruits.
On top of Louisville’s policies and the NCAA rules are the circumstances of Kevin Ware’s injury. Ware suffered his injury playing a revenue sport for a BCS school playing in the NCAA’s signature tournament. Even if Louisville cares about nothing but winning games and making money, trying to screw Kevin Ware advances neither of those goals. And if Louisville was stupid enough to nickel and dime Ware, there is no reason to doubt that someone somewhere would make sure that his education and medical expenses were taken care of.
There are plenty of places where the NCAA’s health and safety regulations need improvement. But the treatment of catastrophic injuries suffered by star athletes on national television is not one of them. The NCAA has given schools more than enough leeway to meet the needs of their athletes and in cases like Kevin Ware’s, the schools have generally responded.