College athletics is big business. While athletes are not paid for their efforts (well, some are), they can reap substantial benefits while pursuing glory on the playing fields of their Alma Maters. But athletes, like workers, are prone to injuries. And once injured, they may find themselves liable for the cost of medical treatment. There is no workers comp for injured athletes, but perhaps there ought to be.
Kristina Peterson writes in the New York Times that athletes are often stuck with the medical bills for sport injuries. Students may have coverage through their parents's insurance policies, but these often exclude varsity sports, limit out-of-state treatment or do not cover much of the bill. Schools may offer supplemental plans, but these vary greatly. Athletes who play for major Division I schools often benefit from robust coverage. Big Ten athletes rarely have to pay for medical treatment. The NCAA offers catastrophic insurance for all athletes, but coverage begins at $90,000. An athlete would run through an awful lot of treatment to reach that level of medical billing.
Even in the Big Ten, where insurance coverage is robust, stuff happens. Jason Whitehead played football at The Ohio State University. He was badly injured during a practice and was airlifted to a hospital.
"The next day, when I woke up, the doctor came in and informed me that surgery went well, but this was a career-ending injury...It took a while to sink in."
Whitehead lost his scholorship one year after the injury. He also ended up with $1,800 in medical bills not covered by his father's insurance or by the school's. The school valued Jason as an athlete; as an ordinary student, well, he ended up pretty much on his own.
Rowing to Oblivion
As in workers comp, medical coverage for student athletes is complicated by factors that may or may not be directly related to the injury. Erin Knauer went out for the crew team as a freshman walk-on at Colgate University. She had a cold when she took a five kilometer workout test on rowing machines. On pace for the fastest time, she suddenly felt a shooting pain beginning in her back and reaching her toes.
She eventually was diagnosed with postviral myositis, a muscular inflammation that causes weakness and pain. Colgate officials determined that this was an illness, not an injury, so financial responsibility fell to Knauer. She tapped out her student health policy at $25,000, leaving her $55,000 in debt. She is currently working two jobs and paying down the bills at the rate of $250 a month.
There is little doubt that Knauer's illness was exacerbated, if not caused, by the strenuous workout. If this had been a work-related situation, comp would likely have picked up the entire tab (plus indemnity). But as a student athlete, Knauer has no guarantee of coverage. She wanted to row for the glory of Colgate. She ended up in serious pain and serious debt. Glorious it was not.
College athletics often involve a fundamental trade off: in return for playing sports, athletes benefit from a low-cost or virtually free education. That might be a pretty good deal, except when the sport results in a life-changing injury. As David Dranove, a professor at Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, puts it: "It makes no more sense to tell the athletes, "You go buy your own health insurance," than it does to say, "You go buy your own plane tickets and uniform.'"
The rationale for mandatory insurance for athletes is similar to the rationale for workers comp. The schools benefit from the labors of their athletes. The least they can do is pay for any and all medical treatment required to make these athletes whole.