Kevin Ware injury could put scholarship at risk

Louisville guard Kevin Ware is taken off of the court on a stretcher after his injury during the first half of the Midwest Regional final against Duke in the NCAA college basketball tournament Sunday March 31, 2013, in Indianapolis.
AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Louisville men's basketball player Kevin Ware's gruesome injury Sunday evening did not just mean the end of his season and, potentially, his basketball career. It also puts at risk his college education and could leave Ware and his family responsible for medical bills related to an injury that Ware sustained while helping make his university millions of dollars. 

Though the National Collegiate Athletic Association recently began allowing multiyear scholarships for top athletes - over the objections of more than 200 schools - most collegiate scholarships last for just one year. If a player gets injured, as Ware did on Sunday, the coach can simply decline to renew his scholarship. 

We don't know what sort of scholarship Ware has, though it's worth noting that Louisville is among the schools that opposed lifting the ban on multiyear scholarships. If Ware has a single year scholarship, he still may be, relatively speaking, one of the lucky ones, in part because dropping a player after a high-profile injury would generate negative publicity. Asked if Louisville could guarantee that Ware will not lose his scholarship, a spokesman for the university said he is not sure the question is relevant because "doctors are expecting a full recovery."

Ware would not necessarily need a scholarship to continue his education if he and his fellow players had access to the massive sums generated by their performance on the court, partly through broadcast rights. In 2010, the NCAA announced that it had reached a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting to broadcast "March Madness," which works out to more than $770 million per year. (CBS Corporation is the parent company of both CBS Sports and CBSNews.com.) In the 2011-2012 academic year, Louisville reported to the Department of Education that it earned $42.4 million in revenue from men's basketball alone.

Beyond the value of their scholarships, none of this money flows to the players, who are barred under NCAA rules from non-scholarship compensation for their efforts. A March study from the National College Players Association and the Drexel University Sport Management Department found that Louisville basketball players are being denied nearly $6.5 million each over a four-year period because of the rules banning players from being paid. (An antitrust lawsuit now before the courts is seeking to bar the NCAA from interfering with the market for players' compensation.) 

Meanwhile, there are no guarantees that Ware won't have to worry about serious medical bills due to his injury over the long term. The NCAA has long been adamant that the players are students, not employees, and are thus not covered under workers' compensation. The NCAA does require college athletes to have insurance before competing, but that hasn't kept athletes from getting stuck with the bill for injuries sustained in their sport. And as Salon's David Sirota noted, the NCAA's Catastrophic Injury Insurance Program reportedly comes with a $90,000 deductable, and the majority of athletes don't qualify for it

Asked what insurance was in place to cover Ware's injury and whether the university assumes responsibility for his claims, a Louisville spokesman said in an email, "Yes, insurance will cover Ware's medical bills." But if the injury requires more medical attention once the spotlight fades, the university is not required to keep paying.

"Going forward, we don't know what's going to happen in terms of medical expenses," said Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, which is seeking reform. "If Kevin has lifelong medical bills associated with his injury, he could be squarely responsible for this."

Huma went on to lament the fact that "his most valuable years of his life might have just ended without any compensation whatsoever, and possibly with medical bills."

"These are things that are not guaranteed to players that are injured, and no matter how hard it might be for people to understand, that's the truth," he said. "And that should change."