Who pays for injuries sustained by college athletes?

On Sunday, March 31st, the US college basketball world was shocked when Louisville’s Kevin Ware suffered a very serious compound fracture of his right tibia during play in the NCAA college basketball tournament.  The injury was gruesome and left many of the players standing around on the court shocked and woozy as they tried to comfort one another during the significant amount of time it took to stabilize Ware and get him off the court.   When I learned of the injury, I couldn’t help but ask myself, what was going to happen to Ware and who was going to pay for his care?

I wasn’t the only one asking those questions.  Ware’s injury has reignited a long running debate, summarized in a recent New York Times article, about injuries in college sports and the status of college athletes as amateurs.


It looks as though Ware is going to be well cared for in large part because of a secondary insurance policy and commitment from Louisville to pay for his care and rehabilitation.  But that is not the case for many college athletes many of whom are responsible for their own care after they leave the university and in some cases while they are still there.

Student athletes are not covered by American labor laws because they are not considered to be employees but instead are considered students and amateur athletes despite the fact that they contribute to sports programs that can generate millions of dollars for the universities they play for (more than $40 million annually for the basketball program alone at Louisville). In an effort to address the problem of injuries among student-athletes, the legislature in the state of California recently passed a bill called the “Student – Athlete Bill of Rights” that requires larger universities to provide health insurance and cover the health care costs of injuries sustained during participation in intercollegiate sports.

There is a larger debate in the US about whether or not those who participate in college sports should remain amateurs or should be recognized as professionals with all of the accompanying benefits and protections (including workers compensation) associated with the classification. The individual burden on student-athletes from injuries sustained during their participation in intercollegiate sports is an additional justification for recognizing and classifying these athletes as professionals.

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