Think NCAA Athletes Shouldn’t be Paid? What the Kevin Ware Story Says About the Risks of College Sports

In many ways, it had been an exemplary few days for the NCAA and its signature basketball tournament—a weekend that put the madness back in March.

On Friday, Michigan and star guard Trey Burke completed an epic comeback over Kansas. On Saturday, Cinderella team Wichita State crashed the Final Four.

But for many people watching the Louisville-Duke game unfold, a disturbing injury to Louisville guard Kevin Ware illustrated a different sort of madness: the continued lack of compensation for the players who make the tournament so special.

“Pray for [Ware],” columnist Dave Zirin tweeted. “There is no safety-net for the injured NCAA athlete.”

Injury worst seen on TV

Ware’s broken leg—”about the most gruesome injury I’ve seen in a basketball game,” bemoaned analyst Seth Davis—came on a routine play, as he landed awkwardly after trying to block a shot by Duke’s Tyler Thornton.

And evoking memories of a similar, career-ending injury to the NFL’s Joe Theismann, Ware snapped his leg in two places, with his tibia bone sticking six inches out of the skin. Ware will miss at least a year, Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after the game, and it’s fair to wonder if he’ll ever play high-level basketball again.

The injury was so graphic that it prompted an immediate debate over propriety: Should the footage even be shown? And while websites like Deadspin and BuzzFeed posted links to the video, others (including CBS, which was televising the game) elected to halt replays.

Few protections for NCAA athletes

But the most important discussion returned to the questionable morality of college athletics: Were Ware’s services being exploited by the NCAA?

Keep in mind:

  • Ware was playing for no pay beyond an athletic scholarship to Louisville—a scholarship that’s often only renewed at a coach’s discretion.
  • While Ware’s surgery will be covered by Louisville, he has no recompense to file for worker’s compensation. Under the NCAA’s deliberately ambiguous terminology of “student-athletes,” the organization is shielded from such claims.
  • While most college sports programs are money-losers, the NCAA’s annual TV ad revenue from March Madness exceeds $1 billion. And Louisville is the most profitable college basketball team in the nation.

What happens next–for Ware and the NCAA

Entering Sunday, Ware was a fringe NBA prospect—ranked 76th among all college sophomores by one service—far from a lock to make that league, but likely to play professionally at some point.

Ware’s injury raises serious questions about his ability to do exactly that.

Under a best-case scenario, Ware recovers after several years of rehab, but suffers some loss to future earnings.

Consider the case of Michael Bush, a former Louisville running back who suffered a similar injury in 2006. Bush was a projected top-10 pick in the 2007 NFL draft; after snapping his leg, he fell to the 100th pick and lost out on a windfall of $40 million or so.

Under a worst-case scenario, Ware deals with continued medical burdens—and as Salon’s David Sirota points out, ends up getting stuck with the bill.

Sunday’s episode ensures that the NCAA will face pressure from Zirin, Sirota, and other usual suspects. Taylor Branch’s seminal article on “The Shame of College Sports” will be passed around again.

But it’s important to remember that Ware’s broken leg was unusually terrible, and unusually high-profile. The debate will fade as the next round of games resume.

Meanwhile, every season of college football or basketball sees hundreds of lesser injuries, to lesser players, on lesser stages, with no compensation for the afflicted.

Perhaps it’s madness that we’re not more mad about that.

Dan Diamond (@ddiamond) is Managing Editor of the Daily Briefing, a CaliforniaHealthline columnist, and a Forbes contributor, where this post originally appeared.

4 replies »

  1. I’ve got no problem paying the players, but lets do it RIGHT.

    Pay players based on what they actually generate for the university. If you are a top QB at a big division 1 school, you are worth milllions. If you are a women’s volleyball player whose scholarship is being subsidized by the football team, you aint worth shit.

    Of course, paying athletes wont work because it will be considered “sexist” and violate title 9 because liberal feminazis will be pissed off that the women’s basketball players wont get as much money as the mens team will.

  2. College “sports” (in football and basketball) is a misnomer. It should be called “college business ventures for increasing alumni donations and ticket sales”

    In many colleges the athletes don’t take the same courses, have the same admission or graduation requirements, etc. etc. In essence they are “hired guns” and have made a low percentage bet that their future athletic career is worth the risk of uncompensated injury and lack of a real education.

    On the flip side of this – many of them would not be in college if they didn’t play a sport. As the former basketball couch of Marquette Al McGuire once (infamously) said: “If my guys weren’t playing basketball for me they would be out stealing cars”

    Time to eliminate all athletic scholarships. If the pros want “farm teams” – let them finance them – as they do in baseball. Student athletes should students first and athletes second.

    I am not naive enough to think that this will actually happen, but this is the way it should be.

  3. You want the full skinny? Forget the mirror-hugging David Sirota, read the Atlantic article “The Shame of College Sports.”

    My grandson is a freshman college athlete on a full-ride football and tennis scholarship. To our delight, he opted to not go Div I (though Pitt was a close call), and is instead now at St. Olaf.

    There is no such thing as a “four year athletic scholarship.” They are renewed (or not) annually. You get seriously injured, you WILL get dumped over the side, and, while they may pick up your immediate medical tab in the wake of a bad mishap, if you (like Ware may well) require years of rehab and meds and further px’s, you will be on your own.

    Moreover, beyond the medical stuff, the NCAA virtually owns you in perpetuity where it comes to marketing your “likeness,” and you waive any privacy or 5th Amendment rights where any accusations — however flimsy or trivial — of “student athlete violations” occur.

    Read Taylor Branch’s piece if you want to get REALLY angry.


  4. Okay. This is huge. This story single handedly changed my opinion about this issue. This is inexcusable.