Narrative-driven discussion of Kevin Ware and the NCAA missed the mark

I spent a lot of time last week ruminatin’ on the discussions that grew out of Kevin Ware’s injury, and the discomfort I felt seeing writers––many of whom seemed to have little prior awareness or knowledge of college basketball––rail against Ware’s exploitation absent any context. It helped shine a lot on the NCAA and temper a bit of the sentimentality with which we wash over the ugly side of college sports every March. But much of the moralizing itself seemed to toe the line between self-serving and exploitative. This was my feeble attempt to advance that discussion, posted about a week too late.

In the days following Kevin Ware’s injury in the Elite Eight, David Sirota and others took the NCAA to task for its failures to protect college players in vulnerable circumstances. Their polemics on the exploitive structure of major college sports were timely and constructive, but in focusing on Ware’s narrative to deliver an accessible argument to a broad audience, it obscures the widely divergent circumstances of student-athletes in major college sports.

Contextualizing Kevin

Many authors acknowledged that Kevin Ware is more fortunate than many injured athlete in that his school won’t kick him to the curb this summer or bill his parents for the ambulance ride from Lucas Oil Stadium last weekend. But journalism that headlines articles “Will Ware be stuck with the bill?” or “Let’s See How Much Louisville and the NCAA Cares About Kevin Ware,” and that reiterate his worst-case vulnerabilities unnecessarily intensifies the focus on him. Using Ware as a measuring stick for exploitation lets the NCAA off too easily.

Kevin Ware will be fine. He will emerge from this trauma with his scholarship intact, a manageable road to recovery, and stories for his grandkids about chatting with Michelle Obama and appearing on David Letterman. We can’t let his rebound overshadow the plight of less fortunate players.

Ware making one of many talk show appearances in the ensuing days

Ware making one of many talk show appearances in the ensuing days (credit CBS)

As college athletics guru John Infante has pointed out, the student-athlete injury insurance provided through Louisville’s athletic department would cover any medical expenses not paid for by primary insurance. Based on the school’s policy, “it is highly unlikely” Ware will incur any copays, deductibles or other out-of-pocket costs. And, Infante reasons, “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.”

In short, Ware’s circumstances granted him a privilege over the vast majority of injured athletes. Lost in the outrage over the notion that he could lose his scholarship or be saddled with medical bills was the exceptionalism of his case. Certainly, he belongs to the same marginalized class of “amateur” pseudo-laborer as all scholarship athletes in revenue-earning college sports, but he’s near the pinnacle of that pecking order: a key player at a “high major” program with buckets of money and a history of doing right by athletes after career-ending injuries.

The NCAA mandates that student-athletes have health insurance, but it leaves implementation to the discretion of each school, and that leaves the door open for stratification among players.

Institutionalized inequality in healthcare

Before Ware, Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel suffered what had been the most high-profile injury of the 2012-13 season when an awkward collision with a stanchion base tore his ACL on national television. The agonizing spectacle of one of college basketball’s herculean cash cows reduced to a scared, shrieking teenager engendered its own necessary dialogue on the consequences of the NBA’s “one-and-done” rule that put him in that position. But in that case, as well, Noel was exceptional––privileged by his notoriety, his athletic department’s vast resources, and the safety net of the NCAA’s Exceptional Student Athlete Disability Insurance Program. Here are the criteria for eligibility:

Student-athletes[…]in the sports of intercollegiate football, men’s or women’s basketball, baseball, or men’s ice hockey, who have demonstrated they have professional potential to be selected in the first three rounds of the upcoming National Football League or National Hockey League draft or the first round of the upcoming draft of the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, or Women’s National Basketball Association, are eligible for this program.

In this way the NCAA literally institutionalizes privilege. Beyond the dubious expectation that future star athletes––most of them from lower- and middle-class backgrounds––can finance a $40,000 insurance premium while filling the coffers of athletic departments and administrators, there’s also the distasteful implication that the health of some is more important than that of others. For all of its touting egalitarian amateurism and the notion of “Going pro in something other than sports,” the NCAA explicitly excludes the vast majority of scholarship athletes from its most comprehensive insurance. Even Ware, a highly-recruited sophomore who’d established himself in the core rotation of a Final Four contender, wouldn’t have come remotely close to qualifying for their superstar package this season.

It’s a reality that some players’ athletic careers are worth exponentially more money than others, and NCAA President Mark Emmert can’t exactly ignore that fact. But the Association wants to showcase and profit from the professional-caliber talent in its labor pool without opening itself to the prospects of unionizing, government oversight and regulation of a capitalistic enterprise. It vehemently defends its 501(c)(3) status with one hand while the other tacitly offers the more talented players from more profitable athletic departments on lucrative stages still more privileges over their counterparts.

Funding a mandate and fostering transparency

The NCAA mandates that athletes like Kevin Ware have health insurance. But it needs to strengthen that requirement to ensure a greater uniformity of healthcare access and turn the tide away from institutionalized privilege. While the organization has come under heavy fire lately for generating almost a billion dollars in annual revenue, almost none of it is liquid: the Association boasts that it reinvested 96% of its $871 million in revenue back into its member institutions and conferences in 2011-12. 40% of the $503 million paid out directly to schools was allocated for the Basketball Fund, which awards conferences for their members’ performance in the men’s basketball NCAA Tournament.

So schools with failing basketball programs in marginal conferences are often awarded the least direct financial assistance, and are least equipped to provide student-athletes with good coverage. Their athletes are also the most vulnerable because they aren’t big-name NBA prospects, their games aren’t frequently televised, and they seldom play in the Tournament.

Until NCAA leadership invents a creditable funding mechanism, it can’t really mandate more stringent requirements for player health insurance. It could, however, begin to overhaul the way it distributes those Basketball Fund disbursements, essentially subsidizing the insurance burdens of broke athletic departments with money from more profitable ones like Louisville. Or it could cut costs at the men’s Tournament and other championships, which the NCAA shells out $13 million to operate. Maybe the first place to institute austerity should be Mark Emmert’s paycheck; what sort of academic needs a $1.6 million salary?

For now, the organization is better off promoting greater transparency about insurance. If schools were required to publish detailed information about available options, prospective players and their families would be able to weigh healthcare quality in their decision process. Like new facilities and lavish player dorms, excellent care and rehabilitation would become a competitive recruiting advantage that would likely improve the standard in college basketball and football.

It’s been a rough couple of years for Emmert & Co. The Jerry Sandusky scandal, the ineptitude and malfeasance of the Nevin Shapiro investigation in Miami, and recent revelations of abusive conduct by Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice have eroded public trust in an institution that claims to protect student-athletes. If the NCAA wants to restore a measure of legitimacy to the image it cultivates, it should promote transparency about its players’ health and find ways to strengthen its insurance mandate to protect those who haven’t the exceptional circumstances of Kevin Ware and Nerlens Noel.

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