Ashley J. Beth
Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2022
Athletic scholarships pave the way for student-athletes to attend the schools of their dreams, yet serious injuries can turn their dreams into nightmares, regardless of whether the injuries have immediate or future effects. The 660 National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) institutions collectively award athletic scholarships to over 180,000 students, totaling in excess of $3.6 billion annually. In the relentless pursuit of illustrious professional league contracts and national championships, athletes may fail to get properly evaluated or be less inclined to accept being sidelined for what they perceive as minor, short-term injuries. The unwary athlete may find themselves losing their scholarship and suffering life-long consequences as a result. While the NCAA was established in 1906 for the purpose of protecting athletes from a trend of injuries and death in college football, the governing body has seemingly veered off course of prioritizing student-athlete welfare.
Full-ride athletic scholarships are a misnomer
The decision to offer institutional financial aid related to athletics is made on a year-to-year or even term-to-term basis at most institutions. Division I schools are permitted to offer “full-ride” scholarships that are fully guaranteed for four years, yet this practice is limited. The decision to renew aid is completely up to the head coaches’ discretion. There is an exception to this rule, NCAA bylaw 220.127.116.11(b), which applies to Power Five Conferences. These conferences, Big 10, Big 12, ACC, Pac-12, and SEC, are forbidden from reducing or not renewing a scholarship due to an injury. Even so, coaches can likely skirt around this rule by finding a permitted reason to deny a scholarship renewal. Thus, when a student-athlete suffers an injury, a head coach has significant power to take away what may be the only means an individual has to attend their institution.
That being said, some universities have policies that allow athletes to retain their scholarship if they can participate with the team in a meaningful way off the field, such as in a managing role. Additionally, student-athletes who anticipate being able to play after they have recovered can utilize bylaw 18.104.22.168, the Medical Hardship Waiver, commonly known as a “medical redshirt,” for a season and retain their scholarship. For an athlete to qualify, the injury or illness must have occurred prior to the first game of the second half of their season. Also, the injury must be medically documented to be “season-ending.” Therefore, athletes with less serious injuries have scholarship protection as long as their coach does not find a different reason to take it away.
Medical insurance and additional sources of coverage
While NCAA bylaw 22.214.171.124 requires student-athletes to have health insurance, universities are not required to pay for their insurance. Many universities do not have contractual obligations to treat injuries that result from participation in collegiate sports. Fortunately, when student-athlete’s insurance coverage is insufficient to cover medical bills, there is often secondary insurance paid for by the university to cover those costs. At Division I schools, student-athletes are guaranteed to not have to pay out of pocket expenses for their injuries while playing at their university.
For students who are likely to be top draft picks in the professional leagues, the NCAA offers an “Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Program.” It is essentially a loan program, where qualified student-athletes borrow money from the NCAA for preapproved financing to protect against future loss of earnings as a professional due to disabling illness or injury that occurs during college. The cost to be paid back to the NCAA is around $50,000 with threshold coverage limits based upon the sport. Considering fewer than 2% of NCAA student-athletes go on to be professional athletes, this program is not frequently utilized.
Short term mindset can lead to long-term consequences
The most concerning problem for student-athletes are the invisible injuries, such as brain damage and mental illness, and other long-term physical effects likely due to the strenuous demands on their bodies. Athletes may focus on short-term goals, losing sight of the potential long-term effects. Once college careers end, they no longer receive help from their university for medical costs. Their only remedy is bringing a lawsuit against their university or the NCAA for negligence by proving the entity was liable for the foreseeable injury. Further, the Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Program does not cover medical procedures once a student-athlete is more than two years removed from being an active student-athlete. Thus, student athletes are left without adequate polices safeguarding long-term effects that arise directly from their participation in their sport.
While athletes can challenge the NCAA through the civil court system, their likelihood of succeeding is low. The NCAA has dodged admitting fault by settling on several cases, including in its $75 million settlement with student-athletes who have suffered harm from concussions. Many scholars have argued that student-athletes should be entitled to worker’s compensation benefits considering the NCAA brings in about $1 billion in revenue annually and the relationship between the player’s and the NCAA is essentially that of an employee to an employer. While student-athletes are bound by the NCAA bylaws, courts have repeatedly held that there is no contractual agreement requiring the NCAA to provide for a student-athlete’s well-being. Although the courts are hesitant to change their position, state legislatures are advocating for student-athletes. Proposed legislation aims to provide greater protection, through increased health coverage, guaranteed scholarships, and penalties for institutions failure to follow health protocols.
A prospective student-athlete must be their own advocate and do the research
The student-athlete who does not read through the extensive NCAA bylaws or inquire about specific institutional policies places themselves at risk of losing everything they have worked for. Since most student-athletes will not go onto professional careers in athletics, they depend on academics to prepare them for life after college. A scholarship being rescinded can mean that the individual can no longer afford an education. Further, long term effects of physical or mental damage resulting from participation in sports can set them back financially. While the NCAA and member institutions are not presently structured in the athlete’s favor, it is imperative for student-athletes to familiarize themselves with the coach and the school’s policies.