HBO Show Revives Worker’s Comp Nightmare for Jock turned Lawyer

The HBO news series Real Sports recently aired an episode covering the lack of workers’ compensation for NCAA “student-athletes.” The episode (appropriately titled “The Wreckage”), highlighted a few of the benefits enjoyed by regular university employees which are unavailable to student-athletes, and focused on the lack of coverage for medical expenses that continue beyond a student-athlete’s playing days.

Under most state law (Maryland’s included), workers’ compensation covers 100% of medical bills for employees who are injured on account of their jobs. However, unless a student-athlete is paralyzed while competing on behalf of his or her university, the NCAA permits schools to cut ties with former players once they are no longer students.

But in many cases, lingering medical issues continue much longer, with the burden to pay for such treatment falling on the former players themselves. Thus, by simply labeling college players “student-athletes” instead of employees, universities are able to avoid providing workers’ comp for the people who need it most: the players.

One telling scene from “The Wreckage” involved HBO correspondent Bernard Goldberg interviewing Professor Rick Gleason in an athletic stadium at the University of Washington. In response to Mr. Goldberg’s questions, Professor Gleason quickly acknowledged that the University would provide workers’ comp for many people in attendance at sporting events, such as referees, coaches and food vendors. In other words, essentially everyone “except the people doing the most work with the highest risk of injury.” Can you guess who that might be?

To further exemplify the hypocrisy and injustice, “The Wreckage” provided a few examples of real life human beings who have had their lives turned upside because of their participation in a collegiate sport:

1) A former football player at the University of Washington who suffered numerous concussions that left him unable to read, let alone find a job. As if such a situation is not bad enough, because the former player is no longer in school, he is now responsible for his own medical bills. Ready for the real kicker? He continues to receive treatment from the same head doctor at UW, but must pay for it himself. In short, this poor guy has to continually return to the scene of his injury and pay the school to treat it for him.

2) A former basketball player at the University of Oklahoma who suffered a catastrophic knee injury that not only ended his playing career but also prevents him from working many jobs in the real world. Under workers’ compensation law, employees are compensated in similar situations for the loss of future earning potential—student-athletes, on the other hand, not so much.

3) A former football player at Eastern Illinois who was declared legally disabled by the federal government on account of repeated head injuries. As such, the responsibility for paying his medical bills and basic living expenses will fall on taxpayers for the rest of this young man’s life—a projected seven-figure tax burden.

As you can see, not only are the NCAA’s current policies potentially devastating to former players, but they can also be quite costly for society as a whole. Given the fact that the NCAA is literally a billion dollar business, it would appear quite rational to expect the NCAA to foot some of these expenses.

Another interesting point in “The Wreckage” stems from the public policy behind most workers’ compensation law. That is, because workers’ comp forces employers to bear some of the cost of doing business, it also forces them to take steps to reduce the risk of injury in the workplace. However, the NCAA and individual schools have no such incentive. In effect, “The Wreckage” hypothesized that even less attention is paid to the health and safety of college players, again because the cost of any catastrophic or long-term injury will not be borne by the school.

Personally, this struck close to home. As a former lacrosse player at a recognized Division II program, I suffered a severe knee injury while competing on behalf of my school. Three surgeries later (at my own expense, of course), my knee will never be the same.

But what really gets me is the fact that, at the time, everyone knew that the AstroTurf at my school was long outdated and potentially dangerous. Indeed, I was by no means the only player to blow out a knee during the final few seasons before the school decided to update its stadium with modern field turf. Even my own coach blamed my injury on the facilities.

Thus, “The Wreckage” got me thinking, what if the NCAA required student-athletes to be covered by their school’s workers’ comp policy? Would that have incentivized my school to update its facilities before a bunch of their students got hurt? If I would have been covered by workers’ comp, not only would I have not been responsible for my surgeries, but would I have even been injured in the first place? The answers to these questions I most definitely will never get, but nevertheless, I credit “The Wreckage” for reigniting my bitterness over my bum knee.

Moreover, I was lucky enough to come from a family with good health insurance, and thus the personal expenses that I faced were much less than what other players must endure. For those who come from less fortunate backgrounds, the cost of a collegiate injury is drastically more severe. That being said, catastrophic injuries can also be quite burdensome for even people with insurance. For example, in “The Wreckage,” a former college football player who incurred a lifelong injury currently pays around $10,000 annually in the form of co-pays and deductibles, despite having health insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

Simply put, the only ones to benefit under the current system are the NCAA and the individual schools. At the expense of student-athletes, many of whom are young adults with limited means, these giant institutions flourish. Given this reality, I ask again, why can’t some of the NCAA’s billion dollar revenue pool go to helping former players in need? Reform cannot come soon enough.

If you haven’t yet, I emphatically recommend watching “The Wreckage.” It will make you think.