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Who Pays? College Sports-Related Injuries

The roar of the crowd, the competition and comradery, and finally, the thrill of victory – the driving reasons behind why most college athletes join a sports team on top of being a student. Parents are usually excited that their child has the opportunity to be seen by professional scouts and attend school on a scholarship but lurking in the back of most parents’ minds is the possibility that it could all be taken away if their children suffer sports-related injuries. But at the end of the day, only 1% of college athletes continue on as a professional and only 2% of all high school athletes received a scholarship to play college athletics. Most college athletes are doing it for the love of the game.

Unfortunately, from sprains, strains, and pulled muscles to runner’s knee, concussions, and heat-related illness, there are a wide range of injuries that have become commonplace in college athletics. Due to added media pressure based on concussions and college athlete fatalities, new regulations and precautions have been implemented by the NCAA to minimize the frequency of sports-related injuries but eliminating them altogether, especially in contact sports, is impossible. An athlete who suffers a sports-related injury may need surgery, physical therapy, or ongoing treatment to restore him back to health, let-alone to be able to play again. This raises an important question: when college athletes get injured, who pays?

 Who Foots the Bill when College Athletes get Injured?

According to the NCAA bylaws, student-athletes are required to obtain insurance coverage for sports-related injuries with limits up to $90,000. Individual colleges are obligated to verify that their athletes have sufficient coverage before they are permitted to play. Regardless of the severity of the injury, once the student-athlete incurs eligible medical expenses exceeding the NCAA’s $90,000 deductible, their Catastrophic Injury Insurance Program will pick up the bill, up to $20 million. Covered events include games or competitions, official team activities, practices that are organized by the school, and conditioning. Nevertheless, financial and legal issues can arise when the injury requires long-term care that is not covered by NCAA insurance, especially if it prevents the student-athlete from playing or working. Additionally, serious legal implications follow when a coach or member of the athletic department pressures a player to return from an injury before he is fully recovered. Recently, at the University of Illinois, after a report was released that found extensive mistreatment of former football players by a former coach, the athletic director was fired.

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), a smaller college association, offers a similar catastrophic insurance plan for all of its students who participate in club or intramural sports. The student must meet a $25,000 deductible first but the NAIA has no provision mandating that student-athletes have insurance. That means an uninsured, injured student-athlete could potentially have to pay $25,000 out-of-pocket before the NAIA’s $5 million policy will pick up the rest. The NAIA does offer an exclusive insurance plan for its students and athletes that aims to provide an affordable means of obtaining comprehensive health insurance coverage.

Common Sports-Related Injuries and How to Prevent Them


Arguably the most publicized of the sports-related injuries, concussions have topped the list of injuries that the NCAA is trying to create plans to protect their players. A concussion is a serious brain injury that can occur in any sport when the athlete suffers from a blow to the head or body.  Although a concussed patient who does not lose consciousness may not even realize he has suffered from a concussion, often student-athletes do not report their injury for fear of losing play time. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has published rules to help protect players from concussions, especially in football where concussions are most common.  It requires all players wear both helmets and mouth guards and declares that the play is immediately ‘dead’ if the ball-carriers helmet comes off. The Association has also impressed the manta, “when it doubt, get checked out” to all of its student-athletes in order to encourage reporting.

Heat-related Illness

A more common sports-related inury is caused by the heat. Intense exercise in hot and humid weather conditions can cause dehydration and increase the risk of exertional heat injury. Although deaths from heat illness are rare, exertional heat stroke is the third leading cause of on-the-field sudden death in athletes. A student-athlete with a history of exertional heat illnesses or who has is not in great shape, has a higher percentage of body fat, or is reluctant to report medical problems is especially prone to heat-related illness. To prevent heat-related illness, monitor your fluid intake while engaging in physical activities to ensure that you are staying adequately hydrated. Be aware of the warning signs of exertional heat injuries including excessive dry mouth or thirst, dizziness, fatigue, or ceasing to sweat in conditions that would normally cause you to. These are all signs of heat injuries that should be recognized and reported quickly to ensure that a more severe illness, such as heat stroke, does not result.

R.F. Wittmeyer

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