Kevin Ware’s Broken Leg And The Origins Of The ‘Student-Athlete’ Myth

Louisville's Kevin Ware after breaking his leg Sunday

By now, the entire nation is familiar with the gruesome broken leg University of Louisville basketball player Kevin Ware suffered in the first half of the Cardinals’ win over Duke in the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest regional final. Ware is lucky: his surgery went well and, according to Louisville’s team doctor, he’ll be able to return to the court in the future (incidentally, the injury is almost identical to the one suffered by Louisville running back Michael Bush, who returned to play in the NFL, in 2006). But injured athletes like Ware often face unknowns they doesn’t deserve: most NCAA scholarships are issued on a year-to-year basis, so if they can’t return to play, schools like Louisville are usually under no obligation to extend their financial aid for the next year (though UofL almost surely will).

Worse yet, Ware could possibly bear the brunt of the costs of his injury. Athletes are required to hold some form of insurance before they can play NCAA sports, whether through the school or through themselves, and Louisville will cover much if not all of Ware’s medical costs. Still, those policies can leave athletes facing mountains of medical costs, an unfortunate situation that is no accident on the NCAA’s part. In fact, the entire basis of the NCAA’s system — the concept of the “student-athlete” — is an artificially constructed term the organization created to help it avoid paying athletes’ medical bills and worker’s compensation after they were injured in competition, as author and historian Taylor Branch detailed in his scathing look at the NCAA system in 2011:

Today, much of the NCAA’s moral authority—indeed much of the justification for its existence—is vested in its claim to protect what it calls the “student-athlete.” The term is meant to conjure the nobility of amateurism, and the precedence of scholarship over athletic endeavor. But the origins of the “student-athlete” lie not in a disinterested ideal but in a sophistic formulation designed, as the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written, to help the NCAA in its “fight against workmen’s compensation insurance claims for injured football players.”

“We crafted the term student-athlete,” Walter Byers himself wrote, “and soon it was embedded in all NCAA rules and interpretations.” The term came into play in the 1950s, when the widow of Ray Dennison, who had died from a head injury received while playing football in Colorado for the Fort Lewis A&M Aggies, filed for workmen’s-compensation death benefits. Did his football scholarship make the fatal collision a “work-related” accident? Was he a school employee, like his peers who worked part-time as teaching assistants and bookstore cashiers? Or was he a fluke victim of extracurricular pursuits? Given the hundreds of incapacitating injuries to college athletes each year, the answers to these questions had enormous consequences. The Colorado Supreme Court ultimately agreed with the school’s contention that he was not eligible for benefits, since the college was “not in the football business.”

The term student-athlete was deliberately ambiguous. College players were not students at play (which might understate their athletic obligations), nor were they just athletes in college (which might imply they were professionals). That they were high-performance athletes meant they could be forgiven for not meeting the academic standards of their peers; that they were students meant they did not have to be compensated, ever, for anything more than the cost of their studies. Student-athlete became the NCAA’s signature term, repeated constantly in and out of courtrooms.

Ware’s injury will hopefully turn out as nothing more than an unfortunate sidenote in his overall basketball career. But across the country, college athletes are getting hurt — many much worse than Ware. Schools often cover the costs, but in some cases, athletes are left holding the bill. In every instance, athletes are left with fewer options because of crafty myths created long ago by the organization that oversees them. The NCAA can run as many commercials claiming to care about protecting its athletes as it wants, but Kevin Ware should be a reminder it has always cared first and foremost about protecting itself.


ByLaw Blog’s John Infante notes that Louisville’s athletic insurance policy will almost surely cover all of the Ware’s costs, and that the NCAA has made recent improvements to its insurance and medical guidelines and policies. Still, the point here wasn’t to insinuate that Louisville would kick Ware to the curb. It won’t, both because Ware will almost surely return to the court and because, as Infante notes, doing so to a player who was hurt on such a public stage would be disastrous. But other athletes have lost scholarships when getting hurt and have shouldered some health costs because other schools’ policies aren’t as comprehensive. That’s why California passed a student athlete’s bill of rights requiring its biggest schools to maintain scholarships for injured athletes last year and why the National Collegiate Players Association has urged other states to do the same. And even as the NCAA has improved, the root cause of problem is the concept of the “student-athlete,” which it created more than 60 years ago in direct response to medical and health claims.

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