Student athletes need a living wage, health care

As much of the country knows by now, whether one follows sports or not, Kevin Ware, an African-American sophomore guard for the University of Louisville Cardinals basketball team, suffered a severely broken leg during a nationally televised March 31 game against the Duke University Blue Devils held in Indianapolis. This game was part of the “Elite Eight” bracket of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Division I tournament known as “March Madness” for a spot in the Final Four.

Millions of viewers saw Ware jump high in the air, trying to block a shot taken by an opposing Duke player, only to come down so awkwardly that a bone broke and protruded six inches out of his skin. It was such a horrifying, sickening sight that his teammates and his coach along with members of the Duke team dropped to their knees, crying and hugging each other. Play was suspended for nine minutes, an extremely long time for a basketball game, to allow the medics to prepare Ware to go to the hospital.

Subsequently, an inspired Cardinals team beat Duke by 22 points. The Cardinals went on to defeat Wichita State in the first Final Four game on April 6, and eventually won the national championship on April 8 in Atlanta against the Michigan University Wolverines.

Ware was present to cheer on his teammates from the sidelines and participated in helping his teammates cut down the basketball net — a longtime tradition for the victors. Ware’s teammates and his coaches commented that Ware’s injury inspired them to win the championship.

The outpouring of support for Ware was expressed in countless numbers of tweets from high-profile athletes, like pro-basketball players Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, other prominent figures including Michelle Obama, and just ordinary people here and worldwide. The tweets not only wished Ware a speedy recovery, but also have reraised broader issues that once again speak to the superexploitation of student athletes.

Money is there but not for athletes

Many of these tweets stated that Ware’s injury is another important reminder that student athletes deserve a salary. As this writer stated in a March 25 WW article, “Racism, exploitation & profits: The REAL ‘March Madness,’” student athletes are denied the basic right to be paid for displaying their skills and talents on playing fields and arenas, even though billions of dollars are being garnered in profits from their ability to fill arenas.

Why is it that the executive director of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, is paid a seven-figure salary and the 10 members of the NCAA Selection Committee, which picks the teams to play in the March Madness tournament, are paid $400,000 each?

College basketball coaches, especially those from division I teams, are also paid multimillion-dollar salaries. Rick Pitino, the Louisville Cardinals men’s coach, is paid $4 million annually. With his team winning the championship, there are rumors that his salary could increase upwards to $6 million next year.

The NCAA receives 96 percent of its annual operating revenue just from selling the rights to televise the men’s basketball tournament. This revenue is based on CBS and Turner cable channels forking out close to $11 billion, until 2024, for these exclusive rights over a three-week period. This 14-year contract also includes Internet streaming.

This astounding figure doesn’t include the revenue taken in by restaurants, hotels and other businesses in the cities that host the regional games, which culminate in the Final Four games, and the championship game, which was hosted this year by Atlanta.

Hardships now and later

On the other hand, many players attending NCAA colleges and universities come from working-class and poor families. These student-athletes depend on financial aid and scholarships, and have no other material means to survive throughout their school terms.

For example, on April 6, two Boise State University basketball players, one male and the other female, were arrested on misdemeanor charges of allegedly expropriating food from a convenience store in Boise, Idaho. Whether the charges are bogus or not, this incident and others like it point to the bigger argument for student-athletes to be paid a living wage to help take care of their needs and their struggling families.

The Ware injury has also raised the issue of the lack of long-term medical care for student-athletes.

Adidas had wanted to profit off of Ware’s injury by selling a $25 “Rise to the Occasion” T-shirt with Ware’s number, 5, on the back. Due to a legal logo issue that would not provide financial compensation for the player, they had to call off the deal as of an April 6 ruling.

Before this ruling came down, in an April 3 Edge of Sports column entitled, “I Shattered My Leg at the NCAA Tournament and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt,” Dave Zirin wrote: “In accordance with their rules aimed at preserving the sanctity of amateurism, not one dime from these shirts will go to Kevin Ware or his family. Not one dime will go toward Kevin Ware’s medical bills if his rehab ends up beneath the $90,000 deductible necessary to access the NCAA’s catastrophic injury medical coverage. Not one dime will go towards rehab he may need later in life.” (edgeofsports.com)

Zirin quotes Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association, a group trying to organize NCAA athletes: “Going forward, we don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of medical expenses,” he said. “If Kevin has lifelong medical bills associated with his injury, he could be squarely responsible for this. … These are things that are not guaranteed to players that are injured, and no matter how hard it might be for people to understand, that’s the truth. And that should change.”

In other words, if Ware or any student-athlete is in need of extended health care from injuries in college once they leave school, the NCAA is not legally responsible for these costs. These medical bills could potentially be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more.

A petition has been widely circulated that states: “Kevin Ware and other student athletes should not suffer tens of thousands of dollars in health care costs from sports-related injuries. The NCAA should require schools to pay for universal health care for student athletes who suffer injuries. While the NCAA makes $780 million per year off student athletes, they do not guarantee that medical bills for injuries will be covered.” Go to http://tinyurl.com/cqgtsvy to sign.