‘Lack of support’: How the NCAA allows colleges to neglect injured student-athletes

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By John Irwin

Darryll Stinson had dreams of showcasing his athletic abilities nationwide and making a name for himself as a football player at Central Michigan University.

He had just completed his freshman season in 2008 and was preparing for the 2009 campaign when those dreams of dominating on the field took a major hit.

Stinson suffered a back injury during workouts in the spring of 2009 while squatting in the weight room. Suffering from a bulging disk and a pinched nerve, Stinson was sidelined for his entire sophomore year.

“I did too much too fast and slipped a disk,” Stinson said. “I should have built up slower. (It was) pressure to perform.”

It’s a pressure he and other players felt from the moment the join the team, when the coaching staff’s freshman summer workout system instilled a sense of working hard at any cost off the field in order to win on it.

“(Former strength and conditioning coach David) Lawson’s method was if I kill you and push you as hard as you can go, then that’s the only way that you can push your limits,” Stinson said. “That has both positive and negative consequences.”

Darryll Stinson
Darryll Stinson

Positively, Stinson said that mentality can help a team bond and help players reach their athletic potential. But the mindset can also harm a student-athlete’s ability to focus on academics. And it can lead to injuries like Stinson’s that are caused by a desire to do too much at once, he said.

Stinson’s back injury nagged at him throughout his collegiate football career, ultimately resulting in him sitting out his senior year and hanging up the cleats earlier than he would have liked.

And he said the injury’s effect was exacerbated by CMU making him choose between subpar rehabilitative experts in the area or a rehab program led by the university’s athletic trainers, who while well-qualified, are not back specialists. Stinson wanted to play again, so he chose CMU’s trainers.

His back never fully recovered.

Money

Football players, simply put, are moneymakers for colleges and universities nationwide. Major-conference college football teams are worth tens of millions of dollars. A 2011 study by Indiana University finance professor Ryan Brewer found that 69 colleges and universities, mostly in the major conferences, are valued at $1 million or more, with 32 teams valued at more than $100 million.

The 10 most valuable teams – Texas, Georgia, Penn State, Florida, LSU, Michigan, Alabama, Auburn, Oklahoma and Tennessee – are valued at a combined $4.4 billion in Brewer’s study, conducted as if college football teams were businesses. That figure is certain to be higher now due to new revenue streams, including massive television deals with ESPN, Fox, CBS and other networks.

Many smaller schools, including CMU, are valued at $0 in Brewer’s study because they lack sufficient cash flow to justify a positive estimate. Although even at CMU, where its $25.5-million athletics budget is supplemented by $18.4 million in direct institutional support, football generates $5.9 million in revenue for the university. That’s according to 2013 data reported to the U.S. Department of Education.

It’s this big money in collegiate athletics that has sparked a national debate over the NCAA’s model of amateurism.

From the O’Bannon v. NCAA class action lawsuit, in which former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon argues that former college athletes should be entitled to financial compensation for the commercial use of their images, to an antitrust lawsuit filed by labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler arguing that the NCAA cannot cap compensation at scholarships, dialogue over whether student-athletes deserve more compensation has recently heated up.

Injuries

But lost in the conversation over compensation is the key demand of the Northwestern football players who voted to unionize in April: better health care and more adequate financial protections for players in the face of injuries.

That’s not surprising since injuries are prevalent in all sports, but especially football.

“Chances are if you play college football, you’re coming out injured,” Stinson said. “I don’t know many people who didn’t.”

A report commissioned by the NCAA found that there were more than 41,000 injuries in college football between the 2004-05 and 2008-09 seasons. About 50 percent of those injuries were to players’ “lower limbs.” Concussions, which have attracted a considerable amount of attention in recent years at both the collegiate and professional levels, accounted for 7.4 percent of all injuries in that time span.

About 31 percent of injuries that caused players to miss time on the field caused them to sit out three to six days. Meanwhile, 19.5 percent of time-loss injuries caused players to miss 21 or more days.

Surgery was required for 7.5 percent of injuries.

Injuries can be life-altering and can throw a player’s on-field aspirations into a tailspin, as was the case with Stinson.61-61765

But they can also alter a player’s off-field fate.

There is no provision in the NCAA’s 2014-15 Division I manual that prohibits a coach from pulling an athlete’s scholarship due to injury, and there is only a half-page, roughly, that covers guidelines for health insurance in the 419-page document.

“Intercollegiate athletics programs shall be conducted in a manner designed to protect and enhance the physical and educational well-being of student-athletes,” the manual reads.

The NCAA’s insurance bylaws, certified in 2005, require that every student-athlete have medical care, whether that’s provided through the athlete’s parent, the athlete himself or the academic institution. Complete coverage for injuries sustained during an athletic event or during official practices or training sessions must be covered under the NCAA’s guidelines.

There is little oversight, however, as to the implementation of those standards. As a result, some colleges and universities choose to take on large amounts of responsibility for injuries, while others put much of the burden on the athlete to cover expenses. Like most students, athletes often have medical insurance through their parents, but those plans can frequently be filled with holes in coverage that can exclude varsity sport injuries, only cover part of the bill and can limit options for coverage.

Essentially, each college gets to choose how much or how little to directly support a player’s medical costs. And athletes looking for coverage from the NCAA are out of luck unless care costs $90,000 or more.

CMU, where Stinson played, attempts to fill those gaps in players’ health insurance with a secondary policy, CMU Athletic Communications Director Rob Wyman said in an emailed statement.

“A student-athlete’s personal health insurance policy is the primary coverage while CMU’s policy serves as secondary coverage,” Wyman said.

Repeated requests for interviews with Wyman and CMU Athletic Director Dave Heeke over the last several weeks were denied or left unanswered.

For Stinson, though, CMU’s secondary coverage didn’t go far enough.

‘Lack of support’

Stinson underwent back surgery soon after he sustained the injury — a surgery that was only partially covered by the university. He was then told that he would need to undergo an extensive rehabilitation program with a back specialist that would last for roughly six months. With proper rehab, Stinson was told by his surgeon that he could “easily” come back and compete at a high level for the rest of his collegiate career.

He was never able to receive the rehab he needed, though. CMU paid for just six weeks of rehab, he said. Stinson said he then had a choice between following CMU’s back rehab program, led by athletic trainers he said were well-meaning but unqualified to oversee extensive back rehabilitation, or choosing to forego the university’s coverage for a very limited network of back specialists in the area covered under his personal insurance plan. He chose to stick with CMU.

“They only paid for six weeks of my rehab then referred me to their athletic trainers who were very skilled but not back specialists or the best option for me,” Stinson said. “I was upset that (CMU) gave up hope on me after an injury that I could have came back from much stronger had they been more willing to work with me.”

Stinson said he was required to sign a waiver form he said cleared the university from any responsibility for future injuries if he wanted to come back to play. He signed.

“I wasn’t upset that I had to sign the form because I understood that they didn’t want to put me at risk,” he said. “But, I was very much upset with the lack of support (from CMU) through and after my surgery.”

The trainers “did their best” with his back, Stinson said, but it wasn’t enough.

“They had me doing stuff that, when I talk to my back specialists now, they’ll be like. ‘I don’t know why you were doing that. With your type of injury, that would make it worse.'”

Stinson, now employed with CMU’s communications department, said he understands where the university was coming from. He said it was risky for him to return to college football, and he concedes in retrospect that opting to return to the gridiron came at the detriment of his health — he still struggles with back pain every day — and was driven by a competitive desire to shine and potentially move on to the next level.

“I should have just quit and dedicated myself to my academics once I realized they weren’t going to give me the support I needed,” he said. “I couldn’t let it go. It was too hard to. I had so much potential and I wanted to show the world my athleticism. It was a bad decision. And I’m still paying for it today.”

Still, the NCAA’s lack of clear guidelines as to how medical care should be distributed to student-athletes allows for situations like Stinson’s to arise. Athletes often fall through holes in coverage and are left choosing between potentially subpar care covered by an institution or limited options on private insurance that could leave students thousands of dollars in debt.

Change on the way?

The Northwestern unionization case, opposed by the NCAA, might be affecting some change, though.

In August, the NCAA approved new measures granting members of the so-called “Power 5” conferences — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — autonomy to set their own rules and regulations regarding the well-being of student-athletes.

While no action has yet to be taken on health care-related issues, one of the first topics the Power 5 conferences are expected to tackle is proposed mandatory cost-of-attendance scholarships, which would cover expenses beyond tuition and board to include estimated costs for books, supplies and miscellaneous personal expenses.

Cost of attendance varies by school, typically between $2,000 and $5,000, and implementation of a mandatory COA scholarships is uncertain. But it’s necessary, proponents say, to get athletes the financial support they need to attend college while participating in athletics.

Mac_logo_200The Mid-American Conference, of which CMU is a member, will likely follow the Power 5 conference’s lead on cost-of-attendance if and when a COA measure is approved by them, Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said in an interview.

New cost-of-attendance measures will likely cost schools between $500,000 and $1 million per year, Steinbrecher said. According to data aggregated by the U.S. Department of Education, MAC athletic departments averaged revenues of $26.4 million in 2013, meaning new cost of attendance measures could cost upward of 4 percent of total athletic department revenues.

New revenue streams, including the MAC’s new multi-million dollar television deal with ESPN, could help MAC schools cover that cost, Steinbrecher said.

Jon Steinbrecher
Jon Steinbrecher

He said the MAC and other non-power conferences will need to keep up with the Power 5 in order to remain competitive, but he said he doesn’t view the autonomy measure as a way for the larger-revenue conferences to squeeze out smaller ones.

Still, the gap between the Power 5 conferences and others will likely grow larger as new autonomy measures are passed. Issues pertaining to health care and compensation will continue to dominate the national conversation about collegiate athletics, and measures designed to address them will continue to eat up a bigger piece of athletic budgets in the future. For a school like the University of Michigan, which has an athletic budget north of $150 million and operates under a surplus, expanding medical care for athletes could be easier to achieve financially than it would be for a school like CMU, with an athletics budget of $25.5 million that’s subsidized by $18.7 million in direct institutional support.

Stinson said he saw the gap between larger and smaller schools firsthand. While he struggled with medical care through CMU, he followed the progress of his roommate’s brother, who played football at the University of Missouri, an SEC school.

“Players had plenty of medical help there,” he said. “It’s not that our guys didn’t know what they were doing, it’s just that they don’t give much support outside of that network.

“You have to realize that it’s not really CMU’s fault. I don’t feel like CMU should feel obligated to be the University of Michigan or an elite SEC school… You do the best you can with what you’ve got, and I think they try to do that.”

Moving forward

After complications with his back caused him to miss out on his senior year in football – “I was just too injured to play,” he said – Stinson was able to land an internship and, later, a job with CMU’s communications department, where he coordinates production of the university’s biweekly newsletter and works with current student-athletes.

Despite issues he has with how universities handle academics and health care for student-athletes, he said he values his time as a football player.

“Not everybody gets to do this,” he said. “Not everybody gets to go to the Georgia Dome to see Knowshon Moreno. Not everybody gets to play against Matthew Stafford… When I look back on football, I cherish the memories. I cherish the man that it made me.”

While fantasies of playing in the NFL never panned out, he said his time as a player instilled a mindset in him that he continues to use.

“I built an inner strength that could only be birthed through athletics,” Stinson said. “There are professionals that I come across that fold under pressure more quickly than I do because they’re under a lot of pressure. I’m just like, ‘This is nothing, man. I was fourth-and-one on the goal line. I live for this.’ That gets me going.”

Despite problems with the system that need sorting out, especially with regard to injuries, it’s values like that Stinson believes gives athletics an invaluable place on a college campus, especially at non-power schools.

“A lot of people in the MAC tend to not compare themselves to larger institutions,” he said. “They’re like, ‘We can never be the University of Michigan. We can never be Michigan State. We can never be the University of Alabama.’ And I’m like, I beat Michigan State. I can beat them now in the academic world, too.”

John Irwin is the founder and editor of CMU Insider.


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