In 2005, the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) began requiring universities guarantee their athletes have adequate health insurance due to many years of concerns that college athletes had insufficient health coverage. The association did not, however, establish clear standards for this coverage, which allowed colleges to decide for themselves what was adequate. Although some colleges assume almost all medical expenses, many others accept almost none. In order to turn this problem around, the National College Player’s Association is lobbying for legislation to protect college athletes; the Association believes the NCAA is too focused on doing “right” by the schools themselves, not the players.
Many people claim medical insurance should be required as a cost of having an athletic program. Middlebury College, for instance, ensures all of their varsity athletes and students in club sports have accident insurance paid for by the college. Spalding College pays for secondary coverage for their athletes, pointing out the fact that student athletes represent the school and insurance is ethically the right thing to do. Large universities such as Michigan State and the University of Iowa also give their athletes comprehensive medical insurance.
Many athletes are unfortunately not this lucky. While the colleges that do not insure their athletes claim they go out of their way to inform athletes about their limits of insurance, many students and their parents still find themselves in horrible situations, having to shoulder large and expensive medical bills. An athlete from Colgate University, for example, piled up about $80,000 in medical expenses after injuring her back and legs while in training with the crew team; insurance only covered about a third of the expenses because of the way her condition was diagnosed, a sickness as opposed to an injury. Also, because many students are insured by their parents, the plan they are under excludes varsity sport injuries, limits out-of-state treatment or does not cover the entire bill. Some colleges buy secondary plans to fill in these gaps, however, these plans have holes as well. Additionally, only players that are hurt enough to require extensive care can turn to the NCAA for coverage; its catastrophic insurance deductible is currently $75,000, but will change to $90,000 next year.
Another problem with health insurance for athletes is how difficult it is to attribute every symptom to a sports injury that the plan will cover and a virus that the plan will not cover; there is an ambiguity in paying for care and treating an athlete who has more than one health concern. Sustaining an injury while sick would be a bad situation, and in the case of an athlete having a disease intermingled with an injury, it is unclear where one stops and the other begins. Within a single state university system, such as the University of Wisconsin, health coverage can vary widely. While at the university’s main campus at Madison, all varsity athletes fall under secondary sports coverage, at the university’s Division III campuses, only treatment for minor sports injuries that can be fixed in the training room is covered. Because it would be too expensive for universities to insure all athletes in the current economic times, it is unlikely the NCAA will require they provide more insurance anytime soon. Many believe health-care reform is the only answer.