NCAA's DI program good, but imperfect

By Brian Anderson

LifeHealthPro


South Carolina Gamecock football player Jadeveon Clowney is no dummy. Neither is Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner.

Both star athletes — underclassmen who are early frontrunners for the 2013 Heisman — made headlines last week by confirming they are taking advantage of the NCAA’s Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Insurance Program. This program permits qualifying college athletes in football, men's and women's basketball, baseball and ice hockey to take out a loan to help finance the cost of a disability insurance policy, which they must repay upon signing a professional contract.

The NCAA says between 75 and 100 athletes take advantage of the program in any given year, and about 80 percent of them are football players.

A maximum of $5 million in coverage is allowed by the program, and that’s what Clowney has opted for. The policy costs about $30,000, which will be a small fraction of the signing bonus Clowney is likely to receive once he’s eligible for the 2014 NFL draft. It’s a small price to pay to protect himself financially in the event he gets injured during South Carolina’s football season this fall.

Manziel hasn’t confirmed if he’s going for the max coverage, but just the fact that he’s utilizing the program shows he’s got his head on straight as well.

This program is a no-brainer for elite athletes like these guys, who — barring unforeseen circumstances — figure to be taken among the top five picks in the NFL draft once they become eligible.

You might remember that Clowney, the All-American defensive end, surged into the national spotlight with a vicious, fumble-causing, helmet-detaching hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith during the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day. Suppose he makes another big hit like that this fall, but this time suffers a neck injury in the process? That could derail his NFL future and probably around $9 million in guaranteed money from a contract. But at least he would be in line to receive the $5 million from the insurance policy.

Interestingly, it has not been made public whether or not Clowney’s teammate, star running back Marcus Lattimore, participated in the NCAA’s disability insurance program. Lattimore suffered a gruesome knee injury during the second quarter of the Gamecocks' game against Tennessee last October, his second knee injury in as many seasons. Had he not gotten hurt, Lattimore would have surely been a first-round draft pick in this year’s NFL draft. Now, with the injury, he will almost certainly fall to the middle rounds of the draft and may not recover sufficiently to ever make it in the NFL.

If Lattimore has the coverage — and I certainly hope he does — at least he would receive some compensation if it ends up he is unable to play pro football because of the injury. Still, the coverage would provide no benefit to Lattimore if his NFL earning power is merely diminished, as the coverage only pays out if the injury is “career-ending.”
While it’s great the NCAA has this program, what’s not great is that the star players are responsible for paying the premiums. They receive loans to pay the premiums, but they're responsible for paying those loans back whether or not they end up playing their sport professionally. Many think the schools or the NCAA itself — which both profit tremendously from the efforts of star athletes in college sports — ought to pick up the premium tab.

Kentucky basketball player Nerlens Noel, who suffered a season-ending knee injury this season, is covered by the NCAA’s disability insurance program. While it’s likely he won’t collect a dime from the policy because he is expected to be back on the basketball court next season, the injury did give Kentucky coach John Calipari the opportunity to talk about the insurance program recently in his blog.

“Every year, five or six of my players are insured as part of the NCAA Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Insurance Program in case they suffer a career-ending injury. They don’t have to get the insurance, but we talk to some of the guys about why they should consider it and then let them make up their mind from there,” Calipari wrote in the blog post. “Understand it is only for career-ending injuries. Injuries happen in our sport — sometimes career-ending ones — and I would hate for these kids to pay a lifelong price after putting so much on the line for us.”

While Calipari is pleased the program is available, he’s not happy the players are on the hook for the premiums.

“My problem with the insurance is the players have to agree to pay the premiums for it to receive it. Why wouldn’t the school or the NCAA, which is making billions of dollars, make sure that those kids that come to school and have that opportunity to be drafted are insured? Why would we make the players pay for that? The only option then is for them to take a risk and potentially jeopardize their entire career. If the kid doesn’t make it to the NBA, he is still obligated to pay it back himself, even if he went to school for four years, did everything right academically, graduated and helped the school win games and championships.”

I like that Clowney and Manziel getting this coverage led to lots of articles about this last week. Any publicity about DI that raises awareness about the product is certainly welcome. Please share your thoughts on the NCAA's Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Insurance Program in the comment section below.