March Madness: NCAA student athlete insurance explained
By Justin R. Brown
It’s March, and you know what that means. No, not Daylight Saving Time. Although, yes, that too. We’re talking about March Madness, the time of year when 68 college basketball teams will face off during 67 games over the course of three weeks to win the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship. Let the office brackets, playoff pools and game-watching parties begin!
But there’s more to March Madness that most people don’t know about (and probably only insurance agents think about): insurance coverage, college policies and medical expenses.
There are roughly 800 student athletes on those 68 college basketball teams, and the NCAA requires each one of them to have personal insurance. Actually, the NCAA requires every student athlete to be covered by a personal insurance policy, whether that policy is held by the student athlete or the athlete’s parents or guardians or through the school itself.
This policy has been in place since 2005, when the NCAA began requiring universities to verify that student athletes have insurance in place for potential injuries before they can compete. In order to play in games, participate in practice or even team workouts, each student athlete must be covered by medical insurance, which makes sense, given the frequency of injuries in all college sports.
The NCAA’s Catastrophic Insurance Program covers students who are “catastrophically injured” while participating in a covered activity, such as intercollegiate games. The policy offers benefits, but only for expenses above its $90,000 deductible. As such, the NCAA requires that student athletes’ personal policies cover expenses up to the program’s $90,000 deductible.
The NCAA also offers a disability program for approved students that protects them against the loss of future earnings if an injury during their college career prevents them from playing professionally. The Exceptional Student-Athlete Disability Insurance Program is only available for qualifying athletes in the baseball, basketball, football and ice hockey programs who have been approved by the head of the program. Who pays what?
When an athlete is injured while playing or participating in an NCAA event, there can be some confusion about who pays what: Does the student’s personal insurance pay? Does the NCAA pay? Does the university pay? Many times, student athletes are left in the gap — the gap between what their personal medical insurance covers and what the school doesn’t cover. During last year’s March Madness, Kevin Ware, a forward for the Louisville Cardinals, was seriously injured during a Midwest Regional Final game while trying to block a shot; the gruesome fracture in his right leg left a bone sticking about 6 inches out of his skin.
Ware was fortunate. The University of Louisville covered the expenses relating to Ware’s injury and surgery, but NCAA regulations don’t require schools to do so. For example, other student athletes and their families have recounted horror stories in the media about being left with thousands of dollars in medical expenses — expenses that the athlete’s personal policy wouldn’t cover and that the school wouldn’t pay. This gap results from the fact that each school is allowed to determine its own policies about how to handle student athletes’ medical expenses. Although universities are allowed to pay their student athletes’ deductibles, under NCAA legislation, the schools aren’t required to.
Like Louisville, it is the policy of most Division 1 schools that the university and the athletic program pay for any medical expenses not covered by the student athlete’s own medical insurance. An NCAA spokesperson told USA TODAY that almost all Division I schools and “more than 75 percent” of Division II and Division III schools cover their athletes. But that means many colleges and universities don’t — and even among schools that do, each college’s specific rules don’t guarantee that students and their families won’t be left holding the bag for some out-of-pocket expenses.
Mind the gap
Many are calling on the NCAA to review and revise its policies on insurance coverage for its student athletes, especially in light of recent reports that show some injuries — such as concussions — can have serious lifelong effects on student athletes. NCAA leaders are also discussing ways to get rid of the insurance gap and better communicate to their athletes that the gap may exist in the first place. The organization is talking about creating formal self-insurance programs for deductibles and co-pays and improving communication between the schools, student athletes and their families, such as notifying students and their parents in writing about possible out-of-pocket medical expenses.
NCAA's DI program good, but imperfect
Disability insurance sales lessons from sports heroes