Will Kevin Ware get Workers’ Comp?

A fractured tibia with a rod in it. Hurts just looking at it, right? Better that than pictures of Kevin Ware’s tibia.

Let me say first that as the owner of two fractured tibia (now mended, thank God) and two fractured fibula (ditto), I have nothing but sympathy for Kevin Ware, the Louisville basketball guard who was gruesomely injured on Sunday in a game against Duke University. I also hereby own that I have not availed myself of the many places on the Internet where I could relive the fracturing of Mr. Ware’s right leg. I’ve been smart enough to not look down at my legs when they’ve turned into mush; I don’t need this to be on my mind. I still have nightmares about the whole Joe Theismann thing when his leg was broken by Lawrence Taylor (and if you’re squeamish, don’t click on the link).

That said, nobody’s talking prognosis. So let me share here. Everyone I’ve ever dealt with in the orthopedic field tells me that a tib/fib break is a long, slow-healing injury. For people who have other medical complications (diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis), it can take well over a year. My last break was from a bicycle accident on a 100 mile ride-for-fun. I was in pretty good shape relative to my peers.  I went into an emergency room in August, and I wasn’t fully healed til February (BTW, if you’re ever unfortunate enough to be in an ER with this injury, you find out you’re dubbed “the Tib Fib Man” by PTs, nurses and attendants, as in ‘Need a new saline drip for the tib-fib guy‘). Apparently, blood flow to the calf area is relatively slow, and so even people in really good health may be on the sidelines for more than a few months.

Now if you’re a hobby-athlete, weekend warrior like me, the healing process is more than a bit tedious. If you’re careful, you’ll be non-weight-bearing for the first six to ten weeks. In a soft cast, you’ll be able to do some pt (writing the letters of the alphabet with your toes is a common one). But even if you do everything right, you’ll be ‘recovering’ long after the bone heals over. Because for a year or so afterwards, a stranger seeing you when you’re in shorts will be able to tell which side of you wasn’t whole. For an athlete, that’s probably a career-ending event.

Which is the whole question about Mr. Ware’s ’employment’. Well, he isn’t an ’employee’ of Louisville–he’s a ‘student athlete’, which means his pay consists of tuition and room and board. Louisville has paid for his surgery (they kind of had to). But what’s Mr. Ware going to do for money? It isn’t like he can collect Workers Compensation or Social Security/disability. As Dave Zirin, sports writer and editor of The Edge of Sports, reminded us recently, March Madness is a huge cash cow for the NCAA, accounting for some 90% of the NCAA’s operating budget. Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA, made at least $1.6 m year, and has some 14 vice presidents making in excess of $450K. March Madness is also the most bet-upon sports event in the US, surpassing even the Superbowl (it’s hard to walk into an office and not see those brackets set up for bets). And the players see none of that lucre.

And now we know that, thanks to legal maneuvering by the NCAA, Neal’s future medical bills probably won’t be covered either. The NCAA has a ‘catastrophic injury’ insurance program, but this probably doesn’t apply to Ware. And in any case, there’s a $90,000 deductible–that’s money Ware and his family will have to pay out first.

So let’s be clear–while playing in the most profitable sporting event on network television, a player who receives no compensation for his efforts gets injured and the people with the money walk away without taking care of him. This sort of thing has been going on for years in the NCAA, but this time it’s front and center and people are talking. And it’s up to us to make sure that this is the moment when that whole ‘student athlete’ malarkey goes south–that if March Madness is worth a few billion in ad revenues, the people with literal skin in the game need to be cared for if they end up with a career-ending injury. People who talk about the outrage of CEO’s making something like 300 times what their workers are making aren’t even in the ballpark with the NCAA. Their president pulls down a million; Kevin Ware gets stuck with his own hospital bill. It’s not right, and people need to lean on the folks in charge at the NCAA to make sure this is handled properly.

Us tib-fib guys have to stick together.

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