For college scholarship athletes, injury can spell financial disaster

David Cassilo Contributor
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WASHINGTON — Two years ago, a dream came true for Kyle Hardrick. It’s the same dream that hundreds of American college freshmen will experience this weekend: suiting up for their first NCAA basketball game.

After committing to the University of Oklahoma as a ninth-grader, Hardrick finally took the court in 2009. But over the next two years, the 6-foot, 8-inch forward would play just six minutes. An injury to his knee has put his future — and his scholarship — on hold.

As Hardrick tries to resume his career, he has been unable to obtain a medical hardship waiver, something he needs to regain a year of college eligibility. His family has been stuck with tuition bills since his scholarship was not renewed. And with those bills unpaid, he also can’t get his academic transcripts from Oklahoma to transfer to another school.

“You believe that your child will be taken care of on and off that court throughout their college career,” said Valerie Hardrick, Kyle’s mother, at a congressional roundtable discussion last week. “My insurance does not cover all of Kyle’s medical bills.”

With scholarships renewed on a year-to-year basis, stories like Hardrick’s emerge every year across the country.

Valerie Hardrick was invited to Washington to take part in a discussion on the state of the NCAA, organized by Democratic Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush. The idea of paying student athletes and the length of athletic scholarships were on the agenda, but the rights of injured players was the early focus.

“Coaches arbitrarily can withhold or withdraw scholarships, and there is very little an athlete can do to prevent that,” said ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap.

While there is little injured athletes can do, they still have a few options. In many cases, family insurance policies can cover the injury — up to a certain point. And if that injury is severe enough, athletes can turn to the NCAA for help.

The NCAA has its own catastrophic injury insurance, which insures individual athletes up to $20 million. But the majority don’t qualify.

“If you don’t lose a limb, or motion in one of your limb, you wouldn’t be considered catastrophically injured,” said Ramogi Huma, head of the National Collegiate Players Association. “Then it’s completely up to the school, or yourself.”

For those who don’t fit that description, the options are limited. Lawsuits can theoretically help pay medical bills, but players only win under very specific circumstances.

“One way is to look for negligence and any potential lawsuit against anyone whose negligence may have caused an injury,” said David Pepe, a sports law and personal injury lawyer from New Jersey.

Former Rice University football player Joseph Agnew sued the NCAA in March. Agnew started his college career in 2006, played sparingly as a sophomore after a coaching change, and saw his scholarship revoked prior to his junior year after struggling with ankle and shoulder injuries.

He appealed the scholarship revocation and won a scholarship for his junior season but was forced to pay his own tuition his senior year.

His lawsuit’s goal is to make schools offer multiyear scholarships instead of year-to-year arrangements.

Lawsuits aside, a player’s only other option might come well before an injury even takes place. According to Jeffrey Kroll, a personal injury lawyer from Chicago who deals with many sports injuries, prospective students should ask about injury coverage before committing to any school.

“It’s something that parents and students should inquire about when they’re looking at different schools and determine if there are examples of this where it occurred,” Kroll told The Daily Caller.

Unlike professionals, student athletes enjoy no guarantees because they are not paid and aren’t unionized. In this regard, collegiate athletics looks like Major League Baseball before Marvin Miller took over the players association in 1966.

Then, baseball players’ contracts were renewed on a yearly basis, Pepe told TheDC, and there was very little compensation for players with career-threatening injuries. Once Miller renegotiated the collective bargaining agreement, MLB players started to receive health benefits and long-term contract guarantees became commonplace.

Because student athletes are not paid, similar protections are out of their reach. If that changed, a college basketball player could also qualify for worker’s compensation in the state where he was injured.

Until then, there will be more stories like Hardrick’s. Now a college junior, he’s waiting for his University of Oklahoma transcripts so he can play at Pratt Community College in Kansas. Hardrick’s mother says the transfer can’t become official without them, and Oklahoma won’t provide those while his $3,000 tuition bill for summer classes remains unpaid.

Before Hardrick’s scholarship was revoked, the school was supposed to pay.

Reached for comment, the University of Oklahoma’s statement read, “Under student privacy guidelines it would be inappropriate for us to discuss this matter in detail… The University has communicated with the Hardricks and their legal representatives that the University would facilitate the opportunity for the Hardricks to present their case for a Hardship Waiver.”

It is not the response Kyle was looking for.

“He gave up everything for this university and then he was treated like this,” his mother said. “They gave us nothing back but goodbye.”

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David Cassilo