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June 18, 2020

Coronavirus and College Football | Are Athletes Covered by Insurance?

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As football season approaches, coronavirus is spreading among college football teams. Last week, several players from the University of Alabama tested positive for the disease. Yesterday, two athletes from Kansas State tested positive, as well. These are not isolated incidents, but  even so, athletic departments all over social media are posting videos of their football teams returning to campus to engage in “voluntary” workouts (which I have argued are not really all that voluntary), in hopes that their seasons will start on time. And now, Ohio State University is requiring athletes to sign coronavirus risk waivers in order to practice and compete, which will likely become commonplace as the summer continues.  

There are a few important things to note here. First, it is impossible to maintain social distancing (which is still recommended) while playing tackle football. Second, athletic departments may not be required or adequately equipped to cover college athletes should outbreaks occur on teams. 

A little-known fact about insurance in college sports is that athletes are not required to carry a private insurance policy. According to the NCAA’s website, “NCAA legislation requires all institutions to certify that student-athletes have coverage for medical expenses incurred from athletically related injuries within the NCAA Catastrophic Injury Insurance Policy deductible.” This means that if a college athlete does not have private insurance, they must be covered by the school. 

This is a good thing—all college athletes should be insured. However, athletic healthcare, as it is written into NCAA policy, focuses largely on injuries, not illnesses, and even so, injured athletes frequently graduate with medical expenses due to patchy coverage within athletic training rooms. In addition, there is an important stipulation in Bylaw 3.2.4.9.3 in the NCAA’s Division 1 Manual, which states that “An active member institution must certify insurance coverage for medical expenses resulting from athletically related injuries sustained by the following individuals while participating in a covered event.” A few lines down, the manual defines a “covered event” as travel, competition, and training that is related to the sport. 

There are several reasons why this wording is precarious as it pertains to the scary marriage of coronavirus and voluntary workouts. First, coronavirus is a disease, not an injury, so it’s unclear if athletic institutions are actually obligated to provide medical coverage for potential outbreaks among teams (my reading of these policies would conclude they are not). Second, even if coronavirus were classified as an injury, it is impossible to trace when/how someone catches the disease. This means schools might reasonably be able to argue that they are not responsible for medical coverage if the athlete cannot prove that they contracted the disease in practice. Considering the number of athletes who have been participating in recent protests (which I wholeheartedly applaud), a school could also argue that they caught the disease in the streets, rather than on the turf. 

Finally, because the workouts that are currently underway are considered “voluntary,” they are also not considered a “covered event,” under the NCAA’s Catastrophic Injury Insurance Program, as they are not technically official team activities. “Voluntary workouts” are considered athlete-instigated and athlete-led, meaning that they are unofficial, and un-countable. That also means that athletic institutions will likely not be held responsible for any damage done during these sessions, including catching a disease in the middle of a global pandemic. 

These observations are all speculative, as is most, if not all coverage pertaining to coronavirus: it is a novel disease. There is no vaccine yet, and athletes may or may not receive adequate healthcare should they catch coronavirus—a reality that could be problematic for college athletes, especially if we truly are jumping back into college sports on time for football seasons. 

Will universities step up and cover athletes who accrue medical expenses from coronavirus? Certainly, some will. But NCAA policy doesn’t require them to, and that could cost athletes dearly when coronavirus inevitably spreads among teammates playing a sport in which social distancing is impossible.

For more NCAA updates, follow Katie Lever on Twitter/Instagram: @Leverfever

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