Nearly everyone on the internet – and off it – has seen Kevin Ware’s leg break. The basketball player from the University of Louisville suffered through a devastating injury in the public eye, and countless people have profited from his ordeal. Every website that ran footage and the story got the benefits of ad revenue. Newspapers and magazines flew off the rack with articles about the athlete’s bravery and the difficulty of the road ahead for him.
But the entity that profited most from Kevin Ware’s injury may have been the university for which he played.
Kevin Ware is officially designated as a student athlete at the University of Louisville. He is, in every way other than by name, a professional athlete. His skills are at the professional level, and the NCAA and his university profit from his playing skills much as the NBA profits from professional players.
The parallel would be exact, except that Kevin Ware draws no salary and receives no worker’s compensation when he is injured in the course of his job. By calling him a student athlete, rather than an employee, the university manages to benefit off of Ware’s labor without paying him for the privilege.
It also isn’t liable to compensate Ware for his injury at all.
Ware will be unable to play for a significant period of time. He’ll have to endure a great deal of physical therapy and surgery, and may never be capable of performing at his previous skill level again. Even if Ware never went on to become an NBA player, he possessed the skills and the drive to earn a solid wage playing basketball overseas.
He has potentially lost a career’s worth of earning capacity, but his university will not be responsible for that loss – because he is a student athlete, and not an employee.
Why aren’t college players on scholarship considered employees of the university? Essentially, instead of paying the athlete a salary which the athlete could then use to pay for tuition if he so chose, the university makes a trade: our education for your playing skills.
It would be a worthwhile barter system if the university didn’t profit at an exponentially greater degree from the exchange – and if the university didn’t actively discourage its student-athletes from expending too much energy in the ‘student’ part of their designation.
Student-athletes like Ware are a valuable commodity for any university – more valuable than any given professor or administrator. Their value comes from their playing skill, and athletes are actively encouraged to neglect their studies in favor of spending more hours on the court.
The universities aren’t exchanging their education for the athlete’s playing; they’re employing an athlete for a fraction of the price he’s worth anywhere else but at a university.
It’s not called employment, though. If it were, if Ware were entitled to all the benefits of a full employee, he would be compensated for the enormous physical toll his job extracted from him. He would be compensated for the years of high earning potential he’s lost, and he would certainly be compensated for what must be staggering medical bills.
As it is, though, Ware is on his own. Just one of the many benefits of being a student-athlete.
Imagine an employee in another career being asked to perform a physically demanding job that carries a high potential for injury. It’s taxing on the body even in the best of circumstances, and his future earning capacity depends entirely on how well he manages to avoid injury or physical deterioration. His employer benefits hugely from how well he performs his job, but he is paid in board, lodging and access to educational tools – though his employer ensures he has little time to take advantage of the latter.
This is the situation student athletes like Ware find themselves in. What they’re doing is a job in all but name, but they have no recourse for any injury sustained in the course of that job.
As long as they’re referred to as student-athletes instead of employees, they won’t be able to receive the compensation they need – and that they’re due.