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Fat profits at NCAA while athletes play for free

If you happen to be among the millions of people who watched the NCAA tournament Sunday, you watched as Louisville Cardinals sophomore guard Kevin Ware broke hi

If you happen to be among the millions of people who watched the NCAA tournament Sunday, you watched as Louisville Cardinals sophomore guard Kevin Ware broke his leg during an awkward fall after a routine move: an injury so gruesome it left players in tears, and more than a few people feeling sick to their stomachs.

People who saw it in real-time howled involuntarily. Everyone in the stadium was affected. Social media blew up.

Right away, people wanted to know if Ware's leg was going to be OK, and if he was ever going to play basketball again. But they also wanted to know—I wanted to know—if Ware isn't going to play basketball again because of this injury, is he going to be able to go back to Louisville next year, and is he going to have a scholarship?

If Ware isn't going to have a scholarship, what's going to happen to him? And in any case, who is going to pay his medical bills? Is he covered for this? And most profoundly and urgently, why isn't Kevin Ware being paid for his labor?

The term "student athlete," as Taylor Branch points out in his seminal piece in The Atlantic, was "a formulation designed, as the sports economist Andrew Zimbalist has written, to help the NCAA in its 'fight against workmen's compensation insurance claims for injured football players'."

If a player was a "student athlete," he or she wasn't an employee, and therefore, not qualified for workers' comp if injured on the field. Which means that NCAA players are--NCAA propaganda notwithstanding--essentially the uncompensated employees of the NCAA cartel: players who literally risk their limbs on the court in order to produce a product that is immensely profitable.

How profitable? In 2010, the NCAA reached a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting, covering just "March Madness." That's $770 million a year.

What does that mean for the uncompensated worker in this scenario, the basketball player? There just happens to be a March study that provides the number.

"Football and men's basketball players at top sports schools are being denied at least $6.2 billion between 2011 and 2015 under National Collegiate Athletic Association rules that prohibit them from being paid," according to a study by the National College Players Association and the Drexel University Sport Management Department.

$1.06 million over four years for the average men's basketball player, not including his scholarship. The number is higher, $1.5 million, for basketball players at Bowl Championship Series schools.

The most valuable team in all of college basketball is none other than Kevin Ware's Louisville, where, the study estimates, players are being denied $6.5 million each in uncompensated labor.

Ware doesn't have $6.5 million. But Louisville's basketball program brought in $42.4 million in revenue during the 2011-2012 academic year, according to numbers it reported to the Department of Education.

Ware's immediate care and recovery will be paid for, but coverage in these situations is deliberately narrow and there are plenty of examples of players who incur horrendous medical bills, in some cases because their injury is not bad enough to qualify for "catastrophic injury insurance", which itself has a $90,000 deductible, according to The New York Times.  

Scholarships are renewed on an annual basis, so Louisville is under no obligation to renew Ware's, though it probably will for two reasons: it's a high profile case, and they want Ware around when he is able to play again.

Kevin Ware emerged today from emergency surgery, which was successful, according to Louisville, and he is expected to be discharged from Methodist Hospital tomorrow. A Louisville spokesman reported that "doctors are expecting a full recovery."

But for University of Oklahoma basketball player Kyle Hardrick, it was a far different story. After a knee injury in 2009, his scholarship was not renewed, and the tuition bills mounted.

Hardrick's mother told a congressional panel in 2011: "You believe that your child will be taken care of on and off that court throughout their college career. My insurance does not cover all of Kyle's medical bills."

The history of student-athletes like Hardrick--the hundreds of student athletes whose unpaid labor and risk provide profits and revenue for an entire industry—is part of what made that moment with Kevin Ware so gruesome.

It was gruesome on a visceral level, because of the severity of the injury, but it was also gruesome because while all of us were enjoying the game, all the people making money off of it, including the advertisers, and athletic directors, and apparel companies, had to reckon for a brief instant with the fact that this kid, now in agony, was on the job making their programs possible.