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Student athletes demand medical coverage

During a major NCAA game five months ago, college basketball player Kevin Ware suffered a leg injury so grisly it made national headlines and left horrified on
N Carolina Georgia Tech Football
Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee (2) works against North Carolina during the second half of an NCAA football game, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013, in Atlanta.

During a major NCAA game five months ago, college basketball player Kevin Ware suffered a leg injury so grisly it made national headlines and left horrified onlookers wondering whether he would ever play again. It was Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association (NCPA), who helped draw the media's attention to a separate, potentially more urgent question: Would the NCAA and the Louisville Cardinals pay the 20-year-old undergraduate's medical bills or leave that to his family?

"We were involved in explaining no, they don't have to take care of him, it's optional," Huma told MSNBC. "Louisville was the richest basketball team in the nation and they still had an option."

Under scrutiny from the national media, the University of Louisville confirmed that it would defray Ware's medical expenses. However, for thousands of other student athletes, medical coverage remains very much an open question. That's why the NCPA and a handful of college football players are working to draw attention to their lack of a safety net.

On Saturday, college football players from the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, and Northwestern University wore the letters APU, an acronym for the slogan "All Players United," on their uniforms during televised games. The silent protest was just the beginning of a new campaign which aims to raise awareness of student athletes' lack of medical benefits and other protections.

Huma said the NCPA, a non-union labor group which receives some institutional support from the United Steel Workers (USW) union, took notes from the LGBT equality movement while designing the APU campaign.

"I wouldn't say it was inspired at all, but people definitely noted it was an effective campaign," he said.

Iowa State University athletics director Jamie Pollard mocked the protest on Twitter, saying he had yet to hear "one realistic plan [explaining] how to pay players without eliminating all other sports." (Incidentally, the highest paid public employee in 27 out of 50 states is a college football coach.)

But the student athletes who identify with APU aren't asking to get paid, said Huma; they just want decent medical coverage and the opportunity to complete their educations. For the NCPA, the most important issue is changing how concussions are dealt with.

"NCAA has been doing nothing on concussions," he said. The NCPA website lists minimizing the risk of brain trauma at the top of its missions and goals, along with other demands such as more generous scholarships and greater protection against arbitrary punishment. A major priority of the APU protest was drawing attention to the risk of traumatic brain injuries.

The protest was also intended as a show of solidarity with the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the NCAA, said Huma. Onetime college basketball player Ed O'Bannon sued the NCAA and video game company EA Sports over four years ago, saying they had used his likeness in a video game and not compensated him. On Thursday, EA Sports and a third defendant, the Collegiate Licensing Company, agreed to pay O'Bannon and other college athletes a $40 million settlement.

As for where the All Players United campaign goes next, the NCPA is hoping that it will spread to other sports. Huma described Saturday's games as a "very first step."

"Continuing to raise consciousness among players and among the general public is the primary focus," he said. "Some of these players are finding out for the first time that the school doesn't have to pay medical expenses."

“As a higher education association, the NCAA supports open and civil debate regarding all aspects of college athletics," said NCAA director of public and media relations Stacey Osburn in a statement to MSNBC.  "Student-athletes across all 23 sports provide an important voice in discussions as NCAA members offer academic and athletic opportunities to help the more than 450,000 student-athletes achieve their full potential."  The NCAA did not discuss the details of the lawsuit or any specific response to the NCPA's demands.

Watch NCPA head Ramogi Huma discuss the APU protest on All in with Chris Hayes below:

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