During Sunday's Louisville-Duke Elite Eight game, Louisville sophomore guard Kevin Ware suffered a gruesome compound fracture right in front of his team's bench. In that moment, he went from a fringe NBA prospect on a Final Four-bound team to a guy who will possibly never play basketball again.
Ware's case demonstrates everything that's wrong with college sports right now. He and his teammates make his school millions of dollars and get none in return. He may lose his scholarship, effectively kicking him out. His prospective career in the pros, the future payment for the opportunity cost of spending time in college, is likely gone. While Louisville will pay for his surgery, they will almost definitely not pay for medical expenses after he leaves. In short: His support network snapped along with his tibia.
Ware's case underlines the problems in college sports, but there are ways we can fix the system.
1. Guarantee athletic scholarships against injury or illness. An employer cannot simply sever ties with an employee injured on the job. Same thing here. Kevin Ware has upheld his end of the bargain, and schools need to uphold theirs. Louisville has dodged questions on whether or not Ware's scholarship will be renewed, saying that the doctors expect a full recovery. But if the injury were irreparable, or if the publicity of the injury didn't guarantee him some security, Ware might find himself out in the cold.
2. Distribute a portion of broadcast and merchandise revenues to the athletes. Chris Rock put it well: "I know no one is getting whipped or beaten but, economically, college sports are no different than slavery." And I have to agree. March Madness generates over $1 billion in ad revenue. Louisville's basketball program alone pulls in $23 to $28 million in profits. Louisville would not make this money if it didn't have a competitive program and it wouldn't have a competitive program if not for the talent and hard work of men like Ware. So pay them for it. The "broadcast and merchandise" part of this also draws a hard line between serious revenue-generating athlete-student sports like Final Four-level basketball and student-athlete sports like volleyball. Nobody's arguing the Dartmouth women's volleyball team should be getting paid, and in this system, they wouldn't be. They draw no broadcast revenue and marginal merchandise revenues. But Andrew Luck would get paid for all the #12 jerseys sold during his Stanford career and Kevin Ware would get some of the TV money he helped Louisville earn.
3) Athletes only get paid if they graduate. Carmelo Anthony, despite a championship season at Syracuse, gets nothing, since he opted out early to go pro. I'm sure he's not missing his Syracuse paycheck these days. But for players who are on the cusp of dropping out to pursue a pro career, this would give them a powerful financial reason to stay. This is important, since many athletes drop out to go pro because they and their families simply need money, and staying in college doesn't help with that.
Currently, Kevin Ware's worst-case scenario looks like this: His leg will not allow him to play basketball again. He loses his scholarship, is forced to drop out, and finds himself with mounting medical bills and no college degree. At this point, he would've been better off if he had never heard of Louisville.
If these three fixes to the college sports system were enacted, here's how his worst-case scenario changes: He can never play basketball again, but he stays in college and graduates with a degree and a nest egg he can use to pay off any lingering medical expenses.
Hopefully he makes a full recovery and plays basketball until he's 50 and makes millions in the NBA. I have my doubts, though.
Nothing the NCAA can do will fix Kevin Ware's leg. But they can do right by him and the other athletes who make them millions.