Will Colleges Cover Medical Bills for Athletes Who Get COVID-19? Don’t Count on It

Clemson’s football team is on campus and leading protests for Black Lives Matter. How much do the lives of college athletes matter to their schools?

Clemson’s football team is on campus and leading protests for Black Lives Matter. How much do the lives of college athletes matter to their schools?
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The efforts to keep college football on track to play as close to a normal season as possible this season are a farce showing just how much schools value the “student” part of “student-athlete” at a time when many schools are bringing football players back to campus while planning to keep academics online in the face of a still-surging coronavirus pandemic.


The outlook for the pandemic in America still is grim enough that Rick Pitino is pushing to delay college basketball season until January. The Ivy League may push football back to the spring.

Part of the logic behind the desire by power conferences to play football as planned is that the athletes are young and healthy, and thus at less risk for severe effects of COVID-19. But a study just last year from Emory University raised a red flag about weight gain and high-blood pressure risks. And while we don’t know what the long-term effects of coronavirus might be, even for individuals who do not suffer greatly when they get the disease, we definitely do know that they’re not immune.


This week, the total number of infected players at College Football Playoff fixture Clemson reached 37. So much for Dabo Swinney’s boast in April that “This is America, man. This is the greatest country (on) the planet. We will rise up and kick this in the teeth.”

But at least when you’re playing college sports, the university takes care of your healthcare, right?

Not quite.

According to documents obtained by Deadspin in a public records request, Clemson reported spending $631,322 on medical expenses and insurance in its 2019 fiscal year NCAA report. That category can be applied broadly, though, lumping in everything from actual insurance costs to sports psychologists to athletic tape.


In Clemson’s case, athletes are required to have their own health insurance. A fact sheet provided to parents includes more information about this policy:

“All participating athletes are required to provide the Sports Medicine Department with current medical insurance information before participating in any athletic activity. A Pre-Participation Physical will not be performed by a CUAD Team Physician until adequate insurance information is confirmed.”


And for athletes who are uninsured, the school is there to, uh, help.

“Clemson University offers medical coverage to all students,” the fact sheet says. “This may be the best option for you while participating in intercollegiate sports, if your current coverage is not accepted.”


For non-scholarship athletes, HMO plans are not accepted. This policy is noted in boldface.

Clemson assistant general counsel Robert Wilkins noted that the athletic department pays premiums for “81 student athletes who are underinsured,” but for those students who have to pay for their own insurance, the Clemson Student Health Insurance Plan had an annual premium of $2,795 in 2018-19, with a $750 in-network individual deductible and a $6,350 out-of-pocket maximum.


And when it comes to coronavirus, bad news:

“Sports Medicine only covers authorized medical treatment related to injuries and illnesses sustained while participating in sanctioned intercollegiate athletic activities. Expense from any injury or illness not incurred as a direct result of intercollegiate athletic participation is the sole responsibility of the student-athlete.”


Exactly how could anyone show that their COVID-19 diagnosis was a direct result of intercollegiate athletic participation? They couldn’t. So it’s the athletes, or the insurance the athletes are required to carry, who would be on the hook for their own care.

Clemson is not alone in this. A policy sheet from the University of Michigan, also obtained through a public records request, has very similar language to Clemson’s: “The University of Michigan Department of Intercollegiate Athletics WILL NOT provide coverage for … Injuries/illnesses that are not the direct result of intercollegiate athletics participation during the dates of the primary competitive season and designated off-seasons as approved by the Director of Athletics according to NCAA regulations.”


For the record, Clemson will purchase athletes one pair of contact lenses per year, and then sports goggles if needed. Michigan athletes get “an applicable supply of contact lenses.” So it’s not like these policies are just boilerplate stuff across the NCAA.


At N.C. State, for instance, the medical expenses and insurance line item on the NCAA financial report in 2018-19 came to $1,500,855, of which $60,000 was spent on contact lenses, $158,000 on “Powerade & Supplies,” and $164,916 on student-athlete insurance. While N.C. State did not provide a breakdown of its policy on athletes carrying their own insurance, you can pretty well guess that such for just a little more than is being spent on Powerade and supplies, off-the-field injuries and illnesses for the Wolfpack aren’t being covered by the school.

There has, however, been a coronavirus-related change to N.C. State’s football schedule. The Wolfpack’s season opener at Louisville, originally scheduled for Sept. 3, has been moved to… Sept. 2, to avoid a conflict with the highly attended “Thurby” event on the Thursday before the postponed-in-May Kentucky Derby.


Good thing everyone is taking this situation as seriously as it needs to be taken.

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