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Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024
The Observer

Hefferon: Secure our amateur athletes (April 3)


I had the good fortune of turning on Sunday's Louisville-Duke game about five seconds after CBS stopped showing Cardinals sophomore Kevin Ware's horrific leg injury, which I've heard enough about over the past two days to picture most of the gruesome details.

I haven't yet seen the replay, as both CBS and ESPN decided it was too graphic for TV. But at this point, based on the advice of my friends who did watch, you couldn't pay me to watch it.

The surreal spectacle of the injury - Ware's exposed bone, teammates fainting and vomiting, even the possibly soulless coach Rick Pitino shedding a tear - was a tragic scene played out in front of nearly 35,000 in attendance. But it also served as a reminder of the risks college athletes take on every time they compete.

Certainly, injuries are a risk to athletes everywhere, regardless of the venue or the stakes. But when tens of thousands have paid big bucks to see these athletes play, something changes. March Madness has become such a grand event that the big games have been moved to elevated fields in the middle of football stadiums (a factor, by the way, that some believe may have contributed to Ware's freak injury).

College football is an even bigger enterprise, with television contracts and ticket sales in the hundreds of millions, all made off players in a sport that's proven to have long-term health issues. Furthermore, merchandise money is made off of players' likenesses in video games and jersey sales - all under the moronic notion that says Heisman winner Johnny Manziel had nothing to do with record sales for Texas A&M No. 2 gear this year. Manziel has attempted to capture some of the money being made off his name by trademarking the phrase "Johnny Football," but he can't collect on that until he leaves the college ranks.

The money factor is a small push for players to leave college athletics early, but the threat of a career-ending injury is an overwhelming shove. One only needs to look at South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, who suffered a similarly cringe-worthy knee injury this season. Lattimore is readying himself for a comeback, but uncertainty about his recovery has cost him a top pick in this year's draft and a corresponding contract worth millions of dollars for him and his family.

The NCAA has decried athletes who leave school early and has passed policies to keep them in school - and making money for their colleges - as long as possible. But with the incentives they've left on the table, it's hard to argue with "student-athletes" who choose to forgo their four-year degrees in favor of financial security for them and their families.

The NCAA's amateur system could be under its biggest threat ever though, as a group of former athletes has sued the NCAA for using its members' likenesses in EA Sports video games. The trial won't take place for another 14 months, though, and there's still the strong possibility it will fail, just like every other attempt to provide additional compensation for athletes. But if it succeeds, it could shake the structure of college athletics to its core.

That system may be safe for now, but the tide against the NCAA and its $4 billion annual athletic revenues is stronger than ever. I believe in amateur athletics and the value of a college degree, but the NCAA is no longer a mom-and-pop operation, and asking players to risk their futures "for love of the game" might not be enough to keep them around anymore.

Kevin Ware is no Marcus Lattimore. He's a role player on an elite team, a guy who would be a longshot to ever make an NBA roster. But he broke his leg - and possibly his dreams at a future in basketball - helping Louisville make it to the Final Four. That achievement will be worth tens of millions to his university, but, as it stands now, Ware has a better chance of selling used cars in five years than ever seeing a cent of that money. 

If he had just a tiny percentage of that set away in a fund that could only be accessed after his graduation, he could potentially be compensated for the risks and costs of such an injury. But the NCAA and its members make a killing on these athletes, something that allows them to operate athletics as we know them today. So until a law for paying athletes is penned in black and white, the NCAA will continue to take advantage of the gray.

So, no, you still couldn't pay me to watch Kevin Ware mangle his leg in front of his teammates, his coach, 30,000 paying fans and millions more watching on television.

But maybe you could pay him.

Contact Jack Hefferon at
The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the
author and not necessarily those of The Observer.