As fans, attorneys and health care professionals debate the wisdom of requiring college athletes to sign COVID-19 liability waivers, Sportico has learned that the NCAA’s catastrophic injury insurance program would complicate the practicability of such waivers.
The NCAA fully pays premiums on a catastrophic insurance program, which covers student-athletes who accidentally suffer serious bodily harms while playing NCAA sports. These are not ordinary injuries that heal up quickly. Instead, they result, or potentially result, in partial or full disability. According to the policy summary, a copy of which Sportico has obtained, the program has a $90,000 deductible and kicks in after other sources of insurance and benefits have been exhausted.
The catastrophic insurance program does not cover disease or illness—unless, per the policy summary, such an affliction “is a direct result” of a covered accident. The NCAA has cautiously addressed the relationship of COVID-19 to catastrophic insurance. In an eight-page document addressing FAQs on the policy, the not-for-profit stresses that the program is “designed to address specific types of accidents.” Consequently, the NCAA asserts “it is not expected that the details of most COVID-19 scenarios would align with applicable coverage eligibility considerations.” However, given the novel nature of COVID-19 and its uncertain long-term health effects, the NCAA acknowledges the possibility of a “covered accident” connecting to a “COVID-19 scenario.”
If a situation does trigger the catastrophic insurance program, then the issue of liability waivers will become a pivotal factor. Under the program’s section for “exclusions and limitations,” potential recovery for an otherwise qualifying disability is forfeited when the disability results from “any injury or illness suffered by an injured person where the insured person’s participating school required the injured person to sign a waiver relieving that participating school of responsibility or liability . . . ”
In other words, if a school required a waiver, the insurance policy would be void. An athlete, then, who develops disabling or potentially disabling symptoms related to COVID-19 would lose out on potential policy benefits.
While college athletes appear unlikely to develop disabling symptoms from a COVID-19 infection, the virus has been linked to heart problems. COVID-19’s long-term effects are also unknown. To the extent college athletes might eventually sue schools, conferences and/or the NCAA for COVID-19 related health problems—and related health care expenses—the presence or absence of insurance would likely play a key role.
The NCAA recently forbade schools from requiring student-athletes “to waive their legal rights regarding COVID-19 as a condition of athletics participation.” The waiver ban came on the heels of politicians pressuring the NCAA to prioritize the health and well-being of college athletes. But, it turns out, the ban also ensures that schools refrain from triggering the exclusion.
Attorney Eugene “Gene” Egdorf, a sports and complex litigation expert at Shrader & Associates in Houston, believes the ban is a function of insurance considerations.
“Any notion that the NCAA banned waivers because of fairness never made much sense,” Egdorf tells Sportico. “There had to be something more to it behind the curtain. This insurance issue is the fly in the ointment.”