As the Big Ten and Pac-12 become the latest conferences to cancel sports this fall, Sportico has learned that some schools are worried that potential insurance costs could scrap additional seasons.
The concerns stem mainly from one of the NCAA Board of Governors’ “specific requirements” for return-to-play:
Member schools, in conjunction with existing insurance standards, must cover COVID-19 related medical expenses for student-athletes to prevent out-of-pocket expenses for college athletes and their families.
For a couple of reasons, this requirement has irked some athletic departments.
First, by ignoring the role of contact tracing, the requirement is arguably over-inclusive. As worded, the requirement would make athletic departments liable for all costs stemming from student-athletes having the virus—regardless of how the athlete was infected or how well the athlete was treated by the department. If an athlete became infected around family, or while off-campus or at a party, the athletic department would still conceivably have to pay all medical costs.
“Why,” one official at a D-I program asks, “should [the] athletics [department] have to cover expenses” of a student-athlete who acquired the virus while not participating in sports? An official at another D-I program recalls feeling “worried” about the requirement given the potential wide scope of liability. “I sent it to the [general counsel],” they said.
A second concern relates to the NCAA’s reference to “existing insurance standards.” Several large insurance companies have waived expenses for COVID-19 testing and treatment. Cigna and its student health arm, Wellfleet, are among them. They serve as healthcare providers to many universities and athletic departments. They have also refrained from charging for tests and certain treatments. “Existing insurance standards,” then, do not clearly support requiring athletic departments to absorb the entire financial burden for medical expenses.
Athletic programs have asked for clarification on these issues. It remains to be seen whether the NCAA issues additional directives.
Could the potential costs contemplated by the insurance requirement cause some schools to call off winter or spring sports?
For now, the answer appears to be no. Most of the schools contacted by Sportico insist that insurance considerations did not factor into their plans for the fall semester. They maintain that health and safety goals guided their decision-making. To the extent those same principles remain in place, insurance expenses shouldn’t influence whether to play upcoming seasons.
However, smaller D-I programs acknowledge being sensitive to insurance costs. An official from one characterized the insurance requirement as an NCAA “scare tactic.” The purported goal: dissuade schools that might be overly eager to resume sports without proper safeguards.
“But it worked,” the official says. The requirement has migrated to the review of university attorneys and is now being weighed as potential new costs.